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Saturday, August 15, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Ask the Builder: Building a pergola that is safe and beautiful

By Tim Carter Tribune Content Agency

DEAR TIM: I need to build a pergola to separate a small patio from my driveway. I’m trying to create a privacy screen and as much shade as possible. The issue is I have only a tiny strip of ground to work with and the pergola needs to be more like a fence than a table with four legs, if that makes sense. Can you offer any ideas about how to accomplish this? What should I be concerned about, and how can I attach the support posts so the pergola is safe? – Joel Z., Sylvania, Ohio

DEAR JOEL: Let’s first talk about the structural challenges all pergolas face, then we’ll chat about some cool design ideas. Yours is of particular concern because it’s going to be a tall fence as you already understand. Your primary concern should be horizontal wind load. The total weight of all the materials used to build a typical pergola can be in the hundreds of pounds. You don’t want it falling on someone at a later date.

While you may not intend to have vines on the pergola, some future homeowner may decide to grow flowers and fruit on the structure. Not only does this vegetation add hundreds of pounds, but the dense growth also increases the wind load. Your safety and that of all who sit by or under the pergola are subject to how well you obey the laws of physics.

All lumber used needs to be strong enough to resist cracking or snapping under the force of the wind or snow loads. You live where wet heavy snow can coat the pergola, so plan accordingly. All the fasteners need to be premium hot-dipped, galvanized or stainless steel.

If you decide to use modern treated lumber, the fasteners and all metal framing connectors must be approved for the newer treated lumber that has a higher copper content. Failure to do this will cause advanced and rapid corrosion of the metal from galvanic reaction when the pergola gets wet.

You’ve got to be very concerned about strong winds that can blow your pergola over. A traditional pergola that might have as few as four posts can blow over, but it’s harder to do if the four posts are bolted securely to concrete piers.

You can’t bolt your posts to piers, as it would tip over with little effort. You need to bury your posts much like utility poles are installed. My guess is your pergola is going to be about 10 feet high once it’s all done, so I’d want to see the posts buried at least 4 feet into the ground.

I’d coat the wood that’s going to be in the ground with a readily available copper naphthenate solution and surround the posts with angular crushed gravel that’s the size of large grapes. This type of gravel interlocks and acts much like concrete, but it provides for great drainage once the water leaves the soil in the spring.

Let’s talk about the looks of the pergola. I’m a big fan of multi-colored and multi-textured looks. You can achieve this by using different species of wood or different colored exterior semi-transparent stains. Mixing rough-sawn Western red cedar with redwood can produce a stunning look.

It’s all about scale at the end of the day so you need to use big posts. You may get by with 4-by-6 posts, but, trust me, 6-by-6 posts would be better. Your top beams that will be on either side of the posts need to be at least 2-by-10s so they don’t look undersized. I’m a big fan of cutting quarter circles out of the ends of all the crisscrossed lumber that creates the shade aspect of the pergola.

Think about cantilevering the top of the pergola a little bit. The horizontal rafters don’t have to be equal on each side of the main beams or the posts. I’d not exceed a 3:1 ratio because it will add a rotational force that could cause the pergola to tilt from the offset weight of the overhang. It’s a stunning look and will give you more shade on the small patio depending on the pergola’s compass orientation.

Use depth to your advantage in the center sections of the pergola between the posts. I’d install flat 2-by-4s spaced about 2 feet on center with the first one no more than 16 inches above the final mulched grade. On either side of these 2x4s, attach pieces of diagonal or square lattice pieces in a shadow-box layout.

Be sure the lattice is also a different shade of wood or finish if possible. This will add to the stunning masterpiece you’re about to create. Most people forget to do this and miss out on a huge opportunity to induce the wow factor.

Add a final touch at the base of the posts by trimming them out in different layers of wood that resembles baseboard you might have in your home. Bevel the top edge at a 45-degree angle to shed water. Once again, think about using a different wood species here to highlight this accent trim.

Good luck and let me know how your wife and friends feel about it.

Need an answer? All of Carter’s past columns are archived for free at You can also watch hundreds of videos, download Quick Start Guides and more, all for free.

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