Humans are predictable creatures. For some reason we feel more comfortable in places that are the right proportions and scale for the activity that occurs there. If you have found this post, then you are probably looking to make your deck more intimate, romantic, or inviting for reading, dining or talking. Lighting has long been used to “enclose” outdoor rooms to make the great outdoors feel more comfortable, and string lights have become a very inexpensive and effective way to do this.
In order to get the deck lighting high enough to create a “roof” over a deck, the lighting needs to be 8 to 10 feet above the floor. Most decks have railing between 3 and 4 feet tall, so extra height will be needed to make the desired effect work. Bamboo is a very strong, extremely fast-growing grass that can grow in a large variety of climates, so it is a low-impact and in a lot of cases free choice for making the uprights (ie posts) that will hold the lights up. Above and beyond being very strong, renewable, and cheap, bamboo’s characteristic shape offers a few extra features that can reduce the amount of mechanical fasteners that you need to use.
Sourcing and Preparing the Bamboo
Do not plant your own Bamboo: the plant is not native in most locations and will quickly take over your yard and spread to your neighbors’. Look around where you live for a bamboo patch, chances are that the people whose property it is on will be more than happy to let you have a few twigs. If you are a bit shy, some garden centers may have it in stock.
Look for pieces that are between 10 and 14 feet tall, so that when the small top branches are cut, you will be left with a roughly 8 to 10 feet pole between ½” to 1” in diameter. On a deck, the number of uprights will either be the number of deck railing posts or every 6 to 8 feet. Cut the bamboo down close to the ground, then trim off all of the branches. When trimming the branches, leave ½” to 1” of the base of the branch attached to the pole, these branches sticking out just a little bit are how the string lights will be attached.
Attaching the Bamboo Uprights to the deck
The way that the bamboo uprights are attached to the deck will vary based on the deck construction but the concept is the same for all decks. The pole needs two points of attachment to the deck to make it stable and sturdy. Special brackets (think tiki torches) are available for just this task, but they will probably cost more than the string lights themselves. If you do go this route make sure that they are made to withstand the outdoors or they will break or rust all over the place.
In my case the deck railing overhangs the railing posts by an inch, so a simple bracket would not work anyway. two 3” long pieces of notched 2” x 2” treated lumber per bamboo upright did the trick nicely. Drill a hole to allow for a zip tie to grab the bamboo and use two exterior deck screws to attach the pieces of lumber to the outside of the railing post. Attaching the bamboo is as easy as tightening the zip ties because the natural bulge every 8 to 12 inches along the bamboo upright will act as a positive stop and keep the upright from slipping downward with gravity.
Choosing String Lights
There is now a huge variety of string lights available. When using bamboo uprights, the huge commercial bulbs with thick cords will look too large, so pick ones that have thinner cords and smaller bulbs. Incandescent bulbs are a waste of energy so luckily LED technology has come a long way in the past few years.
The first thing to consider is how bright do you want the lights to be. There are really only two choices: mood lighting and illumination. If you are just looking to make the deck a more inviting place, then mood lighting is all that you need, and if you only need mood lighting, then solar powered string lights are a great way to go. They always turn on at dusk, don’t require any outdoor electrical plugs, don’t cost anything to operate, plus they still allow for stargazing and watching fireflies. Outdoor lamps can be used to supplement the lighting in the areas and times that it is needed.
If you must have more light, then you need to look into plug-in LED string lights. When looking for LED string lights, look for reviews online to make sure that they do not strobe; cheaper sets often flicker at 60 hz, which can drive your eyes insane and will completely ruin the effect of calm. Make sure they are rated for continuous outdoor use.
The second thing to consider is the color of the light from the bulbs. LEDs are available in any color imaginable, so if you really want purple lights, go for it. I personally like the warm white type of lights (2700K) which produce a glow similar to incandescent bulbs.
Attaching the String Lights to the Bamboo Uprights
This is by far the easiest part of the process. Be gentle when hanging the string lights, especially with the solar powered ones. Pick a height on the bamboo uprights that looks right (start with 8 feet if you can’t decide), and wrap the string lights one turn around each bamboo upright above the closest branch to the desired height, then push the loop down to the branch and notice that the bamboo branch provides a stop so that the lights can’t slide down the upright.
If you want your string lights to hover above the deck and attach the your house you have to get a little creative. Is it best not to drill any more holes in your house than there already are, and coincidentally most houses have attachments on the side like gutters or radon pipes that can be used to attach the lights to. Pay attention to any sharp objects that could cut the light string so use things like spring links (carabiners) to make the attachment to the house less straining.
I hope that this has given you some more ideas about how to create an outdoor room that invites you to enjoy the outdoors.