Traditionally, the solution to the lack-of-shade problem has been to intertwine trailing plants or vines, such as grapevines, jasmine, or wisteria. But plants take time to train upward, and many homeowners don't like the shedding leaves and debris. Plus, trailing plants still don't cover the middle sections of the pergola.
The low-cost solution for many homeowners is a retractable pergola canopy. Building a do-it-yourself retractable pergola canopy is a moderately easy, low-cost way to provide an instant cover for your structure.
What Is a Retractable Pergola Canopy?
With a retractable canopy, the fabric is attached to support boards that slide along tensioned stainless steel cables called wire ropes. Large eye screws do the sliding and make easy work of extending and retracting the canopy.
When retracted, this DIY pergola canopy tucks neatly away at one end of the structure. When extended, the canopy shades the areas in graceful drapes.
Pergola Canopy Pros and Cons
Retractable pergola canopies have distinct benefits—but it's important to know about their limitations, as well, before embarking on the project.
Relatively simple to build
Uses basic materials
Easy to open and close
Ineffective against rain
Stitching may be required
May blow off in high winds
Translucent—not complete shade
Equipment / Tools
- Drill and driver bits
- Wrench set
- Staple gun
- Tape measure
- Carpenter's pencil
- Speed Square or another squaring tool
- Cordless drill
- 6-foot step ladder
- Power miter saw
- Sewing machine (optional)
- Wire cutters
- Canopy fabric
- 2x2 Cedar boards as long or longer than the width of the pergola (quantity varies)
- 6 #4 2 1/4-inch zinc-plated steel eye screws
- 50 #10 Eye screws
- 3 Hook-and-end style stainless steel turnbuckles, each 1/4-inch x 5 1/4-inch
- 2 5 1/2-inch dock cleats and included hardware
- Stainless steel uncoated wire rope (stainless steel cable),1/8-inch thick
- 6 Wire rope thimbles and wire rope clamps, all compatible with 1/8-inch wire rope
- 2 2 1/2-inch screws
- 1/8-inch diameter Nylon rope (quantity varies)
- Tailor's chalk (optional)
Select a Canopy Fabric
The best canopy fabric for your pergola will vary depending on a number of factors, including the weather in your area and your shade preference.
- Sailcloth: Water-resistant, durable, and attractive, 100-percent acrylic or nylon ripstop sailcloth is a favorite choice for do-it-yourselfers building pergola canopies. Look for sailcloth in 6-foot widths. Sailcloth is colorfast and dries quickly.
- Mesh privacy screen: UV-rated polypropylene mesh is often used as a privacy screen for fencing. Highly durable and available in only a few basic colors, one benefit of mesh privacy screen is that does not collect water. Privacy mesh screen offers only partial shading.
- Muslin or linen: Muslin and linen are 100-percent organic fabrics that loosely drape for a casual, gorgeous coastal look. Use these fabrics only in dry conditions, as both readily soak up moisture and dry slowly. Muslin and linen are not durable in exterior conditions and usually are only good for one season.
Size the Canopy Fabric
When fully extended, the canopy must be the size of the pergola's area, plus at least 20-percent longer to accommodate draping. Heavier cloth such as sailcloth will sag more; muslin and linen will sag less. Determine the look you wish to achieve when the canopy is extended. Tighter cloth has a trim, finished look. Cloth with deeper sags gives your pergola an airy, fanciful look. Find the area of your pergola by multiplying its length by its width.
Stitch the Canopy Fabric (Optional)
Since the canopy fabric rarely will come in widths that match your pergola's width, decide whether you want to stitch together separate canopy strips or leave them separate.
For example, a 12-foot wide pergola would require two strips of fabric, each 6 feet wide. Use a sewing machine to sew the two runs of canopy fabric together. Sailcloth is too thick to sew comfortably by hand, but muslin and linen can be manually sewn. Many do-it-yourselfers prefer the look of separate canopy strips.
Cut the Canopy Support Bars
The canopy support bars will be attached to the top of the canopy with staples, and the bars will slide along the wire ropes on eye screws.
With a power miter saw, cut 2x2 boards to the width of the canopy. Generally, plan on one board for about every 18 inches of the canopy's length, though the exact spacing is up to you. Increasing the number of boards creates a scalloped, ribbed look. Fewer boards produce larger, lower drapes.
Stain the Support Bars (Optional)
Cedar wood naturally weathers to a silvery-gray color and its oils keep it protected for many years. But if you would like added protection or a different look, you may choose to treat the cedar boards with semi-transparent stain or solid color stain.
Attach the Support Bars to the Canopy
Stretch the canopy out on a clean surface. Using the tape measure and tailor's chalk or a carpenter's pencil, lightly mark intended support bar locations along the sides of the canopy. For the canopy to slide properly, the support bars must be parallel to each other and all bars should be perpendicular to the sides of the canopy. Support bars should be located at each extreme end of the canopy, as well. At each pair of marks, slide a support bar under the canopy and staple the canopy to the bar. Repeat for every set of marks.
Install the Eye Screws on the Pergola
Install the six eye screws on top of the support beams, three on one beam and three on the opposite beam. The support beams are the pergola's chief horizontal carrying beams. They are not the top-most lattice (designed to host trailing plants), nor are they the beams directly below the lattice. The support beams are the ones that rest on the vertical posts.
Using a ladder, drill three equidistant pilot holes on one beam, slightly smaller in diameter than the eye screws. Position the holes as high as possible, while maintaining a 1-inch space above the holes so that the canopy will clear any supports directly above. Screw the three eye screws into place. Repeat for the opposite side.
Cut the Wire Rope
Cut the wire rope into three lengths. Each length of wire rope should be equal to the distance between the two sets of eye bolts, plus another 10-percent, minimum.
Install the Wire Rope on the Eye Screws
Fit a thimble through one of the eye screws. Slide the end of one of each wire rope through the eye screw and over the thimble. At the other end of the wire rope, fit a clamp over the rope and slide it up to the thimble area.
With a wrench, tighten down the wire rope so that it forms a tight loop over the thimble. Repeat for the other two wire ropes and eye screws.
Install the Eye Screws on the Support Bars
Stretch out the canopy and lay it on a clean surface. You may wish to install the canopy so that the support bars are either above or below the canopy fabric. Installing the bars above the fabric gives the cover a clean look that emphasizes the draping. Installing the bars below the fabric means that the bars will be visible from below. This is a stronger attachment since the support bars, not just staples, are holding up the fabric.
Attach three of the #10 eye screws on top of every support bar. Space the eye screws so that they match the spacing of the three eye screws you previously installed on the pergola. Be sure to drill pilot holes to avoid cracking the wood.
Size the Wire Ropes and Attach Turnbuckles
Extend each of the turnbuckles out as far as they will go by turning the two ends counter-clockwise to each other. Attach the three turnbuckles with the hook end to the three remaining eye screws on the pergola. Extend the free end of each wire rope to the eye end of the turnbuckles to get a general sense of where to cut the ends. Add 4 inches to your measurement and cut there, using wire cutters.
Slide the Canopy on the Wire Ropes
With a helper, thread each of the three wire ropes through the corresponding eye screws attached to the support bars.
Attach Thimbles and Clamps to the Wire Ropes
Attach the remaining thimbles and clamps to the ends of the wire ropes, in order to connect them to the eye end of the turnbuckles. Secure the hook ends of the turnbuckles to the pergola eye bolts. Turn the turnbuckles clockwise to tighten the wire ropes. Make them as taut as possible.
Secure One End of the Canopy
Since one end of the canopy will always remain in place, you will need to secure it so that it does not move. Drive 2 1/2-inch screws horizontally through the end-most, non-operable support bar to attach it to the pergola's vertical posts.
Attach the Cleats to the Support Posts
At the far end of the pergola, attach the two cleats to two of the pergola vertical supports, about 48 inches high.
Attach the Drawstring to the Canopy End
Cut two pieces of nylon rope, each the length of your pergola, plus another 4 feet. Tie each to the end support bar, one at each end. Drape each drawstring over a horizontal support beam at the end of the pergola.
Pull the drawstrings down in order to move the pergola canopy horizontally and extend it. Loop the drawstrings around the cleats to hold in place.