Introduction: Make a Back Yard Pergola

About: A mechanical engineer by training, but often seek out fun projects at home to satisfy my need to create stuff. I love halloween, cardboard projects, and attempting to teach my kids that making stuff is much mo…

For the past 10 years, all activity in our back yard centered around a large wooden play structure. This ungainly structure served our kids well, whether as a pirate ship, part of an obstacle course, or as a manhunt hideout. However, as they grew older, less and less of their time was spent hanging on its warped wooden ladder. And then one day last year, my wife and I realized, they had officially outgrown it. We secretly rejoiced!

We could now take our yard back and transform it into a space that the whole family could enjoy. We envisioned a space where we could lounge on comfy outdoor furniture, hang out with friends, meals together, or maybe even watch a movie! After much research on Pinterest and Houzz, we settled on a Pergola design that would give us outdoor living space that we'd been dreaming of.

After two months of design, construction, and decorating, we now spend more time in our back yard than we ever have!

Step 1: Gather Your Materials

Pergola materials (use plans in step 2 for board lengths):

* 6 x 6 pressure treated posts

* 2 x 10 pressured treated boards

* 2 x 6 pressure treated boards

* 2 x 4 pressure treated boards

* Post base (4x)

* Deck screws (3")

* 1/2" carriage bolts (4x) x 10" long

Concrete materials:

* 2 x 6 boards for concrete forms

* 1 x 1 boards for stakes

* Rebar

* Rebar supports

* Zip ties

* Crushed stone

* Concrete


* circular saw

* drill

* horses

* ladder & scaffolding (optional)

* shovels

* wheel barrow

* rake

* broom

* concrete float

* concrete trowel

Step 2: Pergola Design

Like any big project, the upfront planning is the most important step. This pergola was no exception. We spent many hours considering exactly what we wanted the space to look like, including what kind of furniture and how it would be arranged. As it turned out, this is what drove the final size and shape of the Pergola.

We chose an outdoor sectional couch that could accommodate six or seven people. With the dimensions of this couch, we were able to do some sketches to determine how much space would be needed on the sides for end tables, etc, and how much room in front for additional chairs when needed. We determined that a size of 10.5' x 13' would give us the space we needed without feeling too cramped.

Next, we designed the pergola itself. There are many variations out there, and we spent some time finding/tweaking a design that was (1) robust and (2) not overly ornate. I modeled it up in CAD, but it could have easily been done on a sheet of graph paper. The resulting dimensions are shown in the attached images and .pdf file.

Step 3: Prepare for the Concrete

I started by marking the concrete pad perimeter with stakes and strings. I arranged the stakes so that they were about 1' outside of each corner. By doing this, I was able to excavate the area without disturbing the stakes. It's important that you check that your perimeter is 'square' by measuring the diagonals. Also, be sure to level the strings. I did this with line level - but a laser level would have been much easier.

Next, I removed about 12 inches of dirt from the entire pad area. This gave me room for about 6.5" of crushed stone and 5.5" or concrete. With the dirt removed, I installed the framing forms for the pad. These were made of 2 x 6 boards. They were positioned in line with the strings, and located vertically by measuring down from the strings. I wanted about a 1" pitch across the pad, which led me to lower the board on one side by that amount. The 2x6's were held in place by screwing them to some 1x2 stakes that I hammered into the ground.

In order to have power at the pergola, I needed to dig a narrow trench from the edge of my pad to my nearby garage. The trench was between 18"-24" deep (always check your local code before burying power lines). I ran 1-1/4" diameter conduit with 12 gauge wire from the garage, along the edge of the pad, and stubbing up at a position that would align with one of my Pergola posts.

With the conduit in place, I installed and tamped the crushed stone. It is important that the crushed stone be level so that you have a consistent slab thickness. The exception I took was at the corners of my pad where the load-bearing posts would rest. I dug these out deeper to allow for about 6" of crushed stone + 1' of concrete.

Finally, install your rebar. Position it in place with rebar holders. My rebar was located about 2.5" above the crushed stone. The rebar was spaced 18" apart, and was rounded in the corners. I found that zip-tying the re-bar together worked well to stiffen it up for the upcoming concrete installation.

Step 4: Pour the Concrete

This was the most stressful step, for sure. Mistakes in concrete are not easily undone ;-). However, with a little research and some Youtube videos, I started to gain the confidence I needed to pull the trigger.

I measured the slab to calculate the volume of concrete that was needed (in cubic yards). You can mix it yourself, but I chose to order concrete to be delivered. When placing your order, you will be asked questions about the strength, aggregate, and water/concrete ratio ("slurry"). I reviewed the specifics of my project (pergola pad) with the concrete company, and they guided me with these variables.

We couldn't get the concrete truck close enough to the pad to reach with the truck chute. This necessitated transporting it with a wheel barrow. We started at one end of the pad and gradually worked our way over to the other end. We would rake it out smooth for a distance of about 2 feet and then 'cut it' with a long 2x4. This serves to make a flat and smooth surface.

Once the entire pad was cut, we floated the concrete. A float is essentially a wide paddle shaped tool that pushes the small rock pieces down into the concrete, making the surface free of imperfections. Since this surface is outside, and susceptible to getting wet and slippery, we applied a brushed finish. This was applied with a simple house broom (with a long handle). When the surface was cured enough to sustain the spraying of a hose, I doused the pad and covered it in plastic for a few days. This slows the curing process and adds to the pad strength.

I was lucky to have my father and brother help me with this step. They both had experience with concrete, which was invaluable given how short the working time is. I recommend you have an experienced person on hand to help you through this critical step.

Step 5: Bulid the Pergola

Up to this point, much time and money (and sweat) had been spent with only a pad of concrete to show for it. I was definitely ready to start building.

I started by anchoring the galvanized post bases in the four corners of the pad (I inset the posts by a distance of 2" from each edge) with concrete anchors. One by one, I erected the posts. The base was screwed into the post bases, and then leveled and temporarily secured using a set of stakes and boards.

I then bolted a set of 2x10 header boards between the front and rear sets of posts. The 2x10's were temporarily held in place with deck screws before drilling through each set with a 9/16" spade bit for the lag bolts. You'll notice that I also screwed some ledger boards to the posts for the 2x10's to rest on while I installed the screws. These ledgers were later removed.

Next, the 2x6's that run from front to back were installed. These make up the first layer of 'lattice' that is a key trait of any pergola design. The boards were cut to length and chamfered at the ends before positioning them on top of the headers. These boards are notched so that that their thickness overlaps with the headers by about 2". I've seen designs where they sit on top of the headers, but I think the notching technique is more aesthetic and also minimizes warping. I marked the notch locations and removed the boards so they could be notched on the ground. Notches were made with multiple passes with a circular saw. This is a very tedious process, but the results are well worth it. I secured them by screwing them down into the headers from the top.

Finally, the same process was followed for the second set of lattice boards that run perpendicular to the first set. I used 2x4's for these boards, and notched and secured them in a similar manner.

Step 6: Finishing Touches

There are many simple enhancements you can do to convert this from a simple pergola to an inviting outdoor living space. The more inviting it is, the more you will use it.

* Hanging lights: These are a must! They offer a nice, warm glow that looks amazing at night.

* Quality outdoor furniture: This furniture will take a beating. Ours gets rained on, trampled on with muddy dog feet, and covered in wet leaves. If you can afford it, buy furniture with Sunbrella fabric. It will cost about 30% more, but will last many years longer. It is highly resistant to sun fading and all dirt stains simply brush away when dry.

* Area rug: This will really ground the space and helps create the illusion of an indoor room. Buy something that will dry quickly.

* Movie night: We hung a king size sheet on one end and positioned a projector on the other. This is great for birthday parties or just a an outdoor family movie night.

* Vines/creeping plants: We have grape vines in the vicinity of our Pergola. I started training them to crawl over the top, with the ultimate goal of creating a thick canopy of grape vines to block out more of the sun.

* Curtains: We haven't added these yet, but probably soon will. Our Pergola faces East, which creates intense sun light in the morning hours. There are many plans on the internet where people use decorative shower curtains or even drop cloths for this purpose.

Hopefully this Instructable inspires you to reconsider how you use your outdoor space and gives you the confidence you need to build your own Pergola!

Backyard Contest 2016

Grand Prize in the
Backyard Contest 2016