Tenting 101, Part 2

“And Isreal journeyed, and spread his tent beyond the tower of Edar.”

-The Bible, Old Testament, Book Not Known

Hey, how’s it going?

A little while ago, I decided to write about one of my old occupations: being a tenter. I wrote a pretty cut and dry piece about the basics of tenting: equipment, jobs, ect….Well, now I’m here to write part 2, which will hopefully be a little less cut and dry: more stories and less technicalities. If you haven’t read Part 1, you might want to brush up before reading this here post. Here’ the link.

Before I get into some tenting stories, however, we need to discuss the two major types of tents being set-up these days: frame tents and centuries/mods.

Frame Tents:

Frame tents are exactly what the name implies: a tent built around a frame. In essence, a frame tent is sort of like a house: its built foundation first, and then the roof is thrown on it.

Frame Tent

Frame tents are built from hollow aluminum pipes: these make up the frame. They are divided up by length: each different lenght are spray painted with a certain color at the tops. If my memory is correct, it goes as follows:

Longest: Reds: reds could either be single barrelled or double barrelled: the double barrelled ones were kind of like two pipes welded together. Because they were so long, they sometimes needed a little extra strength. Reds were almost always used in the top section.

Long whites: long whites are slightly shorter then reds, and used for the same purpose: the top of the frame.

Blues: I may be wrong, but I think blues came next. They were often used as a cross support beam for the roof. The following picture displays what I mean when I say the top part of the tent:

Frame Tent

Our set up was a little different, but the above image shows where these pipes were used. (Note: these legs are entirely different from the legs we used to set up…..don’t pay any attention to those white, wooden things).

Next in line were the short whites. Short whites make up the perimeter: they would be located directly above the two dudes with no shirts on. If my memory is right, they were eight feet long.

Next in line were blacks: blacks were six feet tall and were used as legs.

Greens and yellows were both very short, and used specifically for smaller tents.

With frame tents, the tent is built first, as I’ve first mentioned. The first part of the tent to be built is the perimeter: the perimeter pieces are connected by metal connectors: I’m wracking my brain here, but I believe they were called three pieces and four pieces depending on how many pipe connectors were attached: the corner pieces always had three pieces.

This probably doesn’t make much sense to you if you’ve never tented, but to simplify it: like much like an erector set, the pipes and connectors build a tent frame.

As you may imagine, the taller the frame gets, the trickier it can get to connect certain pieces. At the top of the larger, more complex frames there were often eight-connector pieces known as crowns: eight different pipes had to be inserted, and this could often be tedious work, as by this point, the crown would be about eight feet above everyone’s head. Well, whatever: enough techinal tenting jargon.

Well, after the frame was built (think the picture of the two shirtless dudes under the tent, just no vinyl, no legs, and no shirtless dudes), the vinyl would be applied. First, drops (cloth to protect the vinyl; see part 1 for more details) would be laid out to protect the expensive vinyl. The vinyl would be placed on the cloth and untied, ready to be unrolled. Two men were required for this job: one would unroll the vinyl, the other would pull it across the frame to the other side, using a rope that is attached. Once the vinyl is stretched across the entire frame, its tied down on both sides to make sure its firmly in place, but never too tight: as I’ve mentioned, vinyl is expensive, and if it was secured to tightly, and the vinyl happened to rip, well, someone would be in some shit. I know because every supervisor told me this when I was tightening vinyl. Luckily, no vinyl was ripped on my watch.

Once the vinyl was all in place, the fun would start: time to raise the tent. By this, I mean the legs (blacks) were to be inserted. Now, let me just say: this isn’t exactly easy. It goes like this:

Every guy stops what he’s doing, and comes to one side of the tent, where the legs have previously been laid out. If its a twelve man crew, ten line up along the perimeter. Two stand at either end. On a count, everyone lifts the frame over there heads (note: this is a great workout for the arms; I had a nice set of pipes back in the day). At first this is cool; no sweat. But for about a minute, the frame is being held up, while the dudes are running around at full speed, slamming the legs into there connectors. This is fine if the guys running around are good, but if they’re slow, or if they trip and fall (more likely), things can get interesting. Eventually, barring any craziness, the legs are all put in place, and the tent can rest sideways.

At this point, the same thing is done on the other end: this is actually a little more strenous on the arms, since the both end of the tent are up in the air (makes the arms quiver a tid bit). But after a little more running around and connecting pipe, its cool to let go and admire the fully erected tent.

At this point, pins need to be inserted: every tenter always has a few pins in his pocket, along with some bungees. Once everything is pinned, the tent, in essence, is completed.

Ofcourse, there is always other stuff: sidewalls need to be put in, christmas lights need to be hung, things need to be bungeed, tables and chairs may need to be pushed underneath. But this is really all there is to putting up a frame tent: build the tent, pull the vinyl over, and erect. The times to put up a frame tent vary depending on size: a really large frame can take a whole day to put up, while one guy can erect a 10×10 (ten feet by ten feet…..the smallest possible tent) in about ten minutes.

Notes: as a general rule, most frame tents are smaller than mods or centuries. But some frame tents are massive. The truly huge frame tents can be a little trickier to put up: for instance, if its a 100×200, thats too big for guys to simply lift up when legs need to be put in. So for massive frame tents like this, hydraulic lifters are taken to replace manpower. Ofcourse, a guy has to operate each pump, which is a little tough, since he has to crank at the precise speed of everyone else: there is usually a lot of yelling involved with this process. The reason some folks want giant frames over centuries or mods is that there is a lack of centerpoles (I’ll get into this). Ofcourse, frames can only be so big: they need to be able to support themselves, and eventually, they’d just fall in on themselves. Once everything else is done, staking begins: ropes are tied to the stakes, and the stakes are beaten down with hammers. And that, my friends, is how you build a frame tent.

Mods and Centuries:

Century Tent

The above tent is a century tent, which is about the exact opposite of a frame tent: there is no frame. As you can see, there are large poles holding it up: these are center poles. A mod (or modular tent) is just a slightly different shaped tent (circular), but its pretty much the same thing.

With centuries/mods, the set-up is in the exact opposite order of frames: before the tent is built, the vinyl is stitched together. Since centuries are usually larger (these are the big daddies), the sheaths of vinyl are absolutely huge: this is where special vinyl dollies are needed for transport. I don’t care how strong you are: there is no way you’re carrying a huge piece of vinyl off of a truck. It usually took two dudes to drive a dolly: one to push and one to steer. Coming down a truck ramp, three dudes were often needed.

The vinyl is laid on the ground and rolled out over drops. The lacers take off their shoes, and begin the painstaking task of crawling over the vinyl on their hands and knees, lacing everything together. This is might sound like a nice, relaxing jobs, but there’s a couple things to remember here: first, the vinyl is white (excluding clear vinyl) and reflects the sun very brightly, which means that if its a hot day and you’re in the middle of some field somewhere, you literally roast. Second, lacing is very, very important. If you miss a lace, the mistake won’t be noticed until hours later, when the entire tent is finished: and yes, it will be noticed, because the tent will not look right. If its extreme, the entire thing has to be taken down and started over (in other words, “expletive, expletive, expletive!!”). The old saying goes: ‘Miss a lase, buy a case.’ In case you were wondering: yes, I missed a lace. I remember distinctly which job it was: a tent we were setting up for Vermont Public Radio. We even got free hats. It was about 90 degrees, and I just couldn’t get it right. After four tries (and some help), I figured I had it. Turned out: I didn’t. We didn’t take it down, and I somehow got out of buying a thirty rack, but I still felt like shit.

And the third thing to remember about lacing: you get blisters. But with all this in mind, it is nice to kick off the old workboots and crawl around on your hands and knees for awhile.

Once everything is laced correctly, side poles are attached to the vinyl. Side poles are a little different than the blacks used for frames: first of all, they are not pipes. They are wooden poles, with little metal feet on the bottom. At the top there is a hook to loop to the vinyl.

Once the side poles are attached, its time to raise the center poles. The center poles are the gigantic things in the middle. How are they raised, you ask? Well, like so.

There are two parts to center poles: the pole, and the top. The top part is only about three feet long: it is screwed onto the pole beforehand. The very tip of this is a long point: this is inserted through a whole in the vinyl, and secured. To accomplish this: a group of six or eight guys grab the completed pole; a couple guys hold up the vinyl; and two guys, one being a boss, stand waiting at the whole. When the pole enters, it is directed in by the boss: grabs a hold of it, and puts it through the hole. At this point he turns his attention to the hole, where he must tie and secure it. Without looking, he tells the other guy if the pole should come in a little, go out a little, ect….

Meanwhile, the guys holding the pole wait for the signal to go. Toward the bottom of this pole, there is a hole. And through this whole, a metal pipe, known as a cindy bar (no idea why), is put through to serve as a handle. When the signal is given, four to six guys pull backward on the cindy bar with all of their might….and lift up the entire tent. The center pole stands on a little wooden plank: once it is place, the cindy bar is removed, and it is tied into place. This same process is done for all of the poles.

Once the tent is up, the same stuff goes on as would after a frame tent is set up: staking is still done, but instead of simply rope, quick tights (cranks specific to tenting) are staked to hold the tent down. And that is it.

As for taking down, it can be a little more hectic: the poles can shoot out pretty fast when they’re removed, and the heavy vinyl often falls on everyone’s heads as they’re carrying the pole, but its really just the opposite of the set-up.

Other tenting specifics:

Dance floor and flooring: This is a pretty intricate part of tenting: you can imagine how many events require some kind of floor. Dance floor is pretty simple: sheathing is laid down, and the dance floor is drilled into place. But flooring is a little more complex: it is more secure, meaning that two by fours are laid out before the sheathing. The sheathing is drilled into the two by fours, and then the flooring is screwed into the sheathing.

Any type of flooring has to be built before the tent is put up: that means its always in the elements. If its hot and sunny, there is no vinyl to shade you as you painstakingly drill. If its raining, diddo. Of all the jobs associated with tenting….I hated flooring the most.

Stage: stage is another thing we set up a lot. Stage, despite its appearance, is infinetely more easy to set up than flooring. Its pretty much like putting a puzzle together: all the pieces fit perfectly. The only thing is that stage is heavy, but with a dolly, this isn’t a problem. (There was some special stage, however, that we set up for an outdoor Shakespeare production ontime, that was simply atrocious. Everytime I lifted it off the flatbead truck, I thought I was going to lose a finger. That was the last week I was working there, and I remember how relieved I was that it in my next job I wouldn’t have to worry about my fingers).

Tables and chairs: tables and chairs are intricate parts of tenting. Rounds are rolled; 8ft banquets and six ft. squares are carried (the squares are a bitch!); chairs are pushed on dollys. A general rule concerning 8 foot banquet tables, which are the standard tables at most events: if you don’t take two on your shoulder, you’re a total pussy.

And that my friends, wraps up this Tenting 101 Seminar. Now, whenever you walk by one of those pretty little tents outside, you can tell your friends, “Hey, that center pole was lifted by a few guys with a cindy bar, and let me tell you, its no laughing matter if a lace is missed beforehand.”

Now, before I go: some memorable tents:

Bennington College, Bennington, Vermont, June 2005:

This was a memorable trip for me. Often in tenting there are overnights: this is when a job is so far away and/or huge that it is required that atleast a few guys stay in a motel for an overnight. Overnights are good for a couple reasons: you get paid a lot of OT, and my company gave us 35 bucks cash for each night there, which is more than enough for dinner and some beers. The bad part: every overnight I was ever on was excrutiatingly hard work.

Bennington College was my first overnight. I was driving White Beauty (one of our pickups) down Route 7 in Vermont: from Burlington to Bennington, it is about a three hour drive (in those slow trucks). For those of you who don’t know: Route 7 through Vermont is one of the most spectacularly scenic roads in the country (no joke). As we headed through southern Vermont, we’d pop over a ridge line and it would be endless vistas of green mountains. Honestly, that’s one of the greatest rides I’ve ever had.

The town of Bennington is large enough for Vermont (about 10,000 I think), but Bennington College is pretty seperate from the town. A few things about the school: it was once officially the most expensive school in the country. This was brought up on an episode of the Cosby Show, when Dr. Huxtable’s daughter wanted to attend. The campus is located on top of large hill, and is surrounded by large hills, and is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Ofcourse, the kids are all weirdos.

Now, there was a running subplot with Bennington College: my former employer sets up their graduation tents every year. The year before, the school had set aside a bungalow for the guys to sleep in. Well, one thing led to another, some beer was bought, and the next thing you know, an all-out party was going on. In case you weren’t aware: this is not a party school. To top it all off: from what I heard, some of the guys had a very good time with the ladies, if you know what I mean.

Well, the school couldn’t help but notice that a huge party had gone down in the tenters bungalow. About a week before we went down in 2005, an email was sent to everyone at the tenting company (with an email address……tenters didn’t apply). In it, it was stated, very clearly, that no tenter was to have any verbal contact, whatsoever, with any students.

Getting out the trucks, my boss took us aside, and gave us this little speil:

“Okay guys, look, I don’t care what happened last year….you’ve all heard about the email. You cannot talk to these people. Don’t even look at them. If they try to talk to you, ignore them. Please.”

So that was it. We set up the tents (a couple frames and a large century) and ignored any verbal contact that people tried to iniate with us. It all worked fine, until lunch.

To speed up the staking, we were using a staking machine to get the job done quicker: two of us were running it. I was helping to hold it, and the other guy was running it. We both had ear plugs in. Well, at about stake number 20, I felt something hot sting me, and saw something come out of the machine at the same time. Before I could say anything, hot oil started spraying all over me.  I yelled, but due to the earplugs, my partner couldn’t hear me.  So I took a hand off the machine and punched him: he stopped and looked at me, and saw oil all over me.  Well, it wasn’t a big deal, but we didn’t have any napkins, and it was lunchtime, so we headed into the cafe.  We all looked like typical workers (dirty and sweaty) except me: dirty, sweaty, and covered in oil.  There was oil in my mouth (I distinctly remember that).

I remember walking into the cafe to get a couple napkins and some free pizza, and some girl stopped:

“Ohh my God, what happened to??  Are you okay??”

“Ahh, it was just an oil spill….no big deal.  Hey, is the pizza here good?”

And then I remembered Marty’s words, and the email, and feeling a little weird, I walked away before I could get an answer.  So I broke the whole speech thing; luckily, I wasn’t fired.

Also on that day:  I ripped open my hand using a rubber hammer (kids: always use plastic handled hammers; rubber hammers are evil), leaving a gash that would stick around for a month, and a scar that I still have to this day.  That night, I drank two beers and fell into a deep sleep while watching the Red Sox in a motel room a couple miles from campus (we were banned from the bungalow).  But honestly, that was one of my memorable tenting trips.  I’m not sure why: I think over everything, because it was so damned beautiful down there.  That’s the great thing about tenting: you see cool places.

Some day, I might post more about cool tenting stories: I’ve got tons of them.  For now, though, I’m exhausted.  I’ve gotta go.  If you ever wanna know more about tenting, let me know.

Until Next Time,


2 thoughts on “Tenting 101, Part 2

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