Building a Pergola

I felt inspired the other Saturday, so I built a pergola.


Truthfully though we’d been trying to figure out how to shade our south-facing deck for quite awhile without overly sacrificing solar gains in the wintertime. This was not an easy thing to decide and we’d belaboured over it – well, since we built the deck last year.

You see, when it’s sunny and hot here, like it has been these past few weeks, it is smoking hot, out on the deck. Too hot. And with my wife home with our baby now, she would like to be able to get out of the house and sit on the deck, but it’s just too damn hot and sunny. The other day when I came home from work, I found her and the baby lounging on the north side of the house back stoop, in the shade, but looking out at… well, the driveway. I sat down with her and we decided, we gotta do something about the deck.

We did pick up a shade sail last year, but hadn’t put it up. This is one of those canvas/mesh shades that you see at California pool sides and in the outback. It’s good for sunny hot places. The nice thing about it is that it can be removed in the winter and packed away. My concern with it too though was: How do we secure it and how do we make sure the wind doesn’t wreck it? (It’s sunny and hot and windy here in the summer in some combination). I could never answer those questions.

A pergola though, combined with a shade sail, might just be the answer though! I have always liked pergolas – the filtered light, vines growing up and over, the little bit of intimacy it gives to be outdoors – but, I was concerned about shading things TOO much. We still need that solar gain in the wintertime. I went back to my trusty Pinterest resources and looking at modern pergolas (not the traditional curvy end ones). The epiphany came when I realized I did not need to run the top slated boards east-west like most pergolas for maximum shading, but instead, could run them north-south. Eureka! With the added shade sail underneath we could have our full shade, but then when we remove it in the fall, the pergola would still allow the sun through (albeit, slightly less so then when it was unobstructed).

I sketched out some plans for it on a notepad and the next day, I went to the lumberyard and picked up the materials. I was taken back to our house building time and, as it was then, that night I dreamt of how I would build it (this is a very useful strategy!). I was up at 6am and ready to get to work.

8am: No Pergola
Getting the posts levelled
Squaring it all up

By 6pm, it was built. Mind you, I didn’t work alone. My neighbour, Ray, came and helped me for most of the day too thankfully. I couldn’t have built this without him (see post-script).


6pm: A Pergola!

I ended up using all treated lumbar. I planned to stain it black (obviously) and treated wood simply made the most sense for longevity and cost. I used five 6×6 rough sawn posts for the base and double 2x6s for the upper frame. The top slating is 2x4s spaced 8” apart (figuring out the spacing was the hardest part). I like the 8″ spacing for a couple reasons – it still allows a reasonable amount of light through for our needed solar gain in the winter and the 8″ correlates nicely with the 2×4″ lumbar (too big or too small looks weird). The long side of the pergola runs 16’ and the short side is just under 10’. I secured the posts to the deck (the deck is 2×6 boards) using a simple Simpson post support with 3” screws and lag screws. The top beams I secured to the posts using my Kreg Jig (best tool you can buy) and did the same to secure the slating to the beams. This was a lot of jigging, but you get excellent stability with the Kreg Jig. The slating overhangs the beams by 8” at the front and is flush at the other three sides.

On the west side, which is where our prevailing windows are from, I put up a slated wall using 1x6s that I ripped down to just under 1 ¾” wide each (which allows for 3 equal slats per 1×6 board) and spaced them roughly 1” apart (the depth of each 1×6 – just use a scrap piece to line the next one up). This slating is a repeated theme around the exterior of the house with the outdoor shower and base of the outdoor countertop (and when the front stoop stops sinking I want to do the same at the front door).


Although the build went relatively quickly, the staining part took my upwards of three days the next weekend. Ug. I forgot how much work it was to stain all this wood. My shoulders were so sore from all of the overhead work. I used the same Auson black pine tar with linseed oil (50/50) mix on the pergola, which gives it the same matte black sheen as the exterior of the house.

Now to hang the hammock under it and rest for a little while (but maybe I should build some new deck chairs first)…


Post Script:

This was the last project I did with my neighbour, Ray. The following weekend we received the shocking news that he’d passed away suddenly and without any warning. It didn’t seem real. We were totally devastated. Ray was more than just my neighbour. He was my dear friend. He was my father figure out here. We were so naive when we’d moved out to the country and he’d taken us under his wing and been there whenever we needed him – which was a lot. I’ve written about him on his blog before and all of the help he’d given us in the building the house. He spent countless hours helping us with the house. He walked over here everyday during construction to check on the progress and to make sure the contractors were working. He’d allowed us to share his garden for two years and helped me establish our own. He’d come and cut our grass when I was too busy in the house. We had dozens of dinners at his home when we’d been working all day and night the first couple of years. He’d bring us pies or cinnamon buns just because he had some extra. He cut a path to our house along the river so we could be connected. The gratitude I have for this man could never have been repaid. He was one of those very rare people who would drop everything for you whenever you needed them. He was patient, humble, honest and sincere.

He taught me so much and has made me feel competent out here. He showed us how to truly appreciate living in this beautiful place. It will be difficult for us without him. I will miss him terribly.

Rest in peace my friend.


Siding & Soffits

We knew we wanted a black house. In fact, when designing the house, it was one of the only things that really remained consistent and we didn’t change our minds about (ok, truthfully, we strayed a little bit – testing the waters, but as they say, once you go black, you probably won’t go back… or something like that).
DSC_0395Our previous house had been painted black by the previous owners (we are since soul mates) and we loved it dearly. But really we did not not want to simply paint our new house black. Paint is great for covering up years of other layers of toxic paint, as in our old house, but not as an initial coat. So, what to do?

In the process of researching, planning and designing the house, we collected hundreds of inspiration pictures. The majority of my “architecture” folder on Pinterest is of black houses, and each one I’d look at and try to figure out what they used: paint, stain, or something else.

One of the first “something else” option we were initially really drawn to the traditional Japanese siding treatment called “Shou-sugi-ban”. Taken from a Treehugger article on this process:

This is a traditional Japanese method of preserving cedar, where it is burned enough to create a layer of char on the outside. The char serves a number of functions: it seals and preserves the wood, it makes it significantly more fire-resistant, and termites and bugs hate it.

Shou sugi ban house in Alaska

It is said that this type of treatment can allow the wood to survive for 80-100 years without maintenance and much longer if treated with oil every 15 years.

Here is an impressive video of the traditional process in Japan:

Ok, so just imagine doing that 200 times over to clad your moderately sized house. Now that is labour intensive! Most people nowadays, from what I’ve read, use a blow torch to char each board, then dunk it in water, scrub the charred bits off, and then oil it. Even with a blow torch this a crazy amount of work, but in the end you get something really impressive and completely unique.

I really thought we were going to do this for our place, however, there were a few reasons we abandoned this idea. Firstly was the obvious: OMG, that would be so much work!! Second, cedar is crazy expensive right now, running in the range of $7-9 per sq.ft. But the final reason, was that we had heard that someone had decided to do a house in shou sugi ban in the City. Curious to see it in real life, we drove over to take a look at it. And well, to be honest, we really hated it. Perhaps it was just the people who did it did a bad job, but it looked really… gross. It basically looked like a house that had had a fire recent go through it (which I suppose is true). I think I would like to test it out on a shed or coffee table or something before I invest thousands of dollars into the siding of my house and ended up hating myself over it.

So, we turned to the natural and perhaps, most obvious option, stain. Stain is all well and good, but you really need to stain your wood every 5 years (or less) to preserve the wood and keep it looking good. And really, you still should use cedar to have optimal rot protection with plain old stain. That is until my wife came across a little black Swedish house.

Black house in Sweden

Granted, this house is actually sided in plywood, which I would never do, but what intrigued me was the rich black colour, that the grain of the wood still came through (not painted), and that they had used a siding that was not cedar.

As I read more into this, they used “black tar” for the siding. Through some detective work, we eventually found this same house linked to a Swedish product called “Auson black pine tar.

I had never heard or seen this product before but  I was very intrigued. Also, it was Swedish, and seeing as our house had a lot of Scandinavian inspiration, this only seemed fitting.

We found that the product was available in Canada through a website called Solvent Free Paint. Score. We emailed the company to learn a bit more about it:

Genuine Pine Tar is one of the more effective wood preservers we’ve seen, and it is all-natural, which is amazing. In Scandinavia, they have been using Pine Tar for around 1500 years as a preservative on everything from stave wood churches to wooden splint roofs to Viking ships, and it is still the predominant choice for continuing to preserve these old wooden structures to this day. Amazing. In fact, the heritage arm of the government of Québec has been making studies on this here with respect to preserving wooden roofs, and their current recommendation is to use pine tar.
Pine Tar is made from burning the pine resin out of the stumps of pine trees. The sticky resin is then collected and cleaned to various degrees, and pigment is even added for colour. In this state, Pine Tar has the consistency of molasses and can be used for preserving wood, even below grade. Above grade, we recommend mixing the pine tar 50/50 with Allback Purified Raw Linseed Oil and applying warm so that the pine tar and oil mixture really penetrates the wood. This mixture offers the best of both preservation and nourishment for the wood; it also takes down the stickiness of the surface so that it is more pleasant to touch or walk on.”
Even better, this product is ideal for use in Scandinavia, where pine and spruce are much more readily available and cedar is not. It preserves the wood and needs to be recoated only once every 15 years.
Bingo, we’d found our product. We ordered a few litres of this stuff. We had debated about using cedar for our soffits as well, but once we saw this, we realized we could use pine with a natural clear pine tar for much less than half the cost of cedar still.
IMG_2921We started out with the soffits, which would be easiest to install first. Yes, it is true that most people use aluminum or vinyl vented soffits, which are fool proof but are so fucking boring. Instead,  we purchased 1×6 tongue and groove clear white pine. Now one thing you need to know about staining (or painting) wood for siding or soffits, is that you mustn’t let any part of the wood be left untreated (otherwise the lifespan of the wood will drop by 50-75%, so preparation is key)! That is, you must stain all six sides of the wood. For the tongue and groove pine, this meant that yes, we had to stain the tongue AND the groove, which is a crazy, tedious and annoying task.
We had about 800 sq.ft. of soffits to stain, all sides, twice. It took us about 14 hours, but it looked pretty nice by the time we were done. The pine tar was actually easier than we expected it would be to use. Once mixed 50/50 with the linseed oil it was really just like a slightly thickened stain. It brushed on easy and evenly. However, we had to keep it warm. On the hot 30 degree Celsius days it was easy, but on the cooler day we had to heat it up on the stove in the shop. Also each coat took about 4-7 days to dry and still had a bit of residue on it that hopefully will dry someday. Surprisingly, it was not at all sticky (I had fears of moths and dust sticking to the house).
Now as for venting of the soffits, there is a calculation of square footage of ventilation versus square footage of attic space which is approximately 1 sq.ft of venting to every 100 sq.ft of attic. We figured out that that meant about 3/4″x30″ gap lengthwise along every fourth board, would be about right. We used a router to cut the gap and covered it with a bug screen. Here’s a photo:
I was so impressed with how well these turned out. Much better than I’d expected to be honest.
Next up was the siding, which I was most excited about. We ordered the clear white pine siding as a “shiplap reveal” in 1×8.
That pile took a ridiculous amount of time for us to work through. I had expected it to go relatively quickly seeing as we did not have to stain a stupid groove, but 30 hours later we were finally done. Exhausted, but man did it look badass.
Over the next two weeks the contractors, chipped away at installing the siding. This too took much longer than they had expected too, particularly from having to stain the ends of each cut. But seeing that siding go onto the walls, I knew we had made the right decision.
(Yes that is a chimney pipe, more to come).