Cheapshott™ Collapsible Umbrella DIY

by emarc

Yes, I admit it - a have a serious case of strobism. But I'm not the only one, it's like an epidemic, and it's spreading from Strobist.

Anyway, while trying to assemble a SSO-CLK I ran in to a problem that just didn't want to go away: Strobist recommends Westcott collapsible umbrellas, which seem very nice, but there just are no collapsible photo umbrellas in europe - at least no-one seems to have found any.
For the record: Westcott even lists a Finnish company in their dealer listing, which got me excited for a while, but neither that company nor Westcott has responded to my emails about this matter.
Just so you know, we do have regular collapsible umbrellas in europe - in fact the vast majority are of the collapsing kind - we just don't have the photo/strobe kind. I also found some black/silver fabric that just screemed "Just DIY it!" at me. So that is what I did. Here's how.

Note: I have no idea how you're supposed to do most of this stuff - if you do, you could probably speed up the process siginificantly and end up with a better fitting fabric. However, I still managed to produce a fairly usable umbrella, so I'm sure you could too. All that's needed is patience, really...

(mouseover the images to enlarge - keep mouse over one to see the caption)

Get a collapsible umbrella. Any kind. As long as it's cheap. Second-hand will do fine (I found really cheap ones after I got this one, which is to be expected.) This one folds to less than 30 cm, which is nice.

Make sure to check how the original fabric is fastened to the frame - this frame had three holes along each 'leg', and a thread was sewn trough those to the seam. Pretty simple stuff, it seemed like...
You might actually want to check this stuff before you buy the umbrella, so that there are no complicated inventions involved. But I'm guessing most use this principle.

Then remove the fabric from the frame, you know the drill. This part is almost fun. Watch your fingers, though - and try to remove the fabric without damaging it too much, since you'll need at least one of the 'wedges' intact...

Remember to check how the fabric is fastened at the top - this one uses a plastic screw that goes trough the hole where the pieces of fabric join. There is a seam around the hole, which I will pretend I didn't notice.

After this you're gonna want to remove one of the pieces of fabric (wedges) so that you can use it as a blueprint. This could have been quite a pita using sissors, but I realised that a sharp knife did the job in seconds. I'm guessing they don't teach you this in sewing-school. Try to be fairly carful with the fabric, though.
Since the fabric is really thin and tedious to work with, we're making a paper blueprint instead. Secure, draw, cut. Done.

The fabric I found is black on one side, silver on the other. It's actually rain-proof, and quite suitable for a regular umbrella - as if that would matter... Anyway, draw the required amount of pieces on the fabric, and cut. Make the pieces a bit bigger than the original, especially if the original fabric was more strechy than the new one. Unfortfunatly I can't tell you how much bigger - mine turned out way to tight, and that's the only experience I have in this field...

It's sewing time! We had to do this in school when I was about 10, so I consider myself a professional (it was only 20 years ago).
At least I remembered what the machine looks like, and sort of what to do with it (at this point I looked for the missing manual for about half an hour).
I recommend practicing on some scrap fabric first.

After that, it's just a matter of sewing a few seams. First a simple seam along the outer edge of each piece, then put two pieces back-to-back (black-to-black, as it were), fold the edges over about half a centimetre, and sew. Use the original as reference. Use needles to stick the slippery bastards pieces together. Repeat until all pieces are connected. Done.

Now the damned thing needs to be connected to the frame. This unexpectedly turned out to be a major pita - especially since it turned out to be a very tight fit. Patience needed. And pliers. But the good news is that you'll be finished after this - just remember to remove the handle, so it fits in your umbrella holder.

We're done! Yay! So let's ty it out. Here it is next to a commercial white/black umbrella. A bit surprisingly it seems to be a bit less reflective - I would actually have expected it to be more reflective. I guess the silver is not as high grade as one would wish...

Now for quality of light, especially white balance - you never know how neutral it turns out to be. I tested against (commercial) white umbrella and hard light. The umbrellas produced almost identical results in this situation, so color temperature seems to be close enough.
(Left-to-right: Cheapshott™, commercial, hard light. Yeah, these are bad examples - so sew me!)

The GOOD news: It's cheap (the fabric set me back less than 4EUR, the umbrella can be had for almost noting). It's collapsibe and takes very little space collapsed.
The BAD news: Judging by the photos, it took me about 6 hours to complete (half just to connect the fabric to the frame) - although this includes the missing-manual episode and some beer drinking re-hydration pauses. It's a bit too tight, making it hard to open fully. It eats more light than expected.

Well, that's it - my first DIY article on the net. I have a related project, that is much easier and has more of that DIY inventiveness to it (making an umbrella from an umbrella is not that inventive, now is it - making a softbox from a ******* is a whole other matter imho ;-).

Discussions over at the Strobist Flickr group.
Try emarc at if you need to contact me personally.

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