Build your Own Pergola (Part One – Planning)

Build a pergola - before (click through for more info) If you have a space of yard that needs shade and a bit of color provided by flowers, a pergola is a great solution. If you have a BBQ area and want a space to sit under with herbs growing conveniently close by and candles glowing, a pergola is a great solution! If you have a garden and want to break up the space, maybe with a reading nook, yep, a pergola.

Sarah and I just moved into a new house a couple of months ago (new to us; it was actually built in 1866!). There was a slab of concrete out one side that I thought would be perfect for a pergola. I wanted a cozy space where we could sit and enjoy a meal, as well as a space to grow some herbs, veggies, and other plant life. We have tons of mosquitoes, so I planned on planting herbs that are known to repel those pesky little jerks. This was no small project; the pergola took a couple days to build. Then planting and getting it to the way we wanted it to look has taken a couple weeks. I also did some research on plants that repel insects, building permits, and planting in treated wood. This post is focused solely on the planning stage. There will be a building post coming up, as well as a styling/planting one. It may read like a book report; there is a lot of info, but I promise the next post will have more images!

I understand that this project may seem daunting to most of you. I hope that even if you don’t plan on building a whole pergola in your yard,  maybe some of the info will apply to smaller projects you might be planning.

Build a pergola - planning stage Here we go, a synopsis of my process:

Pergolas have been around for centuries, and designs range from complex to minimal. The one I built leans more on the minimal/classic side, which is basically four posts and slats running across the top. Well, it seems basic, but even if I had stopped there, it would have taken some engineering. I added a twist to the design. I wanted to add three half walls with a trough running along the top of them to plant herbs and flowers in. That was the initial idea I had in my head; here are the steps I took leading up to actually building.

The pergola was the biggest thing I’d built to date. I’d heard of people getting permits for building attachments to their homes, but I had no further knowledge of the subject. I wasn’t sure if I needed to get a residential permit for the pergola.  It wasn’t hard to figure out! I called our local city permit office and asked if I needed one to build a pergola. The nice lady informed me that anything smaller than 100 square feet doesn’t need a building permit. Sweet! That made my decision for the size a super easy one. Ten feet by ten feet is plenty big.

To find your local building permit codes, a simple phone call will get you on the right track. Of course, a quick Google search will help you find the number to your local permit office. I would start by Googling your hometown’s residential building permits’ regulations. This step sounds like a big hassle, but if you end up building something that is regulated, you could get fined big time, and that is an even bigger hassle.

I really lucked out with my build site. I have a 16′ x 16′ foot slab with the pergola’s name on it. So I knew that the structure was going to be 10′ x 10′ feet, and I also knew that I was going to keep the wood raw, so it had to be treated in order to withstand elements. I was planning on planting herbs in the trough also made from raw wood, so I wanted to make sure treated lumber was okay to use. After some research I was fairly convinced that the plants would be okay. Even the the American Wood Protection Association (AWPA) states:

It is our understanding that the wood preservatives used in treated wood available to consumers have been registered by EPA for general use, which means that EPA has determined it is relatively safe for most, if not all, consumer applications. Different people perceive safety in different ways.  If you’re concerned, you could always apply some type of coating or sealer to reduce the amount of soil contact with the preservative treated wood, or perhaps even put a sheet of plastic between the treated wood and the soil if you want to minimize or eliminate contact between wood and soil. (

Simply put, it’s up to us as individuals to make up our own minds, taking into account the info provided. I’ve read about people using treated wood for decades without problems. People even used to use railroad ties that are laden with arsenic (I wouldn’t use them), and they didn’t have issues.

Treated wood it was!

The next major step was figuring out which herbs I could plant that would keep away the good-for-nothing blood suckers that invaded our yard in swarms. Surprisingly, a lot of herbs that I love were the very ones I needed. Here’s the list of plants I found to be great at insect repelling:

  • basil/lime basil
  • mint
  • chives
  • dill
  • lemon balm/horsemint
  • rosemary (not only works on mosquitoes, but repels cats as well)
  • thyme (is said to work better than DEET!)

These also work, but I didn’t use them:

  • pennyroyal (I didn’t use this because it’s not consumable)
  • tansy (repels mice, but is toxic, so I didn’t use that one either)

I got so excited when I found out herbs like basil and rosemary work. I love using them when I cook (mostly breakfast).

I had the location, size, material, and herb situation on lockdown; all that was left was designing the thing. I started with a couple rough sketches so I could get the overall design down. Then I moved to SketchUp, which is a free 3D program anybody can download. If you are interested in building at all, it would be a great thing to download and learn to use. It’s reasonably easy to learn and helps a lot. The main reason I wanted to get the pergola drawn up in 3D is so that I could get what was in my head as close to materialized as possible (before actually building it). That way I could see that the size worked well in the space allotted and that the dimensions and proportions were good to go. Once I had it all drawn up, I could get a very good estimate of material needed.

Speaking of material, this project’s cost was about $700. The pressure-treated lumber, screws, nuts and bolts, anchor bolts, and  lag bolts start to add up quick. A good way to save on hardware is to buy online. I bought 25 lag bolts online for roughly the same price as about half that many, at my local hardware store. If you have the time and resources,  you can usually save some dough if you do your homework. I chose to use pressure-treated materials because the pergola wasn’t going to be painted, and it needed to be able to withstand the elements. I may choose to paint or stain it in the future.

If you’ve made it this far in this post, thanks for reading it all! We’ll be posting the second post in the next couple o’ days, so keep a look out for that.

I am not a contractor or professional builder, so you may want to refer to one if you’re planning on taking on the task of building your own pergola.  Don’t let that deter you, though! Most contractors or builders that I’ve known would love to give a pointer or two; it doesn’t hurt to ask (although they just might try to talk you into hiring them to do it).  🙂 – Josh

Credits // Author: Joshua Rhodes. Photography: Sarah Rhodes. Photos edited with Willis from the Folk Collection and Piper from The Signature Collection.

  • I just finished building this pergola. I modified it slightly (added a roof, painted white, etc.) I used it to cover a cob pizza oven. so cool! Pictures were enough to get the job done.. thanks a bunch.

  • This is such an awesome post! I usually skim posts like this but something about the way you write made me read every word and enjoy it! I’ve been thinking about doing something like this on a smaller scale and now I can’t wait to read the rest of your posts! Thanks!

  • Congrats on the new home! Definitely stay tuned for more home projects, some fun ones are coming up!


  • cats are so weird. Fortunately we don’t have that big of feline infestation at our place.

  • You may find that rosemary doesn’t actually keep cats away. Our cat and my parent’s cats (actually it seems like half the cats in their neighbourhood actually) like to hang out under or amongst rosemary. Could be the sunny location that the plants are in, both at our place and theirs. Though I’m now tempted to plant more to see if it helps with mosquitoes.

  • I always love your projects, Josh! You being the ABM team DIYs to another level. Please keep ’em coming! My husband and I are closing on our first home soon and we would love some more project ideas and instructions like this 🙂

  • I’m gonna pick your brain, I’m building one of these this fall as well! Nice work, dude.

  • Hah! Thequietcoyote, you are absolutely correct on that. What I said doesn’t make a lick of sense. I meant say (which I changed in the post) is that the bolts online were half the price at the store.

    Thanks for nicely pointing that out 🙂

  • Hello!! Just wanted to point something out. You say ” A good way to save on hardware is to buy online. I bought 25 lag bolts online for roughly the same price of 50 at my local hardware store.” Wouldn’t that be more expensive online than at the hardware store? Just wondering. Love the pergola!

  • I really love this! Such a beautiful outdoor space. I wish my husband was a little more handy………;).


  • This is so pretty! Unfortunately, given that I’m not a homeowner and much better in the kitchen than in a workshop, this DIY probably isn’t for me. I love how clearly you’re breaking down the steps for such a big project, though.


  • thanks Michelle! I’m glad to help, lucky for me, I love “boring dirty work”! Part 2 is coming up sooooon.

  • This place looks so cozy… totally epic!


  • AAAAAAAWESOME LInda! I’m glad I was able to motivate you. Send me a picture when you’re all done!

  • Josh,
    I love your posts! I love the background info you provide, I love the thought process and I love that you give straight-forward clear instructions. I am by no means a contractor or even in the business in any way, shape of form, but I am one to say “If it can be done, why can’t I do it too!” I have been procrastinating on just such a project for my yard and you’ve given me the incentive to shut up and do it already.

  • This is so cool. One day I have dreams of building my own pergola. I really appreciate all the info you provided us, feels like you are doing all the boring dirty work for us, ha ha!! Looking forward to reading the rest of the “series” 🙂

  • Perri, it sounds like we need to be picking your brain on old home renovations!! How cool to be involved in such a huge long project! 🙂 -Sarah

  • I’d love to do something like this. Unfortunately I don’t have all the strong men around like you guys do! lol

  • Josh, your posts are quickly becoming my favorites on ABM!!! I love building practical things (I’ve been my Dad’s right hand gal while remodeling their 150+ year old house over the past 14 years and we’ve done LOTS of building and wood work!) and your posts resonate with me so much. Definitely going to checkout Sketup– might be the perfect tool to get my ideas into visuals! Thank you for sharing!!

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