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How do you build an onion dome ? Like on St Basil's Cathedral in Red Square? Answered

How did they build those domes on the towers ? Are the domes wood or brick ? Some have a neat spiral pattern to them also . Are they covered in sheet metal ? I have been researching this online and through inter-library loans and find nothing about how only who or why . Ivan the Terrible had it built by Postnik Yakovlev actually the Cathedral of The Intercession of the Virgin to honor a military victory in Kazan.


I have built several onion domes. Most of them smaller for small private prayer chapels. I did a larger one in copper that went to Wichita KS there are various techniques depending on size, materials, and equipment available. Most of the old domes were built around a temporary center pole and any cupola (small enclosure often with windows) or roof flashing or neck collars are done last.

These were a highly specialized item done with much study of theology and much time in personal prayer. The mathematics and incarnational theology involved esp. in the spiral units is very deep. It would be in a sense sacrilegious to use them as a decoration which is completely foreign to their original intent. A course in iconology like the St. Stephens course of Orthodox Theology (iconology track) would be a good start to understanding the ethos and theology behind them.

They can be made from many materials. If you are bench building one it is quite important to build a clamping jig to hold all the base pieces together. Most are octagonal bases that allows it to participate in the eighth day of creation (the uncreated day of the eternal eschatalogical age begun by Christ)
Sunday is the first day of Creation and the new uncreated day which is why the main day of worship is Sunday in Christianity rather than the Jewish sabbath (Saturday)

Hi, I am a weekend wood worker, make all kinds of small stuff, attaching a picture of the lamp I made recently. I will like to learn how to make 1 to 2 foot dia onion domes out of wood. Will you be able to give me some tips/pointers etc. and also the resources available else where, appreciate it.

Here's a couple pictures. Believe it or not when I first asked this question there were no picture of the construction or them under constuction. Google images "onion dome construction".


Thank you for this very reverent answer. This is much appreciated and I think goes a long way toward informing the public of our religion.

+Stephen-Anthony of Mora and Las Vegas

I have a garden with an east/west shed along the north border. It's fenced and has four raised beds. I'd like an onion dome of about five feet high not counting the base that it sits on for the center of the long (side to side) shed which is open on the south side facing the garden. The shed itself makes up the north enclosure of the contain (via picket fence) garden.
I don't really care what the onion dome (eliptical) is made out of but there should be an Orthodox cross atop (not included in the five feet height less the base that it sits on.
Any thoughts?
Richard Williams


Hi Richard,
Sorry about the delay I hardly use the connected email anymore due to spam. Best to give me a call on my cell 250-402-3704

Hi mtnman888 - I am looking for plans to build an onion dome on the roof of our current small Russian Orthodox church - where can I get plans or would you be able to supply some that you have used in the past? I'm looking at wood construction for the frame and probably 8-10 feet high with a Russian Orthodox cross on top (another 6-8 feet). Not sure yet what we will use on the outside - metal or wood shingles. Thanks for any help. Honestly, I don't even know where to start.

Thank you very much for the information mtnman888 , fascinating stuff . The religious back ground is very helpful and explains the meaning behind them . Or at least starts to . While I feel in the end a building is a building I also feel ones faith and inspiration can make any building far more then just a structure . I am a sheet metal worker by trade and have covered some VERY complex shapes and was hoping for help on the spiral dome structure . The cover is no problem for me . You may be happy to know that I am planning this for the the center of my prayer/meditation labyrinth . Basically a prayer garden .
The center pole idea is very good to know . Thanks for the food for thought .

They're made of wood. I think the construction is kind of like the hull of a ship on the bottom half, with curved vertical supports holding curved horizontal stringers.

St. Basil's is sort of an exception: most onion domes are plain white, decorated only with the gold cupola and cross on top. The "candy box" decor on St. Basil's is based on decorative themes from Russian folk art, which usually was eschewed (at best) by the Church. When Ivan wasn't making his reputation for being Terrible*, he was a great unifier of formerly separate Russian city-states, albeit sometimes by nastily forceful methods, and a forceful patriot and promoter of Russia and Russian traditons.

(*In Russian, he's Ivan Grozny, which is somewhat better translated as "Ivan the Awe-Striking")

Thank you for your reply Gorfram . First I will say that I make no judgement on Ivan or his methods . I am just fascinated by the spiral domes , what you seem to be calling cupolas . I had gathered they were made from wood and very rarely brick . Please understand that I have spend quite a bit of time looking into this . I do not read Russian and none of the many books in English I have read tell me much useful information . I really don't care much about the history of Russian architecture , I just like to build things I think are COOL . I have really enjoyed learning about the art and architecture of Russia and adjacent countries but , I really want to build a small one . If anyone knows any good sources let me know and if it's in another language I'll figure it out somehow . Hey, I'm dyslexic everything is like a foreign language to me .

(I'm not really interested in judging Ivan, either: he did some bad stuff, he did some good stuff, much of what he did or didn't do is lost to history - even if I had all the info and some sort of authority; after 500 years, why bother?)

Most of what I know about Russian architecture I've picked up incidental to stuying Russian history, so it's hard for me to name a good specific source. If you haven't already tried the wikipedia article, that might be a good jumping-off place.

Old Russia was very heavily timbered, so wood was in abundant supply and almost ubiquitous in Russian architecture. I think many of the brick structures in Russia (with the exception of defensive fortifications like the Kremlin Wall) were built to emulate architectural styles in Western Europe.

What I mean by the "cupola" is the little gold ball thingo on top of the dome, in between the dome and the cross at the very top.

I was wrong about the domes themselves being painted white: oops! :(
Turns out they're usually covered in gold or copper. But the more-traditional Kostroma Cathedral (left, below) is stiil a marked contrast to good old St. Basil's (on right).

That would be so cool if you built an onion dome yourself - please post pics if you do!

Kostroma Catherdral.jpgSt. Basils.jpg

You may also want to look for pictures of the cathedral of "Christ's Blood Upon the Snow" marking the spot where one of the Czar's was assassinated. It is often mistaken for St. Basil's in Red Square.

 I apologize for not replying sooner because this answer didn't show up till today ? I wonder what happened ? Anyway thanks so much for the additional information . I will definitely post pictures . I like all the types of onion domes , the wood shingled ones are great looking too .

After checking out a new favorite site " flickr " I ran across some fantastically detailed photos by marantzer of St Basil's . So detailed I could see the rivets in the metal roof and the the dents in the individual pieces of metal . Check this link http://www.flickr.com/photos/marantzer/2538384733/ for one of his many photos of St basil's , he has many photos of buildings world wide . These are some super complex sheet metal roofs over a wood dome on top of brick towers . each piece of sheet metal is a different size and shape, the pieces first getting larger then smaller . Each piece has many bends ,so there are hundreds of different shapes in each roof and thousands of individual pieces in each roof . WOW , I can't wait to get started . Did I mention that I'm a multi-craft mechanic and one of the crafts is sheet metal working . I wonder if the Russian Orthodox church down the street would like to get rid of their boring old dome ? Now I will have to make an Instructable .