Do-It-Yourselfer Can Save on Cost of Covering Up Topless Patio

Times Staff Writer

As the summer sun starts pounding down, a homeowner's thoughts often turn to patio covers and the blessed shade they offer.

But while there is hardly a home in Southern California without a patio or deck, there are quite a few Southland patios and decks that go topless--sometimes by choice but more often because the cost of having a professional build one is prohibitive and the idea of doing it yourself is too daunting.

Building your own patio cover isn't that difficult, however.

Ron Ming, of Ming Tree Wood Designs, has been in the patio cover business for 17 years and confesses that he couldn't drive a nail when he started--and still isn't very good at it. But he is good at designing and erecting covers, so good that while he works by referral only-- no advertising, not even a listing in the Yellow Pages, and no sign on the door--he is booked weeks in advance.

Ming, who figures he has put up about 700 patio covers (he also builds decks and gazebos) all over Orange County, said he learned long ago "that you can't get every job, and shouldn't even try," is comfortable enough in his profession that he gladly shares his talents with do-it-yourselfers in a series of classes he teaches each year through Ganahl Lumber Co. in Anaheim.

In those classes, Ming--who spent 15 years in the grocery business before striking out on his own as a deck and patio covering builder--reviews and, if necessary, reworks or improves students' designs, helps them figure out how much of what kinds of materials they will need and shares the tips he has gleaned in his successful career.

"The hardest part of building a patio cover," he says, "is the design. To have a good-looking patio cover, you have to match the style and look of your home, and a lot of people don't seem to be able to do that."

Thus, rule No. 1 according to Ming: If you live in a Spanish or Mediterranean-styled home with heavy, rough-sawn wood trim, don't use smooth redwood 4-by-4s for the posts and beams of a patio cover. Use rough 6-by-6s at the minimum for the posts and 6-by-8s or even 6-by-12s for the beams to match the style of the house. And if you live in a trim Victorian-style home, use smooth wood in smaller dimensions to match that more genteel look.

Ming's rule No. 2 for the do-it-yourselfer is to design a project that can be done with the tools and budget that is available.

"Don't plan something that you will do in several stages because you'll end up with a half-done job. And either spend the money to buy the tools you'll need or plan a less ambitious project that you can do with the tools you have. Because you can't do a proper job without the proper tools, period."

For most patio covers, that means a sturdy shovel to dig footings for the posts, a 7 1/2-inch power circular saw (or larger, if you have one), a top-quality hand saw, a good hammer, a power drill and an assortment of wood and masonry drill bits. It is also helpful to have a wheelbarrow in which to mix the concrete for the footings.

Rule No. 3 is to make sure your design conforms to the applicable city or county building codes and, if necessary, is approved by your homeowners association.

And then comes rule No. 4, violations of which account for most of the mistakes Ming has seen and been called to fix over the years: Understand the characteristics of the wood with which you are working.

You don't need an advanced degree in woodworking, Ming says, just a little common sense and the willingness to ask questions at your local lumberyard. (Ming strongly suggests buying your lumber and hardware from a regular lumberyard rather than from a home improvement center or discount warehouse. The quality of the wood and the advice generally is better, he says.)

For most patio covers, Ming recommends Douglas fir, which can be ordered smooth or rough-sawn. Fir needs to be painted or stained to match the wood trim on the house, he said, but is considerably less expensive than redwood or cedar.

Redwood should never be used if it is going to be painted a light color because the tannin that gives it its color will leach out and discolor the paint.

If you are using a wood that won't be painted, treat it with a clear preservative, sometimes called a water sealant.

And Ming suggests painting, staining or sealing before cutting the lumber to length and building the cover. That way, only the cut ends, nail heads and scrapes and scratches need to be touched up once the job is done.

The most common mistake Ming sees as he surveys patio covers others have built is too much unsupported or unbraced overhang on the slats that top off the patio cover.

"People forget that most wood today is wet and green and has a tendency to twist and warp as it dries out if it isn't fastened. The shade slats shouldn't hang over the edge of the last joist by more than 10 inches unless you nail a fascia panel across the front to brace them. Otherwise, they'll end up warping and pointing off in all different directions." (Illustration A.)

Building a patio cover with a solid roof is one way to avoid that problem, but it increases the costs tremendously and, said Ming, is seldom done anymore.

"In 17 years, I've only built a handful that were solid. They make the inside of a house too dark because they provide too much shade," he said. "The weather here is too nice for a solid roof in most cases."

Instead, most people use 2-by-3-inch slats, spaced to give the desired amount of shade. Wide spacing permits more direct sunlight to get through while narrow spacing provides more shade.

And aligning the slats so they run at right angles to the path of the sun will provide more shade and more filtering of the sunlight than aligning them parallel with the sun's path. (Illustration A.)

Other pointers from Ming:

When attaching the ledger joist to the wall of your house, use a minimum lag bolt size of 3/8-by-5 inches and always fasten into a wall stud or the header over your patio doors. Do not use toggle bolts or other hollow-wall hangers because the stucco or wood siding of your house alone is not strong enough to support the cover. The ledger joist is the same depth as the other joists, but need be only two inches wide. Thus, if you are using 4-by-8 or 6-by-8 joists on the rest of the cover, use a 2-by-8 ledger. (Illustration B.)

Use a paintable latex or acrylic silicone caulk to seal the joint where the ledger joist meets the wall of your house. This keeps rain water from running between the wall and the inside surface of the joist.

Any time you support a joist from a notched end, the overall strength of the joist is reduced. Thus, a 4-by-8 with a 4-by-4 notch is no stronger than a 4-by-4 and won't pass inspection if your city code calls for anything stronger. (Illustration C)

Use good-quality, heavy-duty metal joist hangars and post supports when building your patio cover. They are what hold it all up, and skimping there is a false economy.

If you are going to plant vines to grow on the patio cover, choose plants that are light and airy because dense foliage will hold moisture and promote wood rot.

TIPS ON BUILDING A PATIO COVER

Shade slats at right angles to the path of the sun will provide more shade Shade slats shouldn't extend unsupported more than 10 inches beyond the edge unless you nail a facia panel across the front to brace them. Otherwise they'll warp. Facia panel nailed to shade slats Ledger joist is the same height as the other joists, but needs to be only 2 inches wide Thus, if you are using 6-by-8-inch joints on the rest of the cover, use a 2-by-8-inch ledger A 4-by-8 joist with a 4-by-4 notch is no stronger than a 4-by-4 and may not pass inspection Use good quality, heavy-duty metal joist hangers and post supports

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