Fritz Wilhelm, LLC Tentbuilder & Joiner
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To build a tent you need a number of materials. This will be a discussion of these materials, what to look for, and where to get it. First off, just let me say, Get good materials.

You are going to spend somewhere between 40 and 100 hours building your tent. This is a lot less than building a house,but it's still a major project. Even if you paid yourself minimum wage the labor is going to be the majority of the cost. This doesn't mean you need to get the absolute be-all and end-all, gold plated, super best stuff you can find and cost be damned. It does mean that this is not the place to get cheap. Buy good materials and you tent will keep you warm and dry for years.


Don't skimp on your canvas. I don't know how many times I've talked to someone who built their own tent out of some stuff they got at Wal-mart, (or Jo Ann's or where ever) for only $2.50 a yard or something like that. I ask them, "So how did that work for you?". "Oh, it's great.", they reply. "You know, it mists through if it rains really hard, but that's to be expected.".

This appalls me. If my stuff inside my tent is getting wet, the guy next door better be done building his ark because I'm packing up and hitching a ride. I don't like beds that go squish and I won't carry poly-tarps to cover everything inside my beautiful period pavilion when it rains. Suffice it to say, good canvas may cost a little bit more, but a dry bed is priceless.

So, what do you want? Linen and Hemp are prohibitively expensive ($25+/yard), Cotton is not as period (at least for Europe), but has a reasonably accurate look and feel, and reasonable price. Synthetics like Nylon or Polyester are very strong, but look like plastic, are expensive, and are not naturally waterproof (they require a coating because the fibers don't swell when wet).

Of the above, cotton makes a nice compromise, so we will go for that. For strength and water resistance we want a nice tight weave. And preferably a balanced one like 40x40 or so. This means that there are 40 yarns per inch in both directions. There are still lots of options, but I like Sunforger treated fabric for two reasons.

  1. Mildew resistance. - Though it is definitly not mildew proof, the treatment does at least help a bit. It's nice, when you have to pack up in the rain, to know that your tent will at least last until you get home to hang it out to dry.
  2. Preshrinking - Running 35 yards of heavy fabric through the wash is a pain in the butt. With Sunforger you don't have to.

Flame Retardant Canvas

In most states, weather or not to use flame retardant coatings is a matter personal choice (check with your state government). I will give you a bit of information on which to base your decision.

  1. It's a coating: Other than certain exotic fibers like Nomex, a fabric must have something added to it to be flame retardant. This stuff will wear off over time, typically a few years.
  2. It's Flame Retardant: Not fire PROOF. If you apply flame it WILL burn. However, with the flame retardant, it will go out as soon as you remove the source of ignition.
  3. Added weight: The coating increases the weight of cotton canvas by about 20%.
  4. More difficult sewing: The coating increases friction on the needle so it is more difficult to sew. This isn't really a problem with an industrial sewing machine, but will give you some trouble on home machines.
  5. Odor: The coating has a slight odor. It's not terrible, some people don't mind, others find it objectionable. It fades somewhat over time.
  6. Waxy texture: The coating leaves a slightly waxy texture to the fabric.
  7. Whiter Color: Flame retardant canvas is a bit whiter in color than standard undyed cotton. Some like this, others don't.
  8. Cost: Flame retardancy typically adds about 30% to the cost of the canvas.

For large quantities, ITEX is the best place to get canvas (they are on my Links page). If you are just making one tent (or even smaller projects) I will sell the same 10.1 oz, 58", Sunforger canvas that I use. For prices check my price list. If you are interested just contact me.


You want a heavy cotton covered poly thread. Pure cotton is not strong enough in weights that you can use on a sewing machine. Pure polyester or nylon has two problems. First, it's much stronger and harder than the cotton yarns in the fabric. This means that, over time, the thread may cut the fabric. Second, synthetics won't swell when they get wet. Cotton swells and helps seal the hole that it is going through. Cotton wrapped poly is a good compromise.

So... what does "Heavy" mean? Thread Sizing is mind boggling. There are half a dozen different sizing schemes in use. Most manufacturers don't even say what size the thread is or if they do, don't tell you what sizing scheme they are using, so you still don't know anything.


One recent attempt to standardize this mess has given us the sizing system known as TEX. The TEX number is the number of grams that 1000 meters of the thread weighs. This means that bigger numbers mean bigger thread.

Cotton Count

Another common system is the "Cotton Count" system. This refers to the number of 840 yard hanks of yarn in 1 pound. Small numbers mean big thread, the reverse of the TEX system. Also note that I said hanks of Yarn, not of thread. That means that if we say #12, we haven't actually defined the thread yet. We also need to say how many yarns make up the thread. Most thread has 2 yarns so often people say #12 when they mean 12/2.

By the way, 12/2 comes out to TEX-105 and is a pretty good size for making tents.

Where to Buy

Where to get it is a bit tricky. The best thread that I've found available in retail is Coats & Clark "Button and Craft" thread ("Button and Carpet" in some locations). It is a three ply (three yarns) TEX-105 thread with a glacé finish (helps for hand sewing). The problem is that it only comes in 50 or 75 yard spools. Given that you are going to need 500+ yards to make a pavilion and most stores only carry 3-4 spools at a time, this can get old.

I purchase thread in 6000 yard cones and, if there is interest, will look into some way of winding smaller spools for sale.


You can make your own webbing for straps and stake loops and such by cutting strips of canvas about 2" wide. You roll this and top stitch it and you can get nice tough "webbing" about 1/2" wide.

However, Jas. Townsend (on the Links page) has a number of sizes of medium and heavy cotton webbing available by the yard. It's inexpensive and saves a lot of work over rolling your own. I use the 5/8" for ties, the 1" Heavy for stake loops, and the 1" medium for pretty much everything else.


Ash and Oak are excellent choices. Pine is much weaker and nearly as expensive if you want it knot free (you do). Poplar is reasonably priced, but still a lot weaker than "real" hardwoods and, personally, I think its coloration is rather ugly.

Construction materials, i.e. two by fours and the like, are cheap, but nearly impossible to find knot free, straight, and dry. I'd avoid these for pavilion purposes.

Most decent sized cities will have a hardwood store or woodworkers supply store with much better selection and prices than building supply stores (i.e. Home Depot). Locally, I can get ash for $2.50 to $3.00 per board foot. Due to shipping costs, I would recommend investigating your local stores, but if you don't turn up anything, contact me and I may be able help you out.


Your first choice is natural vs. synthetic fibers. Given that you are going to the trouble and expense to build a Period tent, I think we can discard the synthetic ropes right off the bat. However, there are actually some pretty neat synthetic ropes made to look and feel a lot like natural hemp (for use on classic sailing vessels) I haven't actually tried them out though, and I think they are pretty pricey

For natural fibers, your choices are Cotton, Manila, Jute, Sisal, and Hemp (or silk if you have lots of money) Of these, only hemp was commonly used in Renaissance Europe. Additionally, Manila, Jute, and Sisal have hard fibers that can give you splinters. Cotton clothesline is very cheap and strong enough for use as a set-up rope on a self-guying round pavilion. Manila rope is inexpensive and often available at local hardware stores in sizes reasonable for guy lines. My favorite though, is hemp, both for the "hand" or feel of it and for the period correctness.

The best source I have found so far is R&W Rope Warehouse (on the links page). The price ends up being pretty comparable to buying Manila locally.


Most cities will have a steel supplier. This is probably your best bet for materials for spikes or for sleeves for a splice in a center pole. If you can't find a steel supplier, see if you can find a welding supply store and ask them.

If the steel yard doesn't want to sell small pieces of tube and you don't want to buy 20 feet, contact me and we can work something out.

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