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Crafting a Copper Trellis


One day a good number of years ago, while visiting a local herb nursery, we came upon a free-standing copper trellis structure in their display garden. Impressed, we decided to try our own hand at creating one. Since we hadn't carefully studied the construction of the original, the recreation process was rather improvisational. It's been a while, but I'll try to recollect for you how we put it together.

First, we decided how big the trellis should be - in our case, about seven foot tall (on the straight end), and about 18 inches square. Also, we decided on a spoke-to-spoke spacing - about 14 inches. That determined the length of copper pipe we needed:

  • four times seven foot for the uprights: 28 ft
  • five times two cross-pieces, at 18" each: 15 ft

The copper pipe comes in ten-foot lengths, in various diameters and wall thicknesses. For our structure, we chose half-inch pipe in the lightest gauge. Since we needed a total of 43 ft, we got five lengths, to have some room for errors and waste.

We also needed twenty (five times four) copper tees, and four copper unions and some copper tubing for the rounded bits up top. The bendable tubing comes on a roll - one roll should easily suffice for this job.

Some other things you'll need to put the structure together:

  • piping cutter
  • soldering tin
  • soldering flux
  • propane torch

Use the piping cutter (a hacksaw will do if you don't have one) to cut the lengths of copper pipe. For our example, we need twentyfour (four times six) 14" pieces for the uprights, and ten (five times two) 18" crosspieces.

Now comes the interesting part - putting it all together. When I first made this, I had never done any silver soldering before, and my handywork left much to be desired, but it can be a little sloppy since the structure doesn't have to withstand any pressure from within. There are better references on silver soldering than I can provide, but the basics are: clean both parts of each union with wire brushes, apply a little flux, and put the parts together. Use the torch to get all parts of the union nice and hot, to the point where just touching the line of soldering tin to the hot metal immediately melts it. If you've done everything right, the molten tin will wick right in between the two pieces of copper and you're done in a second - now be careful not to touch that part of the structure for a few minutes!

I built the structure from the bottom up. First I put together the two H-pieces at the bottom, using four uprights, one cross-piece, and two tees for each one. It helps to have a vice or something similar to hold the pipe while you're putting together the loose pieces that can't stand up on their own yet. Make sure that the two uprights of each H are exactly parallel, or leave one cross-union unsoldered until you've completed the next step.

Next, connect the two H-pieces using four tees and two more cross-pieces. Make sure the structure is pretty well squared before soldering these connections. From this point on, the structure can stand up by itself, and the process becomes easier, just building upwards piece by piece. We chose to alternate the cross-pieces, going left-to-right and back-to-back at even vertical intervals, but you can get creative with the design, even concocting spiraling or asymmetic structures.

The last part is using the four unions to connect the arches to the top of the structure. To bend the tubing to just the right curvature, it helps to have a cylindrical structure (say, a round garbage can, or a gas grill propane cylinder) the guide the tubing - the flexible copper kinks easily otherwise. Solder these last bits together, and the structure is complete!

When we first installed the trellis in our side garden, we just forced some length of the bottom tube ends into the soil for support. Not so easy, because there is no good way to apply downward pressure on all four legs at once, and the structure is somewhat bendy. As a result, we never got the legs in quite deep enough, and the trellis kept toppling in high winds.

After about a year, I got smarter, and got my hands on a piece of metal pipe that was just big enough that the copper tube could slip in. I cut the pipe into four pieces, probably about 16" each, drove each piece into the soil where the legs had gone in before, to where they emerged for only about 4", and just lowered the trellis into its new foundation. It has remained steady ever since.

That's at least five years ago. The trellis still hasn't attained that green patina (except at the heat-affected unions), but it lost its shiny new look pretty quickly. It now supports our Dutchman's pipe vine, as well as a few annual vines that change from year to year. We quite like our home-built creation, and have talked about coming up with another design for years. Maybe one day we will - if so, you'll be the first to read about it!

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