How to lay out a piste with strings

I’ve looked on the Web and in books, but I haven’t been able to find any instructions (in English) on how to lay out a piste with strings. So I’ve done a bit of experimentation, and I’ve found out a few things that seem to work.

Materials that you will need

You should be able to get all of this stuff at your local hardware store.

a roll of nylon string
for marking the sides of the piste.
for anchoring the strings that mark the sides of the piste. I’ve been using six-inch nails. Five-inch nails work too. If you want to go industrial strength, seven-inch nails (shown in the photograph, below) are great but probably overkill.

Tools that you will need

a long tape measure
preferably a 100-foot, fabric (not steel), crank-wind measure with metric markings.
an ordinary claw hammer
You can pound the nails into the ground with the hammer end of the head, and you can use the claw end to pull the nails out of the ground. For pulling the nails out of the ground, an ordinary set of pliers also works well.
Some tool for cutting the nylon string
a scissors or a pocket knife.

How to nail a string to the ground

Start by driving the nail into the ground, but not all of the way— leave about one inch exposed. Wind the end of the string around the nail about 4 times. Then pound the nail all the way into the ground.

Note that you don’t need to tie the string to the nail. Just the pressure of the dirt on the string and nail will be enough to hold the string in place. Note also that you should drive the nail all of the way into the ground, so the head is flush with the surface of the ground, or a little below. Do NOT leave the nail sticking up above ground level. If you do, people will trip on the nail head.

The easiest way to pull a nail out of the ground is with a locking pliers. Grab the head of the nail with the pliers, twist and pull and the nail will come out easily. If the idea of driving a nail into the ground seems strange, see our post Nails in the ground.

How to lay out the piste

Determine the approximate location of the 4 corners of your piste. Drive a nail into the ground at the location of the first corner.

Using your tape measure, lay out one of the long sides of the piste. Measure off 15 meters and drive another nail into the ground at that spot, leaving an inch of the nail still exposed. Pull the string taut. Just as you did with the first nail, wind the end of the string around the nail four times and drive the nail into the ground until it is flush. Cut off the string from the roll, leaving a free tail of string about 6 inches long. (The tail won’t hurt anything, and it may help later, if you want to extract the nail from the ground.)

At this point, you have created the first side of your piste. Now make the other 3 sides in the same way, so that you create a rectangle 15 meters (50 feet) long and 4 meters (13 feet) wide.

Where to put the nails

There are several different ways to string the piste. They all work. Do whatever feels good to you.

  • You can make the 4 sides using 4 separate pieces of string and 8 nails (shown on the left, below).
  • You can use 4 nails for the corners, and a single length of string running around all four sides of the piste (shown in the center, below).
  • A third style (shown on the right, below) is often used when the piste is enclosed in a wooden border. The strings extend beyond the sides of the piste, all of the way to the wooden border — usually 30 to 50 centimeters (one to two feet). One advantage of this style is that it keeps the nails away from the normal area of play, especially if they’re tucked up against the wooden border.

How to make right-angles at the corners of the piste

To make a piste whose corners are perfectly “square”, your most important tools are your tape measure and your knowledge that a 3-4-5 triangle is a right triangle. So let’s start to lay out a competition-size piste — 15m x 4m.

[1] To start, use string to lay out one of the long sides. It is 15 meters.

[2] Pick one end of the long side that you’ve just laid out. Let’s call that end (A).

[3] Take your tape measure. Starting from (A) measure back along the side for a distance of 3 meters and mark the point. Call this point (B). how_to_lay_out_a_rectangular_piste_1

Now we use our tape measure to draw two arcs.

[4] Starting at (A) use your tape measure to sweep a segment of a circle with a length (a radius) of 4 meters.

[5] Starting at (B) use your tape measure to sweep a segment of a circle with a length (a radius) of 5 meters, so that it intersects with the arc you drew in the last step. Call the spot where the two arcs intersect (C).

You now have all of the three points of a 3-4-5 right triangle ABC. AB is the 3-meter leg of the triangle. AC is the 4-meter leg of the triangle. And BC is the 5-meter leg of the triangle, the hypoteneuse.


[5] Lay out a string from point A to point C. You’ve just strung the end of your piste.

You can use the same procedure to lay out a short side at the other end of the long side. Then simply connect the two short sides with a second long side to finish enclosing your piste. Voilá, your piste is now a perfect rectangle.

If instead of a 4m x 15m piste, you want to lay out a 3m x 12m piste, you can use the same procedure — just make AB the 4-meter side, and AC the 3-meter side.