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How to Build a Garden Arbor

Updated: Jun. 03, 2022

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Elegant and surprisingly easy to build

FH13MAY_GARARB_01-2Family Handyman

You can build this stylish, arched garden arbor with a swing in only a couple of days—it’s way easier than it looks.

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Build this garden arbor in a weekend

Meet the builder

Gary Wentz is the Editor in Chief at Family Handyman. He’s built three arbors over the past 10 years and says this is his best design—easy but beautiful.

This combination arbor and swing may look like a challenging, weeks-long project, but it’s not. If you can drive screws and handle a saw, you can build it in a weekend. The swing itself is store-bought, and the arbor that supports it requires only basic skills. Don’t be afraid of those curves and coves; we’ll show you a goof-proof way to cut them.

Time and money

Building and installing the arbor are about two days of work, but you’re best off spreading it over a three-day weekend. You can build it in a day, add a coat of finish the next morning, let it dry overnight and set up the arbor the following day.

The cedar lumber we used cost a few hundred dollars. Pressure-treated lumber would cost about half that. You can spend a C-note on a porch swing or four times that much. Hardware, concrete mix and finish will cost under a hundred.

Figure A: Swing arbor

Use this illustration when building the arbor. Overall dimensions: 107′ wide x 87′ tall and 40′ deep. Note: To print out this illustration, go to additional information at the end of this story.

Figure B: Arch details

Cut the arches out of your 2x12s. Here’s how to lay out the cove cuts at the ends.

Perfect coves

First, position the saw

Align the blade’s arbor at the end of the beam and mark at the front of the saw’s shoe. This mark tells you where to place the stop block.

Then make lots of plunge cuts

Pivot the saw downward while holding the shoe against the stop block. A support block behind the saw prevents you from plunging too deep.

Finally, bust out the cove

Break away the flakes, then sand the cove smooth. The more cuts you made, the easier this will be.

To kick off this project, cut the beams (B) to length and cove the ends. You don’t need skill or experience to cut perfect coves, just a 7-1/4-in. circular saw. Here’s how.

Build the sides

Photo 1: Assemble the sides

Screw the slats between the rungs, then drive screws at an angle through the rungs and into the posts. Finally, fasten the beam to the posts with long construction screws.

Each side is made from just nine simple parts. Cut them to length following the Cutting List. If you don’t have a miter saw to cut the thick 4×4 beams (B), cut from one side with your circular saw, roll the 4×4 over and cut from the other side. Your cuts won’t line up perfectly, but they’ll be close enough to clean up with a belt sander. The posts (A) don’t need to be cut, as long as they’re approximately 8 ft. long.

Cutting coves in the ends of the beams (B) is easy with a 7-1/4-in. circular saw. Remember to set your saw to full cutting depth before you position the saw. Eyeball the saw blade to center it on the end of the beam; if you’re off by 1/8 in. or so, the cove will still look fine.

Measure from the end of the beam to the mark and make identical marks at each end of both beams. Trace along a square to complete the marks. Clamp down hard on the stop block so it can’t move, and begin cutting. Take your time and make lots of cuts close together. I try to leave only 1/16 in. between cuts. After you break out the remaining wood, sand the cove smooth. The front end of a belt sander is perfect for this, but you can also drag the edge of an orbital sander along the curve or even hand-sand it.

To assemble the sides, start with the rungs (C) and side slats (D). My slats were only about 1-3/8 in. square, so I cut a 2-1/2-in. spacer block to get equal spacing between them. Your slats may be a bit fatter and require a slightly smaller spacer. With the slats/rungs assembled, “toe screw” the rungs to the posts (Photo 1). Driving screws at an angle is a lot easier if you drill pilot holes first to guide the screws. When you screw the beams to the posts, make sure the screw heads sink in flush with the surface so they’re not in the way when you set the arches on them. Bore countersink holes if you have to.

Build the top

Photo 2: Mark the arches

Screw on end blocks and bend a spring stick between them. Trace an arch along the stick, move the stick up 6 in., then trace again. Mark the bird’s-mouths and coves as shown in Figure B before cutting out the arch. Use the first arch as a pattern for the other two.

Photo 3: Cut the arches with a circular saw

On a gentle curve like this one, a circular saw is faster and easier to control than a jigsaw. Take your time and cut along the outer edge of the mark. Then clean up the cut with a sander.

The arches (E) are the biggest part of the arbor, but they won’t take any longer to make than the beams. Cut the arch material to length and screw oversize blocks to the ends. Then cut a spring stick to a length of 107-1/2 in. and bend it between the blocks (Photo 2). Almost any flexible material will work as a spring stick. I used a strip of PVC “lumber.” If you use real wood, eyeball the curve—inconsistencies in wood grain can form an arch that’s lopsided or wavy. The width of material needed for the arch is about 10 in., and a 2×12 is 11-1/4 in. wide. That gives you a little leeway to experiment with the positioning of your arch marks to avoid knots.

It’s critical that you make the marks shown in Figure B before you cut out the arches; you’ll need the straight edge of the board to mark the coves and bird’s-mouths (the notches that fit over the beams). The bottom of a 5-gallon bucket is perfect for marking the cove. When all your marks are made, set your circular saw blade depth to 1-3/4 in. and cut the curves (Photo 3). Then cut the coves and bird’s-mouths with a jigsaw.

With the arches cut and sanded, you’re ready to install the top slats (F). As you install the center slat and the cleats, check and double-check to make sure you have the arches spaced correctly. Then make sure the center slat and arches are perpendicular to each other using a square. You may have to nudge the whole assembly to adjust it for squareness. To position the slats quickly—and prevent mistakes—I made a 4-1/4-in.-wide spacer from scrap plywood (Photo 4).

Final assembly and setup

Photo 4: Screw slats to the arches

Align the arches by installing a slat at the very center and temporary cleats near the ends. A spacer with a stop block provides perfect spacing and overhang for the slats.

Photo 4: Detail

A spacer with a stop block provides perfect spacing and overhang for the slats.

Photo 5: Assemble it, square it, brace it

Screw braces to the posts to hold them the correct distance apart. Then screw the arches to the beams. Take diagonal measurements to square up the arbor and add a diagonal brace to hold it square.

Photo 6: Level the arch

Dig postholes and set the arbor into them. Level the posts by stacking blocks and shims under the braces. When the arbor is perfectly positioned, fill the postholes with concrete.

After the sides and top were assembled, I put a coat of exterior stain on them. Staining the top slats was slow and tedious—if I had it to do over again, I’d stain the arches and slats before assembly.

You’ll need a helper to assemble and set up the arbor. Take your time as you brace and square the arbor (Photo 5). Place the horizontal braces 72 in. from the tops of the beams. Then fasten the top by driving screws diagonally through the arches and into the beams. Stand up the arbor exactly where you want it and mark the locations of the postholes.

Project PDF Files

Click the links below to download the construction drawings, materials list and cutting list for this project.

Cutting and Materials Lists and Construction drawings

Additional Information

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Belt sander
  • Circular saw
  • Clamps
  • Combination square
  • Corded drill
  • Countersink drill bit
  • Drill bit set
  • Drill/driver - cordless
  • Dust mask
  • Extension cord
  • Framing square
  • Hammer
  • Hearing protection
  • Level
  • Miter saw
  • Orbital sander
  • Posthole digger
  • Safety glasses
  • Sawhorses
  • Screw gun
Also needs, Speed square, Tape measure, Utility knife, Wood chisel & Spring stick.