Shade Sail: The Perfect Pergola Topper for Your Patio

The shade sail has become an increasingly popular topper for patios and pergolas. This is because you can install one with minimal materials and enjoy maximum protection from harsh sunlight. 

Installing a canopy, as opposed to wooden joists or even a roof overhead, drastically reduces the time to build an outdoor structure. In addition, it reduces the project’s overall costs for parts and labor. 

Shade sail over wood pergola, seen from the side

About Shade Sails 

A shade sail is basically a piece of fabric that covers outdoor areas exposed to direct sunlight — but it’s much more than that. 

In addition to protecting you from ultraviolet rays, it adds color, flair and modern design with endless possibilities to any home.  You can choose from rectangular, square and triangular shapes — of various colors and sizes — to match your home’s style and the space that needs shade. 

And shade sail is very versatile. You can install just one piece of fabric, or overlap multiple canopies for a layered, designer’s look.  Now, are shade sails any good? Sure — but only if they do their main job, which is to protect you from the sun. Beware of cheap products that seem too good to be true; instead, look for heavy-duty fabric that blocks out at least 90 percent of UV rays.

And don’t forget about the wind and rain! Check the shade sail’s documentation before you buy, and make sure that it’s wind-resistant and waterproof.It’s also important to understand how to clean the product before you purchase it. It’s best to clean the shade sail as the seasons change, but you’ll need to do it at least once a year. 

Some shade sails are machine washable, but others require hand washing. Make sure you choose the option that matches your maintenance needs. 


Today's Homeowner crew installs a shade sail over a wood pergola

Installing Shade Sail on a Pergola

One of the more popular projects is to build a wooden pergola and add a shade sail instead of wooden joists. Here are some tips to ensure the project is a success. 

  • Choose a material. You need something that will stand up to the weather and resist termites. We like to use pressure-treated pine, but cedar and redwood may be good options depending on where you live.
  • Seal the wood before assembly. You want to keep the wood looking good, which means staining or sealing it. Cut all the pieces and apply the stain before assembly. It’s much easier to apply stain on a set of sawhorses at waist level than standing on a ladder 12 feet up in the air.
  • Assemble the structure’s vertical pieces. Wood structures are pretty heavy so make sure you have plenty of help. Make sure the posts are plumb and secure.
  • Install the horizontal pieces. We used a nail gun to tack each board in place and quickly get it into position. This buys you time to come in later and drive in long lag bolts to properly secure the beams without having to support their heavy weight.
  • Maximize the shade and minimize the footprint. We supported one end of this pergola with special brackets on the roof designed for that purpose. On the other end, we put the posts in place inside two planters, freeing up the entire patio surface.
  • Add the shade sail. Instead of mounting several wood joists overhead to create shade, we simplify things — and drastically reduce the project’s duration — and hang a shade sail from the pergola’s four corners. 

Learn more tips to enhance your outdoor lifestyle on Exmark’s Backyard Life page.


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