Intro to PlayaTech
With Building Tips for Different Two Methods
Playtech.com is my favorite resource for DIY Burning Man furniture. The website has a variety of pieces that you can build yourself, with little or no woodworking experience. From a love-seat to table, anybody can build great furniture for the playa and other temporary settings. If you are just starting out, building Playatech is a great way to get familiar with woodworking and furniture design.
There are dozens of plans to choose from at Playatech.com, and they all begin with the same material - 4’ x 8’ sheets of plywood. The pieces pack flat when in storage and are built into furniture by slotting pieces together, without glues or screws. The designs are perfect for Burning Man because Playatech is sturdy and functional but can be broken down for storage.
Anyone can make this furniture from scratch using the resources at Home Depot and a simple list of tools. Building Playatech is a great primer to designing and building your own furniture.
The most common way to build Playatech is by hand, the Original Method, which requires no special tools and has an easy learning curve. This is the way I have been making all my furniture for the past 5 years, and also the way Playatech’s creator works on designs new and old.
But recently, I had the opportunity to learn the CNC machine and have begun to explore CNC for furniture design. I decided that Playatech was a great starting point for plans that I could recreate on the CNC machine, so I’m also sharing the Modern CNC Method. I plan to spend the upcoming summer building Playatech and other furniture with this method.
I wrote this this introduction to Playatech for the Burner Happy Hour in San Francisco. Since the event is held at TechShop, I geared the CNC portion of the tutorial to the classes and equipment available there.
I encourage anyone going to playa this year to experiment with some Playatech furniture for their camp, and feel free to email me with questions along the way. This document will cover the steps to making Playatech using either method, including the pros and cons of each.
First Steps to Making Playatech
-Go to Playatech.com and browse the categories of furniture, like Bare Necessities, Radical Seating, and Rapid Entertainment.
-Write a list of the furniture pieces you like.
Some of our favorites: Playa Love Seat, Pladenza, Desert Daze Bed, Playa Pews, Plantry
- Narrow down the choices to what your camp or art project needs for this year’s Burn. Consider what you have time & money to build. This step can be difficult with so many cool and useful options to pick from!
- Work out some (or all) of the following details:
How much wood is needed for your furniture
Playatech is designed to have a minimal amount of leftover wood. Each piece of furniture can be cut from one or more full sheets of 4’x8’ plywood. Calculate how many pieces you want to build and how many sheets of wood each design calls for.
Which construction method you will use
This tutorial covers two different building methods; the Original Method (handcrafted, low tech) and the Modern CNC Method (high tech, bigger learning curve). Each process has pros and cons, so choose the one best for you. Read through the steps for each method before deciding, and feel free to email me with questions.
Where you will build it (and store it)
The first time we made Playatech, it was in my hometown of NYC for a camp fundraiser party. After a full work day including shopping for the wood in Queens and using a table saw in our driveway, we realized that the storage unit was closed! So we had to keep the giant sheets of plywood in the apartment building lobby for the week, making the landlord unhappy. When dealing with big pieces of wood, planning is critical! Make sure your build setup gives you enough room to move wood around, is easy to sweep up sawdust and clean, and is safe for using power tools.
What quality of wood you want to work with
At Home Depot (our store of choice), plywood is usually available in two qualities, low grade and high grade. On average, the low quality wood is $20 a sheet and has knots, splinters, and uneven surfaces. By contrast, the high quality wood is around $35 a sheet and is straight, smooth to the touch, and can be painted or stained with less sanding. When I build Playatech, I usually opt for the high quality wood because it’s easier to work with. But if you’re on a budget and plan to paint your furniture, the low quality wood is just fine.
How you will transport the wood from the store
Playatech is designed to be cut down to size at Home Depot with their panel saw. An employee will make all of the cuts for you, and while they “officially” charge for more than two cuts, they rarely keep track or charge at all. If you have a car, this is a good option and ideal for the Original Method. Alternatively, if you are renting a van or truck for the project, you can transport the full, 4’ x 8’ sheets. Keeping the sheets whole is is ideal for the New Computerized CNC method.
If you will paint the furniture, stain it, or leave bare
Painting is the most common form of finishing Playatech. You can paint designs or solid colors, and by painting you’ll seal up the wood. Make sure to start with a primer to make it easy on yourself. Often we’re tempted to skip the priming step as a shortcut, but in reality it’s a necessary step to well-finished work. If you leave the furniture bare, it may be uncomfortable to the skin and get dinged up more easily. For the first piece of Playatech I made with high quality wood, I decided to stain it. It looked great, but it also got damaged a lot in transportation. Now, it has visible scratches and dings. The stain also doesn’t keep the dust out, so it’s a better option for Playatech that’s staying home and traveling to local events.
How much sanding to do, and if by hand and/or an orbital sander
Sanding is an important step to all Playatech options, and whether you paint it or leave bare. The edges will be sharp after cutting, so at the minimum I recommend you sand those down. If you’re making a table or bench, you’ll probably want to sand the surfaces people touch. If you have a lot of sanding, an orbital sander will make your job a lot easier.
- Download a set of plans for each piece of furniture you are building. The cost is $5 per plan.
- Once you have figured out some of the details, you can move onto building the furniture. Below are two options, the Original Method and the Modern CNC Method
- The more expensive wood is nicer and less splintery.
- When making slots, start on the small side. It’s better for the pieces to fit snug than to have wiggle room from being a hair too big.
- Painted Playatech will make it nicer to sit on than raw wood. To paint, first sand all the edges smooth. A coat of primer is recommended.
- When moving Playatech, wear neoprene coated gloves to protect your hands from splinters and sharp edges.
- When moving several pieces of Playatech at once, consider tying them together with rope or making custom carrying holsters.
Option 1 : Original Method
handmade, low tech, great for beginners
When to make Playatech with the Original Method
-you are making a small number of pieces, i.e. 1 bench & 1 table
-you are looking for an easy, entry level furniture project
-you don’t have access to a workshop or CNC machine
-Panel Saw at Home Depot (verify that is available before you load your wood on a cart. Sometimes it’s broken or there are no staff members who can operate it)
-Router bit sized to your wood thickness
-Orbital Sander and/or Sandpaper with Wood block
Note: Since we didn’t have a hand router, we used a jigsaw and chisel to make the slot cuts. A hand router will produce better slots and requires less measuring, but sometimes you work with what you’ve got!
- Purchase your plans from Playatech.com. Make sure to print them and note the recommended plywood thickness.
- Determine how many sheets of wood you need.
- Purchase wood from Home Depot or a local store. Ask them to cut it down to size on the panel saw. Get the cut measurements from your printed plans.
- Gather and/or purchase the tools you will need
- Bring the wood to your workspace and using the drawings, figure out where your slots should go
- Use the router with the appropriate bit to cut your slots, which will be how the furniture fits together.
- Put the furniture together and see if adjustments are needed. Common adjustments are extending the slots to correct the fit or sanding slots that are too tight.
- With furniture constructed, sand all of the rough edges. Focus on areas that will touch the skin, like the seat of a bench.
- If painting, do this while the furniture is constructed. Don’t forget to prime the furniture first!
Option 2 : Modern CNC Method
high tech, requires CNC machine, has a bigger learning curve
When to make Playatech with New Computerized CNC METHOD
-You are making multiples of one design, i.e. 10 benches
-You can transport full sheets (48” x 96”) of plywood in a van or truck. (Many Home Depot locations rent vehicles for this!)
-You have access to a CNC at TechShop or other makerspace
-You have time to learn CAD and CNC software
Note: These instructions are designed with TechShop’s membership and CNC classes in mind. There are 3 TechShops in the Bay Area and 8 nationwide, so find a location near you and sign up for a membership when you’re ready to start building! I’m an instructor at TechShop SF so if you have questions about classes or membership, feel free to email me.
- Take the necessary classes. CNC ShopBot SBU teaches you the ShopBot Alpha CNC machine. This class is required to operate the machine at any TechShop location. CAD to CAM Software - vCarve Pro and Cut 3D is for the CNC computer software. While not required, this class will help you understand how to create your files for the CNC machine. It’s highly recommended if you are designing files from scratch. But if you are using existing vCarve files and just operating the Shopbot, you don’t necessarily need this.
- Practice working with the vCarve computer software. You can create your design in vCarve, but it’s recommended to use another vector program like Illustrator, Sketchup, AutoCad, and import them into vCarve. Practice setting up files and creating Tool Paths to fit your end mill (CNC router bit).
- Practice working on the ShopBot Alpha CNC machine. I recommend you design something basic so that you can get a feel for operating the ShopBot. For example, buy some inexpensive wood and have it cut out a circle, a square, or some combination of simple shapes. This will give you practice for when you build a real piece of furniture.
- Download your plans from Playatech.com
- Determine how many sheets of wood you need. Make sure to note the recommended thickness.
- Purchase wood from Home Depot. Do not cut it to size, since 4x8 sheets will fit on the ShopBot machine bed.
- Design your files using the plans from Playatech.com. Be sure to note the correct wood thickness and drill bit size in vCarve.
Bring the materials to TechShop at the time of your ShopBot reservation. Bring a buddy to help load wood.