The Convenient, Sturdy Outdoor Clothesline

Save money — build our simple outdoor clothesline and let the sun dry your laundry! (If you don't have the space, consider retractable clotheslines or clothes drying racks instead.)

Clothesline pulley

Using pulleys on clotheslines makes hanging clothes easier and more efficient.  


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A good outdoor clothesline offers several benefits. First, it helps save money by keeping your clothes out of the dryer. That means energy savings that are also great for the environment. Next, there are the aesthetic advantages: The fragrance of sun-dried clothes can’t be matched by perfumed anti-static sheets you toss into a dryer.

Almost 20 years ago, I built my first clothesline, and it worked well, even with all the laundry generated by our houseful of kids reared on cloth diapers. But since then, I’ve also noticed things about the design that could have been better — improvements I’ve worked into this plan.

If a clothesline is going to make a serious contribution to your household, it has to be large enough to handle a serious amount of laundry. That’s the reason my design includes three separate lines that run on pulleys. (One good source for pulleys is Lehman’s.) My original system had a trio of lines, but what I hadn’t counted on was the stress of supporting all that wet clothing on a windy day. My old clothesline never broke, but it did start to twist and bend after 10 years, so my updated version is made of alkaline copper quaternary (ACQ) pressure-treated 8-by-8s, with 4-by-4 knee braces. Think that’s overkill? Don’t be fooled. After you tip the post up and attach lines, big wood is just right, both visually and structurally.

But 8-by-8s are expensive, so you could opt for 6-by-6s if the poles are short or if your design doesn’t include cross braces. You could also make use of thinner timber if you use guy wires tied to anchors in the ground. Got some rot-resistant trees you’d like to harvest for the project (cedar, black or honey locust, Osage orange, white oak, black walnut)? They will work, too, though joinery will be more challenging unless you saw the logs into beams first.

At my place, a pulley supporting one end of each line is fastened to my stone house, while the other ends of the lines are supported by pulleys on the timber frame post and crosspiece. Knee braces keep these parts square and rigid. You could also have both ends of the lines supported by posts if you’d rather not attach anything to your house.

Materials and Tools

To build your own clothesline, begin by gathering materials. You’ll need a 16-foot 8-by-8 for the main post, an 8-foot-long 8-by-8 for the crosspiece, and one 12-foot-long 4-by-4 for the two knee braces. These standard lengths are longer than you’ll need, allowing you to cut exactly what’s required. For a lower clothesline that’s not accessed from a porch, for example, the main post can be shorter.

As for tools, you’ll need a hand-held circular saw, an electric drill, a 1-inch-wide chisel, a 16-ounce hammer or mallet, a carpenter’s framing square, a sharp handsaw, and a socket wrench. You’ll also need some stout sawhorses. A chop saw is nice if you can get one, but not necessary. Would you like to add decorative details to your clothesline? A router spinning a large chamfer bit can add a lot of beauty in just a few minutes.

Start Building the Outdoor Clothesline

Measure and mark the location for the joint where the crosspiece will join the main post. A notch in the post supports the crosspiece, and determining its height depends partly on the soil conditions in your yard. Ideally, the base of a clothesline extends at least 4 to 5 feet into the soil. In my case, bedrock was only 2 feet below the surface, so I added extra support around the post with a stone-filled wooden crib. Figure out how much of your post will sit below ground, and then add 5 to 7 feet to this figure to determine the location of the half lap joint for the crosspiece. (A half lap joint consists of a notch about halfway through each of the pieces being joined so they fit together sort of like Lincoln Logs.)

Regardless of how you’ll support the bottom end of your clothesline, measure and mark the location of a half lap joint on the main post that supports the crosspiece. Instead of measuring the width of the crosspiece with a tape measure, lay this part on top of the main post (make sure it’s square) and mark its width and location directly with a pencil.

Now it’s time to use your circular saw. Start by making two careful cuts, one on each waste side of the half lap zone at the full depth your saw will cut. Next, complete more cuts between these first two, spaced about a quarter of an inch apart. Remove the remaining waste with your chisel and mallet.

As the name suggests, the half lap notch needs to be half the thickness of the main post, and this presents a challenge. Most circular saws can’t cut deep enough to get to the center of an 8-by-8. You can use a handsaw or carefully wielded chain saw to continue the necessary cuts before chiseling the half laps to their full depth. Test fit the crosspiece and main post and adjust the joints as necessary for a good fit. Repeat the procedure to cut a notch in the crosspiece.

How to Make Your Clothesline Sturdy

Now it’s time to cut and fit the two knee braces. While you could notch these parts into pockets cut in the crosspiece and main post, using half-inch carriage bolts (8 inches long) at each end does a great job, and they’re much easier to install. Temporarily assemble the main post and crosspiece now, nudging these parts one way or the other so they’re perfectly square with each other. To create greater strength, I cut the top ends of the knee braces to 50 degrees and the bottom ends to 40 degrees, though these numbers are just starting points. Big timbers are usually twisted, so you’ll probably need to fine-tune the angles on the knee braces for a good fit. Now cut one angled end on each knee brace, hold the parts in position, then mark and cut the other ends. An electric chop saw makes it easier to do this work accurately.

Perfect the fit of the knee braces against the crosspiece and main post, then drill holes for the carriage bolts and install them with a socket wrench. Finish up by angling the ends of the main post and crosspiece, then chamfering the edges of these parts with a router if you’d like a more finished look. Tip the assembly upright in the hole you’ve dug (I got some help from a neighbor with a loader tractor), have someone hold the post plumb, then fill in and pack down the soil around the post.

Attach pulleys to the crosspiece(s) and the wall, being careful to anchor pulleys to studs — not just the siding or sheathing — and string the line. I find it best to pay more for the high-grade, stainless steel cable that’s covered with plastic. Less expensive kinds are covered in plastic, too, but stainless steel doesn’t rust if the plastic cracks. I’ve also found that the stainless steel versions are stronger.

Now you’re ready to dry clothes without spending a dime on fossil-fuel-produced electricity!

Clothesline Options for Smaller Spaces

You can dry clothes without using any fossil fuels — even if you have a small backyard or live in an apartment. There are lots of options in addition to a permanent clothesline stretched between two posts.

Single-pole rotary clotheslines fold up like an umbrella. Some models can be removed from the yard when not in use.

Retractable clotheslines attach to the outside wall of your house, and several lines are pulled out from a canister and attached to a pole or fence. After the clothes are dry, the lines roll up into the canister.

Folding-frame clotheslines attach to a wall and fit tightly against it when not in use. To dry clothes, simply unfold the unit.

Clothes drying racks can be used outside on a balcony or patio in good weather. You can also use them indoors, especially in winter when indoor air may be particularly dry.

— Troy Griepentrog


Contributing Editor Steve Maxwell has been helping people renovate, build and maintain their homes for more than two decades. “Canada’s Handiest Man” is an award-winning home improvement authority and woodworking expert. Contact him by visiting his website and the blog, Maxwell’s House. You also can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook and find him on . 

6/26/2015 12:52:30 AM

Good grief... surely Mother Earth News has an editor or two; someone who would demand that there be relevant PHOTOS to go with the "how to" stories you publish. Like this one on clotheslines. The pretty pictures of primary colored t-shirts flapping in the wind or a closeup row of clothes receding into the distance are worthless when it comes to SHOWING how something is made. How hard is it to tell your writers to point their phone camera at whatever it is they are building, AS THEY BUILD IT, and show how it's done? Whatever value there might be in your how-to stories is largely lost because there are no photos or decent illustrations showing what it is you're writing about. It's so frustrating to see a decent publication fail so miserably on such a simple task. You can do better, I know you can. Sincerely, Jim Burrus

6/25/2015 1:10:45 AM

The roof support post of my back porch deck was built like you described. my pulleys were salvaged from an old block and tackle. My brother in law salvaged the stainless cable from the dump used by the navy. The far end of my line is fastened to a hundred year old apple tree. I keep my line tight with a turnbuckle also salvaged from the dump. Total cost one stainless screw hook, one cable clamp and some oil for the pulley shafts.

judy august
7/20/2012 11:22:24 PM

I've had a clothesline in my side yard for years. There are trees over there so I just tied some sturdy line to a tree, walked over to the next tree, wrapped the line around once, keeping it as tight as I could, went across to the next tree & did the same & repeated until I ran out of line. The pulley system is convenient but is expensive & a waste of line. For a clothespin bag I just use an old beach bag hung on a plastic slides right down the line just fine & dandy. Cost for the whole shebang? Under $10 for line & clothespins.

laura hodge
5/4/2012 4:59:15 AM

I have been using a solar dryer for most of my 62 years. Here are a couple of hanging tips....I know it makes a pretty picture to hang shirts by the shoulder, but not when you take them down and put them on; that clothespin has now left a nasty little dent in your shoulder. The same thing happens when you hang the shirts upside down. Best yet: Hang them by the underarms. No clip dent will be seen at all. And...if you hate to iron as much as I do, for the items that might need an iron, go ahead and hang them on the line and then soak them with the garden hose. It will take a little longer to dry, but the wrinkles will fall right out of them.

laurel robertson
5/3/2012 3:21:47 PM

I've used clothes lines to dry my laundry for 25 years, so I have some opinions about the best ways to do it. First, I really like using twisted steel cable without the plastic coating. The little holes cut out in the clothespin heads slide back and forth quite easily on the bare wire (if you clip them back to the lines dangling from those holes) - that way I can slide the clothespins along the wire and have them at hand wherever needed (without bothering to pull them in and out of a bag - takes too much time...). Second - I have part of my clothesline in the shade so I can hang colored clothes there to prevent fading (the only drawback to hanging clothes out, imho) and can still hang white clothes out in the sun to help brighten them ( a benefit not available from clothes dryers!) I hang t-shirts with their bottom edge draped over the line, being careful to keep them from twisting out of shape. I hang jeans and pants by their hems, each leg on opposite lines. They dry much quicker that way. I have also constructed an outdoor laundry table - really makes hanging out clothes easier - no repeated stooping over to pull clothes out of a basket! After all, it's my laundry room, and who doesn't have a table in their laundry room?

5/3/2012 3:00:15 PM

Forgot to add, we even hung our clothes out to dry in the dead of winter, mom called it "freeze dried" LOL

5/3/2012 2:58:27 PM

We always hung our clothes out to dry while I was growing up. Didn't get a dryer until my grandmother became disabled and Mom had so much extra laundry with her. We even used a wringer type washer until the early 60's. I don't know what is different about the detergents they use today, but clothes are so stiff when dried outside. I don't remember our towels ever being stiff and scratchy like they are now. Maybe rinsing twice will help, don't want to add "softeners" to my wash, defeats the purpose of trying to save money. I have found by giving the clothes a good shake (like you would shake a rug, hard) it takes some of the stiffness out.

cris frazer_2
3/11/2010 7:58:11 PM

Joellen Lampman: Theres a couple things you might try. First, putting a "preditor" on the top of your line may be all you need. Most farm stores, or even Walmart, well plastic owl or hawk statues to keep birds off of trees. You could also buy some mylar tape. It's usually red on one side, silver on the other, and very shiny. When the wind and sun catches the tape, it will turn and flash which will startle the birds and keep them from landing. A few old CD's will do the same thing if you have them around. Good luck!

joellen lampman_1
3/10/2010 12:13:51 PM

I have used clotheslines for years in different locations; however I can't hang clothes on a line where I am now without getting bird droppings all over the clothes. The house is in an open field, but there are other things the birds can perch on other than the line. Any suggestions?

3/10/2010 9:20:00 AM

I used 1" x 1" angle iron to make an 8 foot square frame, cut angle with hand hack saw and drilled holes for assembly bolts with electric drill. Make the lines differing widths from 8 to 16 inches apart. Hang clothes between 2 parallel lines with about 4 inches between items. The variable spacing allows for both children's and adult size clothing. This method allows 24 items in an 8 foot length. Sheets etc go across several lines. This system allowed over 100 men to dry clothing in a 20 x 20 area when I was in Navy boot camp.

bill stephenson
6/14/2009 4:50:24 PM

The "No Clothes Pin Line"... I spent a few weeks in Progresso, Mexico this winter and the locals there use a pair of thin (3/16") nylon or poly line, twisted together into one line, and tie it between poles or trees. Then, instead of using Clothes Pins, they just pull the twisted line apart and insert one corner of the clothes in to it (between the two lines that are twisted together) and then pull the other corner tout and insert it in to the twisted line. I saw these lines hold heavy denim jeans in a strong wind all day long.

6/7/2009 4:02:39 PM

Susan S, and Jessica, Click on 'Image Gallery' in the Article Tools box at the top right hand side of the page. Terran

6/7/2009 12:24:33 AM

My experience with the line: Do not use the cotton line from Walmart. It won't carry much load before breaking. Plastic line with a hollow core is also a bad choice. It has a tendency to stretch on washday. The green coated wire is alright for a couple of years. It will eventually rust. The best choice is a galvanized line with a vinyl coating. They generally sell this at hardware/farm stores. I got mine at Rural King. Get a couple of turnbuckles to tie onto and if they sag you can tighten without untying. Good luck!

6/4/2009 7:45:15 AM

Decided to get a "solar/wind powered dryer" at Lowes a week ago, a rotary umbrella style line. Asked floor staff if they had any self-supporting clothes lines... got blank stares in return. Finally invoked the manager option, and he was sure they had them, but wasn't sure where they were. After 15 minutes of searching they were found... 15 feet in the air on top of a storage shelf, with no display or pricing. 50 bucks later and I'm drying clothes for nada. Just the effort to hang 'em. (it's good exercise anyway :)

susan s
6/4/2009 7:26:05 AM

I agree about a drawing or photograph. Many of MENew's wonderful project ideas do not include illustrations online. I can't tell by reading the material list if it is a project I want to attempt w/o seeing a picture of it.

6/3/2009 11:24:57 AM

Clotheslines are great, cheap to use, I like that. Also, it doesn't shrink the socks ! Just one thing to remember, ALWAYS turn coloured clothes inside out or the colours will fade.

6/3/2009 10:22:44 AM

What material(s) does the author recommend for the actual line?

6/3/2009 8:49:25 AM

I love drying my clothes outside in the fresh air. They smell so wonderful, reminds me of when I was a kid and mom always used a clothesline and my sheets always smelled so wonderful. I appreciate that now that I am grown. It is so easy also. When the weather is not so great for drying outside, I simply use one of the indoor folding drying racks and turn a fan on low to circulate the air around it. You will notice a difference in your electricity bill not having to use the electric dryer all the time, and you will be helping to do your part conserving energy. I have convinced several other dryer users to try this and they have switched also. Oh, and if there is a nice breeze when you hang clothes out, almost totally eliminates the need for ironing also!

george works
6/3/2009 7:55:57 AM

I live on a small island where electricity to run a dryer is costly. After our old propane dryer rusted out we used a series of make-shift clotheslines strung from papaya trees before finally putting up a sturdy support for a pull-out line, which works great. My pull-out came through and has five parallel lines that roll up into a box. I installed a 2" pipe in concrete with a wood cross-piece at the top attached to the pipe by two U-bolts. The pull-out box mounts to the board. The other end attaches to a fitting U-bolted to an existing fence when in use. The clothes do smell quite fresh and are generally nicer than when dried in the dryer with the single exception of bath towels, which are a bit stiff from the line. This is in spite of our very soft rainwater. Also, the frequent brief showers here require keeping an eye on the weather and running out to take in the laundry occasionally.

5/29/2009 3:01:31 PM

Great article, but I'm a visual learner :) Do you have any pictures of the clotheline?