How to Put Up a Circus Tent

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Whether it is your first time producing a circus show, or you are simply looking to broaden your knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes of tent construction, a familiarity with the elements of production can be very useful. With the proper tools, amount of manpower and necessary directions, you can hoist your own "big top."

Things You'll Need

  • Tent roof canvas
  • Central pole
  • Necessary secondary and tertiary poles
  • Individual pole bale-ring and flagstaffs
  • Necessary stakes for construction
  • Sledgehammer
  • 500 feet of rope
  • Assess the area you intend to place your tent. Typical oval-style circus tents come in a size of 118 by 150 feet, though some can reach sizes of 500 feet, and each requires a flat or near-even floor (preferably dirt or sanded) for performance. Mark out the tent diameter to ensure proper space.

  • Mark the place for the central pole and measure out the diameter for the placement of each stake. Nearly every tent comes with its own specific lengths and will require attention to the directions that come with the tent. Measure out each radius from the central pole in north, south, east and west directions, covering all 360 degrees.

  • Drive each stake into the ground using a sledgehammer. Utilize the aid of two to seven additional workers for this process, as the stake size tends to be an enormous length of four to five feet with a thickness of two to three inches, and each requires between 200 to 300 blows. Drive each of the 300 or more stakes into the ground until two-thirds of it rests within the ground for tent stability. Remember: while a crew of skilled circus technicians can pound all stakes in under an hour, new workers should expect a half-day for this step.

  • Drape the canvas inside the staked-out area. Prepare the center poles in even intervals between the stakes, according to each individual tent's size and instructions. Dig a small cylindrical hole for the pole to be placed in. Attach the block and tackle units along with the adjoined flagstaff to each pole, and connect at least three ropes for raising and positioning. Exercising caution, lift each pole consecutively with a team of 10 to 40 pullers, keeping one technician at the base of the pole with a crowbar for positioning. Assign a group of 10 to 20 strong workers to physically push the pole once the rope team has lifted the end.

  • Using the crowbar, steady the pole as its girth is raised until it is perfectly perpendicular. Repeat this step with all additional poles until the canvas is fully supported by each pole.

  • Lay out the canvas roof of the tent, unrolling its separate pieces as necessary. Fasten each individual roof portion to the bale-ring encircling the center pole by rope. Next, fasten the areas where the separate roof sections come together, roping through the built-in loops of fabric. Prepare the bale-ring of each pole for lifting by running rope to each built-in pulley of the bale-ring and assigning at least two positions for lifting and fastening the ring.

  • Pull on the ropes connected to the bale-ring in an even descent, lifting the tent ceiling to the top of the central pole. Repeat for all bale-rings on all poles. Next, close the seams at the bale-ring of each pole via ladder by firmly tying off each section with the rope.

  • Erect minor poles throughout the circumference of the tent by carefully mounting each to a driven stake and lifting each with the necessary crew of rope-pullers and pole-lifters. Repeat for each additional pole until the ceiling is entirely propped.

  • Fasten the canvas tent top to each stake at the designated loops and secure all other elements of lighting and stage production.

Tips & Warnings

  • Always follow the guidelines for your specific tent when erecting a typical circus "big top." Each manufacturer tends to create slight alterations for each tent design, each of which must be carefully followed to ensure the safety of your tent.
  • Always incorporate skilled tent assemblers when erecting a tent. If any part of the directions is ignored or overlooked, a serious safety hazard could be accidentally implemented. Never cut corners when it comes to tent assembly.

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