Trellis-making: It's a snap, if you stick to it

Homeowners may know next to nothing about making rustic garden structures and furniture, but when it comes to gathering sticks, people know what appeals to them, says craftsman Frank Hamm.

"People have a particular preference for sticks of a certain shape, diameter, color, or texture," according to Mr. Hamm, who teaches workshops for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

The good news is that just about anything goes in the realm of rustic yard accessories.

When teaching trellis-making, Hamm provides a simple diagram of a finished trellis, but hardly anyone tries to copy it exactly. Students adopt his suggestions for the basic structure, then follow their own artistic bent.

Hamm does not have a woodworking background and is convinced that none is needed to craft basic garden furniture. He is confident that even novices - female or male - can make wonderful trellises their first time out. And they can accomplish it in just 4-1/2 hours, he says.

Only a handful of basic tools are required: hammer, saw, tape measure, and drill.

"The mechanics are straightforward: Drill a hole, hammer a nail," he says. "What you get to do is create something you think is beautiful and functional in half a day."

Saplings often make good decorative arches, or bentwood parts. He suggests that you collect branches shortly after they've fallen, because wood lying on the ground begins to rot.

Especially for bowed trellis pieces, it's important for the wood to be green. A narrow green ring just inside the bark indicates the presence of sap and water, important to resiliency.

How to make a trellis

Select branches and tree cuttings. The greener the wood the better, so it won't break when bent.

For the basic framework, choose straight pieces, lopping off smaller branches at the base. The two main uprights should be 5-feet long and about 1-1/2 inches in diameter. Three rungs should each measure 20-inches long and have a 3/4- to 1-inch diameter. A pruning saw is good for cutting thick pieces to length. Hand pruners work for smaller diameters. Because of wood sap, avoid using fine-quality carpentry or woodworking saws.

Place the uprights on the ground, parallel to one another. Then lay the rungs on top, spacing them evenly. The ends of the rungs generally are in line with the outside edge of the upright, but it's OK if they extend past it.

Before connecting uprights and rungs, place a flat, solid object, such as a flat stone, under the joint (a garage floor or picnic table are other good work surfaces). This makes nailing easier. Then, with a power drill or brace and bit, predrill a pilot hole in the rung only. The hole should be the same size as the galvanized finishing nails (the weather-proofed kind without flat heads). This helps to ensure proper placement and lessens the potential for splitting. The nail should be long enough to penetrate halfway or more into the upright below it (Jim Long, a bentwood builder, recommends nailing all the way through and bending the point over with your hammer or pliers so it doesn't stick out).

Remember to keep the pieces at a right angle. To prevent swiveling, it's helpful to use two nails. But be careful, because too much nailing may weaken or split the wood. Where pieces cross, wrapping the joint with wire adds strength. As with the nails, using galvanized wire is a protection against rust. The lengths of wire should be long enough to secure the ends by twisting them together with pliers. Start with more than enough, then trim off the excess with wire cutters.

As the wood dries, it will shrink. Therefore, in about two weeks, recheck the joints to see if any need tightening.

When making arches or other bowed elements, gather freshly cut thin pieces and bend wood slowly, working each section of the arch to stretch the wood fibers.

Securing the top arch may require an extra pair of hands, or at least someone to hold the piece in place while you check its appearance for nailing and/or wiring.

In attaching smaller trim and decorative pieces that give the trellis its distinctive character, the wood and one's imagination become the guides. Mr. Hamm, who likes to use forked branches, says the wood should be "a full partner in the design."

One suggestion Mr. Long offers in working with the smaller pieces, such as those woven into lattices, is to nail everything larger than your little finger and wire everything else.

Trellises aren't heirlooms. They may not last much beyond three or four years.

Some people might try to extend a piece's life by applying water sealer. Hamm doesn't bother, not when it's so fun and easy to make a new trellis.

*Long's booklet, "How to Make Romantic Bentwood Garden Trellises," is a succinct introduction to working with tree limbs, saplings, and trimmings. It's published by Long Creek Herbs, Route 4, Box 730, Oak Grove, AK 72660.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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