How to Build a DIY Retractable Pergola Canopy

Retractable DIY Pergola Canopy or Slide Wire Shade

Ralf Geithe/Getty Images

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 4 - 6 hrs
  • Total Time: 4 - 6 hrs
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $150 to $400

A pergola is a fantastic addition to a yard, deck, or patio, lending an architectural flair to your landscape. But one thing that a pergola does not provide is adequate shade. 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, some trailing plants may not 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 way to provide an instant cover for your structure, at a fraction of the cost of commercial canopies.

What Is a Retractable Canopy?

With this retractable canopy design, the fabric is attached to horizontal 2x2 support boards, which slide along tensioned stainless steel cables, called wire ropes, which are hung from the pergola's horizontal support beams. When retracted, this DIY pergola canopy tucks neatly away at one end of the structure. When extended, the canopy shades the underlying area in graceful drapes.

What to Consider Before Building a Retractable Canopy

Retractable pergola canopies have distinct benefits—but it's important to know about their limitations before embarking on the project. Among the advantages of building your own DIY retractable canopy:

  • Cost is quite low compared to commercial canopies, which usually are installed by a custom installation team.
  • It is relatively simple to build this version, using basic materials available at home centers.
  • This canopy is easy to open and close, without the tricky mechanical gears and pulleys that commercial canopies feature.

But also keep in mind some drawbacks:

  • This design is ineffective against rain.
  • It can be susceptible to damage in high winds.
  • Semi-translucent fabric doesn't create complete shade.


If you're not mechanically inclined, hiring someone to assemble a product such as a retractable pergola canopy might save you frustration and time.

Working With Fabric

Depending on the size of your canopy, it's possible that you'll need to stitch together two or more pieces of fabric to adequately cover your pergola. If so, this project will require some ability to use a sewing machine, as well as the basic DIY construction skills needed to install the support bars and wire ropes.

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. Your options include:

  • Sailcloth: Water-resistant, durable, and attractive, 100-percent acrylic or nylon ripstop sailcloth is a favorite choice for do-it-yourselfers building pergola canopies. 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 a mesh privacy screen is that does not hold water. But 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.

Working with Wire Rope Hardware

Suspending the wire ropes that will serve as cables for the canopy is done with a special type of hardware, known as a thimble-and-wire rope fitting. The process involves first threading the horseshoe-shaped metal thimble (which bears no resemblance to a sewing thimble) onto a screw eye anchored to the pergola's beam. Then, the wire rope is fed through the screw eye so it fits into the groove of the thimble. Last, the free end of the wire rope is doubled back onto itself and secured with a specially designed clamp. This type of hardware is necessary since the wire ropes will be stretched between beams under tension.

This hardware is stocked along with other metal cable fittings in your hardware store or home center and is also available from online retailers.

When to Build a DIY Retractable Canopy

A retractable canopy is appropriate in situations where you want to enjoy sunny conditions some of the time but also want the ability to block the sun at other times. For example, you may want to grow potted plants but also want the ability to provide temporary shade when it's time for entertaining. A retractable awning is ideal for such multi-purpose spaces.

An ideal time for the construction of this retractable canopy is on a dry, coolish day when winds are minimal. A day that is cloudy (though not rainy) might be preferable, as you'll be looking up upward into the sun much of the time as you build and hang the canopy. A bright sunny day in midsummer can be both blinding and unpleasantly hot for outdoor construction work, while a mild, overcast spring day can be ideal.

What You'll Need

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 or circular saw
  • Sewing machine (if needed)
  • Wire cutters
  • Paintbrush (if needed)


  • Canopy fabric
  • 2x2 cedar boards as long or longer than pergola width (quantity varies)
  • 6 #4, 2 1/4-inch zinc-plated steel eye screws
  • #10 eye screws (quantity varies
  • 3 Hook-and-end style stainless steel turnbuckles, 1/4-inch x 5 1/4-inch
  • 2 5 1/2-inch dock cleats with mounting hardware
  • 1/8-inch-diameter stainless steel uncoated wire rope
  • 6 Thimbles and cable clamps for 1/8-inch wire rope
  • 2 2 1/2-inch corrosion-resistant screws
  • 1/8-inch nylon rope (quantity varies)
  • Tailor's chalk (optional)
  • Wood stain (if desired)


  1. 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.


    Sailcloth can normally be ordered from a sailmaker's supply outlet in widths up to 60 inches. For mesh privacy screening, shop at a big box home center or landscape supply specialty store; widths of 4, 5, and 6 feet are standard. For muslin or linen, a fabric store is your best bet.

  2. Stitch the Canopy Fabric (Optional)

    Since the canopy fabric rarely will come in widths that match your pergola's width, you'll need to 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. You can 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. Another option is to run two or more separate canopy strips attached to the support bars, without stitched seams.

  3. Cut the Canopy Support Bars

    The canopy fabric will be stabled to 2x2 cedar supports bars, which will then be suspended from support wires using eye screws that allow the canopy to slide back and forth.

    With a power miter saw or circular 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.

  4. 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.

    Let the stain dry fully before proceeding to the next step.

  5. Attach the Support Bars to the Canopy

    To attach the canopy fabric to the support bars:

    • Stretch the canopy out on a clean surface.
    • Using a tape measure and tailor's chalk or a carpenter's pencil, lightly mark intended support bar locations along the edges of the canopy fabric. 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 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.


    Make sure to use galvanized wire staples to secure the canopy fabric to the supports, as they will resist corrosion better than standard steel staples.

  6. Install the Eye Screws on the Pergola

    Next, you'll install the six eye screws on the support beams, three on one beam and three on the opposite beam. The support beams are the pergola's chief horizontal load-carrying beams, often 2x6 or 2x8 lumber, upon which the upper structure rests. They are not the top-most lattice (designed to host trailing plants), nor are they the cross members (joists) directly below the lattice. The support beams are the structural members that rest on (or are bolted to) 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 slide freely and clear any structural components directly above. Screw the three eye screws fully into place. Repeat for the opposite side.

  7. 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 pairs of eye screws, plus another 10 percent, minimum, to allow for looping around the eye screws and securing with clamps.

  8. Install the Wire Rope on the Eye Screws

    Looping the ends of the wire ropes around the screw eyes is a somewhat tricky operation:

    • First, fit a cable thimble through one of the eye screws, then slide the end of one of each wire rope through the eye screw and over the cable thimble so it fits into the thimble's groove.
    • At the other end of the wire rope, fit a cable clamp over the rope and slide it up to the thimble area so both strands of the wire rope are threaded through the clamp's opening.
    • With a wrench, tighten down the clamp so that the wire rope forms a tight loop over the thimble.
    • Repeat for the other two wire ropes and eye screws.

    The three wire ropes should now be anchored to the support beam at one end of the pergola, with the opposite ends of the wire ropes still hanging free.

  9. Install the Eye Screws on the Support Bars

    Stretch out the canopy and lay it on a clean surface. The canopy can be oriented so that the wooden 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 beams. Be sure to drill pilot holes to avoid cracking the wood.

  10. Trim 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.

  11. Slide the Canopy onto the Wire Ropes

    With a helper, thread each of the three wire ropes through the corresponding eye screws attached to the support bars.

  12. Attach Thimbles and Clamps to the Wire Ropes

    Attach the remaining thimbles and clamps to the free 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.


    Lifting the canopy up as you secure the turnbuckles onto the eye bolts can be an awkward process. Having a helper or two assisting will make this work considerably easier.

  13. Secure One End of the Canopy

    Since one end of the canopy will always remain in place, you will need to secure the end support bar so that it does not move. Drive 2 1/2-inch screws horizontally through the ends of the support bar to attach it to the pergola's vertical posts.

  14. Attach the Deck Cleats to the Support Posts

    At the far end of the pergola, attach a deck cleat to the inside face of each of the pergola's two posts, about 4 feet above the bottom of the post.

  15. 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.

    Pulling the drawstrings down will move the pergola canopy horizontally along the wire ropes to extend it. Loop the drawstrings around the cleats to hold them in place. Retracting the canopy will involve removing the drawstrings from around the cleats, and sliding the canopy back to the fixed end by hand.

Retractable Canopy Tips

To keep it looking nice, you should expect to replace your canopy fabric every few years, as exposure to wind, rain, and sun is sure to age the fabric. In colder climates where a deck or patio is not used during the winter months, you may want to take down the canopy and store it for the winter—or drape it with a protective plastic tarp over the winter.