Stout & Stylish Garden Arbor

Elegant design and rock-solid router-cut joinery combine to make this outdoor structure the envy of the neighborhood.

Project Design by Alan Turner and Mario Rodriguez

Overall dimensions:  51" d x 71" w x 93¼" h

When spring blooms, many woodworkers turn their attention from the shop to the garden. This arbor—plus its matching gate—takes dead aim at both passions. Handsome but without excess adornment, this Arts and Crafts-inspired project provides an inviting entrance to a thoughtfully landscaped backyard or patio area. And with any of three complementary fence ideas, you can enclose a garden or contain Fido’s urge to romp and roam.

As a woodworking project, the arbor will teach you how to use your router with a few simple jigs to cut precise mortises and perfectly-shaped curves. Another surprising detail about this project is the shop-friendly subassemblies. Despite its impressive size, this arbor is designed so that you can build the parts when there’s still snow on the ground and quickly install it outside as soon as the weather allows.

Note: Both the arbor and gate were made from grade “D and better” western red cedar. Cedar is a natural choice for large outdoor structures because it’s lightweight, easy to work, and resistant to decay. To find suitable material, you may need to go to a specialty lumberyard. Pressure-treated pine, although less expensive and easier to find, isn’t recommended for this project. Treated wood can be brutal on bits and blades. If you go with straight “select and knotty” cedar from your local home center, you can build the arbor for under $300.  

Start with the arbor sides    

Note: Begin this project by making the mortising templates explained in “Shop-Made Mortising Jigs”. Then follow the steps below.

1 Crosscut the posts (A) and stretchers (D) to length plus 4". (Add the below-frost length if sinking the posts to provide better support for the gate. See the Cut List for dimensions and the sidebar below.) Now, thickness-plane these parts to square off the rounded corners. Working in 1/16"-deep increments, plane one post face, rotate the post 90°, and plane the adjacent edge. Plane all four post and two stretcher faces before lowering the cutting head. After removing the roundovers, the finished dimension should be 3¼" square.

2 Crosscut the freshly-squared posts (A) to 831/2". Include the frost-depth if appropriate.

Marking out all the mortises at once is faster than using a tape and eliminates the errors that can sneak in when making repetitive measurements.

Use a spade bit to hog out the waste material. Mark the mortise depth on the bit’s shank to avoid drilling too deeply.

3 Starting at 831/2" down from the top end of posts (A), mark the mortise locations shown on Figure 1. Next, clamp all four posts side-by-side, as shown in Photo A. Make sure that the ends are flush before transferring the mortise locations onto the remaining three posts.

4 Mortise the posts (A) using the “lower rung” and “upper rung” templates in Figure 2. Begin by aligning the appropriate template with your mortise marks and clamping it in place. Chuck a 7/8" spade bit into a drill and remove the bulk of the waste as shown in Photo B.


The length of the post (A) given in the Cut List assumes that you’re using a metal post base or post stake (refer to Figure 8) for post-footing options. If attaching the gate, setting the posts in concrete offers the most stable and permanent option. If you choose this method, buy posts that are long enough to be positioned below the frost line.

5 Next, chuck an upcut spiral bit (see the Convenience-Plus Buying Guide) into your hand-held router. Position the tool on the jig, turn it on, and plunge the mortising bit to full depth at the corners of the mortise; then raise the bit and rout from side to side in 1/4"-deep increments to clean up the mortise walls and bottom, as shown in Photo C. After routing the four mortises for the lower rungs, use the upper rung template to rout the remaining 16 mortises.

6 Referring to the Cutting Diagram, rip enough 2x6 stock to make eight 19" long upper rungs (B) and two lower rungs (C). Saw off the rounded corners before ripping the rungs to final Cut List width. (Cut an extra upper and lower rung to fine-tune the tenon-cutting setups.)

7 Crosscut rungs (B and C) to final length by clamping a stopblock to your mitersaw and making a test cut. Adjust as needed and make your cuts.

8 Cut the upper (B) and lower rung (C) tenon shoulders on the table saw by first drawing a line 1" in from the end of a test rung. Next, raise the blade height to 1/4" and adjust the rip fence so that your pencil line remains after you cut. Then, using your miter gauge, test-cut a tenon and check your work. The shoulder-to-end dimension should be exactly 1". Now, cut the shoulders on all of the upper rungs (B) and lower rungs (C) as shown in Photo D.

9 Cut the rung cheeks on the bandsaw by starting with your test rung. Adjust the bandsaw’s fence and attach a stopblock on it, as shown in Photo E, so that the blade cuts the cheek and the waste falls to the outside. Finally, round the edges of the tenons with a file (see the Buying Guide) so that they’ll slide into the mortises.

Butt the ends to each rung against the fence to ensure even tenon shoulders. Use a miter gauge to guide the rungs over the saw blade.

Bandsaw the cheeks so the waste falls away from the fence. Use a stopblock to control the length of cut.

10 Cut the tenons on the ends of posts (A). The length of the posts makes them too awkward to maneuver on the table saw, so instead, clamp all four posts together side-by-side, with the ends flush. Mark your tenon locations, and use a circ saw and straightedge to make the 5/8" deep cut as shown in Photo F. Turn the posts 90º and repeat the cut. Do all four post sides the same way.  Cut the cheeks as in Step 9 above.

11 Crosscut the top cross stretchers (D) to 51". Refer to the dimensions given in Figure 3 to make a pattern for the stretcher ends from 1/4"-thick hardboard. Trace the end pattern on both sides of each end. Next, cut out the curve using either a bandsaw or a jigsaw with a 6"-long blade. Finally, clean up your cut with rasps, files, and sandpaper.  Work from the outside edges toward the center to avoid chipping on the back edges.

12 Mark (don’t measure) the post mortises. The locations of the post mortises in the top cross stretcher (D) depend on the side assemblies. For the best fit, dry-assemble each side assembly and pull it tightly together with clamps. Center a top cross stretcher (D) between the two posts (A) and transfer the locations of the posts tenons onto the bottom face of the top cross stretcher (D). Repeat the assembly and marking process with the opposite side. Label each stretcher/side pairs so that they will be matched together later.

13 Rout the mortises in the top cross stretcher using the post mortising jigs.


To make the jigs, we used four 10 x 11" pieces of 1/4"-thick hardboard, a combination square, glue and finishing nails or 3/4"-long screws. When in use, the scrapwood cleats guide the router while the fence and clamps hold the jig in place on your work. The arbor requires four router mortising jigs: “Lower Rung,” “Upper Rung,” “Post,” and “Corner Bracket.” Build as shown and label each template to avoid confusion. Determine your router’s offset and mark that distance outside of your mortise lines. (The offset is the distance between the outside edge of your router’s base and the outside edge of your installed upcut spiral bit.) To do this, position the router so that the bit touches each inside corner of your mortise opening and draw a box around the penciled arcs to reveal the offset distance.

Next, attach the cleats to the base along the outside edges of the penciled box with glue and screws or finish nails. (As shown in Figure 2, open corners enable chips to fall free instead of clogging the jig.)

Finally, lay out a mock mortise on a piece of test scrap that matches the workpiece. Clamp the jig to the scrap and check that the mortise aligns with your layout lines. Make a test cut, following the instructions in step 4 and step 5 above.

Make the corner brackets

1 Make an enlarged copy of the corner bracket pattern from onlineEXTRAS. Adhere the pattern onto a 5 1/4"-wide piece of 1/4"-thick hardboard and bandsaw and sand it to shape. 

2 From 2x6 stock cut two corner bracket blanks for parts (E) to 18" long. Joint one edge of each piece to remove the round-overs and, using your mitersaw, cut one end of each blank at 35°.

3 Next, place the corner bracket pattern on the bracket blanks for parts (E), aligning the top tenon with the 35° line. Trace the bracket pattern onto both faces of each blank.

4 Make a stop for cutting the bottom tenon angle on the bracket blanks on a mitersaw. Add a toggle clamp hold-down for securing the bracket blank during the cutting operation. Position the workpiece, clamp the brace to the mitersaw fence, lower the hold-down, and make the cut as shown in Photo G. 

5 To cut the corner bracket (E) tenon cheeks,  install a 5/8" dado cutter set into your table saw and a sacrificial fence on your saw's fence. Set the cutter height to 1/4", and set the sacrificial fence 1" from the outside edge of the dado set. Now cut both ends of each corner bracket (E) to establish the tenon shoulders, as shown in Photo H.

Reset the fence, burying the blade in a sacrificial fence, to complete the ends of the tenon cheeks.

6 Locate, mark, and cut the bracket tenons to 2" wide as shown in Photo I. Now make the shoulder cuts, cutting to the line. Clean up the cuts with a chisel.

7 Bandsaw or jigsaw the curves on the corner brackets (E). Cut as close to the line as possible, and smooth with rasps and files or a spindle sander.

8 Assemble both side assemblies to locate the corner bracket mortises. Using the corner brackets, transfer the bracket mortise locations to the posts (A) and top cross stretchers (D). Disassemble the side assemblies and rout the mortises using the “Corner Bracket” mortising jig. After you’ve cut all eight mortises, resassemble the sides and test-fit the corner brackets. Label each bracket for later assembly.

Press the ends of the corner brackets against the fence to cut the angled tenons. The resulting tenon should be 1" thick.

Mark the width of the bracket tenons; then cut them to finished dimensions with a bandsaw or dovetail saw.

Make the bonnet ribs

Note: There are seven identical bonnet ribs (F). If drawn inside a rectangle, each would be approximately 143/4" wide by 71" long. Here you’ll see how to create a wider board from a 2x12  by reattaching cutoffs onto the bottom of your stock.

1 Make the template for the flared bonnet ribs (F) by attaching a 16 x 72" piece of  1/4 "-thick hardboard to your floor with double-faced tape. Then follow the 3-step layout sequence as shown in Figure 4. (A pair of trammel points will help, but in a pinch, you can get by with a 2"-wide strip of plywood, pencil, and finish nails.) After laying out the top and bottom curves, measure and mark the ends of the bonnet rib pattern and the notches (Figure 5). Cut out the template on your bandsaw, then carefully sand up to your layout lines to create a smooth, or fair, curve.

2 thickness 2x12 stock to 1" for the 1x12 bonnet ribs (f) and edge-joint one edge. Position the bonnet rib template on top of your rib stock as shown in Figure 6, so that the jointed edge runs along the bottom of the rib. (At this point, the template is still wider than your stock.) Using a bandsaw or jigsaw, cut the bottom curve about 1/8" to the waste side of your line.

3 Make two rectangles from the jointed bottom cutoffs and glue them using epoxy (see the Buying Guide) to the bottom corners of all seven rib blanks as shown in Figure 6.

4 Transfer the bonnet pattern onto the rib blanks. Give the ribs about 24 hours to fully cure; then remove the clamps and trace the rib pattern on your board. Cut the ends to finished length using a mitersaw set at 20°. Cut the top arc and the remaining portions of the bottom arc about 1/8"  outside of your pencil lines.

5 Rout half of the bonnet ribs (F). To avoid tear-out, always rout “downhill” to the grain. To succeed, you’ll need two bearing-guided router bits: a pattern routing bit with a top bearing and a flush-trim bit with a bottom-mounted bearing (see the Buying Guide). Begin the process by sticking the pattern on top of the rib blank and orienting the blank so that the bottom ends are pointing toward you. Now with your router and a pattern-routing bit, guide the bearing against the left-hand half of the arch bottom; then reposition the router and shape the right-hand half of the top. (Try to start and stop your cuts at or near the rib’s centerpoint so that the bit’s rotation doesn’t lift or tear out opposing grain.)

6 Finish routing the rest of the rib with a flush trim bit. Flip the rib (F) so that that pattern sits under your stock. Chuck a bottom-bearing flush trim bit into your router and trim the remaining two edges.

7 using the pattern, mark and then bandsaw or jigsaw the notch in the ribs.

8 Dado the top cross stretcher (D) to fit the bonnet ribs (F) by first placing two stretchers side-by-side. Referring to Figure 3, mark the location of the dadoes for both bonnet ribs at the same time with a square and pencil. Use a bonnet rib (F) to check that the dadoes are wide enough. Then use your table saw and dado cutter set, or router and straightedge guide, to cut the 1/2"-deep dadoes.

Assemble the arbor sides

The glue-up proceeds in two stages. The first creates the “ladder” assembly; the second adds the corner brackets (E) and top cross stretcher (D). Choose an epoxy with a long open time so you can make adjustments and arrange your clamps where needed.

1 Clean up your parts before glue-up. To lift dents, place a damp cloth over spot, then lightly run a hot iron over it. Lightly sand to 120 grit.

2 Next, glue the upper and lower rungs to the posts, placing the top cross stretcher (D) on the post tenons without glue to help maintain the squareness of the assembly. Center clamps across each rung and let the epoxy cure overnight.

3 Insert the corner brackets (E) in the posts (A), then clamp the top cross stretcher (D) in position as shown in Photo J. Repeat the process for the remaining side.

4 Assemble the arbor in your shop. Stand the two sides on the floor. To keep the sides from tipping, clamp a pair of 42"-long 2x4 spacers between the sides. Insert the bonnet ribs into the dados.

5 Screw the top cross stretcher (D) to the bonnet ribs (F). To do this, refer to Figure 1, and then drill a 13/64" hole at a 15° angle up through the bottom of each stretcher (D). Aim for the center of each rib (F) about 3/4" in from the inside edge. After drilling the pilot hole, use a 3/8" twist drill to create a 1/2"-deep counterbore in the stretcher (D). This allows the screw to be countersunk well out of sight. Drill a 1/8" pilot hole about 2" into the bottom of each bonnet rib (F). Mark the ribs before disassembly so that they can be matched to their dadoes.

6 Finish your arbor. Stain or paint the arbor after final assembly and drilling, but before installation. A good defense is an-oil based exterior primer, gray (see the Buying Guide), followed by an acrylic deck paint.

Set in the footings and install the arbor

If you want your arbor to last, make sure you set it on solid footing. If you’re not planning to build the gate, metal post stakes, as shown in Figure 8, are a quick and easy way to set the posts. A concrete footing would offer more support to the arbor frame, and is recommended if you intend to include a gate and/or fence.

Note: Digging even a small misplaced hole can disrupt service to an entire neighborhood, or kill you. An easy—and free—way to avoid such risks is by calling 811. This call will connect you with a professional utility locator who will mark out nearby utility lines so that you know where it’s safe to locate your arbor.

Use a scrapwood positioning jig to mark the exact locations for the bolt-down standoffs or to adjust the height of the post stakes.
Tip the arbor sides in place. Use a helper or attach a scrapwood brace before attaching the bonnet ribs.

Set the bonnet ribs in the dadoes carefully to keep touch-up painting to a minimum. Screw them in place.

1 Referring to the footing placement frame in Figure 7, screw together a jig from scrap lumber and left over post stock, matching the dimensions of your arbor. Use the frame to level the tops, as shown in Photo K.

2 Set the arbor sides in the post stakes, as shown in Photo L. You’ll need to insert shims into the post stakes or standoffs to account for the wood you removed when squaring the posts (A).

3 Set the bonnet ribs (F) into the top cross stretchers (D), as shown in Photo M. To avoid chuck damage to the corner brackets, use 6" long drill bits, (see the Buying Guide). Drive a 4"-long #9-size deck screw through the stretcher and into the bonnet ribs to pull the arbor together. 

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