Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Building a Sukkah - Some Practical Issues

My sukkah is a simple frame of bolted 2x4s, with plastic outdoor blinds for the walls. But after seven years and too many warped 2x4s (now with some extra holes), I decided to design and build a new sukkah this year. Two other families I know were interested in building their first sukkahs, and so I helped them with the design. We have cut and drilled our boards, and we are going to put all three up on Sunday.

Many people simply buy a sukkah kit. But I really enjoyed building my own from scratch, and I know that others do as well. I ran into several practical issues in designing and building both my last sukkah and this one, and I though I would blog about it in the hopes that it might be of some help to someone else who was actually constructing a sukkah from scratch. (Insert any joke about Jews and power tools here.) If you have any practical advice or questions, please add a comment.

1. Plans. This is critical. Draw the plans first and label everything. If you make changes on the fly, change the plans.

2. Size. You need to think about the maximum and minimum sizes for your sukkah. Not the halachic sizes, but the practical sizes. If you are going to put a table or tables in the sukkah, measure those first and add a few feet to each side (for chairs and people and things). That's the minimum size. And then figure out where it will go and how much space you have there. That's the maximum size.

3. Height. The fake-bamboo blinds for the walls are 6' tall. I cut my vertical 2x4s to 7'. That leaves about 1' of vertical space not filled by the blinds. But my horizontal 2x4s are each 1/2" from the ground or the top, so that uses an inch. A 2x4 is actually 1.5 x 3.5. So I use 1" in space at the very top and bottom and 7" in space for the two 2x4s, for a total of 8". That leaves 4" of extra space, or 2" at the top and bottom of the blinds, well within acceptable limits. BTW, I cut off all the strings on the blinds and simply tie them to the top and bottom 2x4s with twine.

4. L-straps. I connect each vertical and horizontal 2x4 with bolts and an "L strap" (available at Home Depot, Lowes, and other similar stores). These give it plenty of strength and prevent racking.

The bolts make it easy to disassemble and reassemble next year. Using screws or nails is a bad idea because after a few years the wood will get torn up.

Each 2x4 gets two holes. The corner of the L-strap goes through both 2x4s where they meet. The other hole in the vertical part of the L-strap gets bolted to the vertical 2x4, and the other hold in the horizontal part of the L-strap gets bolted to the horizontal 2x4. The L-strap goes between the two 2x4s (like a sandwich).

5. Bolt sizes. The L-strap I use (the smallest one available) takes a 3/8" diameter bolt. The length of each bolt is the length of the board or boards it goes through, plus 1". I need a total of 4 sizes (remember that a 2x4 is really 1.5" x 3.5").

- 2.5" - through the thin side of a single 2x4 - (1.5" + 1")

- 4" - through the thin side of two 2x4s - (1.5" + 1.5" + 1")

- 4.5" - through the wide side of a 2x4 - (3.5" + 1")

- 6" - through the wide side of a 2x4 and the thin side of a second 2x4 (1.5" + 3.5" + 1")

You simple need to draw the sukkah first and count the number of each type of bolt you need. Since the bolts are the same diameter, you can use the same nuts for all the bolts.

6. Washers. I use two 1.5" diameter washers per bolt.

7. Cutting the 2x4s. Make sure you are set on the size of the sukkah and then cut all your 2x4s first.

8. Labeling and orientation. The biggest problem in re-assembling the sukkah each year is remembering which board goes where and how it is oriented. In the past, I would somehow get one or two boards wrong each year, and that required some trimming or drilling an new hole. But this year, I have developed and idiot-proof system that will work even with me. (I am hoping to disprove the maxim that when you develop an idiot-proof system, someone will invent a better idiot.)

Everything is orientated to the front left corner of the sukkah.

The first thing to do is uniquely label each vertical board. I call the boards on the left side of my sukkah L1, L2, etc., and on the right side R1, R2, etc. (L1 and R1 are in the front). If the long side of your sukkah is the front, you can call the front vertical 2x4s F1, F2, etc. and the back ones B1, B2, etc. I write the number on each board with a thick black permanent felt pen.

I label each horizontal 2x4 with the number of the two vertical 2x4 that it runs between. So the board that goes from L1 to L2 is called L1-L2. Since there are two of these (one at the top, the other at the bottom), I also add an U (for "up") and a D (for "down") label. (You can't use B because it also stands for "back").

That uniquely identifies each 2x4. But it still has to be oriented correctly. To do this, I made a small mark on the top and left side of each board (neat the top left corner) and then slightly beveled those two edges. (I started with a router and a chamfer bit, but then realized it would be easier with a compound miter saw.) For an edge on the long side of the 2x4, I just beveled the last few inches to the corner.

If you don't have access to these tools, you could always cut a notch in these sides, mark them with a thick felt pen, or do anything else that will clearly identify this edge. The important point is to know where these edges are.

That should do it. When you put each 2x4 in, simply make sure that the beveled (or marked) edges are on the top and left sides. Now each board is in the right place and oriented correctly.

9. Pre-drilling and drilling. I pre-drilled 3 out of the 4 holes: the 2 holes on the vertical 2x4, and the one corner hold on the horizontal one. (I will drill the final hole during assembly - see below.)

To make this easier, I made six marking templates.

I used a thin piece of wood that was the width of a 2x4 and about 8" long. I drew a line across the template 1/2" from the bottom. (This is the extra space at the top and bottom.) I then drew another line 3.5" above that. This is where the horizontal board will go. I then marked the center of this and drilled a small hole, just big enough for a pencil to fit through.

I then put the L-strap in place and marked where the top hole will go and drilled that.

This template marks where the vertical 2x4 will be drilled. Once you make this, it is easy and fast to mark the holes on the vertical 2x4s. Simply put the template over the top or bottom of the 2x4, hold it in place, and make a pencil mark through the two holes. If you are going to be drilling a lot of holes, spending a few minutes making this template will speed things up a lot. (We were making three sukkahs this year.)

Vertical boards in the center of a sukkah wall can hold two horizontal boards (one from the left and one from the right). Simply flip the template over and measure and mark these 4 hole using the same method above on the other end of the template. Then you can use the other end to mark these vertical 2x4s.

Once everything is marked, drill the holes. The best bit for drilling a 3/8" hole in a 2x4 is a spade bit.

* * *

You need to make another template to drill through the long side of the 2x4. IMPORTANT: make sure these holes are about 1" above the holes on the other side. If they are at the same level, the bolts will bump into each other and it won't go through.

* * *

Finally, you need to make templates for the horizontal boards showing where the holes go.

* * *

If you really don't want to make the templates, you can mark everything with the L-straps as you go. That works, but it will take a little longer and not be as consistent.

10. Assembly. Once you have everything cut, marked, and drilled, you are ready to assemble. Pick a side. You should have four 2x4s (two vertical, two horizontal).

The first thing to do is make the whole thing square. If you can, lay everything down flat. Put the 2x4s in place (horizontals on the outside) add the L-strap, and add the two bolts for the vertical 2x4s. At this point, the L-strap should be solidly in place against the vertical 2x4s (since it is held in by two bolts), but the horizontal 2x4s are only held in place by 1 bolt. As a result, the whole contraption can "rack" and turn into a parallelogram. That's exactly what we want at this point.

The trick here is to get the whole thing square before drilling the final hole. And the way to do that is to measure the two diagonals (either from bolt to bolt, or from corner to corner, but be consistent). If they are equal, the thing is square. If not, simply move the two long corners closer to each other, remeasure, and re-adjust, until they are equal.

Once it is square, carefully mark the wood through the hole in the L-strap. Move the L-strap out of the way (don't try to drill through the hole!), drill the holes, move the L-strap back in place, and bolt it all together. You now have a side.

Repeat the process for the other sides. The frame is up.

That's the hard part. It's clear sailing from here. Add the walls, some lights, decorations, and the schach, and your sukkah is up!

* * *

Update: I have added pictures and some additional suggestions here.

blog comments powered by Disqus