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Tent of Ravenspeak - A Rebuilding (2 of 2)

posted Sep 10, 2017, 1:16 PM by Freydis Egilsdottir   [ updated Sep 13, 2017, 2:25 AM by Mikhail H- ]
written by Freydis.

We are House Ravenspeak.  Ravens Peak?  Raven Speak?  Raves on Peak?  Yes!  In A.S. 30 (CE 1995), when we were finally able to move from our old canvas Sears tent (a brown-and-mustard hand-me-down from Freydis's parents "medievalized" by covering the external metal poles with matching mustard-coloured dagging) into our dream period pavilion, we knew precisely two things: the structure of it should be based on our very good friend (he was Best Man at our wedding) Connor's fantastic Norse tent; and we knew we wanted to have the finials carved.

Carved finials (the bits of the vertical wooden legs sticking up above the ridge pole) are of course de rigeur for Norse tents.  The Gokstad tent (found with the 9th century Gokstad ship in Norway) had carved finials, pretty similar to the carved bedposts found in the Oseberg ship burial; and pretty much every Norse tent since has had them as well, and if you see one that has just the plain boards, it is probably because they simply have not yet been able to do the carving.

Or, you know, it's the thrall tent.

British Museum pic
We were deciding what the name of our fledgling, at-the-time two-person Norse household should be at the same time as we were trying to decide what design we should put on the finials.  Long story short, we decided to adapt the design of a bird from an Anglo-Saxon shield mount (generally interpreted as an eagle, although to our eyes it always looked more like, and made more sense, as a raven) as our household crest, putting it onto our banner, and carving it into the peaks of our 2x6"  tent beams.

And that way, see, we are the household with the ravens on the peak of the tent.  Ravenspeak!  But also, it could be referring to Hugin and Munin (there being two of them there, of course), and the way they whisper into Odin's ears all that they see in the world each day.  Plus, as a nice bonus, the construction of the frame of the tent being literally strong enough for an adult man to climb up and sit upon (while waving a battle axe, to boot), it could even be raves-on-peak. Har.

And so we are House Ravenspeak, with the big Norse tent with ravens on the peak.

Connor had built a super spiff Norse tent a few years earlier, and it was fantastic.  At a time when a lot of the Norse tents being sold commercially in the SCA called for the inverted V (or A, which of course is why it's called a Norse A-frame) of the vertical legs to not be joined by a third, horizontal beam along the bottom, with the long edges of the fabric being held down by stakes in the ground (more like a tarp draped over a ridge pole with doors added than anything else), he had added a horizontal beam at the ends, which kept the vertical beams stable; and had added rope cross-bracing which kept the whole thing stable; and supplemented the ridge pole with additional horizontal beams along the long edges at the lower extremities of the wooden beams, so each point of the vertical triangle of wooden beams at each end was joined to the corresponding angle at the other end.  This, together with the cross bracing, made for an incredibly stable and strong frame (we've actually used ours to pull an engine out of a car).

Now, I don't believe he was the first to have those additional two bottom poles; some other tents ditched the stakes and had a sleeve at the bottom edge of the fabric that the bottom poles went through, instead.  However, it could not ever be made completely taut, and I seem to recall that Norse tents tended to be pretty small (despite both the Gokstad and both the Oseberg tents being pretty close in ours as ours--although this is likely more a reflection of the capacity of the vehicle being used to attend events than anything else) and had something of a reputation for leaking.

So far as I am aware (Connor can correct me if I'm wrong!), he was the first one to lace his walls taut.  The footprint of his tent is 8 x 10', with it being proportionately tall; and he would thread a rope back and forth like a corset, through grommets along the long bottom edge of his walls (which wrapped under the lower horizontal poles--which the originals did seem to use in both ship finds), up over his ridge pole, and down to the next grommet on the other side.  This allowed him to snug the walls taut.  The downside was that it was time-consuming especially with him having to climb onto and off a chest to reach the ridge pole if he didn't have someone there to help, and a bit fiddly.

So we really, really liked his design, considering the construction far superior to any other Norse tent we had seen.  And hey, his 8' x 10' footprint worked perfectly well for him over the course of a weekend, or even a week-long event; heck, I think he once went camping in it for a month, didn't he?  Lots of room for his bed and a chest of stuff and some floor space to get dressed in.

But there were two of us, so we might want a bit of a bigger bed, so maybe we ought to bump it up to 10 x 12'?  Maybe a bit bigger, if we want to be able to host friends inside as well.  12 x 14?  Hey, if we make it 12 x 16' we can hang a small brazier from the ridge pole down one end!  That would help a lot to heat it on cold days (the Clinton War, the big annual event in An Tir, was at the top end of a desert, so while it could be approaching 50c in the daytime, at night it would get freezing; you could even see your breath!).  Plus morning coffee could be had without leaving our tent, ha ha.  Hey, what if it rained for the whole event?  Wouldn't it be great if it was big enough that we could live comfortably in it for the whole weekend without feeling cramped?  Or a week?  And still host friends?  Better make it 13 x 20'.

So we priced out fabric (sadly, the strong canvas we wanted didn't come in colours, then; the only way we could get colour would be to go with plastic awning-type stuff, which is the only reason it's not striped), and the place we talked to would also sew it up to our specifications for 10% of the purchase cost, so why the hell not, right? So we did up plans, and built our frame while they sewed, and went to pick it up--and they'd done something weird with the bottom angle on the doors, which resulted in them only hanging right if it was 16' wide, instead of 13'.  Which is why the tent on the front page is so tall and pointy; we took that photo as soon as we'd gotten the fabric home and the tent set up, and the frame is still built to be 13' wide.  Good thing we had to buy 16-footers to be able to get the right length, and hadn't cut them short yet!

And that's why our old beams had an extra hole drilled through three feet from the ends.  The End.

--Naw, not the end, of course, ha ha.

So we were a bit put out, because we'd very carefully planned our tent over the course of a year or two, taking into account every factor we could think of, and this wider, lower set-up looked squat and unwieldy, comparatively speaking; and of course one couldn't walk so close to the edges without hitting the walls.  However, the actual width of clear walking space hadn't changed much; the lowered walls gave us extra storage space along the sides, out of our walking area; and the lowered ceiling would still be able to accommodate our lanterns (kerosene hurricane lanterns, which give great light and, with five of them, plus whatever candles and/or lanterns on the tables, heat the tent up beautifully when the doors are closed) without us bashing our heads on them or being so close to the roof that they'd be a fire hazard.

So in the end, we stuck with the 16' width, which is how we copied Connor's 8 x 10' tent but ended up with one 16 x 20'.  The End.

--Except that while we used Connor's lacing idea to keep the walls taut, in a tent with a height of around ten and a half feet, lacing it up over the ridge pole wasn't feasible.  Also we didn't want to deal with such a long rope, or so much work.  So the bottoms of our walls are an extra three feet long, with a sleeve along the edge, into which we thread a 16', 1/2" mild steel bar.  We have cut five notches into the sleeves (at either end, in the middle, and halfway between the two), and instead of lacing it back up the inside of the walls, we have five ropes (although we've used ratcheting tie-down straps as well) with sliding knots that go around the bar, accessible through the cut slit in the sleeve, at the bottom of one wall, along the floor, and to the corresponding slit and the bar for the other wall.  And the ropes lay along the grounds so they're easily accessible, and there's only five of them (three if we're just setting up quickly for a day-long demo), so it goes quickly, and then the ground cover--rugs and furs--covers them up so they aren't a tripping hazard, and we put the knots on the end that is under the table so you aren't walking on them.

Old beams; new boards
And that served us well for twenty years, at which point we repainted the metal, Schedule-40 poles, and replaced the wooden end beams, as after two decades of being stored outside (especially with the one recent winter where they were accidentally parked directly on an anthill--we're more careful now) the wood was beginning to look delicate.  So last Spring we retired the old tent beams (turning them into supports for our new tourney table this year), made a new pattern for the ravens so we could copy them over faithfully, and redesigned the knotwork into what is intended to eventually be a runesnake, probably.  And then made an MDF template for routering out the knotwork so we could get it done before we all died of old age.

Old beams; new table legs!
As we did last time, we only fully painted and did knotwork on one end's beams, so as to differentiate which end was the front door.  As I recall, we originally only did that on one end (although we did cut the ravens out at both ends) because we were racing to get it done for a Clinton War, and didn't have time to fully do both ends as we had originally planned.  However, we realized pretty quickly that it was actually useful to be able to tell which end was the front, there not being any other way, what with there being doors at both ends, and so we went with it.  Honestly, that tent has had something of a history of deviations from what was originally intended ending up to be design improvements, eh?

It has stood up remarkably well, especially given its age.  Last summer we did need to do some very minor repairs, as some damp got in somewhere or other along the line, causing a few scattered small holes, which we were able to patch with the current version of the fabric, which is I believe Sunforger, and which is still treated for fire-, water-, and mildew-resistance, but which no longer has the slightly greasy feeling ours has, nor the smell of the treated canvas.  Also, it now comes in colour, including the full period palette of traditional vegetable dye colours, so if you're looking to make a period tent, check out the colours they've got these days!  In period, tents were extremely bright and colourful, and the only reason, so far as I am aware, that SCA period tents tend to be in natural canvas is because either the coloured stuff isn't available treated at all, or costs significantly more than the natural stuff, and happily that doesn't seem to be the case anymore!

So!  Sunforger canvas, thread count of 20 x 40 as I recall, natural undyed colour, treated during manufacture for water-, fire-, and mildew-resistance (although still don't put it away damp, of course).

Three Schedule-40 steel beams with as I recall an OD of 2"; they will easily take the 1 1/4" dowelling we use to peg the whole thing together.  A snug fit is not required, nor is it desired, as it then wouldn't come apart if it rained.

Six 2 x 6" wooden beams, just whatever cheap but relatively clear, straight dimensional lumber we could get, with holes for the dowelling cut 2" on centre in from the lower ends, and I believe 19" down from the ends at the peak, making it slightly broader than it is tall at the points, and allowing room for decorated finials (in our case, the ravens), given that planks over 16' long are difficult to source.

Five 18" long 1 1/4" wooden dowels, just cheap softwood (at that length hardwood isn't needed structurally), and one longer, 3' one for the peak over the front door, so the metal pipe our banner hangs from can slip over the projecting part and stay put.  Ideally this happens while the tent is being set up and that dowel at the piece is still within easy reach; in practice it gets forgotten as often as not and devolves into Drunken Norse Drinking Games (tm), or we have to drive the truck up so someone can stand on the hood, or someone needs to stand on someone else's shoulders, or to climb the tent itself... You see how it goes. Heh.

Above: Staining the new beams.

Left: Freshly-carved new beams with router templates for the knotwork.


Painting the ravens and the knotwork black.


Old tent; new beams!

Also a bunch of rope, which at this point is made locally here in Nova Scotia by an old retired fisherman, which is pretty cool.  Right now the five lanterns hang from S-hooks (just cheap ones from the dollar store) hanging from ropes that go up to the ridge pole, and then down to and around one of the lower poles, so they can be raised and lowered for lighting and filling easily; but one of our first forge projects will be five decorative hooks, along with five pieces of decorative, period chain to run from the lanterns to the ridge pole (although it will still be rope from there back, due to friction issues and to save the fabric from potential damage--besides, it blends better against the wall).

We are still super happy with our Norse tent, both the design of it and the materials of which it was constructed.  It is sturdy, and free-standing, and the whole thing can be picked up and moved as needed if you have people on all for corners, and it can, if really needed, be put up and taken down by one person (although a couple extra to make sure it doesn't slip as it's being erected are absolutely needed if it's going up on concrete), although of course that takes a lot longer.  We also designed a spreadsheet program to take fabric shopping, into which one can input the length, width, and height you want your tent to be, and the cost and width of the fabric you're looking at, and it will calculate how much fabric you will need to buy, including for the doors and with the seam allowances, and give you the total cost, before and after tax (link to follow).  This was desperately needed when we were trying to build our original shower tent (which was a big red and green Norse tent, 16' long), and we were having difficulty figuring out if it was better to get Fabric A, which was cheaper but narrower, or Fabric B, wider but more expensive--and what about Fabric C, or D, or or or...  We took off to the nearest Tim's for half an hour with a pen, some napkins, and the Palm Pilot (yes, I know we're dating ourselves; it was the mid-Nineties), and banged out the equations needed and whipped up the spreadsheet, which has been a great tool for us ever since. Pythagoras' Theorem ftw!

--Yes, we have a pick-up and a trailer.  The old canvas Sears tent fit into the Honda Civic; but this one don't, ha ha.