Projects and observations

DIY: A “non-rigid” sign pole for protests & marches.

Many police departments across the US have banned “rigid poles” at public gatherings such as protests, demonstrations and marches. The result of this has been dramatic. The photos of these mass gatherings of people, when compared to those from previous eras, seem flat to me, with fewer signs and fewer faces visible. I think it’s important to have these dynamic images of events because we depend so much on media coverage (both journalistic and interpersonal) to spread the messages that inspire these actions.

Currently, many places disallow plastic, wood, and metal as sign poles. However, cardboard is usually acceptable at most events. The common wisdom seems to be to seek out a wrapping paper core and to use that for mounting signs. While a simple solution, it is not really a good one. Mounting signs to curved surfaces is not ideal; buying wrapping paper to use only the core is wasteful and expensive; most paper cores are thin and flimsy and will loose integrity after a couple of dents. Instead, I conceived of a simple way to repurpose normal cardboard boxes into sturdy, practically-free sign poles which are easy to mount to and even collapse into short segments for travel.

In a nutshell, this guide will take you through measuring, scoring, cutting and folding multiple triangular tubes from cardboard. You’ll make two or three outer pole sections (depending on the length you want and cardboard available) and one or two smaller and shorter coupler sections that will snugly fit inside the outer sections.

Below, you’ll find a template which will help take some of the fiddly work out of construction. In addition, you’ll need some supplies:

  • Cardboard – 18-24” wide, and at least 15” long*
  • Straight-edge – Longer is generally better, though a standard ruler will work
  • Pencil/pen for marking
  • Hobby knife, box knife or similar
  • Dull butter knife, letter opener, or similar for scoring fold lines
  • Glue for paper – White PVA glue like Elmer’s is fine. I like Tacky Glue myself.
  • Rubber bands or tape (to secure while drying)

* This does not have to be a single piece 15” long – as long as you have 5” of usable cardboard, you can use multiple pieces for this! Couplers can be made from pieces as small as 8”x5”. Additionally, the “grain” of the cardboard (the direction the ribbing runs in) should be along the longest dimension.

Get the template here!

(Following are text-based instructions that go into more detail than the instructions included with the template. However, the template includes pretty pictures, so I highly suggest starting there!)

What we are making:

Two main pole sections assembled with a single coupler

First up, prepare the template:

Fold template as indicated

  1. Print the template and, optionally, the instructions. Print at 100% without scaling – this is very important!
  2. Fold the template in half where indicated. Since paper feeds and printer margins vary, this gives the template a known starting point for measurements. Try to get this fold pretty accurate.
  3. Familiarize yourself with the template: One side is for making the outer, main pole sections and has identical measurement lines on both ends. The other side is for making a coupler. The measurements for the coupler are different on each edge. Which edge you use depends on whether your cardboard is thin (1/8”) or thick (more than 1/8” but less than 1/4”). Be sure you use only the measurements on one end for making your couplers. Draw a big “X” through the end you aren’t using if you think you might confuse the two.

Next, mark off the cardboard:

Align the bottom of the folded template with the bottom of the cardboard.

  1. Align the folded edge of the template, main side up, with the bottom of the wide side of the cardboard.
  2. Mark each of the score and cut lines on either side of the template at several locations down the length of the cardboard. Be sure the marks are closer together than the length of your straight edge.
  3. Using your straight edge, connect the measurement lines so that you have 4 continuous lines down the length of the cardboard – three score lines and one cut line.

Then, Cut and fold the pole:

Score and cut as indicated.

  1. Using the straight edge and dull butter knife (or other scoring device), score along the three score lines. You want to dent into the cardboard, but not cut it. Try to keep the score from cutting through into the cardboard.
  2. Using the straight edge and sharp knife, cut the cardboard on the cut line.
  3. Fold the cardboard along all three score lines, toward the line. It can be very useful to bend these over the edge of a table or counter. The short flap can be challenging to fold, but try to keep the fold as straight as you can

Now, glue it up:

Fold all main sections and couplers with the short flap inside.

  1. Fold the pole into its final triangular tube shape, with the short flap inside the tube. Adjust any of the folds if you need to get it to make a nice, solid tube.
  2. Lightly unfold the tube, and apply a bead of glue down the short flap where it contacts the inside of the tube.
  3. Re-fold into the final shape and secure the tube with several rubber bands or tape. If using tape, consider its placement carefully as slick, plastic tape can be hard to keep hold of when you are marching down the street!

Repeat to make another outer tube and, using the other side of the template, a coupler. If you are using shorter cardboard and want a longer pole, you can make three outer tubes and two couplers. Be sure to make all couplers 8-12″ long to provide a solid fit.

Finally, fit it together:

Rotating the coupler can provide a good, snug fit.

  1. Once the glue is fully dry, push the coupler about a third of the way into the end of an outer pole. You may need to experiment with the rotation of the coupler and which end you insert first. This should be nice and snug, but no so tight that it pops the glue seams.
  2. Add another outer pole over the other end of the coupler.
  3. Once both outer tubes are partially inserted, carefully push them together until the coupler is fully engulfed in the outer tubes. Repeat with the additional coupler and tube if using.
  4. You can pull the tubes apart to collapse the pole for easier traveling.
  5. If the couplers start or become loose, you can wrap some tape around them to increase their size slightly. Masking and paper tape works great for this, but plastic and duct tapes can cause problems.

You can now mount signs to one of the flat surfaces of the pole with tape, glue or staples or save this step till you get to your event. With some extra engineering, you can also create a cross-bar that can be zip-tied across the top to mount non-rigid signs more easily. Just make an additional main section that’s the width of your sign, cut a receiving groove into the top of the main pole, and make some holes for the zip ties. If you’ll use this often, reinforce the holes with plastic tubing or similar.

This is a super-cheap, easy and effective way to bring back some of the dynamic and impressive stature seen in mass protests of the past. It’s obvious that the visual presentation of these actions is important to how they are covered and shared.

Please feel free to share this template and concept! I can’t wait to see more signs at protests, demonstrations and marches soon.

 

Please note that even though this pole is made completely of cardboard, which is explicitly allowed by police departments (Boston, for instance) there is no guarantee that you will be allowed to carry this at any particular event. For instance, when I attended the march protesting the “free speech rally” held in Boston just after Charlottesville, the event organizers declined to allow me to carry one of these. The police officers on site did not have an opinion, but the organizers wished to avoid any appearance whatsoever of weapons being present in the crowd. Luckily, since these are essentially free, it was easy for me to discard most of the pole and carry on with a shortened version on my sign.

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