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The Secrets To Building A Beautiful Pergola Without Breaking The Bank

The timeless look of a pergola compliments almost any style of landscape.

Besides their intricate beauty – they provide shade, shelter, a quiet sitting or outdoor dining spot –  and even a place to grow climbing roses, clematis or grapes.

diy pergola
One of our favorites we have ever built – this one is 16 x 16.

In fact – their only drawback can be the cost to purchase!

Some heavy-duty commercial units can easily top $3000 – and if you opt for the “big-box” thin metal, plastic and fabric versions – you can still cough up upwards of $500 to $1000 – and they can be destroyed in a single mild windstorm.

The good news – if you have an open Saturday and access to a jigsaw, a drill and a tape measure – you can build an amazingly strong and beautiful pergola for a just a few hundred dollars!

Better yet – it can look every bit as good as those high-priced commercial units!

We have built a few for our farm over the course of the last five years – and quite a few more for family, friends and others – all at a huge discount from those expensive commercial models.

We actually have the process down now where we can cut and erect one in about 3 hours. Here’s how:

Choosing The Wood For Your Pergola

Treated lumber is the most economical and durable choice.

We use only 2x lumber – although there are thinner and less costly options – the 1 and 1/2″ thickness of 2x lumber gives the piece long-term strength and durability.

Treated lumber has come a long way – and depending on where you live – you can usually source the wood for a standard 10 x 10 pergola for roughly $250 in materials, a 12 x 12 ($300) and a 16 x 16 ($400).

It’s a great choice when looking to handle harsh outdoor conditions.

It’s also very versatile – you can leave it to weather to a natural grey patina – or paint or stain it to match almost any wood species or decor.

Cedar of course is an option – but the cost of cedar can be astronomical.

Building Your Pergola

A pergola is really made up of 4 distinct parts – (1) posts, (2)header boards, (3) purlins, and (4) stringer boards.

(Note : We do have complete step by step plans on our Etsy site here : Complete Pergola Plans
They include simple detailed instructions and pictures for each step, lumber and hardware lists and curved template printouts for any size from 8 x 8 to 16 x 16. It’s a great  $10 investment if you build!)

Posts – We use 6 x 6 treated posts – they are strong and durable!

You can use 8′ long if they are going to be surface mounted – 10 or 12′ long if they are going to be buried.

Be sure to select the straightest posts in the pile at the lumber yard – it will go a long way in making your finished project easy!

Header Boards – Your pergola will need a set of double-header boards that attach to each side of the post and are secured by 10″ bolts.

We use 2 x 8 or 2 x 10’s for our header boards – they add strength and a great look to the piece.

You will need a total of 4 header boards for the pergola.  A simple curve design on the end of each header board adds to the character of the piece.

Trace a curve design to your liking on the two ends of the header board and then cut out easily with the jigsaw. Once you have your first board cut – use it to trace the other 3 for exact replicas.

Once the posts and header boards are cut and ready to go – lay them down on the ground to drill each side out all at once. It make assembling a breeze – and eliminates guessing on where to drill holes and space the posts.

A double notched purlin with end curve

Purlins – The purlins are the main boards of your pergola. We use 2 x 6″ lumber for the purlins.

We cut out two notches that are 2″ deep on each end of the purlin with a jig saw. This is so they can fit down on the header boards.

It not only give a beautiful finished look to the piece – but also eliminates the need for costly and unsightly hardware used to attach boards together.

As for how many purlins to use – that is all determined by how much shade you want the piece to provide.

On a standard 10 x 10 pergola – we use about 8 purlins – that is enough to space the boards out about 16″ on center.

Once again you will also want to have a design on the end. We like to mimic whatever end design we used on the header boards so it matches the purlins.

Notch cuts

Once you have a single purlin cut out with the notches and end design – it can be used as a tracing guide to replicate all of the other purlins needed.

Stringer Boards – This is the easiest piece of the project.

We use standard 2×4″ lumber and lay it flat on top of the purlins. We then use 3″ screws to tie screw in down to the tops of the purlins.

This creates a solid piece that will not curve, warp or bend. Our pergolas have been up at the farm going on 5 years now – and without a single twist or bow.


Assemble posts and header boards by drilling through all and attaching 2 bolts to each side.

You will want to drill out, bolt, and put up one side of your pergola at a time – consisting of 2 posts and 2 header boards for each side.

Once those are up – put two of your purlins (board with double notches) up on each end of the posts to connect the two sections and screw in to the post at the top – this will now connect the structure.

This is where it’s great to have a set of extra hands or two!

Next, simply lay out the remaining purlins to the spacing you like. Usually it’s best around 16″.

There is no need to screw in the middle purlins – the top stringer boards will screw in and hold them down and in place.

You can now put up the top 2 x 4 stringers on the top of the purlins laying them flat and spaced out evenly.

I like to start with one on each end directly over the posts and double beams and then space in from there. You then simply screw down into the purlins to lock in at the intersecting points.

Securing The Pergola:

No matter where you build your pergola – securing it firmly is the key to longevity – and safety!

You can stain or paint treated lumber to match any wood or decor

If you have an existing concrete patio –  you can use simple plate anchors that are available at most home improvement and hardware stores that do an excellent job of securing posts to concrete.

If you have a brick paver patio, you may opt to purchase longer posts and bury it. You will need to check with local building codes to see how deep to bury.

If you choose to bury your posts – make sure to dig down deep enough to get below the frost line and prevent it from heaving out of the soil.

For ours at the farm we buried our posts 24″ and then back-filled with packing limestone gravel and dirt.

The important thing is to definitely secure it!  If it’s not secured, all it can take is one little serious windstorm to turn your beautiful little paradise into a pile of toothpicks.

Happy Pergola Building! – Jim and Mary

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The Secrets To Building A Beautiful Pergola Without Breaking The Bank
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