Tent poles, the long and short of it.

How I build my tent poles.

One of the biggest things we invest in when we build an encampment is the tent. Both in terns of bulk and in terms of price it is a pretty big undertaking and often marks a real milestone. When you buy a pavilion however there are often still steps to undertake. You have the roof and walls, maybe the floor cloth as well but for most companies the poles, ropes, and stakes are separate purchases or are left entirely to the purchaser to figure out.

For me I have had several tents and have assisted in making poles for several others. Often people will head to the lumber store and buy a bunch of pre cut wood to make poles from, and that is a perfectly fine method to employ. I have the tools and knowledge to go a bit more in-depth.

If you are using stock 2x2s or 2x4s you have a pretty simple task ahead of you. Cut to length, drill a hole for a pin and boom, you’re good to go. But you can take a bit more time and really up your game a bit.

2×2’s

When you are using 2×2 from the big box stores the first thing to consider is how straight the wood is and will remain. 2×2’s are often the small bits of the log that falls in among the larger more profitable cuts. This means they often are pretty poor wood. They may have knots, or radically varying grain but with a little patience you can find suitable wood. When you are selecting your lumber look at each piece. Really. Select each individual piece. Often they will be bundled and the urge to grab a convenient bundle and be on your way is strong. Avoid it. The wood is tightly lashed to each other am may be masking a number of flaws including splits, warps, bows, knots, and twists.

Check each piece. The first thing to do is make sure to avoid knots if possible. If you do select a knot, make sure it is tight and not falling out of the wood, make sure it is centered in the wood so if it does fall out some day it is less likely to weaken one side or the other. Next make sure there are no visible cracks or holes in the wood. After that get on one side of the lumber and sight down the edge, it should be pretty straight. If the wood bows or twists set it aside and move to the next one. If you aren’t sure how straight the wood it, rest it on the ground, it should lay flat and not rock on any of the sides. Often 2×2’s are cut green, banded and shipped off. This means that they still need to dry out and are susceptible to bending and warping under stress, like say a tent and bunch of ropes pulling on them.

Once you have your 2×2’s selected, paid for and at home, let them sit for a few days to acclimate to your shop. Wood moves and difference in humidity and temperature from the store to your home can cause some movement. Give it a week, or even a month if the weather varies greatly. If you absolutely have to jump right in for the event this weekend go for it, but you may need to replace a pole or two later on.

My first step for my poles varies depending on if they will be sleeved to make a longer pole or not. If no sleeve will be used I will go through and sand down all the sides of the pole as well as the bottom, leaving the top alone for now. When the sanding is done I will mark the center of the top for the spike to go in. The size of the spike will most likely be determined by the size of the grommets on your tent. You don’t want them tight but they need to be sturdy enough to not bend. On my panther marquee I use a 5/16″ diameter steel pin for my walls, and a 3/8″ diameter steel pin for my ridge pole uprights.

You can just drill a hole and point the spike in, try to keep it straight but unless you are going to put a finial on the top it doesn’t mater a huge amount if it is a few degrees off. If you do want a finial, or an extra long spike for a pennant you want the spike as vertical as possible. Normally this would be a job for a drill press. But most drill presses are not helpful with 4′ or longer poles. For that you have three options, prayer and a steady hand, use a square of some type, or a jig.

If you use a square you can try a standard speed square but its a bit big for the taste. A machinists square works much better. They are all steel and usually about 2″ square. You can get them pretty cheap at harbour freight and they will be perfectly suitable for this task in terms of precision. Start the hole on the center mark and drill in just a little bit. Hold the square next to your drill bit and to make sure you are going in straight, then move it a quarter turn around the top to check your side to side drift. Keep doing this and correcting as needed as you drill in. After about 3/4″ the bit will stay center in the hole until you hit final depth.

For a jig I will take a forstner bit with as close to the diameter of the pole as possible. I will chuck the forstner in my drill press and grab a chunk of 4×4. Drilling about 2.5″ into the side of the 4×4 will give you a hole with a depression in the very center. You can then chuck a bit the size of your spike into the drill press and center it over the depression to finish drilling through the 4×4. Using this new jig you can slip your tent pole into the larger hole, flip it over and use the smaller hole to center and steady your drill bit in a hand drill. For my 5/16″ spikes for the side walls I like 2-3″ of spike in the wood and about 1-1.5″ exposed. For the 3/8″ upright I prefer a depth of about 4-6″ and the exposed length to be about 2-3″

Once you have drilled your holes you will want to sand the top and round the corners so they are not creating pressure on the canvas around them. Now is also the time to cut to final length. I save this until the end so that if I make a mistake with the spikes I can cut it off and not have wasted the wood.

At this point you are good to go, it’s a useable pole, you did it……Or you could go a little farther. Protecting your tent poles from the weather helps them last longer and also can make them more attractive. Stain, seal, or paint them however you like. Solid color, striped, swirled, go nuts and use your heraldic colors. My personal favorite is to stain the poles green, my primary heraldic color, and then run the poles through the table saw at a 45 degree angle to take the corners off and make them octagonal. Doing this takes a little weight off, makes them less prone to roll away, and since my primary heraldic metal is silver, or white, I end up with green and white poles. I usually polyurethane them after that. Especially the feet as they are most likely to pick up water in contact with the ground.

Side note. REMOVE THE SPIKE BEFORE GOING THROUGH THE TABLE SAW. It most likely doesn’t need saying but better safe and all.

If you can’t find 2×2’s you like, or are feeling ambitious you can also buy 2×4’s and rip them in half to get 2×2’s. Then finish as above. Doing this can be a little cheaper but costs more in labor. Also some 2×4’s will have internal stress and may warp when split.

Sleeved poles

If you are making a longer or bigger pole you might need or want to make a sleeved pole that can come apart into a couple of sections. If that’s the case I find that getting the sleeve first is important. For my uprights on my ridge pole I use 3, 3×3 sleeved poles about 10′ total length. I start with some 4×4’s and go hunting a 3×3 hollow square tube. My current ones are aluminum but I have used mild steel in the past.

For my sleeves I found a length of 3×3 aluminum square tube with about a 1/8″ wall thickness at a local metal supplier that also has offcut racks, it’s kind of hit or miss but it’s a bit cheaper. I decided for the 10′ pole, a 12″ sleeve should be sufficient. Most of the weight is downward and a tight fit should help keep to much lateral force from being exerted on the sleeve .

Aluminum sleeve for tent poles.

Next I went to the big box store and hunted through the 4x4x8’s until I found 6 that were straight, minimum knots, no splits, and had grain as straight as possible to reduce warping. When I am selecting my lumber I know I am going to remove some of the outer layer to bring it down to a true 3×3 to match my sleeves. This allows me to ignore minor surface defects and discoloration.

Once I have the lumber at home I cut them to rough length, leaving a few extra inches on each end and took a couple passes through the jointer until I had a flat and smooth side. I then rotated 90° to flatten a second face. After I have run all 6 boards through I moved to the table saw and cut them to 3×3.

The next step is to mark off 6″ from the end of the 3×3 and create a rabbit so that the sleeve will snuggly fit over the end of the pole. The top one I sanded a bit more so it is easier to remove but not so loose as to have a lot of play.

Once I was happy with the fit of the poles I stained them, purple in this case as my partner wanted some more of her colors reflected in the tent. Once the stain was dry I marked off 3″ down from the end of the rabbit as a stop point and moved to my table saw. I set my saw to about 2 1/8″ and rotated the blade to 45°. I fed the poles in until I was just shy of my mark with the deepest part of the cut. Since the saw is a curved blade It will be deeper at the bottom than the top, I used a hand saw to cut free the resulting piece.

Once that was done I used a router and a chamfer bit to extend the cut and have it taper out to my mark giving it a more smooth transition from square to octagional.

From there I built a jig to center the spike and drilled the hole to set it. After that it was a matter of putting a couple coats of polyurethane on and I was pretty much done except for painting the sleeves.

My set up is a little different than some in a couple of ways. First, the uprights will not be in contact with the tent directly but instead connect to a horizontal ridge pole. Second my marquee is a large tent at 30’x20′ and I wanted to be able to set it up myself if need be. To that end my two farther uprights have the top part hinged to the ridge pole so I can walk the up to raise the top and connect the lower parts of the upright and raise it in increments. Once those are up I assemble the center pole and feed the top spike into the hole in the ridge pole.

There are several other ways you can cover tent poles if you are inclined to do so. I have seen people spray paint or make cloth covers for metal poles. Stain, paint, or oil wood are also doable. You can leave your poles bare but it’s not my preferred way for a few reasons. First off a finish protects the wood. Helping to keep moisture out and keep a smooth finish so it is less likely to abrade things, like your tent. Second it makes your poles last longer, do you really want to do all that again. Third it adds more color. We have seen many examples of painted wood in the past. Our ancestors didn’t share the aesthetic of wood grain we do today. From a practical standpoint you can also paint your poles do differentiate between their use. Once color for your tent, another for a day shade, etc. Plus painted poles are just that more colorful and eye-catching. You just spent a lot of money on your tent and some time making the ropes and hardware for the tent, show show it off.

5 thoughts on “Tent poles, the long and short of it.

  1. Two things:

    1. If you want to ensure that the holes you’re drilling into the tops of the poles aren’t off by more than a few degrees, here’s a trick. Clamp the pole into your vise, vise-table (like a Work Mate), or whatever so that it’s perfectly level. When you’re putting the bit into the vise, hang a washer on it; its inner diameter should be bigger than the bit shaft. It really doesn’t matter how much. Now position your drill, start the hole, and watch the washer as the bit spins. If it wants to head toward the pole, lower the drill; if it wants to wander toward the chuck, raise the drill. If it wants to stay in the same place, you’re level.

    2. My book “The Pavilion Book” has a two whole chapters on the care, feeding and construction of poles. I humbly suggest that they’re worth checking out.

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  2. Instead of searching for the “perfect” 2×2, search for the perfect 2×10 or 2×12. Look for stretches of straight quarter-sawn and flat-sawn that you can “rip” perfect 2x2s from.

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    1. True enough. That is an expanded way to do poles like i mentioned with ripping 2×4’s. Provided you are skilled enough to read grain and know what you are looking for. This way is slightly more expensive, to the tune of about .50 cents per pole. The benefit is that you only need to search for a couple of perfect boards instead of a larger number of individual boards. Additionally, the larger boards are more often going to be a better quality of lumber instead of the odds and ends that 2×2’s are normally made of.

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  3. Thank you for posting this. I’ve been trying to figure out how I was going to drill nice, straight holes into the poles for my new pavilion. Also since there’s no kind of kill like overkill, (and I’ve already got the material) I’m going to sleeve the wood with steel tubing.

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    1. Glad it’s useful. I know a number of people sleeve the ends, I have never felt the need. My side poles are 2×2 octagons and only really handle vertical load, plus I don’t want to get rust on my canvas. I can see the need if you have bigger poles or your poles are subject to more load than mine are. Good luck.

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