How to set up a yurt, in particular one of Matt’s yurts. Written as a guide for Mateo, who just bought one of Matt’s yurts from Clyde.
Four wall sections, two long & two short—kanas, kana-walls
16 roof poles, including one shorter door-pole—uni
one hub, the (sacred) tinker toy that goes in the center of the roof—ton
one 50’ steel tension cable
bag of miscellaneous hardware, including:
—3” long, ¼” wide bolts, minimum 20, with wingnuts and washers to fit
—some smaller bolts for top Vs of kana sections
—two screws for roof pole
(traditionally, the hub, or ton, connects the earth-bound yurt to the sky, and is thus sacred. Likewise, the threshold of the door is sacred, and out of
respect to the yurt, is always stepped over, instead of stepped on.)
3 wall sections
—Two people including yourself (three or four can make a good team; more than that
and you will spend twice as much time directing your crew as you will getting things
—ladder or step-stool
—power drill for putting in screws
—long (6’) round-ended stick (such as an old shovel-handle)
Find or create a flat spot over 16′ in diameter. Ideally, the spot should be absolutely, completely level. Put a level on it and verify this. It makes a huge difference in how easy or difficult it is to set the yurt up. The less level the site, the more uneven pressures the structure will endure, and the more problems you’ll have with set-up and occupying it.
Pick the spot for the door and set it down nearby. Sort the wall-sections (kanas) out: there are two smaller and two larger. The two smaller ones go adjacent to the door; the two longer ones are opposite it. Attach the kanas to the door first. The wingnuts should be on the inside. In order to attach a kana to the door, you’ll need to stretch the kana out. It does not have to go in a circle right away—in fact, you’ll find it much easier to attach the bolts with it in something of a straight line, then curve it around to the next one. The straighter and flatter the ends are, the easier kanas are to attach to each other. It opens and closes like a dog-gate; watch that you don’t pinch your fingers in it as you close it. You can tell how even the walls are, and how much further you need to stretch or contract them, by the size and appearance of the diamond-shapes made by the slats. To attach kanas, you’ll want them stretched out till the diamonds are almost square. This will cause the bolts to line up with the eye-bolts on the door frame. Get both door-walls on, then attach the other two kanas. As you do, you’ll be making the circle of the yurt. You can heft the whole kana further out of circle and back into circle as you get the hardware installed. Wingnuts should face inwards, for easy access. This is going to matter later on, as you occupy the yurt.
The easiest way to deal with the wall hardware is to remove all the bolts & nuts that connect each wall section to the next one, and then install them all, starting with the middle bolt. Once that middle one is loosely attached, the others get easy. If the bolt won’t go in, wiggle the part, adjusting until it pushes through. Wiggling it will solve most of the minor difficulty of set-up. It wants to have that little extra attention as it goes together. Oh, and when you put the walls up, make sure that all the little red stars are on the top, facing outwards. This is for two reasons: the wall has a natural curvature so that inside and outside are really different at this point. You want to flow with that, not against it, for ease of set-up and strength. Putting the walls on inside-out will put more stress on them, and strain the wood. Also, the stars mark the spots where roof-poles go, so they need to be on top where you can see them as you install the roof poles.
Here’s my yurt, with just the walls set up. You can see the slight vertical arc in the walls, as well as the connection to the door.
Once all four walls are up and attached to each other, adjust the yurt until it feels like a 16′ circle. Break out a measuring tape if that’ll help. It doesn’t have to be exact at this stage, but the closer it is to a real circle, the better. Then attach the tension-cable. This is a 50′ length of ¼” coated steel cable, looped at the ends and attached with carabiners to the top eye-bolt in the door frame. (This eye-bolt does not take a wall-bolt; just the tension cable).
This is the most important thing I am going to tell you: the tension cable is the most important structural part of a yurt. I cannot overstate this fact. If that thing is not on right, your yurt will fall down. This is because the yurt is held up by oppositional forces. The walls push up from the ground, the hub pushes the roof poles out and down from the center to the walls. Because they are lattice, the walls have a natural vertical curvature as well as their lateral circle-curve. That vertical curve, which is slightly inwards, is part of why they are so strong.
But the piece that prevents the roof from breaking the walls and collapsing the yurt is the tension cable. That cable is keeping the walls at 50′ circumference, it’s keeping them circular, and it’s keeping the downward and outward hub/pole pressure equal all the way around the walls. When you put the cable on, be sure it goes between the top V of all the slats. It should not fall to the inside or the outside, but go between each and every V around the circumference. That’s how it holds the walls on and stays where it belongs. When you get it up, you’ll discover that your yurt isn’t a circle yet, and you need to shift the walls in and out to create enough slack to attach the cable the rest of the way. This is where you really make it a circle. You could save yourself some time by drawing a 16′ circle on the ground before you start and lining your walls up with it at this stage. :)
At this stage, you can still pick the walls up and move them around at will. Once the roof poles are up, that becomes a little more dangerous. Roof poles falling out of the hub are common, so you MUST install roof-poles from outside the circle of the walls.
But how do you get the hub into the sky? Two or three people can get it up easily with a tripod of roof poles. Take the hub, bring into the yurt and set it on the ground, aligning it with the door, so that the door-pole-hole is facing the door. The hub needs to be right-side up at this stage–holes pointed slightly toward the ground. Take three roof poles. One of them must go directly across from the door. This spot is the one where the hardware is; the two long wall sections connect to each other directly across from the door. The other two poles go in the third spot away from the door (so it goes: Door, Two, Three, Pole in both directions). Lay the poles in their appropriate spots, propped against the V they will go into (marked with red stars–all the pole-spots are marked with red stars, but the secret is that they are all quite evenly spaced, 4 Vs apart: one two three pole, one two three pole, all the way around the circle. If this spacing is not followed, your roof will not be strong, and it will put uneven pressure on the walls, which will lead to slow structural degradation–weakening the overburdened wall section and the overstretched wall section that compensates. When this spacing is followed, the hub presses outward along the roof poles and the weight is evenly distributed around the circle, creating an extremely strong and sturdy wind-resistant structure). Okay, so the hub’s on the ground and your poles are leaning there on the walls, pointing at it. Pick up a pole, and have a friend hold the hub at the correct angle to get the end of the pole into its hole. Be sure to count from the door-pole-hole and get the right one. Get one settled, and loop the rope at the end of the pole over one slat of the V. Ideally, for a permanent or long-term set up, you’ll rotate the pole at this stage so that the loop can go over the inner slat of the V. It’s not the end of the world if a few end up on the outer slat, and for a short-term set up it doesn’t matter. But for a long-term set up you want to do everything you can to strengthen the structure, and this is one of those details.
Here’s what the connection looks like on the inside of my yurt:
And on your yurt, in April 2005:
Get that loop on, have your friend adjust the angle of the hub, and get the second pole installed. Then go around, inside the walls, to the third pole. Your friend picks the hub up off the ground and holds it, over his head if necessary, while you get that third pole installed. Be sure to count and get the right hole. As soon as you are levering the hub up and away from the ground, your friend should get out of the way. If the hub falls, it is 40lbs of fast hard wood coming in an arc—it won’t fall in a straight line, because it’s being pushed by a triangle. It’ll fall in an arc, which will be determined by which pole fell out. Ideally, this won’t happen, but you really don’t want to be inside the walls if it does. So BE CAREFUL.
However, barring anything falling, you’ve levered the hub up into the sky with that third pole, got the pole into the appropriate V, and slipped the rope loop on over the inner kana slat as shown in the photo. Now the hub is reasonably stable because the triangle of poles is pretty even. So now you’ve got to install the remaining 13 poles. Every time you put a pole in, you’re pushing on the hub. This is how it works, but remember that you’re doing that, because it is going to occasionally cause a looser pole to fall out. You do not want to have poles land on your head–I’ve seen it happen. This is the dangerous part of this procedure. Stay outside the walls! If a pole falls onto the earth, it can take it and be unharmed. If it falls on your head, you will suffer.
Now you take the rest of the poles, and get them into the hub. It is best to keep the poles evenly distributed around the hub, so that it’s never pushed too far one way or the other, which causes poles to fall out. You should expect to drop a couple of poles during this process, which is why you need to stay out of the center. In the five plus years I’ve been setting up and taking down these yurts, I’ve seen exactly two set-ups that did not drop any poles. We were very proud of the accomplishment, both times; both times it was experienced teams who had set these up many times before. So don’t go into the center when someone else is putting up a pole!
Here’s Matt, the guy who built this yurt, putting a dropped pole back in:
That said, dropping a pole or three is rarely a catastrophe as long as there’s nothing in particular for the pole to fall onto. You pick it up and put it back in. If it fell because there are many poles in on one side and too few in on another, then fill in some of the gaps before going back to the one(s) that fell. You’ll find that you have to pull and push on the walls a bit to get the poles all in, and possibly even shift a wall in or out to get it to come into a complete circle where the poles want it to be; that’s normal. Do this from the outside, as a shift of more than a couple inches is almost guaranteed to drop a pole or two, and even a small shift can drop one.
The last pole to go in is the door pole. Get the other 15 completely into the hub and attached to the kanas first. Then get a step-ladder and a friend, set the step-ladder up under the hub, and go up there. While the hub almost certainly can support your weight by this time, this is a bad time to test that, because that last pole is not installed yet. This pole screws in from the underside of the door up into the pole, and from the underside of the hub into the pole. Have your friend hold the pole in exactly the center of the door, get it centered in the hub and get the top screw installed. Then go back to the door and put in the screw that goes from the underside of the door up through the pole. Now that’s in.
My yurt, viewed from the ground during set-up:
With all the poles up, it’s quite solid:
By this time, I guarantee your yurt is a circle; the poles are forcing the walls to remain precisely circular. Next is the canvas. For a permanent installation (see this page), I set up insulation at this stage, and then put the canvas on. That’s a different process, and it changes some considerations about the canvas installation (more on this at the end, and on the other page).
Start with the roof. One person sets that ladder back up under the hub, and two people drag the roof canvas up to that person and get it out through the hole in the hub, or between a couple of poles, and onto the roof so that the poles support it. The roof-canvas is a burrito that has been rolled from each end and then folded. Unroll the short folds until it’s a long sausage-like thing. You should be able to see the fabric folds that fall into the hub. Drag it around until you’ve got the center of the hub lined up with the center of the canvas. At this point you may find it necessary to duck back into the yurt, haul the thing to where you want it, and then stick your head up through the middle of it as you get it unrolled. It will almost certainly begin to unroll itself as you push it where you want it. This tends to work out. Your friend on the ground should have a long stick with a blunt end, like an old shovel handle. With that tool, the ground person can hold the roof still, or poke it till it falls unrolled, depending on what you need them to do. Once it’s unrolled, go around the outside perimeter and tug the edges down until they line up all the way around, overlapping the walls by a few inches. If you want to rotate it, for instance so the seams line up with the roof poles, poke it with a stick until you push it around where you want it. (This method also works for shaking snow off it in the winter, and for opening & closing the skylight.)
Here’s your yurt, set up in the East Mountains in April 2006:
And here’s Ezra’s yurt, of the same design, that same weekend (note the snow):
Once the roof is up, the canvas walls are quite easy. There are three wall sections, and they tie onto the yurt and onto each other, through grommets with short lengths of nylon rope. Each has a window. The windows tie down closed with string ties, or roll up like tent windows and tie at the top with string ties. Once all the canvas walls are up, the liner can be inserted between canvas and kana. Alternatively, you can put the liner on the walls first, then attach the canvas. This is much more challenging on the roof, and I recommend putting the canvas on first and just tugging the lighter fabric of the liner up into place via your ladder once the canvas is situated correctly.
To get the skylight onto the top, pull the little flaps of canvas down on the inside of the hub, so that everything is centered the way you want it to remain. Then go outside, set the skylight down on the roof, and give it a shove upwards. Poke it with the stick until the lip overlaps the hub, and it holds itself in place. Go back into the yurt, and either pull the overlapping edge of the skylight into place with the stick, or go back up the ladder and get it centered. It snicks down over the hub quite neatly.
You’re done! Enjoy your yurt! A word to the wise: if you want more ventilation in the summer, release a canvas-wall corner, or toss a bit of the edge of the roof back up onto itself. This allows for more air flow. Also, if you want to avoid drafts, as in winter, you’ll want to pay a lot of attention to the place where the walls meet the floor. Lining that with something to prevent drafts makes an enormous difference in indoor air temperature—i’ve used rugs that overlap up the walls a bit, towels, & tarps all in camping situations; in my permanent set up, i sealed the insulation to the deck with foil tape, and have since built a 2” high rim around the whole edge, of wood sealed with caulk & polyurethane, to further seal the insulation to the deck and prevent water intrusion (which came from water puddling on the deck and seeping under the yurt walls). Here’s my yurt, chimney and all, from the outside: