Shade Sail Installation : Part 1

Shade Sail Installation : Part 1

image source

As promised, here is a bit of information on how you can go about installing your own shade sail, which can potentially save you a bundle of cash.  Even if you want to hire someone to do parts of the process, you’ll have a better grasp on what’s involved (and then what you’re willing to pay).  This ended up being a wildly long post, so if you’re not actually into this type of thing, turn back now – you’ll want these 5 minutes of your life back. (I recently read that the average person is now only interested in the first 80 words or less of any writing…so I think you’ve probably stopped reading already.)

Before I start, just in case you want to know only the basics, here are some figures:

18 x 18 square shade sail

Poles set at 20’10” apart

Above-ground height: 9′, below ground depth: 3′

(4) 12′ poles, 4″x4″ steel, 1/8″ thick – $220

Auger rental – $40

Re-bar for bottom-of-pole stabilization – $8

Concrete for footers – $60 (plus $20 for delivery)

Lumber for bracing poles while concrete cures – $30

At one of my current job sites, we decided on an 18′ square shade sail to cover a portion of the driveway that needs striping as well as asphalt repair and asphalt patching. We decided to go with asphalt repair olympia wa for our parking lot striping and Home Asphalt Repair, as they are the best asphalt repair and paving contractor out there.  This size is one that many companies offer pre-made, meaning the price is a lot lower.  Unless you’ve got a really specific goal in mind, I would suggest choosing a pre-made size – the cost difference is no joke.  One company I talked to offers a 16′ square at nearly double the price of an 18′ square because that smaller size does not maximize the use of the fabric rolls.  Anyway, it’s something to keep in mind as you plan some shade for your outdoor space.

In order to accommodate an 18′ square sail, you have to account for both the mounting hardware and the ability to tension the sail over time as the fibers loosen a bit.  We ended up putting the poles 20’10” apart (as determined by the sail company).  If you end up with too much space between the pole and the connection to the sail, you can always add some extra chain loops to make it work – but more on hardware and the sail in the next installment.


image source

Once you have your pole spots marked and measured, it’s a good idea to rent an auger – getting down 3 feet in a nice cylindrical fashion is really difficult when you hit caliche, rocks, and plain old hard dirt.  The auger attachment you need will be 30″ long and 8″ wide – it just looks like a giant drill bit.  For the last 6 inches the auger doesn’t reach, you’ll have to dig it by hand/trowel/posthole digger/etc.  Sometimes augers are really tough to use if the ground is dry – it’s smart to dig a tiny starter hole and let the hose drip in it for a while.  After you have your holes done, you need to go back and widen them out to 16″ –  the width of the hole is nearly as important as the depth for structural stability.

Okay!  Now we’re getting somewhere.  It gets at least 3% more interesting coming up.

The next part includes buying the poles that will support the sail.  I did miles of research on this stuff, and there is equal support for using 1/8″, 3/16″ and 1/4″ steel (the thickness – also referred to in gauges and schedules, but everyone understands inches), either in 4″x4″ or 6″x6″ square tubing.  For residential settings the consensus was that 1/8″ thick 4″x4″ tubing is great.  If I were installing at a school or park I’d definitely go a notch or two up.  So after settling that whole shenarnigans, I went to a local steel shop and bought two sticks of 24′ square steel tubing, which they cut in half for free, leaving me with four 12′ sticks.

steel poles

At that point I embarked on drilling tons of holes in the steel using my trusty corded drill.  After much misery and almost total loss of hope, I had punched four holes in the bottom of each pole ( through which I stuck re-bar, which limits twisting of the poles after they are set in concrete) and two in the top of each pole for the connecting hardware.  Let me just tell you this: you can definitely drill through 1/8″ steel, and even 1/4″ steel – no need for the fancy drill bits or some insanely powerful drill.  You can get the standard Milwaukee brand bit (3/8″ size to accommodate re-bar at the bottom and sturdy hardware at the top), which is something like $6, and a small container of “3 in 1 Oil” for $2 and you’ll be all set.  You need to drill for a couple seconds, put down a few drops of oil, drill for half a minute, and so on until you break through.  It’s tempting to lean your whole body weight into the drill – but don’t do it.  I found out, long after being totally defeated by my drilling project, that the more you push down, the hotter the drill bit, the hotter the steel, the harder the steel becomes, leading to an infuriating amount of time drilling with no progress.  So just chill it out a bit and let the drill do its job.  Trust me on this.  Also, one more thing – half speed on the drill is about right.  Full speed = the insane hardening I just mentioned.  No bueno.  (I had to phone a friend to get out of this situation.  Come on, Home Depot, couldn’t someone have clued me in after not one, two, three, but four trips to talk about drilling.)  Actually I have so many feelings about drill bits + steel that I think I’ll just do a whole post on that soon.  So tune in soon for that gem.


Alright, so once you have your holes ready and your poles on site, it’s time to plant them!

Quick side note here:  as mentioned at the top, I bought 12′ poles so I could put 3′ in the ground and have 9′ above ground.  The information you look at online for setting any kind of post recommends putting a full 1/3  of the material in the ground.  So that would have been 4′ in this situation.  Then I ended up talking to a number of general contractors and they said I could easily get away with 2′ as long as the posthole is wide enough.  So I went for 3′ plus a wide hole to make extra sure that this thing won’t bend or lift in the future.  Again, though, if I were installing in a public or commercial space, I would go with the 1/3 rule.

Okay, I’m going to leave some detail out here because it’s a little mind-numbing. Basically you want to place the (very heavy) steel poles in the postholes, while checking and re-checking that you’re maintaining the original layout dimensions.  Then you’ll build support beams with 2×4 lumber so you don’t have to hold the poles the entire time they’re curing (I had huge and amazing help with this part – it’s worth involving someone who has handy building skills and the proper cutting tools for the lumber).  Next you’ll mix up a bunch of concrete – we did 300 lbs per footer (five 60lb bags) – and slop it into the holes.  At this point you’ll adjust your braces as you keep an eye on your levels (making sure it’s vertical).  Wait 24 hours, remove the braces, and let it cure for a day or two more.  VOILA.

sail braces

So this is definitely something you can try on your own.  I wouldn’t call it an easy project, but it’s also not so challenging that you shouldn’t consider it.  Or, plan it all out and hire someone for the individual parts.  Either way you’ll be dramatically increasing the available shade in your space, and you’ll know the specifics about how to do it.

Farewell for now, friends.  Tomorrow will be much less of an information overload.

poles with concrete

  1. Wow! I can’t wait to see the project when it is completed. Very informative!

    • Thanks, Mom! Just hold on to your seat for the post about Milwaukee vs. DeWalt vs. Rigid drill bits.

  2. It’s probably worth pointing out that you can get extensions for the auger bits to achieve more depth.

    • Hi Josh! You’re totally right – the rental shop said they offer an 18″ extension (making the total 48″). He said it gets really hard to handle that length, especially pulling the entire 48″ back up out of the hole (unless you happen to be 8′ tall, which would be really handy in this one case). But it’s definitely an option. Might try it next time just for kicks.

  3. I used standard 1/8″ galvanized steel and filled the poles with concrete. Drilling was a horror and I used a wide base hole as well. I didn’t go for high tension and leave them loose like the Aussies. I love them!

  4. Excellent article, best I’ve found after hours of web searching. You mention ‘more on hardware and the sail in the next installment’ just above the picture of the auger. Where can I find this? Thanks and keep up the good work.

  5. My backyard is so much cooler with our shade sail. We first had it too loose and the wind was taking its toll on it. Make sure you use a little elbow grease to pull it tight on installation. Thanks for the article!

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