Introduction: Yurt Without Steel

About: Tim Anderson is the author of the "Heirloom Technology" column in Make Magazine. He is co-founder of, manufacturers of "3D Printer" output devices. His detailed drawings of traditional Pacific I…

I built this 10 foot diameter yurt without metal fasteners from free materials. It has the same proportions as the "standard" Mongolian ger scaled down. The varnished wood and white liner give it a marvelous feeling inside. Lots of people told me this was the best shelter they'd seen at Burningman.

("Yurt" is the Russian word. "Ger" is the Mongolian)

Most of the wooden parts are sawed from the slats of a futon couch.
The wall lattice pivots are knotted cord.
The door frame is made from hockey sticks.
The smoke ring is an aluminum bicycle rim.

At Burning Man I set the yurt up on top of my truck's lumber rack on a platform of redwood boards. That enabled us to drive around and move camp easily.
In the first photo it's just been set up. In the later ones it's been through some 70 mph dust storms. We've sealed it up and tied it down much more securely.

In the next photo Pete and Leslie take shelter in the Yurt during a dust storm.
During a break in the dust storms there's some rain. Star stands on the tailgate "balcony" to soak up the happiness from a huge double rainbow.
Billy likes the dust. He's out in an easy chair reveling in it.

Step 1: Yurt Frame Parts

Here are the complete parts of the yurt frame laid out.
From left to right and top to bottom they are:

1. Two rafters which have longer strings at the wall end to tie them to the top of the doorframe.

2. The bundle of the other 30 rafters. These are all the same, 3/4" rods with a loop of cord at the wall end and a short taper down to 9/16" at the hoop end.

3. The wall lattice. This is a small yurt so there's a single wall lattice with thirty tops. At the top the sticks are whittled into a "thumb" shape to insert in the rafter loops. There are 30 "heads" or peaks to the lattice.
Where the lattice sticks cross cords are inserted in holes and knotted for pivots. This is done at crossings 1,2,4,6,7. Crossings 3 and 5 have no pivot cords.

4. The door frame. It's a trapezoid of ash hockey stick pieces that fit together with mortise-and-tenon joints. A rectangle would have been just as good a door, easier to make and set up.

5. Smoke ring. This is the hub of the wheel that is the roof. It's an aluminum bicycle wheel with 32 evenly spaced holes drilled into it at a downward angle.

6. Shoulder cord. Circles the wall lattice at the top to keep it from spreading outward while setting up.

7. Umbrella cover for smoke ring hole. It's a silvered parasol of the type Chinese women use instead of sunscreen lotion.

8. Shoulder Band. Circles yurt where the rafters meet the wall latice. Makes this area smooth rather than bumpy and keeps the sticks from poking holes in the yurt covering.

9. Bicycle innertube. Tie the ends of the wall lattice to the sides of the door frame with this.

Step 2: Scavenge Lumber

My lumber came from a discarded futon couch frame like this.
I ripped it lengthwise for the lattice sticks and rafters. I used a thin blade on my little tablesaw to not waste wood.

I was totally thrilled to think I could build a house from a couch. And the house would be plenty big enough to put the same kind of couch inside.

Step 3: Smoke Ring

The smoke ring is an aluminum 26" bicycle rim from a mountain bike.
"Standards" being what they are, the inner diameter of the rim is 23.5" and the outer diameter is 25".

It was hard to get the 32 holes evenly spaced. It had 36 spokes originally, so the rafter holes lined up randomly with the spoke holes. I drilled small pilot holes with a center drill first. Then I rested the rim in a wooden vee block to drill the holes big with a drillpress.
I drilled the holes at a 26 degree downward angle for the slope of the roof.
I also cut an alternative roof ring from the top of a heavy plastic barrel, but this one is much nicer.

In this shot Billy removes the rafters from the roof ring while we wait in traffic out of Burningman.

Step 4: Rafters

The rafters are 53.25" long. I ripped them 3/4" square on my little table saw with my skinniest blade.

Then I rounded them with four passes of a quarter-round router bit.
I did that using an improvised router table, screwing the router to the underside of a board with a hole in it for the bit. That work made a lot of sawdust and noise.
Octagonal would have been fine. Square with blunt edges would have been fine also.

Then I moved the fence and used the same router table to taper the end down to 9/16"" to insert in the holes in the smoke ring.

Then I drilled two 1/8" holes in the other end of the rafter and added a loop of cord through the two holes. I tied the loop over a lattice stick to get it the right size. I melted the ends to blobs to keep the knots from sliding off. When I varnished the whole thing I varnished the loop also.

Step 5: Wall Lattice Head End

Here's what the top edge of the wall lattice looks like.
It has 30 "heads" or peaks, one for each of 30 rafters. Two other rafters rest on the doorframe.
The sticks are 53.25" long, same as the rafters. They are 3/8" thick and 3/4" wide. Mine are hardwood because that's the straightest grain stuff I could scavenge. They're stronger than they need to be. They could be softwood like the Mongolians use.

If anyone is curious I'll dig out the dimensions and hole spacing of a standard Mongolian lattice stick. They're standardized so ger parts can be interchangeable. Okay, someone asked, so they're at the bottom of the page.

My knotted pivot cords are spaced 8" apart. I skipped the two pivots on either side of the middle on each stick. The tip of the stick is 2.25" beyond the top pivot and the bottom extends 3" below the bottom pivot. (6x8")+2.25"+3"=53"!

If you want your walls to be wider at the bottom, make the hole spacing wider at the bottom there and narrower at the top.

I melted and squished the end of a nylon cord into a sort of needle to make it easier to thread through the holes in the sticks. I pulled the knots tight with a hemostat and needlenose pliers. I used wet cord because nylon shrinks when it dries. I got blisters from pulling those hundreds of knots tight.

I tried lots of ways of whittling the thumbs.
I ended up doing most of them with a small beltsander clamped to a bench. I manipulated the stick over the round end of the beltsander to carve the waist of the thumb.

[Mongolian wall lattice stick dimensions, from "The Complete Yurt Handbook" by Paul King:]
The stick is 82.5" long. The knotted pivot cords are spaced 7" apart. There would be a dozen holes for pivot cords, but they skip pivots #3, #5, #7 counting up from the bottom.The tip of the stick extends 2.5" above the top pivot and the bottom extends 3" below the bottom pivot. (11x7")+2.5"+3"=82.5"]

Step 6: Wall Lattice Edges

The outer edges of the lattice are truncated, assembled from shorter sticks. It's a bit difficult to figure out. To avoid thinking I planned to make my lattice "infinitely long" and then cut it down at the sides. But that would have wasted many sticks.

The outer edges of the lattice fall on crossings 2,4, and 6. The two outer edges are mirror images of each other.

I thought maybe I'd make three more of these wall sections and stack them horizontally and vertically to make a big yurt. Some Afghani yurts are made that way.

Step 7: Door Frame

The door frame is made from chunks of ash hockey sticks.
They fit together with mortise-and-tenon joints.
I rounded the protruding ends at the top so as to not poke through the cover.
I made my door frame a trapezoid shape because I had a theory about making the base of the wall wider than its top. That was an unnecessary complication.

Make yours rectangular. Then there's no left-right-top-bottom problem.
The inside dimensions of the assembled frame are 24" wide at the top and 40" vertical.
The sticks are 1" wide and 3/4" thick.

Step 8: White Liner

The Mongols put a liner in their ger, so I thought I'd try it. The varnished wood frame looks really good against the white cloth.

It took some trigonometry to figure out the pattern for the roof covering. The wall is 10 feet in diameter and the rafters extend up at a 26 degree angle. Some trig gets us the following pattern to cover it:

It's shaped like the red 'C' in the Colorado state flag seen below.
The outer circle is 11 feet in diameter and the inner one is 27" in diameter.
The pac-man style "mouth" gore is 40" wide at the outside and 9" wide where it touches the inner circle.

I scavenged a big roll of knit cotton t-shirt material. I sewed my roof lining from that. It's easy to stretch over the frame. I sewed a drawstring into the outer edge of the roof liner. That helps it hook over the tops of the wall lattice.

The wall liner is easy - the cloth on the roll was wide enough to cover the wall with no sewing at all. Make yours long enough to wrap around the inside of the door frame and secure inside to the lattice. The stretchiness of the knit made it easy to hook over the tops of the walls under the shoulder band. The knit fabric is heavy. If your fabric isn't stretchy or if it's slippery you'll need to sew loops into the edge to hook over the tops of the wall.

Pete and Leslie take shelter from a dust storm.

Step 9: Outer Skin

I scavenged some insulated mason's tarps to use for the outer skin. It's two layers of aluminized polytarp with a sheet of "ethafoam" polyethylene foam insulation in between them.

The pattern for the roof is the same Colorado flag thing as the roof liner. I made it too big, expecting the insulation to be thicker than it was. I made walls also but didn't end up installing them at Burningman. I just relied on the wall liner.

Step 10: Steps of Setting It Up

1. Smoke ring. Put the smoke ring in the middle. It's bad Mongol luck to carry it through the door or lift over the wall.

2. Door frame. Assemble it.

3. Wall Lattice. Spread it out in a circle and tie it to the door frame.

4. Shoulder cord. Tie it around the wall to keep it from spreading too far.

5. Rafters. Insert a lattice thumb in the cord loop and insert the other end in a hole in the smoke ring. Install three widely spaced rafters first to support the smoke ring.

6. Smoke ring. I wrote numbers 1-8 next to each hole and the same # on the correct lattice thumb. That makes it easier to not get crossed up.

7. Tie the two odd rafters to the top of the door frame

8. Shoulder band. You might prefer to put it on now, or after the linings. Try it both ways.

9. Roof lining. Throw that over the top and hook the drawstring over the wall. You could also sew the walls to the roof part and install them both at once.

10. Wall lining. Wrap it around the walls, At the door you can either have flaps or wrap it around the sides of the door and secure it inside.

11. Outer wall cover. Do the same as the lining. Line the door flap up with the door frame.

12. Outer roof cover. Throw it over the top and tighten the drawstring around the edge.

13. Halter. Throw some ropes over the top to keep the whole thing together and keep it from blowing away. If you're an observant Mongol you'll use weights instead of pegs so as to not stab mother earth.

14. Smoke hole cover. Use your umbrella or a small tarp with long cords from the corners as you see fit.

15. Enjoy your cozy yurt!

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