Pergola Prep Work

Last fall Amy and I decided we wanted to spruce up the very basic back patio area which came with the house when we purchased it 2 1/2 years ago.

The space itself is approx. 12’x18′ and consists of the kind of cement pavers you buy at a big box store for that quasi-euro feel. One can tell from the picture that it drops off somewhat on the left-hand side. The plan for that part of the patio is to put in a somewhat raised bed bordered by limestone and divided into two rectangles by 3 steps up from the sidewalk on to the patio. It’s a nice space in and of itself, with the West wall of the house bordering on the back and a nice view of the yard and of course sunsets.

After we finished the fence last year, we thought about replacing the patio with a deck, but we like the cloistered feel of being hidden behind the fence and if we put a raised deck in, it would be visible for the entire neighborhood to see.

So we settled on a pergola. I wanted to use big timbers but those of course are expensive. However, as I detailed in an earlier post, we were able to find some 6×6 and 4×6 beams from an old barn and they cost relatively little money; especially when compared to what they would go for new. They looked a little rough but were definitely dry and uber straight. And I’m speculating here but my guess is that as the barn was over 100 years old & the wood was probably 100 years old when harvested, the trees that gave rise to these beams were just saplings when the Revolutionary War was wrapping up in the late 1700’s. Plus those old trees were extraordinarily dense which means I’m hoping this thing lasts another hundred years. At least.

We managed to salvage 4 of the 6×6′ and 4 of the 4×6’s which will become the posts and lintels, respectively. They range in length from 14′-16′. The pergola itself will sit about 8 feet tall with about 3′-4′ of post in the ground to insure against the frost line.

I still need to find and purchase the joists. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll be able to find more barn boards, hopefully 2×8’s. And then I would like to cross those with 2×2’s to create a fine grid for the roof. I also plan on constructing something of a circular feature about 5′ in diameter that will “float” in the west facing side to act as a frame for the view.

I’ve been reading up on timber frame construction with the hopes of building this thing entirely out of wood using wedges and pins for compression joints. James Mitchell put out a book, “The Craft of Modular Post & Beam”, and in it he illustrates a number of different joints, a few of which I’ll incorporate into the structure.

Back to the beams though…they had quite a few nails and so I spent a couple hours going through and pulling as many as I could and the ones that weren’t coming out, I just set back into the wood…far enough in that they wouldn’t catch the planer.

It took a total of four passes on each side, taking off about 1/64 of an inch with the power planer in each pass.

The difference is significant. The wood of course has all kinds of imperfections but they only add to the overall look and not one of them are structural in nature. I managed to avoid hitting any metal with the planer until the very last beam. And when I did it basically shattered the mini planer blades. Better at the end than the beginning. I was able to limp through the last side and finish the job.

I’m a big fan of the finished product. Plus they smell like an old hay barn and fir trees, which is what they were/are.

I now need to go through and sand down any rough spots and the next step will be to dig the holes and put those posts in the ground. And I need to square up the ends. The joinery, at least for the posts will have to be done once they are set. If I’ve learned one thing from building my own fence with 25 posts in the ground, it’s that you cut the tops of the posts level after you’ve set them in the ground, not before.

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