The Mighty Manfred/Manfrotto tripod

A sturdy and versatile tripod is one of the best tools a photographer can have. But good tripods are expensive! After years of making do with a cheap video tripod that almost wobbled more than when hand-shooting, I finally decided to build my own quality tripod - in good old style, from wood! I bought a ready-made ball head, a Manfrotto (Bogen in the USA) model #352, and crafted everything else from wood, brass, PVC, aluminum and nylon. That's why I called it the Manfred/Manfrotto tripod - the body built by me, the head by Manfrotto.

This tripod was designed to be able to support any of my cameras and lenses with enough stiffness to use any exposure time; to be tall enough to place the camera at eye level; to be versatile enough to reach ground level and any strange location; and to be light enough to be carried a reasonable distance, but without expecting to take it on a long mountaineering trip. It also had to be water-resistant, to set it up in a river.

The legs have only two sections each. They fold over rather than telescoping, making the collapsed tripod about as small as a three-section telescoping design of the same tallness. All joints are compressed during use, eliminating any possibility of play.

I forced my sister to volunteer as a model for making this small series of photos, during sunset, in the park around my home. Since she is a little smaller than I am, this photo shows the tripod set up with widely spread legs. When I use it, I close the legs a little more, placing the camera 5cm higher.

For photographing lower objects, it's best to use the tripod with folded lower legs. The knee junctions are rounded, just like the main feet, so they can perfectly well serve as alternate feet. In this configuration, the camera ends up slightly higher than typical table height, which tends to be ideal to shoot macros of small technical objects placed on a desk.

This configuration provides extreme stability. The tripod can hold a heavy 1000mm mirror lens without noticeable shake, even in strong wind.

Regardless of whether the main feet or the knees are used, this tripod always stands on wood. Commercial tripods tend to have a choice between rubber feet or metal spikes. I never liked that! The rubber feet make a tripod wobble, while spikes tend to slowly bury themselves in soft ground; both things are bad for stability! In addition, the spikes can scratch a floor. Rounded wooden feet instead provide an ample contact surface without excessive elasticity. On smooth floors they tend to slip, but with the stiffness of this tripod, and the combined weight of it with the camera, this has proven to be no problem.

Up to here this tripod looks pretty normal. But now the fun starts!

When you want to get close to some object, the ability to tilt the tripod forward is a great asset. The complete movability of all joints of my tripod can achieve this far better than most factory-made ones. Here it is holding a typical 35mm reflex camera with an average-sized lens. The tripod's extended leg is heavy enough to safely hold the camera in this configuration. If more tilt is required, something can be used to weigh down the extended leg.

The ball head is extremely convenient. It allows to grasp the set screw with the left hand, the camera with the right, then aim the camera in any desired way and lock the single set screw with a short motion. It is very quick to set up. The Manfrotto #352 is not very large, but still stiff enough to hold any of my photo equipment. For large cameras a larger ball mount could be used, but I would not use any other kind of mount, which would require loosening and setting several screws each time the camera is moved!

Upside down!  For objects at ground level, this configuration is great. The legs can be adjusted to any required angle, extended, or folded like here, placing the camera at any required height from zero to about 160 cm.

This picture gives a view of the aluminum back plate opposing the Manfrotto ball head on the other side of the tripod's triangle. This piece is nothing more than a very big and fancy washer! The ball head is mounted to the triangle using a 3/8 inch Allen bolt. The washer was turned to properly fit the bolt head, and apply pressure to the wood on the periphery only. This aids stability.

This is the spider setup. It is less stiff than the one before, but would be the configuration of choice when setting up in mud - it's easier to clean the straight feet than the knee joints!

All wooden parts were thoroughly impregnated in polyurethane varnish of the same kind used to seal wooden floors. It makes the wood completely water resistant, and provides very hard surfaces which are next to impossible to scratch. The finishing operation involves sanding the wood smooth, breaking the edges, then soaking it in diluted varnish. Once it has dried, the pieces are again lightly sanded using fine sandpaper (#180 or so) to remove the little fibers that have stood up. The holes are treated with the drill bit, for the same purpose. Then two more layers of varnish are brushed on.

Now things start getting fancy! This setup has proven to be very useful for photographing all kinds of objects near ground level which need more distance than what one could get in a more normal configuration. Of course, one must be careful to get the tripod leg out of the picture!

Sorry about the tree in the background, which seems to be growing out of the tripod. That's a very common beginner's mistake! Even being seasoned by 24 years of hobby photography doesn't always prevent this, when shooting a few photos for a web page, in  a hurry, just before the sun sets for good!

This closeup gives an idea of the effort invested in my tripod. I tried to make it not just useful, but also beautiful!

The wood I used is Lenga. This is a hardwood that's quite abundant in the native forest of southern Chile. I can buy it in 18x45mm size, so I designed the tripod around this standard size. Lenga wood is of high strength, medium weight, and looks nice.

To make the rounded ends I used a very simple method: I first drilled the holes, then clamped a wooden block to my belt sander, drilling this block at the proper height, equal to the radius of the rounded ends (22.5mm). I used a drill bit as axle, plugging in each of my wooden ends, and using a coarse sanding belt (#40 grain) I sanded them round while rotating the pieces around their axles. It's surprisingly fast to do - just a few seconds for each piece!

Each junction uses several brass parts: A 10mm axle, drilled and tapped on both ends; two (different) end cups; and a wing nut, assembled from three individual pieces. The wooden parts are separated by black PVC clutch disks, and a low friction nylon washer goes between the wing nut and its end cup. All these pieces were custom made on my hobby lathe. In addition, each joint uses two M6 Allen bolts with countersunk heads, which I did buy, instead of making them too...

Here's a nice view of the tripod's triangle (that's how the head piece is called), which is assembled from no less than 21 individual pieces of wood! Building this piece was a challenge, but unexpectedly I succeeded on the first try! I first drilled the holes into the over-length pieces, rounded the ends, and then assembled each sandwich of 7 pieces (5 Lenga ones, and 2 plywood pieces) while having a drill bit inserted as an aligning axle. The assembly is done using just carpenter's white glue, and the stack is compressed with a clamp while the glue sets.

When the three stacks are ready, the difficult part comes: Sanding them down to precise, well-fitting 120-degree angles! I achieved this by making a sanding guide from a 45mm wide wooden piece, enhanced by two layers of paper, clamped between two 5x5cm ones, and clamping the whole guide to the belt sander. I could then slightly loosen the clamps and trim the angle of the guide, until achieving the required 30 degrees up of the sander's surface. Then I sanded down all the pieces, using the #40 sanding belt, which took about an hour, because of the larger surfaces that had to be sanded. Even coarser belts than #40 would be good here, but I did not find any.

Then the triangle was assembled, again using white glue and clamping it until the glue was dry. Lastly, the surfaces were sanded flat on the belt sander, to even out the unavoidable little imprecisions. The last step is drilling the centered hole for the 3/8 inch bolt that will hold the ball head.

Note that this ball head offers both a 1/4 inch and a 3/8 inch stud. The 1/4 inch one is fixed, while the 3/8 inch one comes in the form of a spring-loaded sleeve enclosing the 1/4 inch stud. It's a little out of focus here, but can be seen. This system allows to directly mount any of my cameras or large lenses, without needing adapters. This was yet another reason to use this head!

This is how the tripod is folded for storage. The ball head ends up between the legs, saving some packing length. Thanks to this, the entire tripod is just 88cm long when collapsed. Certainly, it's no midget, but it's in the ballpark of commercial tripods of the same sturdiness and maximum height, while being more versatile!

Never mind my sister's sour face. During set up of the tripod for all these photos, I managed to bump my camera into her forehead three times - and always at the same spot! It was almost as if it had been programmed! I swear, it wasn't on purpose, but she may not have believed me!

My sister with her swollen forehead poses with the packaged tripod. This photo was shot in the setting sun, just like the others, but I had to color-correct the scan. Otherwise, the dark green carrying bag looked black!

I made the bag too. Anyway two years ago I had to buy a heavy duty sewing machine because of my flying hobby, for which I need to sew parachute bridles every now and then. So it's no big task to make a bag like this. It's made from dark green canvas, with nylon webbing reinforcements, and a shoulder strap of that same webbing. The front side has an elastic-loaded cover that can be easily popped off and on. It is sewn to the bag, so it can't get lost.

The complete tripod, with its bag, weighs 5.6kg. This compares quite well to commercially available tripods of similar sturdiness.

If you want to make a copy of my tripod, you are of course welcome. Here is a drawing of the most complex part, the joint of the triangle with a leg. The drawing is to exact scale, with two dimensions given (in millimeter) so that you can plot it and get the other dimensions from the drawing. Clicking on the picture will load a higher resolution version, which you can download for printing.

The materials are color-coded: Wood is brownish, brass is red, PVC is green, nylon is yellow, steel bolts are blue.

The shape of the brass end cups and the PVC clutch disks is such that the compression force generated by tightening the wing nut is applied only to the the area of greatest possible radius, maximizing the torque. At first I made the clutch disks from nylon, but this material is so slippery that it didn't allow to block the joints! So I had to remake all the disks, using a different material. A fibrous plastic such as durocotton may have been best, but not having any in my limited material stock, I settled for black PVC, which works quite well. It slips easily when there is no compression, and locks in well enough when the wing screw is tightened.

I made good use of the nylon's self-lubricating characteristics by making small nylon washers that go between the wing bolt and its pressure plate. If this washer is made larger, it will have a longer lifetime, while asking for a little more force to block each junction.

Note that the triangle/leg junctions need to flex the wood a little bit in order to lock or release the joint. I had my reservations with this approach, but it turned out to work well. It requires, however, a precise fit of the pieces. Since the wood is not very precisely sized at the lumber yard, and I cannot do it better myself, I used the wood as it came, and made each clutch disk to the exact size required by the tolerances of the wood. So, the disks vary in thickness by up to 0.2mm, and are not freely interchangeable, should I ever disassemble the tripod.

The knee joints don't have this quirk, of course, and can use any leftover random-size clutch disks. By the way, the design of the knee joint parts is basically the same, only that the axle is 40mm shorter.

Note the different shape of the clutch disks partially visible in the upper corners of the drawing. It takes a little less effort to make, but it didn't work very well, so I ended up making all disks with the shape shown for the four lower ones.

The left Allen bolt is firmly and permanently fastened, using Loctite high strength thread locker between all matching surfaces. So the axle and the left end cup become effectively a single part. They could be turned from a solid rod of brass, but this would waste a lot of material... Likewise, the right bolt is permanently fastened in the wing nut body, again using high strength Loctite. Its tip is lubricated with a good grease, in order to move with little effort and wear in the brass axle. For longer lifetime, the axle could be made from phosphor bronze instead of brass, but I don't think this is necessary for my rather low use of this tripod.

The wings of the wing nut, which are simply small brass cylinders, were installed in the holes of the wing nut body by a fancy and elegant method, which looks nothing short of magic to people who watch one doing it: The little cylinders are turned on the lathe to a diameter a few microns larger than that of the holes. Then, the body is heated in a flame, while the cylinders are cooled with cooling spray. The expansion of the body and the contraction of the cylinders allow them to fit easily. One grasps them with tweezers, assembles them quickly, and after waiting for a few seconds for the temperatures to equalize, the two parts become as firmly locked as if they were a single piece!

Of course, if you are less proficient with the lathe, you can make the cylinders slightly undersize, and glue them in with Loctite. They could also be soldered. I would not recommend to thread them and screw them in, because this would weaken them at the most stressed location.

The drawing shows the triangle composed of 18mm Lenga pieces and 2mm plywood fillers. But I did not find 2mm plywood, so I used 4mm one, using half the amount of fillers. The photo of the triangle makes this clear. It's not important and should be obvious, but I mention it just to prevent readers from wondering about the difference between the drawing and reality.

With this information, people who have access to a lathe and a few simpler tools should be able to duplicate my design. Those without a lathe may still build an approximate copy, using long bolts and large washers instead of my custom-made parts. This should be workable, but won't look as nice, and will require more force to lock the junctions in place, since the compression will be applied at a smaller radius and so the torque will be lower.

And even if you should never copy my design, you may at least have learned an idea or two about tripods!

Back to homo ludens photographicus.