Camping in Style at Pennsic

by Master Bedwyr Danwyn (mka Ted Lazcano)

Master Bedwyr may already be known to you if you have taken one of his wonderful classes on period oil lamps at Pennsic over the years. I was one of those people last year, and decided to teach a similar class at the upcoming Estrella War. This led me to correspond with Master Bedwyr about some of the details of his class (suppliers, techniques, etc.). Eventually, he recognized that I was the author of the Pavilion Book, and this led to him sending me the following letter critiquing some of the topics presented therein. With his gracious permission, I hereby present his letter complete and unaltered, except for some minor editorial corrections made at his request.

I thought his letter was of interest because it illustrates how people adapt their campsites and camping arrangements to their own needs, budgets, and aesthetics. I should also add that Pennsic War, with its facilities for on-site storage, its two-week time span and its warm climate (to put it charitably), is rather a special case in re-creationist camping, and our style here in the western US is quite a bit different. Here, we have to truck everything in (even water, sometimes) and contend with temperatures from below freezing to unspeakably hot, and events are seldom longer that an extended weekend in length. So what works for him may not work for me (and vice versa). But he's obviously put a lot of time, money and thought into his encampment, and his words are valuable advice for those who aspire to do the same.

"Greetings and Happy New Year.

"Well, I'm caught up a bit and now wish to discuss/praise you about your book. I saw it near the end of last Pennsic at The Pillaged Village, and bought it on the spot. Overall, the book is exactly what The Society needs. While not everyone has the time, money or ability to have camps such as we do; in my opinion they should slowly work towards that end. Too many folks simply come to Pennsic to party, and see no reason to even try to upgrade every year, even if only a little bit. This attitude sort of breeds "land pimple contagion," and new folks come to Pennsic without even entertaining the thought that perhaps it would be pleasant to replace mundane things with period ones. I believe that your book is a valuable asset to the SCA.

"As I read your book, I took notes to convey to you at some point. Wouldn't you know, you contacted me first! Most of what I wish to convey are things that I found to be improvements that you haven't thought of; others are alternate views. And, as I have mentioned, I also had the valuable opportunity to observe a rare period pavilion that was erected on a stand in a museum in Canada. I'll send you info on it in the future. As I discuss your book, bear in mind that these notes were written down last summer, so the material isn't currently fresh in my mind. Also, if I agree with you (which I did for most of the book), I probably won't refer to it since we already concur.

"My Pennsic camp starts with a marquee, 10' x 14' with a 10' awning. Since my primary personna is Romano-Celtic, it seemed the best choice, and for two people meets the square footage allotment. As you mention, we use tents differently than they would have in period. Most Europeans while traveling would have been more likely to sleep in an inn, barn, cart or even under a makeshift shelter (called a "shebang" in the Civil War) than they would have in a pavilion. About the closest they would have come to our SCA experience was during sieges, where large numbers of military personnel would have had to dwell around a castle or town, lest the inhabitants exit and escape or attack. So...both of our splendid encampments are sort of anachronisims in themselves, in that we have in effect created period motel rooms.

"As an aside, what is you opinion of the Viking A frame tent? The excavated tents are quite large, and my suspicion is that only one was carried per longboat to serve both as a meeting and sleeping room for the chief. The common Viking would not have had the space for such a thing, even if it was shared by several men. My guess is that the common Viking would have had what we call a shelter half, a general purpose water proof piece of fabric that would serve both as a rain cape or, if strung up with freshly cut saplings, a sort of pup tent near the boat. I commonly see Viking reenactor communities where each Viking has an individual large A frame tent, and it just doesn't sit well with me. If each man did indeed have a tent, I suspect that it would have been closer to the small Civil War "dog tent." By the way, I have been experimenting with making such a thing, and have been waterproofing regular canvas by painting it with a mixture of linseed oil and iron oxide. Iron oxide comes in both red and yellow, and is very hard to locate any more, but it is out there. Once dry, it makes an authentic fabric for general tarp, poncho or pup tent. Since Viking sails were made of wool, not plant fibre; a more authentic version for Vikings should probably be of wool. Later!

"Inside my pavilion I have a comfy rope bed, tables, cabinets, and chests. Lots of chests. I make chests and have a pickup truck, so my philosophy is to pack in period chests which stack and transport well. The chests go straight into the tent for unpacking and later repacking. I keep large leaf size garbage bags in them, and if it looks like rain the stuff gets waterproofed inside the garbage bags, as the chests themselves are not 100% water proof. For transport I have built a removable box frame that fits in the back of my truck, a bit higher than the cab. It allows me to really fill it up, and it gives a measure of security while traveling. And, I can strap my entire bed on top of the rack, so I don't even have to put it together any more. On top of the bed goes the poles. It works quite well, but it does appear to be something out of the Beverly Hillbillies. At least that's how I used to camp.

"My primary camp now only gets set up at Pennsic, as it has grown so large and impressive that it takes me 6 hours to set up and another 6 hours to tear down. I'm neither willing nor require such a procedure for a weekend event, so at the moment I use a quick mundane tent. I have future plans but I'll refer to that later. I own a semi-storage trailer that stays at Cooper's Lake, so my bed and a lot of Pennsic camp stuff now lives there. I drive back and forth to the trailer as I set my camp up, and enjoy a fantastic Pennsic at the cost of one day lost at either end. It is the highlight of my year and a great way to spend two weeks.

"I still transport my poles to and from War, as I use them for other events and they do require annual inspection/maintenance. What I did was take three large PVC pipes (about a foot in diameter-I'm at work right now so they are not in front of me), two about 7' long and the third about 11' long, and cut the bulk of them away so they look more like framework. This makes them lighter and provides handholds for carrying and for running rigging through. I then glued rounded covers to the front and screw in access doors in the back. When I need to transport poles, I toss the three pipes on top of my truck box, and run chain through the pipes and box. I secure the ends of the chains with lever style securing clamps, which work swiftly and securely. All of the poles then slide into one of the three pipes, and the doors are closed at the backs. Very fast and very secure.

"In your book you didn't mention finials. Finials are period, and serve to both waterproof the roof grommet holes and give better grip for the guy lines. I bought commercial fence post caps, which are a little rough and have threaded screws in the bottom. But, they are inexpensive and larger than the delicate ones sold by merchants, which are actually horizontal curtain rod embellishments. I sand the finials smooth (about 10 minutes per finial, but you only have to do it once) and then paint them. Next, I remove the screws by grabbing them with vise grips and turning the finial, and finish by drilling the proper size hole to fit over the vertical tent pole pins by using the existing hole as a pilot hole. To use, the finials are placed down over the vertical pole pins, trapping the roof. The guy line then attaches to the finial, not the roof! I frequently see pavilions where people place the guy line directly on the roof, and then slide the finial down over the guy line. With the finial first placed on the roof, and the guy line looped around the base of the finial; the force of the guy line presses the base of the finial hard against the roof grommet. This increases the area pressing down on the roof, as well as directs rain away from the grommet. I use three strand hemp rope, and have made eye splices in the standing end of each. That allows me to place the eye splice of each guy line around the base of each finial, and they never will loosen up. Just last year I replaced all of my guy ropes as they were wearing out, which isn't bad as I have used them for a decade. And, obviously, always have spares. If I require 15 guy lines, I'll take about 18 with me.

"I love your advice to run the guy lines through metal rings, not directly around the tent stakes. I have square section tent stakes, and it always is a bit of burden when I need to retension the ropes, as they tent to drag on the corners. I have already redone all of my guys lines with metal rings, but haven't had occasion to try them yet.

"As for pulling tent stakes, I have a device that you will simply love if you try it. I bought a "T-Post Lifter" from Harbor Freight Tools (they are on the internet and the pullers are on sale as we speak) and slightly modified it. While not easy to describe (I'll send you a picture soon), what I did was to remove the fence post grabber on the short end of the lever and replace it with a chain hook. I then took a short length of chain and put a ring on one end and a hook on the other. When it's time to pull stakes, I just set the device by the stake, catch the stake either with the ring or hook (whichever happens to be easier), lift the lever and then slap the chain into the hook on the short end of the lever, press down on the long end of the lever and the stake pulls right up. There is a tremendous amount of leverage, so even with my bad back it is incredibly easy to do. The T-Post Lifter is small, light and inexpensive; and what a backsaver it is. I even made a giant version to pull the camp's portable holes out with.

"I have another trick to ease the carrying of stakes. Again, I'll send you a picture but what I did was take PVC pipe, a few inches in diameter, and cut round wood plugs from 3/4" pine stock. Each pipe is a few inches longer than the pipes they are to carry, with a wood plug secured in one end only with wood screw. Two other holes are drilled in the open end to take a short handle made of clothes line. To use, a carrier is set on the ground upright, with the wood plug on the bottom. The stakes are dropped down into the open top, and when it's time to go the carriers are picked up with the rope handles. It makes it very easy to carry a lot of heavy stakes this way. I average about twenty stakes per tube; the first ten go hook down and the last ten are dropped in hook up. I also label the outside of the carriers with marking pen to expedite setup and packing, such as "15 pavilion short bottoms."

"Sidewalls and floors. I'm going to differ greatly. My philosophy is to expect water inside the tent, and then never worry about it. Thus, I have no sod cloth, plastic sheet, carpet or such. I simply set my tent up over exposed grass and enjoy the feel of it. If my boots are dirty when I walk in, so be it. If it rains and water flows under, I don't care. I deplore tents where the occupants have put plastic down first then followed by rugs, and then have a wet event. Moisture gets under the plastic, anaerobic decay starts and the inside of the tent stinks to high heaven. The carpet will eventually get wet from being walked on or due to leakage, and become mildewed and musty. Bare ground, regardless of how wet it is, just doesn't smell. That's how ground works. Of course I try to situate my pavilion on high ground, dig a trench if need be and so on, but the bottom line is that I use no floor covering and am very happy with it that way.

"So, "what about your stuff getting wet?" you ask. Nothing is placed on the ground that will suffer if it gets wet. I have tables and a cupboard that are OK if the feet get wet, and the stuff that's on them are high up. My chests go on top of 2x4 lifters, so there is a couple of inches of clearance. And my bed. I have a splendid rope bed, which is about 18" off the ground. My bed is always high and dry, and if a sudden storm pops up anything that isn't put away simply gets tossed on the bed. Fast and easy. I have plastic storage bins that slide under the bed, and are out of sight and always dry. I leave extra blankets, towels, dirty laundry, etc in the bins.

"As for my sidewalls, I rig the walls to be about two inches off of the ground. The walls never wick water up from the ground, but allow in breeze when it's hot and don't seem to matter when it's cold. There are no sod flaps to fuss with, so it is much easier to set up. The only drawback that I've ever had was early one morning when a Robin scooted under the wall and flew up into the tent, but that was the only problem since first setting my pavilion up at Pennsic XXII.

"Lighting. You made no mention of oil lamps, but after taking my class you know my views on that. That's all I ever use in my tent, now. I also have a couple of exterior lamps set up on tripods (similar to the one I had at the entrance to my class, but with copper rain covers), that I leave on most of the night to help light the way for drunks in my camp. I camp in the Bog and we have a lot of drunks....

"My sleeping arrangement is nothing short of fantastic. I have a large rope bed, which can be torn down for transport even though I no longer need to. I made plans which I will send you, too. My lady sewed what is basically a large futon cover for a mattress, which fits the bed perfectly. On Land Grab day I buy two bales of straw from the Cooper's, and we stuff a bale and a half into the mattress. We fluff it all up, and drop it onto the bed. A flat van style sleeping bag goes on the mattress, covered by period blankets and a bedspread. It's just as comfy as could be; cool in the summer and very warm in the winter. No cold air flow hitting from below! And no, since everyone always asks, the straw doesn't poke you through the mattress. You do have to re fluff it about every five days, but that only takes a minute. And when Pennsic is over, the straw gets tossed out and the mattress goes into a stuff sack. No bulky mattress to haul or air mattress that leaks.

"Tent storage. One addition I have is to add moth balls to the storage container. It doesn't hurt the fabric, and is surprisingly not noticeable when the tent comes out. But, mice hate moth balls so you don't have to worry about the little chewers getting in and doing damage during storage. We even put them in with the camp's big top between Pennsics, and all of our mouse woes are behind us.

"Water. I constructed a clever chest with a door that opens on the end. It sits on top of a table with the end overhanging the table by perhaps a couple of inches. With the door up, two 2.5 gallon commercial water jugs (the kind with the built in faucets) slide in, side by side with the faucets by the door. With the door closed, nothing mundane can be seen; and when I want water I simply open the door, stick my cup or pot under the exposed faucet, run the water, and then just shut off the faucet and close the door. It takes two seconds, and extra water jugs store under the bed. Fast, easy running water right inside the pavilion.

"Tables. I construct my tables and benches with tapered legs and tapered holes. To erect, I just set the legs into the table holes and that's it. The more weight on the table the more secure it is. When it is time to tear down, I just flip the table upside down on the ground, stand on the bottom of the table and wiggle the legs off. Over the years I have devised many methods for attaching legs to tables and benches, but now all I use are tapered legs and holes. They are that superior and period, too! Tapered holes... OK; they aren't that easy to make. I devised a jig that allows me to use a regular hand drill and standard flat bladed hole bits. I drill a series of slightly smaller holes that are stepped, and then just use a wood rasp to remove the shoulders from the steps. The jig keeps everything at the correct angle. I'll send a picture.

"You also understand the need for plumb pilot holes for pole pins. I use another method. First, I constructed a jig. I took a block of wood and drilled a perfect hole with a drill press. Then, I attached four strips of wood around the sides, one block per side. I clamp the pole horizontally to a picnic table, and then slide the jig over the end that needs the hole. I use a hand drill to bore the hole, and the jig keeps the drill bit from wandering. But, the drill bit still can wiggle enough to not be plumb. Another solution. My hand drill has a level built right into it, so if I stand right over it, I can track the up/down angle by looking at the level, and by looking straight down on the drill I can track the left/right angle by eye. If your drill doesn't have a level, you can also use a helper who squats down next to the drill, and indicates up/down/OK tracking by hand signal.

"The pilot holes need to be slightly undersize, of course, or the pins slide right back out. I drill my initial pilot hole with an undersize wood boring bit, which tracks quite well. Don't drill the hole in one pass! Remove the drill frequently to clear shavings out of the drill bit grooves. Once the initial hole is drilled, if the fit isn't perfect for the steel rod I am going to use for the pin, I remove the jig and then enlarge the hole by running the bit in and out a bit. The pin is tapered on both ends, so when the pilot hole is correct I just tap the pin down into place. it's best to do this with the base on the pole on the floor, so I hammer from a step ladder.

"My plan for a quick weekend pavilion is to use one of the commercial "KD Kanopy" type frames with a period cover. The retail frames are in the range of 35 #s, but if you order from the factory you can buy heavier frames that weigh about 70 #s. I bought one and am very pleased with it, and with luck this Spring I am going to have an awning company make a period looking cover and awning for it. I first want to make fittings so I can attach finials for the guy ropes. Then, I can simply show up and erect the frame, toss on the cover, and add guys lines for both appearance and storm proofing. Since the unit is free standing, it makes set up a snap (I've used it but with the commercial roof and walls). The interior will be mundane, but follows my practice of exposed ground with tables, elevated easy-up bed and so forth. That's all I need for a weekend event, as the exterior will look period and hell, I'm so busy (I belong to four polling orders, an active chirurgeon and have three personnas...) that I don't hang out in camp, anyway.

"That covers my notes. I'll send you some photos in the upcoming weeks, and please feel free to use any of these suggestions if you wish. I enjoy the hobby and all are welcome to benefit from my mistakes, experiments and improvements. You said that you most likely weren't going to attend Pennsic this year, but do give me a shout the next time that you do, so you can tour my camp and perhaps pick up a few more ideas. Have fun at Estrella. You know, I lived in Phoenix for a few years but didn't join the SCA until right after I moved East, so I have never been to Estrella. One of these years.... "


Master Bedwyr Danwyn's web site on period lighting

Index of Previous Columns

Other articles you can read, mostly on tentmaking and medieval tents

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