Building a Bentwood Trellis From Scratch
By Jim Long
Building a bentwood trellis is easy with these step-by-step instructions.
Nothing combines nature’s beauty and functionality more gracefully than a rustic bentwood trellis in your garden. The natural beauty of bentwood, the texture of the bark and twigs, blend perfectly with growing things.
A bentwood project is a great way to recycle materials that would likely otherwise be wasted. Rather than a plastic trellis, which uses fossil fuels to manufacture, or lumber trellises, which use tree resources, why not consider building a bentwood trellis on your own? If you can use the simple tools listed on page 25 of this issue, you can make a trellis. I’ve taught all age groups in my trellis workshops, from children to older adults. Everyone can make a trellis, given the basics of how to put it together.
The first question people usually ask me is where they can find the wood. The answer to that is simpler than most people expect.
It’s everywhere. I’ve found trellis wood growing in empty, abandoned lots in the city. In alleyways and behind stores are good places to look as well. Once I found enough trellis wood growing out of the cracks in the parking lot of a television station in Detroit to make a trellis for an on-air interview.
In rural areas, you’ll find trellis wood growing in fencerows (ask before cutting), and along roadsides (also check local regulations about cutting from roadsides). I’ve found it in areas where farmers were glad to have the “brush” cleared out. When you actually start looking, plenty of trellis wood is available just about any place you live.
For the wood, you need freshly cut, green (meaning live) wood. For the bent sections, pieces should be cut no more than about 24 hours before you are going to use them.
All sorts of wood can work. Some types last longer than others, but the bottom line in making a trellis is to choose wood that bends. You don’t have to be able to distinguish one kind of wood from another — oak from hickory, for example. You just need to know if it will bend without breaking. If it bends, it’s trellis wood; if it breaks, it isn’t.
You’ll need only a few simple tools you likely have around the house:
- A medium-sized carpenter’s hammer that is comfortable in your hands
- A pair of hand pruners for cutting twigs and limbs
- A pair of loppers for cutting the larger pieces
- Some assorted nails that are long enough to go through two pieces of wood with a little leftover to bend
- A pair of pliers for cutting and twisting wire
- Several lengths of black 16-gauge “tie” wire (available at any lumber or hardware store)
The trellis will be about 5 feet high. Note that the fresh green twigs for the structure of the trellis should be a bit bigger at the large end than a broom handle. The mistake most people make with their first trellis is in getting green limbs or twigs that are too small, which results in a wimpy-looking trellis. You will need:
- 2 fresh green limbs, about 8 feet long and flexible enough to bend into an arch, larger on the bottom end than a broom handle
- 4 limbs 36-48 inches long, also bigger around than a broom handle
- 1 upright piece, 6-7 feet long
- Several smaller, assorted flexible limbs, 3-5 feet long, for decoration, about the size of your index finger
Step 1: Lay out the two longest uprights. Then lay a crosspiece across the bottom, about 16 inches from the bottom ends and nail it in place, as shown in the illustration.
The crosspiece should extend beyond the uprights about 12 inches on each end.
Step 2: Attach a second crosspiece about 28 inches from the first and nail it in place. Then turn the trellis over and wire the four joints with the black tie wire as shown.
Note: It’s recommended that you both nail and wire the primary joints of the trellis. The nails should be bent over before you wire the joints. Because the wood is freshly cut and green, it will shrink about 25 percent in about 10 days. The nails and the wire together ensure everything stays securely in place.
Step 3: Now you are ready to make the arch, which will be the top of your bentwood trellis. Cut three or four pieces of tie-wire with the pliers, about 5-6 inches long, and keep them within reach. Bend one of the longer uprights over, holding it while you bend the other in place. (You might need someone to help you hold these two while you are wiring them together). Bend the two sides together, making a visually pleasing arch. Hold them together and wire in about three places to hold the arch in place.
Tighten the wires securely.
You now should have a rectangular shape with an arch at the top. This is the basic structure of the trellis. Make sure all your nails are bent over (the nails should go through both pieces of wood and be long enough to bend over; this helps tighten the trellis). Each of the four places where two pieces of wood cross should also be securely wired over the nails.
Step 4: Place a long upright piece in the center of your trellis. Nail it to the crosspieces and wire at the top where it crosses the arch. It should now look like the illustration.
Step 5: Next, add the decorative pieces. For this project, I’ve added a second and third crosspiece, one at the bottom (4-5 inches above the first one you nailed in place) and another 4-5 inches below the top crosspiece. See illustration. Nail and wire these pieces in place.
Step 6: Add small twigs in an “X” pattern at the bottom, wiring or nailing in place and add a “V” at the top. Your trellis is now ready to install.
Step 7: To install your trellis, drive two pieces of wood or small (24-30-inch) metal garden posts into the ground directly behind the two uprights. Set the trellis level on the ground next to the two posts and wire it securely in place.
Your trellis is now ready for planting with your favorite vines. Suggested vines include: sweet peas, cardinal climber, morning glories, pole beans, Gem of India nasturtium and others.
Illustrations are from the author’s book, How to Make Romantic Bentwood Garden Trellises, which can be ordered directly from him. Go to www.Grit.com/Contributors to visit Jim’s website and to check out photos of more trellises and projects. Email your questions or suggestions for our In the Shop department to IntheShop @ Grit.com.
Question: Can you use grapevine to make a trellis?
Answer: The short answer might be yes, but you won’t be happy with the results. When grapevine dries, it has virtually no strength and will break easily. Additionally, grapevines grow in several directions, (rather than just straight up, as saplings do) making it difficult to work with on a trellis. Grapevines are the least desirable material for making a trellis.
Question: What kinds of wood will work for trellises?
Answer: Basically, anything that will bend (with the exception of grapevine). Native cedar/juniper is especially nice to use, as is hickory, birch, cottonwood, willow saplings and even bamboo. The wood should be cut no more than 24 hours before you make your trellis. Green, living wood works best. Choose saplings that are flexible and that can be bent into an arch without breaking.
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