How to Build A Sundial for the Garden

Build a sundial for the yard or garden, including making the sundial face, preparing and placing the sundial post, attaching the face and setting the sundial time.

| February/March 1996

Build a sundial A

A. Measure and mark a 4 by 4 by 8 pressure-formed, treated post.


Build a sundial for your yard or garden, the ultimate in simple, practical technology for just a few dollars. (See the sundial illustrations in the image gallery.)

How to Build A Sundial for the Garden

Before there was the murderous regularity of a daily schedule, before there was the clicking, buzzing, chiming, and ticking of time, there was the sun and a shadow to mark the passing of the day. A stake driven into the ground was all the clock the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Etruscans and other ancient civilizations ever needed ... and while I'm working in the garden on a July afternoon, it's all the clock I ever want.

The summer sundial is thus named because its accuracy is limited to just that, the season which spans the warmest months. But during that time it is remarkably accurate. It works because the gnomon (the upright stick that casts the shadow) is parallel to the earth's axis and the sundial face is parallel to the equator. If there were a real pole standing straight up at the North Pole with a circle of twenty-four hour numbers around it, the shadow of the pole would mark the hours nicely. Since in all likelihood your mailing address is a fair distance from the pole, you will have to finagle the angle of your sundial a bit to get the proper angle. More on that in a bit.

The Sundial Face  

Begin the project by cutting a 20-inch diameter circle from 3/4-inch plywood. Give both sides two coats of primer. While it is drying, start planning a design for the sun dial face. You will choose colors, number style (Roman numerals, standard, etc.), and some kind of illustration you like. Draw some designs you like on a large piece of paper. You'll need a compass, straightedge, and protractor to place the hours correctly. Each hour must be located on a circle exactly 15 degrees from the next hour.

When you've decided on the design, use the paper as a stencil and paint it onto the plywood circle and put on the design numbers, hour lines, and illustration. For fine detailed work like numbers, you might want to use paint markers. They are better than permanent markers because the paint from them does not fade quickly.

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