What You Need To Know When Building an Arbor

It’s wedding season and there is so much to plan for. The flowers, the cake, the dress, the ring, and oh yes, what will stand behind the bride and groom when they take their vows? That’s right, an Arbor. Not just something you buy online and will only us it the one time. We want something strong and sturdy, that will last for years. This arbor wont just be used for a wedding, but will be used post ceremony as a gift to the bride and groom to be used in the backyard to put flowers around and let those cool climbing vines with flowers grow around it. It will make a great addition to their new home where they are starting their new live together! So how do we build this amazing arbor / pergola that we are talking about?

If you want to see different arbors, click here.

How to build an Arbor? There are 4 essential steps to building a great Arbor:

  1. Planning the Design – It’s best to draw out your Arbor and design what kind of features you want to have with the Arbor.  Things to consider when planning are size, features and wood choice.
  2. Deciding on the Materials – Spec out the materials needed so you don’t have to make frequent trips to the hardware stores.
  3. Assembling – There are some good ways and bad ways to put the Arbor together.
  4. Putting on the Final Finish – Picking the right color and whether to paint or stain will be critical in a long lasting Arbor.

Building an arbor is a fun project that requires taking the right steps necessary to build one you can be proud of. Let’s dig into all the details and steps necessary to show off an amazing arbor, that you built, to all your family and friends.

Step 1 – Planning The Design

Before digging into the actual build of the arbor we need to make a plan. There are many decisions we need to make before we cut or screw in that first piece of wood.

Key decisions to make before you begin are:

  • What size arbor do we want? Is there a preferred height and width?
  • What type of wood? Wood choice is a big decision in the look and sturdiness of the arbor.
  • What features do you want for the arbor?
  • What type of hardware is needed for construction?
  • What finish do you want on the arbor?
  • How heavy do you want the arbor to be?

Below let’s go into the detail of each of the decisions needed to get a start on the build of the arbor.

Size of the Arbor

During the wedding, you need to first figure out where this fortress is going to stand. Inside with a low ceiling? Outside? On the beach, under trees?

Then you need to know who will be in front of the Arbor. In my case, my future daughter-in-law wanted it wide enough for her and my son to stand in front of so you can see the sides with all the flowers and decorations that will be feathering the sides.  Also the Bridal party will need to stand enough behind them so the sides are visible between the bride and bridal party.

When looking at the bride and groom as they hold hands you can see the sides at 5 feet wide.  Now, the height. Not a lot of magic here, just not too tall and not short. We came up with 7 feet tall as that was plenty tall enough to see the flowers and décor without their heads being in the way.

Our Result: 5’W x 7’H

Based on the needs of your own arbor, put the factors into what you want/need and come up with your own height and width for your own arbor.

Type of Wood to Use

You can use any type of wood you would like to build with, but for outdoor use, the following types of wood will get you years of stability.

  • Pressure Treated Wood – budget choice for construction with lower demands on appearance.
  • Red Cedar and Redwood – pricey alternatives and naturally protected wood.
  • Tropical Hardwood – expensive and beautiful alternative but a hard to source FSC certified wood. The FSC certification is considered the “gold standard” designation for wood harvested from forests that are responsibly managed, socially beneficial, environmentally conscious, and economically viable
  • Composite Wood – the best choice for optimal appearance, price and performance.

Let’s lay out some more details on these wood choices below.

Pressure Treated Wood

When budget is a big factor in material selection, pressure-treated (PT) wood is often the go-to choice. It’s easy to work with, very versatile in what you can do with it, and it’s available at virtually every home improvement store or lumber yard. Through the treatment process it undergoes, the wood becomes more resistant to rot, decay, and insects, making it a durable choice for exterior applications like a pergola.

Red Cedar and Redwood

Red Cedar and Redwood are very durable to nature and make a very nice looking Arbor. However, there are a few key differences between the two. First off, despite having “red” in both names, Redwood has the darker red-brown hue while Cedar is more on the yellow side. Secondly, Redwood can be found with a larger grade variety and its grain tends to be more on the subtle side compared to the more rustic and pronounced grain of clear Cedar.

Tropical Hardwood

Tropical hardwoods are widely known for being ideal for exterior projects (i.e. decking, cladding, etc.), making them a wonderful option for pergolas or arbors. The most common tropical hardwood species includes teak, ipe, mahogany and rosewood.

In addition to their looks, tropical hardwoods are sought after for their density and resilience to the elements. Janka ratings relate directly to the density or hardness of a wood. The harder the wood, the stronger and more resilient it will be.

Note: The Janka Hardness Scale determines the hardness of a particular type of wood over another. The scale was invented in 1906 by Gabriel Janka, an Austrian wood researcher, and standardized in 1927 by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM).

Composite Wood

Composite wood is manufactured from a variety of materials. They usually contain the same woods that are used in lumber, but they are combined to make them stronger and more durable. It is also known as engineered wood. 

Now that we have decided on our wood choice lets dig into the creative features we wont on our arbor.

Features of the Arbor

What do you want the Arbor to look like? The areas below will help you focus on design:

  • Sides
  • Ceiling
  • Platform


You can have the sides wide open, with window features or trellis., or some cross beams for stability. We determined window sections is what we wanted. Will the windows be solid with slats between them making smaller squares? The slats, do you want them crisscrossing on the outside or do you want them slithered between the beams? This is a bit more time consuming, but the effect is great.  There are many options when it comes to designing the specific look you are going for on the sides. You can go for complex and sophisticated or simple and to the point, the choice is yours.

Result: Windows with slats slithered between the beams.   

The sides are designed, now we need to come up with the design of the ceiling of the arch.


Curve or No Curve, Arch or No Arch? These are questions to ask yourself when considering what the top of the arbor should look like.

With a curve you add elegance to the Arbor, however you also add complexity. Curving your beams is a difficult task and requires patience and lots of room. Here is a great YouTube video on how to curve your beams.

We chose No Arch. Then you have to decide on whether you want slats and if so, how thick? How much overhang do you want? Do you want the curvy ends or 45 degree angles or just flat (boring)? Or do you want a solid roof that will yield shade when you put it in your backyard.

Result: Slats with 45-degree angle

After the ceiling we will move on to deciding the structure of the platform.

Platform or Not

Platforms are nice as it will keep your feet clean while sitting under the Arbor. We decided to go with no platform. Keeping it simple and making it easy to transport.

We have now decided on all the elements of the design of the arbor. Now we need to make sure we have all the tools and hardware. Lets dig into the specifics of what we need to get this job done.

Step 2 – Materials

This step is important because we need to make sure we have all the tools and hardware necessary to get the job done. We do not want to want to start the project and then have to stop midway because we didn’t prepare before hand.

Hardware List

If your Arbor is going to stay outside after the wedding, you will want to use Galvanized nuts, bolts, washers and nails. Galvanized hardware will not rust, thus keeping your Arbor intact for years to come.

  • 18 Carriage bolts, 8 in. long, 3/8 in. in size
  • 16 Washers, 3/8 in. in size
  • 16 Nuts, 3/8 in. in size

Got the hardware list out of the way, now what do we need from the lumber yard?

Lumber List

  • 4 Support Posts, 8 ft long, 4”x4” in size
  • 2  Top Cross Beams, 8 ft long, 2”x6”
  • 4  Slats for Lattice Windows 40” long, 1/4”x2” (see Tip#1 )
  • 10 Ladder rails for Window, 3 feet long,  1”x1” in size
  • 7 ceiling joists 40” long 2”x 2” wide.
  • 4 Side Rails for the Window Frame, 64” long, 1×2 ¾ wide (see Tip#2)
  • 4 Top/Bottom Rails for the Window Frame, 24 ½ long 1.2 ¾ wide. (see Tip #2)
  • 3 8 ft long, 1×6 Deck board. This will be used for ripping. See Tips.
  • 4 Stabilizers 30” Long 2×6 wide.

I know this is a pretty long list and not all of us have a truck to get this haul in their vehicle. To maximize your effort at the lumber yard check out this article on hauling lumber without a truck. It shows great tips on how to maximize the use of a car when transporting wood.

Hardware CHECK, Wood CHECK, now to the tools we need!

Tools List

Building an arbor is a big job and will require many tools for specific aspects of the build.

  • Miter Saw – for angle and flat cuts
  • Table Saw – for ripping beams
  • Brushless Drill – for deck screws
  • Auger Drill Bit – for long holes between posts and ceiling joists.
  • Box Wrench and Ratchet – for carriage bolts and nuts
  • Hammer or Nail Gun – for ceiling cross beams and trellis.
  • Clamps – for securing 2 pieces of wood while nailing or using deck screws
  • Paint Brushes – for staining or painting

See Recommended Tools for more details on the types of tools used and why.

Tips and Tricks

  1. The slats for the windows can’t be bought in the store. Easiest way is to rip them using the 10” Table Saw by Kobalt. (see Tool Specs here). Get yourself the 8 ft long board and cut it in half to 4ft long. This will make it easier for ripping the slats. Take one of the 4 ft boards and cut them 2” wide so you have 2-4 ft long 1×2. Put the other one to the side as you will need it for the Window Frame. Start ripping the slats ¼” thick. So you will get 4 slats per 4 ft board in #2 above.
  2. The side rails at this width can’t be bought in the store either. Easiest way is to rip one of your 8 ft long 1×6 Deck Board using the 10” Table Saw by Kobalt. The 1×6 Deck Board is actually 5 ½ inches wide which is perfect, so you simply rip the deck board 2 ¾ inches wide and voila, you have 2 boards for the Window Frame side.

Design has been decided, materials have been purchased, now lets get into the assembly.

Step 3 – Assembly

Now comes the fun part! How are we going to put the arbor together?!

Window Frames

Lets start with the window frames, the elegant feature of the arbor.

  • Prep the ladder rails by cutting them 24 ¼” long. Then cut the ends at a 45-degree angle. Then cut the notches in the ladder rails to slide the lattice slats through them. You can use the Bosch Table router using a ¼’ router bit you can make those notches 2” wide.
  • Cut the boards for the sides, top and bottom of the window frame. Then for the side rails cut notches 1 ½” wide x ¼ deep to set the ladder rails. Make the notches evenly spaced.
  • Using galvanized deck screws secure the sides with the top and bottom.
  • Take your ladder rails and set them into the notches with Liquid Nail. Then with a nail gun, put 2 nails through the end of the ladder rail into the notch.
  • Get your lattice slats and slide them through the notches of the rails. After the slats are set, put a nail through each rail to secure the slat in place. 

Secure the Window Frames to the Posts

  • Lay the posts on the ground and put the Window between them. Ensure the window is 2 feet from the bottom.
  • Using the Kobalt ½ Inch Brushless Drill/Driver and using a 3/8” drill bit, drill 3 holes evenly spaced through the posts and window frame.
  • Secure the window frame to the posts with the Carriage Bolts, washers and nuts.

Build the Top

Now its time to build the top of the arbor!

  • Get your 2-8 ft cross beams and cut 45-degree angles at the end. Don’t take the cut all the way to the corner. Leave about an inch to make a button nose.
  • Get your ceiling joists and cut 45-degree angles at the ends.
  • Cut 2 end beams to secure the 8 ft long cross beams. Make the length xx long
  • Make a rectangle out of your ceiling by securing the cross beams with the end beams using 3” long deck screws. Leave about 1 1/2 feet of overhang on each end.
  • Evenly space your joists across the top and secure to cross beams with your nail gun.

Secure the Sides to the Top

Time for the sides and the top to come together!

  • Using 2 people, put the side top first, inside the cross beams.
  • Using a 3/8 auger drill bit, drill 2 holes as shown and then secure the sides to the top with the carriage bolts.
  • For extra durability get your stabilizers as shown and secure them to the top and posts using 3” galvanized deck screws.

Color of the Arbor

Now you need to decide whether to paint or stain the Arbor. This really depends on the type of wood you going to use.

If using:

  1. Composite – No need to do anything. Composite wood comes in many colors and will last for years without doing anything.
  2. Redwood / Cedar – It has that rustic look and stands up to the natures elements very well over the years. However, if you wish to color it, use a transparent stain as that will allow the grain of the wood to show through. Oil based or watersealer  will bring out the natural beauty of the wood.
  3. Pressure Treated Wood – this wood should be painted or stained. Often this type of wood has dark marks on it from the machines that treat the wood which will show through with transparent stain. When painting or staining, let the wood dry out first This means put the wood outside for a couple of weeks to all the pressure treatment to dry out which you then can add paint or a solid stain to.

If staining with transparent or semi transparent stain, ensure you sand the wood thoroughly thus removing all blemishes and dark colors attributed to the pressure treating process. Solid staining will eliminate the need too sand.

Paint provides the best long lasting durability to the elements but takes away from the natural wood beauty of its texture and grains.

This is the fun part, finally deciding on the appearance you are going for on the arbor.

Additional Arbor Ideas

Check out this link for some more arbor ideas when you are thinking of how to put yours together!

There are many ideas for the use of an Arbor. I have listed a couple to get the juices flowing.

  1. Put a bench under it to relax while enjoying the look of your Arbor.
  2. Climbing Plants such as roses, hydrangeas, and ivy will add appeal on the side of the Arbor.
  3. Use it as an entrance to the backyard or the Driveway.

Final Thoughts

Building an arbor is a big project to tackle. There are many factors and decisions that have to be made when constructing one. Make sure you design first, buy materials second, assemble third and finally add the finishing touch by paint or staining last.

The key thing is following those steps in order and you will be good, the great thing is you can come up with creative features and touches on your own personal arbor to make it your very own!

Now that you have the steps necessary to make an arbor, get to it! Show off those skills!

Related Questions

What is the difference between a arbor and a pergola? An arbor has a trellis in the structure, which gives it the tunnel like look for plants to grow on. A pergola is similar but they also have posts supporting the open roof to help with shading.

What are the best plants for your arbor or pergola?

  1. Climbing Rose
  2. Honeysuckle
  3. Clematis
  4. Jasmine
  5. Wisteria
  6. Bignonia
  7. Trumpet Vine
  8. Morning Glory
  9. Boston Ivy
  10. Climbing Hydrangea

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