How to make a DIY light support system on a budget
Jan 8, 2019
How to make a DIY light support system on a budget
The system began a few years ago when I needed more light stands and, like most DIY types, didn’t want to pay a lot for them. I happened to have a lot of 3/4″ PVC and 1/2″ metal conduit laying around so I started experimenting. My goal was to come as close as I could to the functions of a retail light stand. The basic stand fits the bill except for the fact that the legs don’t collapse. Since this was a DIY project I wasn’t limited to manufacturer’s accessories. I could dream up as many different add-ons as I wanted. The simple stand soon grew into a complete light support system.
CAUTION: This is not a quickie one hour project. There’s a lot to it. I advise you to read through the entire article and then decide if it’s for you or not. You do not need to create everything at once for it to be useful. One stand will work all by itself. From there the system can grow as you need or want it to.
You will need, at a minimum, the following:
- PVC cutters (unless you’re really good with a hacksaw)
- A vise to hold pieces for drilling
- A hacksaw to cut the conduit
- A file to deburr the conduit
- Drill and tap for 1/4 20 thread
- Sandpaper ( 220 grit and possibly 80)
- PVC primer and cement
Ideally, having the following will make life a whole lot easier:
- Drill Press with vise
- Bench grinder
Before you build (you really need to read this)
There are a few very important steps you must follow in building any part of this system. It is made to support lights; which means weight. Proper building techniques are a must. You MUST properly secure PVC joints. That means sanding, priming, and gluing. The small pieces that connect the joints must be long enough to completely fill the joints.
The second thing that must be done correctly, and I cannot stress this enough, is to properly drill and tap the holes for the 1/4 20 screws.
You willl need the correct size drill and tap for 1/4 20 thread. Do not try to just drill a hole into the PVC and force a screw through it. It will not hold! As you can see from the picture, a properly threaded hole is quite strong, even in a single thickness of PVC. All the threaded holes in this project will go through a double thickness of pipe and will stand up to a good deal of torque without stripping out.
Lastly, if you use a saw to cut the EMT, use a file to deburr and smooth the edges. If you happen to have a bench grinder, that works even better.
The basic stand
The stand consists of 4 parts; base, support column, riser, and riser head. Unlike most other DIY projects, it’s not single purpose. In fact, the best part about the stand, and the whole system for that matter, is that all the parts are interchangeable and configureable in just about any way you can imagine.
Each stand costs about $12.00 to build without casters. The casters will add about another ten bucks but it still beats a retail stand and dolly that would be over $50.00.
There is only one part that is not readily available at your local home improvement or hardware store. That is the center of the base which is a 5-way 3/4″ PVC cross. They are available online from numerous sources for about $2.00 each.
I’ve found the best paint to use is KRYLON Fusion for Plastic. It doesn’t need a primer coat and is pretty tough if you give the PVC a very light sanding with a fine grit paper first. I’ve also found it best not to paint the riser conduit pipes if you plan to use metal thumb screws as the will destroy any paint. The paint will hold up if you use nylon screws instead of metal. I use them and they hold well just tightening them with my fingers.
The stand uses 3/4″ Schedule 40 white PVC pipe, 1/2″ EMT (steel conduit), and associated connectors and adaptors. Parts lists for each component are contained in the images. Assembly is straight forward as per the images.
Make sure all the fittings are lightly sanded, primed, and glued. This is, after all, the part that has to support all the weight. I throw a sand bag across the top of the base and use it to support a 3lb monolight with umbrellas and softboxes without problems. With 12″ leg pipes the stand is no more prone to tipping than a retail light stand at the same footprint.
The center support consists of the PVC column and the riser. Once again, the important part here is to properly drill and tap the hole for the thumb screw. Regardless of the size you make the column, the riser needs to be 6″ longer to prevent it from falling through. If it does you can always get it out by unscrewing the column from the base.
NOTE: I’ve found that some of the 3/4″ to 1/2″ slip adaptors have a ridge inside that will prevent the riser from going through. If this is the case you can put some 60 or 80 grit sandpaper around a dowel and take it down until the riser goes through smoothly.
The standard riser head comes as close as I could get to the head on a retail light stand. You need to stick to the sizes shown. The depth of most mounts on lights is about an inch and a half. If you use too long a screw, the light will not properly seat itself to the head. The small star washer is also important as it helps keep the spacer from turning.
To assemble the stand simply screw the support column into the base, set in the riser, and attach the riser head. When attaching the support column to the base, you only need to tighten it to the point where you hear a popping noise. If you go too much further you’ll need a pair of channel locks to remove it. It’ll just depend on how strong your hands are.
The compression fitting on the riser head can be hand tightened and will not come off. If you don’t trust it, you can always use pliers.
If there’s one thing that makes this system versatile it is the Mount Point. It is essentially a riser head that can attach anywhere on a riser or crossbar.
Assembly of the mount point is pretty straightforward as per the image. You can put the thumb screw on the back or side of the Tee. I tap both sides, one on each end, so that it can move the thumb screw if it happens to get in the way.
To use as a backdrop stand you’ll need a couple of 1/2″, threaded, 90-degree conduit elbows. I put the same compression fitting used in the riser head onto one side and use the screw on the other side to secure the crossbar. The crossbar is just a length of EMT cut to the size you need.
I’ve given you all the basics and haven’t even scratched the surface on what is possible. From this point I’m sure someone will be able to come up with many inventive ways to use and expand this system.
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