Three Ways to Attach the 2x4’s

by Rich Dionne and Heather Hillhouse

We’ve all dealt with platform legs—but is there a better way?
We’ve all dealt with platform legs—but is there a better way?
There’s more than one way to make a standard platform stable—but is one better than the others?

We probably all have a pile of 2x4-framed platforms sitting in storage waiting to become stage decks. 2x4-framed platforms offer a number of advantages in the fast-paced world of regional and summer stock theatre and are used widely. In order for these tried-and-true workhorses to become platforms and decks, however, we need to raise them up off the ground and get some height out of them. How do we do that? We’ll describe three common techniques below. Throughout December, at TheatreFace.com, Heather and I will blog about the advantages and disadvantages of these techniques and discuss staging in general in online forum dedicated to the discussion of all things decking.

 

There are a couple of disclaimers to be made at the outset. First, for the purposes of this article, we’re assuming everyone uses 2x4-framed platforms, even though we know that’s not always the case. (So don’t write to the editor and explain why these won’t work for your platforms—head to the discussion forum at TheatreFace.com and tell us there!) Second, adequate cross-bracing is vital for all of these techniques, particularly when your platform heights get above about 24 inches. (If you’re not sure what that means, check out Ben Sammler’s Structural Design for the Stage.) Third, really tall platforms (i.e., those above 36 inches or so) have special requirements and the support techniques detailed below generally need to be adapted or modified to be safe structures; if you need to go that tall, spend some time talking with someone who is familiar with such structures. Fourth, the safety of actors (or anyone else who might be on these platforms, like shop staff, electricians, running crew and stage management) is always an important consideration–know when and how to install safe railings, toe kicks and the like.

A standard leg attachment technique that screws (or bolts) 2x4’s to the inside of a platform frame.
A standard leg attachment technique that screws (or bolts) 2x4’s to the inside of a platform frame.

Standard Legs
The most basic style of platform legs are what I call “standard legs.” They are simply 2x4s cut to length and bolted or screwed to the inside of the platform frame. The legs should be positioned in each corner and a maximum of 4 feet apart (six legs per standard 4x8 platform). If bolting, use two-three carriage bolts per leg. If screwing, use three screws (at 2 ½”-3” long) per leg installed in a triangle for good stability. I tend to use standard legs with screws when I only have  a few platforms to leg and the platforms are less than 3 feet tall. If the legs will be taller than 3 feet or will be danced on, I bolt the legs or use a different style for added support. The biggest advantage of standard legs is that they are easy and reasonably strong. The major disadvantages are that if you are doing a lot of platforms it can be a lot of individual legs to install. You are depending on the frame alone to provide a stable attachment—which can sometimes be an issue if you are using old and/or abused platforms. Also, if facing the platform, you will need to add additional support for the facing as the legs are inside the frame and won’t be able to support the facing. The last major disadvantage is that you are only supporting the platform where the legs actually are, so if you have a heavy load on your platform, you may get more deflection/sagging between the legs than you want. The easy fix for this is to increase the number of legs you use or to use a style of leg that supports the platform frame.

 

To determine how long your standard legs need to be, just subtract the thickness of the platform deck from the height you need. For example, if your final height will be 8” and your platform has a ¾” plywood lid, your legs would need to be 7 ¼”. On that same platform, if you’re going to add ¼” Masonite to the top of the plywood, your legs would need to be ¼” shorter, so 7”. Helpful tip: Screw legs to the frame from the inside of the platform. It is a naturally easier way to do it because you’re already holding the pieces together and it also means you can get to those screws once you put your platforms together if you need to adjust something!

The Leg-a-Matic leg bracket is seeing increasing usage to speed up the installation of standard-style platform legs. These aluminum brackets bolt to the inside of the 2x4 frame of a platform and are sized to accept either 2x4 lumber legs or 1 ½” black pipe legs.

Another technique for attaching support to platforms is the compression technique, which rests the frame on the legs.
Another technique for attaching support to platforms is the compression technique, which rests the frame on the legs.

Compression Legs
In a compression leg installation, the leg is moved from inside the frame to directly underneath it. A block of ¾” plywood or 1x material is applied to the inside of the frame, spanning the joint, securing the leg below to the frame above. These scabs can normally be secured using screws in a 4x4 or 4x5 pattern. By placing the legs directly under the frame, you are ensuring that they support the frame, which then supports the lid, which carries the load—a relationship on which the design of the 2x4-framed platform relies. Additionally, the block provides some resistance to rotation, helping to prevent the leg from twisting out and the fasteners are only working in tension. When installed properly, the block shouldn’t touch the lid, avoiding any “peeling lid” problems that can happen when the lid and the leg carry the load without the frame.

 

For a little bit of added convenience, platforms can still be fitted with the Leg-a-Matic aluminum leg brackets mentioned above. Typically used to speed up the installation of standard legs, above, if you prebuild using 2x4 blocks (instead of ¾” plywood blocks), you can slide them right up into the Leg-a-Matic brackets and still depend on the added security of compression legs. The Leg-a-Matic brackets provide even more resistance to rotation than blocks alone.

When you have a lot of platforms to raise, especially at height, it might make sense to use the studwall technique.
When you have a lot of platforms to raise, especially at height, it might make sense to use the studwall technique.

Studwalls
When you are installing a lot of platforms in a hurry, or if you want to add extra strength to your platforms, you may opt for studwalls. Studwalls use 2x4 uprights between a top and bottom rail (also usually 2x4) to support a platform frame along its entire length. They can be assembled with screws or nails and are then screwed to the floor and up into the frame of the platform. Studwalls do take extra time and materials to build, but they have some great advantages if you’re legging a lot of platforms—particularly if they are tall. They are installed underneath the frame of the platform, so you have great consistent support. They are spaced every 4 feet (when used with framed platforms) and can support more than one platform at a time since they are 3 ½-inches wide—which means you’re installing a few large studwalls instead of a million individual legs. They are easy to install—just snap a chalk line on the floor and screw the studwall in place. Add cross braces as needed and you’re done. Studwalls are also great for rakes—instead of cutting legs at different heights depending on where they are, just build identical wedge-shaped studwalls  and space them every 4 feet as usual.

 

Wrapping up
Creating a raised level on stage is a fundamental part of what we do as stage technicians—levels help create power relationships between characters, or can create different locales. Combining the 2x4-framed platform—a distinguished theatre workhorse—with the support methods detailed above provides for simple and relatively quickly-installed raised platforms. Of course, each of these methods has its own particular set of shortfalls—as do those venerable 2x4-framed platforms!—and we’ll be exploring some of those at TheatreFace.com in the coming weeks.

The “standard” and “compression” leg approaches are probably the most common ways to raise or “leg-up” a platform or set of platforms, particularly in college and summer-stock venues. The studwall approach is relatively common as well and can be used to create a deck with just plywood, if you’re lacking platforms. Of course, these are only the first step in creating a stable platform: crossbracing is required to prevent lateral movement (and the twisting out of legs); some method of adjusting the height of each leg is important, to provide a means of leveling platforms is incredibly useful (I prefer installing T-nuts and carriage bolts as adjustable feet, but simple shims work as well); having a way to lock platforms together so they function as a unit is essential for stability.

Given the cost of replacing those old 2x4-framed workhorses, it’s unlikely any theatre that’s been using them will just throw them out and start with something new. Knowing how to effectively utilize them to create changes in level are an essential part of any technical director’s bag of tricks. Chat with us at TheatreFace.com all this month and share your thoughts and experiences, trade anecdotes and generally kibbutz about staging and platforming techniques.