What is the Best Material to Use for a Pergola?

A well-placed pergola can transform a landscape and provide a cozy spot to relax and socialize. This ancient design allows for so many modern approaches that homeowners can significantly enhance the way they experience their outdoor living space. 

If you’re thinking about putting up a pergola on your property, you probably have quite a few questions. One of the most important decisions you will make is what type of material you will use for your pergola. 

What is a Pergola?

The pergola is a type of outdoor architecture that has been around for thousands of years. Its functionality and aesthetically pleasing design explain its lasting popularity. 

A pergola is an open structure consisting of a lattice roof held up by posts. Either attached to a building or as a free-standing structure, the pergola is a great way to section your outdoor space while providing shade and decoration without too much disruption to the landscape.

What is Not a Pergola?

Pergolas are often confused with other similar outdoor structures such as arbors and trellises. Each may serve similar purposes but are distinct in design. 

Arbors are usually smaller than a pergola and are often used to indicate the entry to or pathway through a yard or garden. Their lattice siding encourages and supports plant growth, in particular plants that grow like vines. 

Trellis is a broad term to describe a structural element meant to support the growth of climbing plants. A trellis can be part of a pergola or an arbor but can also be found flat against an exterior wall entwined with vines.

Pergola Materials

Deciding what building material to use can make all the difference in terms of the quality and lifespan of your pergola. The best option for you is the one that meets your particular needs.

It is essential to consider the look, the long-term integrity, and the cost of the material before committing to anything!

There are plenty of options and lots of room for creativity with pergola building. Let’s take a look at a few of the most popular choices. These are wood, vinyl, and fiberglass.

Wood

Unsurprisingly, wood has historically been the most common material used for building pergolas. Wood can offer either a classic rustic or sleek modern look.

It is accessible and highly customizable. Of course, deciding on wood only narrows your options slightly. There are ample types of wood suitable for outdoor construction.   

Softwood

Pressure-treated yellow pine is the most widely used and budget-friendly option. Pine is cheap and easy but highly susceptible to the elements.

The pressure treatment process lessens the risks of using wood to build outdoors, such as rot, insect damage, and long-term stability. 

Pressure-treated wood is, however, not the most attractive option. Fortunately, it can easily be painted or stained, but regular maintenance is required to keep a fresh look.

Cedar and redwood too are commonly used to build pergolas. These softwoods are better than pine at resisting decay or insect invasion and are less prone to warping and expansion. 

Cedar and redwood offer a more eye catching aesthetic than pine. Their natural color is of a pink, reddish tint that will stain beautifully.

While you’ll end up spending a few more dollars than you would with treated pine, these woods will give your pergola a longer life or at least require somewhat less ongoing maintenance. 

Hardwoods

Some homeowners may opt for hardwood over softwood. Hardwoods, as the name suggests, tend to be sturdier. Less porous and with a tighter grain, hardwoods can better withstand the elements and insect damage. 

Popular options include oak, teak, and mahogany. Many hardwoods are naturally beautiful and resilient, making them great in an outdoor environment.

It is, of course, a bit more costly, in some cases significantly so. Many of these woods are recommended for smaller projects.   

Pros

  • Softwoods can be more cost-effective
  • It is easy to customize in look or design
  • It can fit a variety of decors
  • Some have a naturally beautiful color and grain
  • It can be painted or stained
  • The broad range in cost

Cons

  • Wood may have a shorter lifespan
  • Wood pergolas are high maintenance
  • Wood can be susceptible to decay and infestation
  • It is vulnerable to cracking, warping, and expansion
  • Some wood can be prohibitively expensive

Vinyl

Vinyl is a plastic material that has been used in building for decades. You have likely seen vinyl-made fences, decks, and siding on homes. As a wood alternative, vinyl can be used for many different constructions, including pergolas.

For a clean, stylish look, a vinyl pergola is a good choice for homeowners seeking a more modern aesthetic. A pergola made from vinyl is likely to capture the scene and stand out among your outdoor space.  

Aside from the need for an occasional power wash, vinyl is virtually maintenance-free. It is impervious to insects, rot, and decay. While wood is easily affected by the climate, vinyl can withstand nearly all weather conditions. 

Vinyl is a durable material that, in theory, can last a lifetime. However, vinyl can be but prone to soften or sag with applied stress and fluctuating temperatures.  

Choosing a vinyl pergola does present some limitations. It is difficult to customize its appearance. Your color options are somewhat limited. Keep in mind that vinyl can not be easily painted, so whatever color you choose should be considered a permanent commitment.

More so than wood, vinyl can also impose some restrictions on the design of the pergola. Vinyl pergolas are often purchased as a kit. Yes, this is convenient, but you are given little to no flexibility in the design. 

Pros 

  • Requires minimal maintenance (just the occasional power wash)
  • Easy and quick installation
  • Durable material
  • Can be purchased as kits

Cons

  • Less customizable than wood
  • Requires extra work to achieve a wood like look
  • Vinyl cannot be painted or stained

Fiberglass

Fiberglass is becoming a popular material for pergola building. It is incredibly sturdy, resilient, low maintenance, and middle of the road price-wise. Fiberglass offers many of the same advantages as vinyl.

Strong and lightweight, fiberglass is great for larger pergola designs that cover more space without additional support posts. 

As with vinyl, the look is clean and modern, so if you want to go rustic and blend into the natural environment, you still probably want to go with wood.

It is somewhat more customizable than vinyl in that fiberglass holds on to paint well. Otherwise, fiberglass pergolas are typically sold as kits, so customization is still limited. 

Pros

  • Easy to construct or install
  • Moderately priced
  • Low maintenance 
  • Strong and lightweight

Cons 

  • It does not blend with the natural landscape
  • Typically pre-measured kits don’t allow for customization

How Much Does a Pergola Cost?

The cost of building a pergola will range depending on several factors, including size, style, location, and the material you use to make it.

You could spend as little as $800 or as much as $9000. The average cost is somewhere near $3,500.

Summary

Vinyl and fiberglass can provide a sturdy, low-maintenance pergola that will stand the test of time. Using wood grants you more control over the ultimate appearance and style.

Your unique circumstances determine the value of the tradeoff. 

A pergola can be a beautiful addition to any home. It can add character, improve aesthetics and make for a lovely place to sit and enjoy your outdoor space. The best building material to use for your pergola is, of course, dependent on your home and personality. 

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