Easy Free-Standing Sun Shade




About: I'm an engineer and biologist in LA. I'm pretty chill.

This sun shade is made of three free-standing towers, weighed down with large waste bins filled with water. The shade itself is strung between them.

I built this for an arts festival in the hot Los Angeles summer sun that needed more cover. The venue would not allow anything to be staked in the ground, so I built the simplest towers I could and relied on ballast and tension to pull on the corners of a shade outward. This outline will cover the process of building three towers, sewing a shade, and setting it up between the towers as pictured above, but variants on this system could be used to set up clotheslines or other suspended lines in tension.

The towers are each made of six beams: three upright and three that make the base. When not in use, the beams pack down. Construction of all three towers can be accomplished in under four hours. The shade itself can be cut and sewn in about two. Setup takes around an hour, making this a simple weekend project for a novice or a one-day-build for an experienced carpenter. The cost for this project was around $150.



12ft 2x4 beam - x4 - $6.45 each

8ft 2x4 beam - x9 - $2.74 each

5" 1/2" bolts - x6 - $2.31 each

1/2" nuts - x6 - $7.43 per pack

Screws (#8 2.5" phillips head) - $8.11

Wood glue - $5.41

-Shade & Ballast

Muslin cloth, 120" wide - 7 yards - $70 (but ~$35 with coupons)

Thread - $2.49

Tennis ball (or crumpled water bottle)

Rope - $9.98

Turnbuckle, 3x - $1.93 each

Waste bins - x3 - $14.98 each


Circular saw



Drill bits

Screw driver

Sewing machine

Clamps (optional)

Step 1: Cut the Wood

The components and their cuts are as follows:

Spine beam: On a 12' beam, make a 24 degree cut from the end (or a 66 degree cut from the long edge). Make one per tower.

Upright side beams: On an 8' beam, make a 76 degree cut on one end and a 14 degree cut on the other. Make two per tower.

Base side beams: On a 45.6" beam (3' 9.6"), make a 79 degree cut on one end and an 11 degree cut on the other. Make two per tower.

Base back beam: The base back beam needs no angle cuts. Just cut a 2x4 down to 4'. If you're making three towers, consider cutting a 12' beam into thirds, or cutting two 8' beams in half.

Step 2: Glue the Wedges

In order to bolt the upright sides and the base sides to the spine, we will take the shallow wedges that we cut from each and glue them to the opposite side of the beam from which we cut them. This will produce a flat, even block with parallel faces through which we can drill our bolt holes.

Step 3: Drill Holes

We will need to drill seven 1/2" holes. One on each upright side beam, one on each base side beam, and three along the spine. We'll also drill four 3/32" holes on the base back beam. Finally, drill a ring of six 1/2" holes around the lip of the waste bin.

To complete each tower, bolt the side beams to their pivot points and stand the tower up. While it's standing, arrange the base back beam so it spans from the foot of one upright side beam to the other, and see that the base side beams meet it cleanly. One by one, use the pre-drilled holes in the base back beam as guides to drill into the side beams, and drive screws in after drilling each. Once you've done this, the tower is complete.

1/2" Holes


1.75" from the bottom (the angled end);

20.5" from the top;

4" from the top

Base side beams (2x per tower):

2.89" from the end of the angled tab

Upright side beam (2x per tower):

3.35" from the end of the angled tab

3/32" Holes

Base back beam:

1" in from ends; 15.4" from ends; 1.38" from ends (see drawing)

Step 4: Cut and Sew the Shade

The shade itself is a piece of muslin cloth. I bought a 22' stretch of 10' wide muslin. I cut it from corner to corner, then sewed it into a triangle 20 feet wide and 22 feet long. Even if you're not much of a tailor, if you have a sewing machine you just press the pedal and spend the next ten minutes feeding. Attaching ropes to each corner will be explained in the next step. Make sure to use a strong, wide stitch setting.

Step 5: Assemble

To assemble the shade, first assemble the three towers. Bolt the top of the two upright side beams to the spine beam at pivot point A. Leave the bolt loose enough to pivot. Bolt the base side beams to the spine at pivot point B, also keeping it a bit loose. Screw the base back beam to the upright side beams. Then, stand the whole thing up. As you do, the upright beams should pivot relative to the spine. The base side beams should be pivoted into place as well. Screw the base back beam into the ends of the base side beams.

To attach the shade, wrap each corner around a tennis ball, or in a pinch a crushed up plastic water bottle. Then, tie a rope around the cloth behind the tennis ball (or water bottle) and tie it tightly. Feed it through the hole at the top of the spine beam.

Run about ten feet of rope through one hole around the rim of the waste bin, through the eye of the turnbuckle, and then back through the next hole around the perimeter of the waste bin until the turnbuckle's pull is distributed evenly across the six holes. Run the rope from the shade through the top of the turnbuckle and then tie it off with a trucker's hitch.

Credit for figuring out how to attach the shade to the posts goes to Taylor Fitz-Gibbon, who helped with this project (fitzfitzfitzfitzfitz on Instagram).

Step 6: Conclusion

Hopefully, this template serves as a useful jumping off point for making a nifty support structure for hanging string lights across your back yard or providing shelter for a large camping trip. If you find new uses or make improvements, please share! Enjoy!



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    16 Discussions


    Question 9 months ago on Step 6

    Just wondering why you didn't use tent-pegs - still this solution is more flexible since it can be used with concrete floors like in parking spaces and exhibition floors

    1 answer

    Answer 9 months ago

    The park forbid us from using stakes. They'd just completed some landscaping and didn't want us tearing up any ground at all. If I were putting this up in my backyard, I'd definitely add stakes to this.


    10 months ago on Step 6

    I like this idea, clever way of cutting the wedge shape and then inverting it to make the angled leg supports... But just one thing.... Whats the name of the pussy cat man!?

    4 replies

    Reply 10 months ago

    I think most people that have ever watch guitar-building would recognize that joint, it's used on some styles of guitar to provide the break-angle where the headstock of the guitar leans back from the straight neck -- a scarf joint, where the cut-off piece is rotated to the back and glued back on! Much stronger (and saves on material) than cutting the piece with an angled bit on the end in the first place.


    Reply 10 months ago

    as Billrose mentioned, her name is Mabel. It's Mabel Syrup.


    Reply 10 months ago

    The caption rectangle when you zoom in on the picture says "Mabel".


    Reply 10 months ago

    I speculate the the cat's name is either Amy Cattams or Leonardo De Catrio.... j/k. This is a really cool project!

    Brian M V

    10 months ago

    love the water-weight-tensioning! smart idea!


    10 months ago

    How did you choose the angle of the main support beam to the ground? Is there a mathematically optimum angle?

    1 reply

    Reply 10 months ago

    This was built based on feel. Reducing the angle is probably smart.


    10 months ago

    Great job. Why make the Sun Shade Sail when you can buy the same style already made for $50 and less?

    1 reply
    spark master

    10 months ago

    I would make 1 or two rectangle that can be attached to two of the three posts for when the sun dips down. And being able to lower it an angle at a time allows you to also account for winds and sun movement.

    Again Sweet Job


    10 months ago

    This is so great! My buddy and I have been trying to come up with a solution for how to put a semi-permanent shade structure in their yard, I just forwarded this to them! Thanks for sharing!


    10 months ago

    This is great! I've been wanting to put a shade in the back yard, but there's no way to put a corner post in the concrete pool deck (without a whole hole thing) - this is an excellent solution!


    10 months ago

    Very well documented I'ble. Interesting thoughts here.