Pavilion Design

by Steven Peck

This article was written by Steven Peck, known in the SCA as Lord Magnus Schatan. It is adapted from the handout he provided at a class in tentmaking we conducted last summer. All opinions are his, and all rights to this column are owned by him. If you would like to contact him regarding anything in this article, please contact him at


-And so it begins

So, you have taken leave of your senses and want to make your own pavilion. It can be a frustrating, aggravating, expensive experience. It can also be fun, enjoyable and rewarding. It all depends on what you want to accomplish, what your budget is, and how much planning you put into your design BEFORE you buy fabric or materials. So when you sit down to design your own pavilion, just what do you need to consider? This article hopefully will answer some of the questions you need to consider when you start planning your home away from home.

The single most important thing you can learn from this article is that planning, more planning, and even more planning can save you from a world of hurt and aggravation. The place I started was an article by Johann Von Drachenfels in Tournaments Illuminated (issue 96) a few years ago titled Making Your Own Pavilion. Some of that information of that article may be repeated here but you should read it as it has more construction techniques in it. The article can be found at along with other articles of interest.

When I started looking for information on how to build a pavilion, I was really looking for info on how to design a pavilion as I was starting with no design experience. I searched in a number of places that did not answer my questions - The Complete Anachronist's booklet on Pavilion making, web searches, library, etc. The library had one book on tents and it was on yurts. There were lots of books with paintings and illuminations of pavilions. There was a lack of information on how to design one or what the considerations would be, much less how to build one without the fancy joints that other people had found in remote places, junkyards, or specialty stores. The web searches I did came up with several "How I made my pavilion" articles. The problem was that most of them were technological tinkertoys that looked like they required a team of engineers 6 hours to setup and power tools that I didn't have at the time. (This often confused me until Johann pointed out that most were back East, used in Pennsic and if you are there for a few weeks, who cares if setup time takes 6 hours? Here on the West coast, our events average 2-3 nights where reduced setup time equals substantially more play time.) So the trick when you design yours is to make something that will withstand the variety of weather we encounter at events, such as those that occurred during the various Beltaine events now referenced as Blowtaine and Snowtaine, not to mention the various rainy events.

Buying is easiest.

-Really, it is, unless you're broke, bored, crazy or want to say -- I built my own home.

Buying is by far the easiest if you have the available cash (or can budget it). You get a pavilion made by a reputable manufacturer (I hope you did your research), it is generally assumed to be waterproof or water resistant and in California it is supposed to be fire resistant as well.

For the amount of work (time and materials) you put in, buying generally will come out even or cheaper (if you make a mistake it is out of your pocket and, of course, counting your time).

What you miss with buying is the ephemeral quality of knowing that you made your own weekend home, any customizations you might want, and the enjoyment of having something just a bit different from what everyone else has. You have to decide if it is worth it.

One of your most essential planning considerations is that it will probably take a year to design and build your pavilion in your spare time, from start to finish and that whatever you build will be with you for at least five years. Whatever you do when you set out to do your own, figure that whatever you build will be yours for at least five years, so plan accordingly.


- Before you begin building or buying anything

The first thing to decide is what shape and period style you want. Take your time - what appeals to you may not appeal to someone else. Just remember, what you come up with will be yours for a while. You have a wealth of resources at events. You can see an incredible variety of shapes and sizes of pavilions from various manufacturers, disguised modern tents, and home built varieties. Stop and take a look at the various construction techniques, styles and colors. Ask how the residents like it, what they would do differently and what they would do the same. What they would do the same is probably what worked for them so write that down.

Take your time. It is better to go slow and get it to work the first time than to have a pavilion you are unhappy with.

I advise against trying to get too fancy with your pavilion, particularly your first. In other words, don't try and make it do everything. I know someone that designed their pavilion to be both an 8x14 foot oval and an 8 foot round. It worked ok, but added complication and time to any setup they performed.

Size -- How big

-How much space do you really need? Not how much you dream you need, how much you really need.

Size counts. When you're setting up that 15x25 foot pavilion that takes 6 people an hour and 2 people 6 hours at 11 p.m. at night on a Friday, in the rain at 35 degrees with a mild 25 mph breeze, wondering where the rest of your household is (who swore that they would always be there to help you set up), the idea of having the biggest on the block is not so appealing anymore. Rather than one large pavilion, perhaps, a more modestly sized one with a large day shade would be more appropriate. So, when determining the size you are going to build, remember to include how many people will always be there to help you put it up.

Size considerations: take an inventory of what you have. Do you have a significant other, children, or pets? Do you have a bed frame? What kind and size storage do you use? Are you going to have a significant other, children or pets in the very near future? Once you have an initial size, take some rope and put it on the ground in the size (measure it) and shape you will be looking to build, put all your stuff in it and see how it looks. If you will be using a center pole, don't forget to account for that. Also remember, that the larger it is, the more limited your selection of setup space will be at events. The larger ones tend to need more level ground, the more modest ones can be tucked in the unused space at that rather large, packed event you arrived at on Saturday morning.

Frame -- Materials and types

- How will you keep the cloth from falling on you when you're asleep?

There are a wide variety of frame types. Some use perimeter poles with tension lines and a center pole to keep the roof up, with more tension lines, others use a complete frame with no center pole in the middle of your living space. Others are a hybrid of the two. One suggestion is to make the frame last if at all possible. It is easier to match the frame to the cloth than the cloth to the frame. Whichever design you use, make sure to include a place to add tension lines (also called guy ropes). While many framed designs do not need tension lines, in a high wind or stormy conditions it is comforting to have that extra protection and some extra rope and stakes don't take up that much extra room in the vehicle.

Frame styles that rely mainly on perimeter poles with center poles tend to use less poles in the moderate sizes, thereby giving you more usable packing space. The larger sizes tend to use at lot of poles. They rely heavily on stakes and tension lines. Also, as your fabric stretches, the poles will be able to accommodate that and maintain a uniform looking tension on your pavilion. Remember -- the more poles there are, the more stakes you will need to pound and the more time your tent will take to assemble. One advantage is that the poles are easy to make. Get a wooden pole (2x2 or dowel) and stick a nail in the end, not elegant, but functional. Even better would be drilling a hole in the end and using a 6-8 inch piece of 1/4 inch steel rod that can be removed for packing and transportation, longer if you want to put a flag on the end of it.

Rigid frame type construction uses more poles on average. Some are tinker toy construction using pins, screws, bolts nuts, and wrenches. Others use the pole in socket type construction which can sometimes be difficult to take apart when if deform slightly in the wind or do a little rusting in the rain. Some are homemade (my first one was), some are store bought frames (my current one is). If you go the store bought route, look at the frame and critically examine it. Do you think it will stand up to the strain of setup take down in a wide variety of temperature ranges and weather conditions? Plastic tends to be far more sensitive to temperature changes than would be good for an SCA pavilion so if the frame you are looking at has a lot of plastic, think hard before getting stuck at 11 p.m. at night with a broken frame. Frames can be made of wood, water pipe, EMT conduit (the stuff electricians use for wire), PVC (use sparingly), aluminum or any combination of materials.

Quite often your access to tools and a shop will limit your options for a frame. Almost everyone has a hammer with which to put nails in the end of wooden poles, but not everyone has access to a welder to weld up steel joints.

Looks -- Shape and style

- A-frame, bell wedge Square, round, arming, yurt..

What interests you? For instance, a friend of mine really likes his Viking A-frame, and I admit, it looks cool. I, however, don't like living in A-frames, it's just not me. I tend toward the rectangular styles myself. Some prefer the looks of the rounds. Look at pictures of paintings and illuminations and try and make sure that your profile looks period. People don't have to see inside the pavilion, but if the profile appears period, it won't 'jar' a viewer when they are walking around camp. It will also contribute to the ambience of your encampment. Besides, why spend all that work on your pavilion if what you end up with looks like something out of a fantasy movie or the civil war as opposed to the Hundred Year War and not a real period pavilion which is the objective. Remember though, the important thing is what interests you and cost will, as always, be a limiting factor.

Viking A-frames tend to have walking areas limited to the peak line of the tent. They do have all that storage space on the edges though, so it works out. The poles tend to be long and not easily segmented, so you will need a roof rack or some other method of transporting them. On the plus, they are primarily straight lines to sew, the math tends to be simple and the shape alone makes them fairly water resistant. An alternative is the wedge. The number of poles can be 2 or 3 and can easily be made segmented so as to fit in a car. A 'bell' can be added to expand space, though it makes the pattern a bit more complicated.

Square or rectangular tends to have a lot of usable space depending on the size. Depending on the size and any slant of the walls most of it is usable for walking or storage. Wind tends to stretch it out of shape more easily though. When doing the patterns, you have simple angles to consider.

Round or oval: The geometry is a little more complex, but not overly so. Advantages tend to be better stability in wind, fabric stretch tends to be more even and the tension tends to keep it to a minimum. They just look cool, like all the paintings. They do tend to lose some useable space by leaving out the corners, however, and the center pole makes it difficult to fit large items into them (like that all important queen sized bed ...)

Yurts are beyond the scope of this article. They are in a class by themselves and are more mobile homes than pavilions as I see it. There are plenty of articles on yurt construction and their variations available on the web.

Remember that color and design played an important part in pavilions. If you look at period illuminations, you will rarely find an all white one. Many have designs painted on them, some appear to have different colored panels in them. Try and take that into account when you design yours. (although all one color can be a way to save money if you buy the entire bolt of fabric)

- Need something to keep the sun and rain off.

Structure strength, looks, color, waterproofing, fire resistance, UV resistance, and wind lufting are all considerations when shopping for fabric. I get my fabric from a company in Colorado called Itex. For walls I use a Poly/Cotton blend that is 7oz. From the roof, I am currently using a product called Odyssey II. It is 100% waterproof and 100% polyester (i.e. Flammable). It also retains heat, which is why it is only used for the roof. Other alternatives are trigger, marine duck canvas, regular canvas (you can treat it) and whatever else you think will work. Don't scrimp when it comes to your roof. All the money you think you saved will do you no good when your roof starts leaking in a pouring rain and your armor/ cameras/ clothes/ possessions/ you get soaked, damaged, lost and/or destroyed. UV resistance to pass through light is something to consider as well. Even though it's cool and shady, without UV resistance you can still get a nasty sunburn.

If you're going to paint the fabric, be sure and test it on a swatch first! Having your freshly painted test run and smear in the first big rainstorm because the fabric didn't absorb well is not a good feeling.


  • It's sure hot in here.

    Ventilation - or as it is called when you're hot, air flow. One of the advantages a pavilion has over a commercial tent is that being taller, they are generally cooler for longer in the morning and generally less stifling during the day (this all being relative to the weather at the site of course). If I open both doors on mine I have a nice cross through ventilation for any possible breeze, I can also undo a corner to allow breeze that way. It was designed from the start to be able to do that.

    Ground Covering

  • Hey, what's with this water on the bottom of my tent

    Ground covering. Well, my pavilion design does not lend itself to sewing in an integrated floor. I use the gray plastic waterproof tarps and put the cheap 5x8 foot carpets on them and that has worked well for me. I don't use sod flaps because at least here on the West coast, I haven't found them to be of any use. Eventually I might invest in the very expensive, very heavy chemically impregnated green cloth tarps that are so waterproof you could probably make boats out of them, but in 6 years of using my old pavilion I haven't had a need for them yet, nor have I had to buy replacements.

    Getting Ready to build

  • So, it's time to start. Now what?

    Well, now you know what you want to build and how big it will be. Now what? Well, first you start with some graph paper. I like the 11x14 inch size myself - it's big and I can get more detail drawn in. Measure it preferably with a scale ruler (generally they look triangular and they don't cost that much compared to your pavilion), though you can get by without it.

    Once you are done and have your plans that you are happy with and you think will work, it's time to make a model. I used cardboard, cut out strips that were the same size to scale as my fabric was (I used 2 inches equals 1 foot, my fabric was 55 inches across, so my cut strips were just over 9 inches wide.) I then laid out and cut each of my 'fabric pieces' minus seam allowance. (Be careful here, I didn't include seam allowance because this is cardboard, you just have to remember that when calculating seams for the real cuts). I then taped the pieces together in the order I was thinking of sewing, and discovered that one of my cuts was the wrong direction, which would have cost me several yards of real fabric. I then had a little model of what my pavilion would hopefully look like.

    Once you have your model, stick it on the table for a few days, live with it, decide if you like it,. Because once you start cutting, you are fairly committed to that design.

    After I knew what the cut order was to be, I sketched out a cut diagram so that I wouldn't make any mistakes once I started, make sure to include seam allowances. I now knew how many and what size each piece would be and where it would go (labeled the model pieces, the cut diagram and then with chalk labeled the cloth pieces as I cut them and their orientation, in vs. outside, edge vs. top, etc.)

    Here's where I made a mistake. For some reason, half way through cutting things out and sewing them, I decided that I had a measurement wrong and 'fixed' it in the middle of things without checking my scale model. Big mistake! If you find what you think is a mistake, STOP! Check your drawing, check the model, check why you think it is a mistake in your plan before you try and correct . I am still fixing my mistake.


    -- Finally

    This article is really more intended on design, but when you are ready to start building, here are some points to consider.

    1. Build in sections, then attach sections together if possible.
    2. I used to iron my seams before I sewed them, they tended to stay flat and it made them easier to sew. It added to my workload, but the seams came out better.
    3. Build a table. I use some sawhorses with cross bracing and a piece of plywood covered with the white plastic. It provided a large surface that allowed me to move a lot of fabric around much more easily than I would have been able to.
    4. Have an assistant. Very hard at times to get the bulk of the material through the sewing machine.
    5. Roll or fold the fabric before you move it through the sewing machine arms.
    6. Use flat fell seams. These are a lot more work, but are worth it for durability and peace of mind.
    7. Use multiple layers, at least 6 wherever grommets will be placed.
    8. It is better to have grommets you don't use than to need one during a wind or rain storm, so put on twice as many for stakes as you think you might need (18 inch spacing should work)

    Index of Previous Columns

    Other articles of interest, mostly about tents and tentmaking

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