Making a Sturdy Wood tripod out of a (flimsy / cheap / shaky) aluminium tripod.
- improved viewing stability
- custom viewing height
- strokes your ego
into believing you can actually do something useful, and even quite pretty,
Budget: circa 100 Euros (120$) depending
on materials (softwood or hardwood), and scrap materials you might have.
Workforce: 1 person
Workload: 1 man-days
Logistics: 1 trip to the hardware store
Skills required: if you have both a left AND a
right thumb, you qualify
Reversible operation: YES.
I tried to make this article as comprehensive
as possible, for the newbiest of beginners I could
think of, so I made it out into paragraphs so you can figure out which parts
you need to read and which you can skip. Most of the time I used metric
measurements; remember that 25mm ~ 1”, and that anyway most measures I gave
were for indicative purposes – you will adapt your dimensions to your
I’ve been an astronomer all my life. I’ve been
a member of the CN forums for a couple years, and seemingly every week, veteran
observers and beginners alike come in and complain about how shaky their
scope’s mount is. Very often, it boils down to how flimsy the tripod is. The
tripod is simply not the priority for most buyers. After all, as a teenager, I
was dreaming of owning a C11 or C14 to knock the daylights out of my dad’s C8. I
was never dreaming of a solid oak tripod with 3” cross section beams.
Solutions include: changing your tripod and/or
mount altogether, as well as filling tripods with sand or concrete, hanging
milk jugs under the tripod (like there is not enough stuff dangling around
telescopes and our spouses are not making enough fun of us yet), and avoiding
magnifications above 20x.
My favourite solution consists in a “makeover”
of your existing tripod, by replacing the lightweight legs with beefier wooden
ones, and adding stiffness by suppressing the moving parts of a standard
tripod. The only part of the old tripod we are keeping is the tripod hub,
because it’s rarely to blame, and it would be quite difficult to manufacture a
new one (at least with my skills!). I make (the pictures in this article are
from my third tripod) legs with an “H” pattern, because they offer optimum
rigidity, just like the steel beams used in construction.
There are two critical numbers you need to know
when building your tripod:
- the width of the
(w1 in my figures), which is the protruding part of the hub where
the leg mates to the hub.
- the height of the
The first one is easy: you take a ruler, or
ideally a calliper, and measure. This is important because it will determine
the width of the centre furring strip of your legs (w1 in figure1), the one
which is the “-“ in the “H”. It is important for this
to be tight. If the lug is 36mm wide, and you have the choice between a 35mm
wide plank and a 37mm wide one, take the 35mm. I’ll explain later why.
In my case it was 39mm; I took some 39x30 (w1 x
t1) oak for the centre strip (the 30, t1, is not critical; you just want
something narrower than 39mm, and wide enough to drive a screw through it (in
the pictures the centre strip is awkward looking because I glued together three
strips to get the proper width).
Then I found some 40x25 (w2 x t2) mm oak for
the “|” of the “H”: again, precise measurement is not paramount; it just needs
to be “wider” than the centre strip. The wider the strip, the
stiffer the tripod.
of the tripod
Guys who have owned 22 scopes and 15 mounts can
skip this one.
Not only can you make a good tripod, you can
make a tripod which is good for you. This section is a little long, but with all
the work you are going through, you might as well have it the right size.
Step 1: determine the
height variation in eyepiece position with your current tripod.
Step 1.1.: point the telescope at the zenith;
measure height of the eyepiece (say, 700mm)
Step 1.2.: point the telescope at the horizon,
or as close to the horizon as you are likely to observe (either because of
obstructions or because you know you never observe stuff close to the horizon),
maybe 15° altitude (say, 1200mm)
Conclusion: the variation in height is 500mm in
Step 2: determine your
optimal observing height (assuming you use a chair)
Step 2.1: sit on your chair at its lowest
setting, sit in a slightly crouched position (the position at which your eye is
lowest, without causing discomfort) (ok, say, 900mm – 36”)
Step 2.2: sit on your chair at its highest
setting, making yourself as tall as you can without causing discomfort (say,
So your eye’s variation in height is only
400mm, while the eyepiece can move 500mm (20”). You make up your mind on where
you compromise. Let’s say we decide we want the lowest eye position to be 900mm
(36”): we obviously need to make your eyepiece 200mm (8”) taller than your
Step3: measure the
height (not the legs’ length!) of your current tripod.
Let’s assume it is 1100mm: you need an 1300mm (52”) tall tripod (this succession of steps might
seem a little dumb, but it’s easier than measuring the variation of your mount,
especially if it’s a GEM. This procedure at least is fool-proof).
Step4: determining the
angle of the tripod legs
I don’t have a secret recipe here. The angle is
important (it’s a look-and-feel thing too: if afterwards you are always afraid
to topple the mount over because the base is too narrow, or to hit a leg all
the time because it is too wide, you will hate your tripod, and me in the
process), the width of the base too (in my case, I use a Giro alt-az mount, so the centre of gravity is not above the centre
of the tripod, so I need the base to be wide). For mechanical purposes, the
stiffest angle is that at which your tripod and the ground make a “perfect”
tetrahedron, so that makes the max angle. In practice that angle is quite, well, impractical because your legs will be all over
You can “practice” with your current tripod to
see what kind of angle you want, and measure the height vs. leg length ratio.
In our practice case, that means 1500mm legs (5’).
Now you can be a little creative. You make
yourself a chart such as this one, to determine the shape you want to give.
The centre beam is in two parts; the upper one
can be pretty short, it’s just for rigidity. The lower part can be made to be
adjustable, with three screw-holes, meaning you can get it higher, for the day
you purchase that f/15 refractor or want to observe standing. You also want the
side beams, which bring most of the stiffness, to go quite low. Then you can be
a little cheap and adjust the lengths depending on the lengths of the beams
available at your hardware store. Hardwood is expensive, and you will have a
hard time finding use for the leftover parts, so don’t be too proud to be a
little scroogy. My experience shows that the bottom
of the leg, as it’s a single piece of wood, is the part giving most of the
instability to the system, so it’s best to keep the extending part short.
Now is the time to cut your wood – no comment
to add here.
Then, choose which beams you are going to
mate together to make the legs. This step is quite important as beams you
purchase are seldom very straight. So see which parts fit best together. Then
you mark where you are going to make your holes.
My recommendation is to use a vise or grips to hold the parts together and drill the
“assembled” leg. Why? You are not a professional, so you are not likely to
drive those holes perfectly straight, and having those holes unaligned is going
to be a problem when you want to drive your screws – especially if you use
hardwood, because the screw will have a hard time “nudging” its way down.
In my case my grips were not wide enough to
drill all three beams at once, so I did them two by two.
The little tricks here to make your tripod
look handsome are:
- on the “top” side beam (remember, the “|”
of our “H”), make a little hole slightly wider to accommodate the head of the
screw (otherwise, you will either have the head of the screw protruding, or
have to squash the wood to also drive the head in the beam).
- Adjust the drill’s length to avoid drilling
the “low” side beam all the way. This way you will not have an “empty” hole.
The important tip here is: whatever you do,
keep the tops (the part where it will mate with the tripod’s hub) perfectly
aligned. This is where you have zero tolerance.
Don’t forget to drill holes for the bolts
holding the tripod to its hub! By the way, you will probably need longer bolts
than those of your current legs. Keep the old bolts to hold your old legs
together. Drill those holes with your two side beams pressed against one
another, and again with the tops aligned. Experience shows that if you have to
“force” the bolts when you mate the legs to the tripod, you will have
vibrations, and if the holes are too loose, you will lose stiffness and the
legs and hub will wiggle.
Here it’s all the more difficult to make a
straight hole because you need to bore a wide one (on mine: 8mm). Make a hole
with a narrower drill (4mm), which will be easier to drill precisely, and use
it as a guide for the large hole.
Check out to see if you need to round off the
top of the legs so they can fit near the hub. The easiest being to chip off
the corner with a saw, then rounding it with a file.
Check also how tight the legs mate to the
hub’s feet. Ideally, it will be the right size and tightening the bolt will
make it rock solid. Otherwise you can sand off a little of the “ | “s. It’s better to have to do that than to have the
foot wiggling (you can try to fix that with washers or something, but in my
case it proved quite un-efficient, and allowed for sideways movement of the
tripod when I moved the scope sideways.
You can now screw your legs together (don’t
glue yet, and screw the “spacers” loosely). Mate them to the tripod. Tighten
the screwing of the “spacers”
Do the legs one by one. It will avoid mixing
the parts, and if you make a dumb mistake, you will notice it after doing it
only once, not thrice.
Now you have a tripod. Looks neat, huh? It’s
probably already stiffer than what you had. But there’s something missing:
On most tripods, the spreader is just three
plastic bars that avoid the tripod from falling apart,
it does not have much strength. Here we will make a one-piece, solid
spreader, which will not only make our tripod into a stiff tetrahedron, but
also serve as an eyepiece tray.
Notice I had not discussed this part yet. My
belief is that it’s better to decide where to place it once you have your
tripod assembled: you have a better feel of what your tripod looks like
(especially if the height and leg angle are very different from the original
tripod), and where you want the tray to be. It’s also your last chance to
adjust the angle of the legs.
The spreader is obviously the most difficult
piece to make. The inside shape does not matter much (it can be a triangle or
a circle, as you like it), but the three outside pegs have to be at your best
120° angle. They have to be as close to the width of the “-“
as possible, again for stability’s sake. Then you have to drill the
pegs sideways, as well as the legs. Ideally, you would have a second person
helping you for a minute here, and you could pierce the peg and leg all at
once (which, again, will help you put the bolt in and out- all the more
because this will allow you to fold the tripod for storage).
There you have two options (figure 2): either
you have board thick enough to drill through it, or you have a thin board,
and place a thick piece of wood under to drive the bolt through it.
Once this is done, you can tighten back all
your screws, glue and varnish. I say glue but I actually never did that: I
thought the legs were stiff enough, gluing would not add much and you can’t
adjust your tripod later. Do it only if you are 100% sure you are never going
to change a thing.
Varnishing is not an emergency, but do it for the looks of your tripod, as well as protecting
it against humidity; it also seems that varnish hardens softwood a little,
making it less sensitive to little hits that would scratch / dent the wood.
You now have a beautiful tripod, which is
functional, makes viewing more comfortable for your eyes and spine. And it’s
still mid-afternoon on Saturday: you still have time for a nap before
observing. Keep your old aluminium tripod legs: they can come in handy when
you go see that Eclipse in Chile.
tips coming from non-carpenters who learned them the hard way:
screws. Ideally, they are just a tad short of the width of your new
hex bolts with nuts and washers.
strips : about 8m (25’) long of them, depending on your plans
board, at least 1/2” thick, and roughly 2’ x 2’ (exact size and shape
unimportant; see if the hardware store has a corner with scrap sheets of
Power drill with wood drill bits (duh)
Handsaw or electric saw
Ruler or calliper
Vice or clamps
Gloves, earplugs, glasses
out not to take on face value the dimensions of the wood you buy. If you
buy a 2000mm plank and cut a 400mm piece, don’t expect the last part to be
exactly 1600mm. It might well be 1595 or 1610. Same for the width: often,
the dimensions are taken before the beam is sanded. So that 35mm cross section
beam might turn out to be 33.5. Take your ruler with you to the store.
you have a 5mm screw, make your hole with the 4mm drill, not the 5mm.
Otherwise the screw might not be tight in the wood.
you drill a piece of wood, keep a scrap piece of wood pressed under the
drill part. It will avoid the wood on the backside to “explode” when the
drill reaches the other side.
those gloves on. It might just protect you from benign hurts, but benign
wounds to your hands can get pretty irritating because they will get in
the way of whatever you do, and take weeks to heal completely.
those glasses on. You can have a tiny shard of wood flying into your eye, it will feel like a telephone pole. Last week I
was taking some staples off a wooden case with pliers, and one staple
“bounced” off and scratched my eyelid. I don’t want to know what would
have happened if it had been half an inch off.