A Satellite Dish Gazebo
(Or: Recycling Redneck Refuse as Lawn Decoration)

My ex-wife and I became the proud owners of an 1820's farm-house in November, 2003, and completely renovated it from the frame up during 2003 - 2005.

When we bought the place, the former owners left behind tons (literally) of junk that we had to break up, haul out, blow up, or throw away - including things like: a Mazda RX-7 less motor, a coal-furnace, 2 chicken coops, a pallet-load of broken bricks, a Chevy Cavalier less transmission, large tangles of barbed wire, etc. One of the more unattractive things they left us was a 1980's-vintage satellite dish (AKA "BUD" or "Big Ugly Dish") that was partially buried in foliage behind a row of trees in the front of the house.

(BUD in his penultimate resting-place - it's bigger than it looks)

In August, my buddy Andrew Molitor came up to visit for a couple of days and, as is the tradition, we put our guests to work doing weird projects. Nobody quite recalls how this one came about, but we were talking about hauling a load of junk to the dump when we remembered the satellite dish and suggested it might be a fun project to smash it up with the tractor and haul the remains to the dump. As we went back to investigate the situation, someone said, "it looks like the roof of some kind of structure" and someone else said, "hey, we could make a gazebo out of it!"

Thus began "project gazebo"


Taking the dish apart proved to be harder than it looked. The mounting ring at the base was a 50-lb rusted steel thing with large bolts that mounted it to a counter-weighted central receiver. The bolts, and everything else not made of aluminum, were too rusty to turn, in spite of two big guys with pipe wrenches yanking on them.


Fortunately, angle grinders were invented just for the purpose of obliterating rusty stuff. The aluminum expanded mesh that made up the panels of the antenna were easier to remove: we simply whacked them with a crowbar until they tore, then pulled them off. Disassembling everything until there was only the aluminum dish-struts took about a half hour, including time spent running back and forth getting tools. When you live on a farm, one of the things you learn is: projects absorb tools. By the time you're done, you'll hop into your truck 2 or 3 times, bump your way across the "yard" to one barn or another, and come back with one tool - just in time to remember that you forgot the wrench, or socket set, or whatever, and do it all over again in 15 minutes. By the end of a day doing projects you'll find yourself sitting in the middle of a circle of tools, extension cords, and vehicles. It's a lot of fun, until you have to put everything away.

(Bessie, with post-hole digger, and the uprights in rough position)

We decided to mount the "roof" on 6 uprights consisting of pressure-treated 4x4 lumber sunk into concrete footings. The concrete is strictly necessary, since frost-heave will pull a post out of the ground about 8" in a single winter. Considering the amount of work the whole project was going to involve, it seemed silly to "save" the effort of mixing a couple bags of concrete by building something that was going to look like The Leaning Gazebo of Pizza if we didn't get the footings right.

6 holes courtesy of Bessie

Digging footings in solid rocky ground is an amazing pain in the neck. We actually started digging with a clam-shell post-hole digger and got about 4" deep before we decided to break out heavy weaponry. Andrew's a really smart guy (a mathematician) and calculated pretty quickly that at the rate we were digging it would take us ~3 days to dig all 6 holes two feet deep. So we invested 20 minutes unhooking the bush-hog from our lawn-mower Bessie (a diesel Belarus 572 tractor/front-end-loader) and connecting my post-hole digger and a 5" auger.

6 holes were installed 2 feet deep in about 15 minutes.

Based on Andrew's earlier calculation of ~3 days to dig the holes by hand, we were now officially "ahead of schedule" so we took a break for lunch.

(Andrew Molitor with hose-level, standing on his "improvised altitude enhancing device")

Since nothing is flat, or level, or clean on a farm, we didn't have the luxury of just assuming the posts would all be the same height. We measured each post to a standard height by filling a length of clear plastic tubing with water and using it as a level. This turned out to be a fun game, because if one side of the hose-level was raised quickly, it would overflow onto the head of the person holding the other end.

Getting it Just Right

Eventually we decided to cut the 4x4s off at a height of exactly "whatever" and marked each one at that height. Then we took them out, cut them with a chainsaw, and spent a while figuring out which 4x4 went into which hole because we had forgotten to mark them when we pulled them out. Fortunately, we were still ahead of schedule, so this minor reversal of fortune didn't affect our project timeline significantly.

(Rough-balancing the roof)

We used nails and wire to mount the dome atop the posts and levelled each post individually with a spirit level and struts hammered into the ground. We used Bessie's front bucket to haul and mix 2 bags of concrete, which we shovelled into the holes to complete the footings and keep them level.

A Minor Boo-boo

If you look at the picture above, you can see the beginnings of our "big mistake" in the design of the gazebo. Since we had decided on 6 supporting beams (4 would have looked too spindly, 8 would have cost $20 more) we positioned them based on the locations of the ribs in the satellite dish. So far, it looks OK but we didn't really think about how it would look once we did something with the sides of the gazebo. We wanted to have enough space to walk through it, and have beams close enough to grow climbing roses on, but I think the overall effect of 6 beams makes the gazebo look a bit lopsided. We should have used 8 or 4; the human eye seems to be more comfortable with multiples of 2 than multiples of 3.

We then painted the dish a nice rustoleum shade of brown. Later, Andrew and I pondered the rest of our supplies: vinyl lattice, stainless steel decking screws, stainless steel wire, and lattice channels. We decided to mount vertical curved lattices on the closer pairs of beams, with a curved lattice across the top of the farther pairs. Our reasoning was something along the lines of "let's use this stuff up!" and that was the optimal solution that used the most lattice with the least cutting. The lattice channels were screwed onto the beams and curved by hand, then the lattices were cut and fit into the channels, wired to the channel top and bottom, and screwed onto the beams at the sides.

(Final view with Miles The Dog in background and hippy-dippy windchimes in center)

For the top of the dome, I had constructed a pressure-treated plywood block that glued into the base of a vinyl porch-railing finial. To attach it, I glued a bolt onto the back of the plywood, then filled the whole thing with urethane foam to hold it together. Once it had cured, I mounted it with a stainless steel eye-bolt through the bottom of the dish - my plan was to hang something (we had not decided what) from the bottom of the eye-bolt.


This photo was taken from an angle to show the gazebo at its worst perspective - you can see it looks a bit lopsided (it isn't) because of the 3-legged effect achieved by latticing the pairs of legs together. We think that once we've planted some climbing roses on the whole thing, it will break up the lines and make it look a bit better.

The hippy-dippy windchimes in the center of the gazebo are a project from a few weeks later. We thought that windchimes would be very cool to have in the gazebo, but were appalled at the price of the larger chime-sets. My reaction was "$1000 for a bunch of aluminum tubes? That's nuts!" Of course I happened to have a bunch of aluminum tubes lying around and miter-sawed them to carefully calculated lengths based on the phase of the moon, the number of lines of code in the Linux kernel, and the zodiac (i.e.: "whatever") then suspended them on nylon cords below a piece of pressure-treated plywood. My windchimes sound just about as good as the typical dope-inspired new-age products but cost about $15 to make.

There are a few things I'd do differently if I had to do this over again. Instead of making the supports in units of 3, I'd make them in units of 4. Because of the size of the "dome" there are some angles (as seen in the photo above) where it looks a bit weird. But from other angles it looks pretty nice.

It looks extremely bare right now, but we made the thing out of weather proof materials because we're planting climbing roses on the side panels in the spring. Once the roses grow up, we have some river bed-stones to complete the "floor" with and the whole thing should look a lot less stark and barren than it does right now. Landscaping 250 acres isn't something you do in a hurry, it turns out. In fact, most of our friends look at us funny when we explain that we use a back-hoe to dig our flower beds. I'll update this page with pictures in a few years when the roses are blooming.

On the Amtrak from Altoona, PA to New York City Oct 20, 2005