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How to make a Tipi (Lodge)

Here's a straight forward design guide to constructing a tipi - whether for the children in the garden, camping or festivals.

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The social condition of the North Americans has been greatly misunderstood. The place of woman in the tribe was not that of a slave or of a beast of burden. The existence of the gentile organization, in most tribes, with descent in the female line, forbade any such subjugation of woman. In many tribes, women took part in the councils of the chiefs; in some, women were even the tribal rulers; while in all, they received a fair measure of respect and affection from those related to them.

The making of a tipi was a social event for the women. The hostess, the one who requested the new tipi, served meals to her volunteer helpers. Around the sewing circle there was much socializing, talking, and singing. Depending on the size of the tipi, it would take 6 to 28 hides to cover the pole frame.

The floor of the tipi represents sacred earth, its roundness the sacred life circle, which has no beginning and no ending. The sides of the tipi symbolizes the sky. Even the most modest tipi had an altar at which prayers were said and sweet grass or sage was burned as a purifier.

The tipi was the woman's castle. She made it, she set it up, she packed it, and she owned it. The tipi was strong enough to withstand the strongest prairie winds, but it was light enough to be struck and packed in minutes. Tipi poles were used to make the travois.

Tipis originate from the plains of North America where the native tribes made them from buffalo hide (or other large mammal hides like moose or elk) and lodge pole pine. Now, due to the lack of Buffalo hide and the abundance of cotton, they are made from canvas. A list of materials and tools is listed at the bottom of this page.

Method of Construction

Cutting the poles. Cut fresh poles from the woods. Green poles work easier and last longer than poles that are already seasoned. The straighter and thinner the poles are the better they will be. So, carefully select your trees before you cut them. Cut all the branches off with your billhook as close to the trunk as possible. Remove the bark and pith without damaging the wood. Now leave the poles to season. Three weeks maximum.

Making the cover. White cotton canvas is the best for creating a well lit interior, 12oz is reasonably hardwearing but not too heavy to handle. Semi-synthetic canvas's are also available. First cut out the smoke flaps and gussets and sew together. Hem the top edge and sew canvas loops or pockets to the corners to hold the smoke flap poles. The lifting triangle is made of two layers of canvas with the first strip sandwiched between them and sewn several times to reinforce. (See Fig1).

Canvas plan Figure 1

Next, cut the front strip by splitting a 10' strip of canvas lengthways down the center. Use one half for each side. Fold the raw edge back 4.5", hem and sew down. Cut out the door and bind with a strip of canvas.

Canvas plan detail

Punch holes for the lacing pins and sew around them in blanket stitch, (we use embroidery silk for this, a different color for each pair of button holes works nice).

Join the smoke flaps to the front strip with a French seam, sewing the join several times or reinforcing with a small piece of canvas. Add small flaps of canvas to the bottom of each smoke flap.

The remaining strips of canvas are then added to this one at a time. Each one must overlap the other like roofing slates so that the water will run off.

The whole thing is then laid out flat and cut into a semi-circle with a radius of 16'. To do this make a compass with a sharpened stick, a piece of string 16' long and a pencil. Push the stick into the ground near the outside edge and mark out a semi-circle as large as possible with the canvas available. Cut out and hem.

The green poles should now be seasoned and dry. They now need to be smoothed off. Use a billhook to remove any branch stubs. Then use an electric planer or a surfer to get the poles as smooth as possible before sanding. The smoother the poles the better the rain will run down them. Any notches or scratches will cause drips and wear at the canvas.

It is erected by placing three poles on the cover laid flat on the ground as in figure 2. The poles are tied where they cross at the lifting triangle with 35' of stout rope, using a clove hitch then a reefknot.

Canvas Plan Figure 2

Canvas Plan Figure 3

They are then lifted and splayed into a tripod. The tripod shape is crucial and should be as near to figure 3 as possible when looking from where the door is going to be. The door is usually facing east. D is the pole on the left of the door.

When the tripod is up the rest of the poles are added into the circle (figure 4). Pole 1 is the other side of the door, then 2 then 3. Then 4, 5 and 6 are laid on the other side of the circle as in figure 4. These poles all lie on the front of the crown where the smoke hole will be, letting the cover wrap tightly round the back of the tipi. 7 and 8 are then put in the back of the circle leaving a gap for the lifting pole (LP).

The rope is then wound tightly round all the poles four times (for the four directions - four seasons) and anchored to pegs in the ground. The lifting pole is then laid down the center of the cover, the butt of the pole protruding 4" past the bottom edge. The lifting triangle (L) is then tied securely to the lifting pole where they meet.

The cover is then folded round the lift pole and heaved into place, wrapped around the poles and laced up the front with lacing pins (cut from 1/2" straight hazel/willow).

Adjust the spacing of the poles at this point for a nice tight cover. Smoke flap poles are pushed through the loops at the top of the smoke flaps on the outside of the tipi - they adjust the direction of the smoke hole depending on the wind.

Cords are attached to the bottom of the cover at each pole using a clove hitch and pegged to the ground. More poles are added into the frame for bigger tipis. The door is then attached over the doorway either with a lacing pin or tied around the door poles (figure 5).

Canvas Plan Figure 4

Canvas Plan Figure 5

Cut cord into 20" lengths x 12. Tie the pebbles into the canvas using a clove hitch at the bottom of each pole. These will be used to tie the cover to the pegs. In the same way, but using two 8' lengths of cord, tie one pebble at the bottom corner of each smoke flap. Find a forked stick and push it into the ground 5' in front of the door, this should be 4-4.5' in length. Tie the smoke flap lines to this so that the bottoms of the smoke flaps are pulled taut.

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The tipi is basically a chimney for the fire in the middle, drawing air in around the bottom and sending the smoke out of the top. A lining for insulating and draft excluding can be hung around the inside from a cord wrapped around the poles. There are many furnishings, fittings, rituals and layouts which go with a tipi to make it complete.

Materials

14 pine poles 19-21' long and 2-3" in diameter 16' from the butt end.
48 meters of white 12oz 36 inch wide water-resistant canvas.
15 meters of strong nylon cord.
One large bobbin of strong nylon.
35 ft. manila rope.
12 18 inch lengths of green hazel 2 inches in diameter to make tent pegs.
12 10 inch lengths of green hazel 1/2 inch in diameter to make lacing pins.
A handful of small pebbles to hold the strings around the bottom of the lodge.
Poles are widely available from things of most Forestry Commission Fir and Spruce plantations.

Tools

Bowsaw
Billhook or hand axe
Draw knife
Planer or surform
Sharp knife
Tape measure
To make the cover
Sewing machine - Treadle or
hand or industrial
Scissors
Tape measure
Hole punch
Sewing needle
Flat area for measuring canvas and cutting out cover.
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