Booth Backdrop Build Tutorial

After the Harvard Square Holiday Fair last winter, I decided I needed to up my interior booth display game.  While my outdoor tent display has progressed nicely, my indoor version was still kind of just stuff on tables.

Freestanding fabric walls are of course the classic solution to dressing up a booth,  but given that A) really what I need was a visual divider between my booth and the next rather than something sturdy to hang inventory from (my tabletop displays do a pretty good job of being vertical all on their own) B) those fabric walls aren't nearly as portable as I would like- I rarely have minions, I need something I can set up quickly and on my own and C) my god man, the *price*. Maybe I'll get these after I purchase my own pony.

So after googling around, I decided the solution to my problem is PVC pipe. Otherwise known as Tinker Toys for grownups. 

I documented my build to share with you guys: it's a combo of this photography backdrop tutorial and this PVC cleaning tutorial, with a little improvisation. I'm pretty happy with the result for the price, so let's see if I can talk you through it!


Always put your thoughts on paper. It's immensely helpful not only for working through your design, but also as a way to communicate with the hardware store staff who may or may not have any concept of what it is you're trying to make. 

Because I didn't need the fabric to be easily swapped out, I modified the original photography backdrop build to directly incorporate the fabric part, rather than having it draped over the top. I really liked the idea of being able to take it off and roll it up though as that seemed super portable, so I intended to preserve that ability.

I also made one on-the-fly change in the store which isn't drawn here- I raised the crossbar, so that some of the height was part of the 'feet'. So the total vertical height is split into one long piece and one shorter piece. (later in the build I also figured out that I'm too short to actually grab both sides of a 6ft wide panel at the same time, which is kind of necessary to setting it up. So I had to cut the horizontal pieces again. To save you time, I'm going to pretend I got that right from the beginning. )

One Freestanding Visual Divider:

2 5ft lengths of 1in PVC pipe for crosspiece

2 6ft lengths of 1in PVC pipe for vertical

6 1ft lengths of 1 in PVC pipe, four for floor support, two for height

4 1 in PVC endcaps

4 3-way 1 in PVC joints

2 45 degree turn 1 in PCV joints

PVC cement is optional. (Because I want mine to be able to be disassembled, I didn't use it.)

1 long bolt of heavy-duty cloth, 5+ feet wide, and at least 7ft long. (Later there will be a visual aid and more explanation of this, but suffice it to say that it will look better if the cloth is significantly wider than the crosspiece. If you're at all unsure, remember you can always cut down the PVC with a handsaw. Cutting the cloth and giving it finished edge again is much harder. If your chosen fabric does not already have finished edges, make sure you account for the width that will be taken up by folding them over when making your measurements.)

If this costs you more than $100, you've been had.

Here is all the pipe, all laid out. I bought enough to make two dividers a the same time, so don't be intimidated by the sheer amount of piping. What's the hand-sander and particulate mask for you ask?


Unfortunately, PVC comes with icky pink writing on it. Also various scuffs and marks from transit. Because the pipe will be visible in the final version of this build, this stuff has got to go. The most thorough, easiest, and fastest way to get rid of this crap is by sanding it off. If you don't have access to a palm sander a sanding pad/block from the hardware store will also work, and I think would still be faster than mucking about with acetone.


All done! Wiping down with a damp shop cloth is a good idea, PVC dust is not your friend.


I started by assembling the feet. I'd never worked with PVC before, so this was a nice confidence-building 'hey, maybe this will work' step. If you're only making one stand, you'll only need two feet. 


The two feet connected. This step uses all six of the 1ft lengths, one of the 5ft lengths, all the endcaps, and all the three-way joints.


Connect the two longer vertical lengths together using the remaining 5ft length and the two elbow joints. If you hold each vertical with one hand, you can slot it in to the connected feet pretty easily.


Crucial step: Even without using cement, the upright is strong enough to hold an elbow-lamp.


Now for the hard part, at least for those of us without a sewing machine: If your fabric doesn't have finished edges, finish them. If it does, go to step 2: roll the top edge over, and sew it to the body of the fabric, making a tube for the top crossbar to go through, as in many simple curtains. You'll need to fold over enough to cover the circumference of the pipe (remember, C = 2πr) plus some wiggle room. For a 1 inch pipe, 3.5 inches works pretty well, although if you aren't sure, err on the side of too much room. A running stitch will work just fine for this if you use a sturdy thread. When you sew it on, make sure to leave a two-inch margin of unsewed area on either edge. This is so that the fabric can lay on top of the verticals instead of next to it. You'll also want to iron the edges when you've finished. If you skip these two steps, you'll get something that looks like this:


You don't want that, right? So make sure your fabric is wide enough to cover your vertical bars, don't sew all the way to the edge, and iron that sucker. Then you'll get something that looks like this:


If, like I initially did, you screw up and by fabric that is too narrow: Take your PVC apart and cut the two horizontal bars so that they're shorter than the width of your fabric. Remember the fabric has to cover the vertical bar and the join, which adds a little more than the bar alone. If the fabric completely covers the PVC, that's fine, so err on the side of cutting shorter.

My initial plan had been to make another tube to thread the bottom horizontal bar through, but I ran out of time. Instead, I dashed out and bought some rivets and string.


I put the rivet just to the inside of the vertical bar.


And just above the bottom horizontal bar. Tied firmly with the string, it makes the canvas hang nice and taut, and adds a bit of stability to the whole piece.


One vertical, disassembled. Fits under a bed or in a closet for storage, and easily in a regular size car. Plus, one person can carry and assemble it. 


And here it is in action, creating a nice visual barrier between my booth and the blanket-seller next door. It was sturdy enough that my neighbor asked if she could hang a blanket from it! While I wouldn't want to trust it with much more weight than a lamp and a blanket, this divider does the job of defining my booth space for a price i can actually afford.

PS: I have plans to try connecting the two uprights I made into a single corner piece at an upcoming show. Because of PVC's Tinker-Toy qualities, this be as easy as picking up a couple new joints. I'll let you know how it goes!