Poles for Pioneering – What is a Spar?

Wooden poles are the main ingredient in building a pioneering structure. Everyone knows what a pole is. Depending on the project at hand, we use them in all different lengths and diameters. But, what are all these references to spars? Is a spar different than a pole?

What is a spar? Simply stated, in pioneering, a spar is a thick, strong pole. Obviously, when completed, a pioneering project has to be able to withstand the strain and stress that will occur while performing its intended function. We can’t build a structure out of spindly sticks tied together with string and expect it to work. We use spars lashed together with good, natural fiber rope!

Bamboo Pole, Pine Spar, Scout Stave, Stick
Poles, Staves, Sticks, and Spars

Okay. So a spar is a thick, strong pole. Now there are a lot of givens, but we’ll go through them anyway, and quickly:

  • The best spars for pioneering are straight with a minimum of taper.
  • The diameter of a spar is measured at the butt end, not the tip. Depending on what’s being built, butt ends are frequently between two and four inches thick, and under certain circumstances, even thicker.
  • Spars can be any length, depending on what’s being built. In Scout Pioneering, the most common sizes are six, eight, ten, and twelve feet. (Depending on what’s being built, fourteen, sixteen, and even longer are sometimes called for.)
  • For pioneering projects, spars should be skinned. (If the bark moves when the project is under strain, lashings can slip, skinned spars last longer and the projects look nicer.)
  • Spars should be stored out of the weather for future use.

Is a Scout Stave a spar? No. By themselves, they’re too skinny. Scout Staves are great for instruction and small projects, but a 5-foot Scout Stave is a strong stick, not a spar. Many camp gadgets can be built using short, smaller diameter poles, like Scout Staves.

Is a bamboo pole a spar? A bamboo pole is a bamboo pole. Large diameter bamboo is certainly thick, and depending on it’s condition, also strong, however it should be born in mind, bamboo can withstand vertical stress much better than horizontal stress. It’s super for a variety of pioneering uses because it’s wonderfully straight and for its size it’s very light weight. Due to it’s surface being so slick, lashing bamboo poles together presents additional challenges.


Jamboree Pioneering Area: Initial Preparations

Our Inimitable Quarter Master: Benny Poedjono waits on RIck Strong.
Our Inimitable Quarter Master: Benny Poedjono waits on RIck Strong.

Ropes. For thirty different pioneering projects and structures, plenty of rope had to be measured, cut, and whipped for lashings, anchors, and guylines. We had plenty of manila and appropriate synthetic fiber rope in a variety of diameters on hand, and thanks to a well-organized storage arrangement and experienced quartermaster, ongoing supplies were readily available.

“We’ve got spars!” Of course the spars for our pioneering projects were a major consideration. Where would they come from, and how would we get them? By emailing this photo (on right) with the simple statement, “We’ve got spars!”, our director, Jim Keller let us know that spars for our projects and structures had been delivered to Garden Ground Mountain! Naturally, before we could build anything, they’d have to be skinned!

Spars were waiting to be skinned and utilized up on Garden Ground in readiness for the arrival of the Jambo Pioneering Staff.
Spars were waiting to be skinned and utilized up on Garden Ground in readiness for the arrival of the Jambo Pioneering Staff.

Skinning Spars. Starting full swing on the 11th of July morning, and continuing through the end of the 12th, amidst pouring rain with steadfast purpose and draw knives, a full crew persistently and methodically set upon the pile of heavy, hardwood spars. In spite of the tedious and often bent-over, backbreaking work, sloshing through mud in water-logged boots, spirits were high! There was something about working hard up on that mountain along with a like-minded, jovial crew that kept us going in fine form up to and after the very last spar had been relieved of its bark.

Notice how the pile is progressively getting smaller! (Photos taken in between periods of rain.) Click for larger view, and click again for detailed images.
Notice how the pile is progressively getting smaller! (Photos taken in between periods of rain.) Click for larger view, and click again for detailed images.
Spars are selected from a centrally-located area and often cut to size in accordance with the needs of each project
Spars are selected from a centrally located area and often cut to size on the spot in accordance with the needs of each project
Spars Situated and Sorted
Spars Situated and Sorted

After spars were skinned, they were transported to central locations throughout the pioneering area and selected by crews in accordance with their length and diameter to meet the material requirements for specific pioneering structures and projects. Most often, they’d be sawed to the desired lengths before being carried off to various construction sites. The total pioneering area was later dubbed: Peschke Field (named after pioneering legend, Adolph Peschke).

Why skin the spars? Basically, there are three reasons:

  1. If tied on top of bark, lashings are prone to slip, if the bark shifts or loosens under the strain during use.
  2. Skinned spars last longer than those left with the bark on. Unskinned spars are more subject to rotting from moisture and more susceptible to weakening from insects.
  3. Pioneering projects with skinned spars look really nice.
Butterfly Knots are tied in the dragging rope to form handholds.
To retrieve the poplar flagpole, butterfly knots were tied in the dragging rope to form handholds.

Transporting heavy spars. An extra long spar for the flagpole and larger-diameter spars for the climbing area had to be moved by entire crews. The 30′ poplar flagpole was dragged by tying butterfly knots for handholds in the dragging line. The uprights for the climbing area were lifted and carried by joining the ends of a rope and threading it under the log so that a series of two carriers grabbing a hold of the rope could walk the spar along on either side.

Carrying a heavy spar in pairs, along each side.
Carrying a heavy spar for the climbing area in pairs, along each side.


Pioneering Kit

A Council Spar Barn
Spar Barn

From certain perspectives, the following pioneering kit presented in the informative older Pioneering Merit Badge Pamphlet is undoubtedly very extensive for a single unit, and better suited for a kit stored in a large shed or storage facility earmarked for multi-unit use in a District or Council.

—> For a unit interested in putting together their own pioneering kit, a good place to start is to gather the materials necessary to undertake the specific project or projects the unit wishes to build. More supplies can be added to the unit’s kit to meet additional demands for materials, as required by the desire and wherewithal to tackle new and different projects.

Here’s a link to how to build a starter kit using laminated spars: “Pioneering with Laminated Spars” which will be sufficient to build a Singe Lock Bridge.

The following text is by Adolph E. Peschke as presented in the 1998 printing of the 1993 edition of the Pioneering Merit Badge Pamphlet:

The easiest way to make sure that you have all the necessary ropes, spars, and equipment ready to build a pioneering project is to put together a pioneering kit. It saves a lot of time if the pioneering kit is organized and ready to go so you don’t have to spend time gathering all your equipment every time you want to build a pioneering project.

The pioneering kit described here consists of enough spars and ropes to build the projects shown in this pamphlet. It is designed to be used by a troop at summer camp to build “boy-size” structures: that is, projects that can be built by Scouts of Scouts BSA age. This kit is also ideal to provide the equipment necessary for teaching pioneering skills to new Scouts.

The sizes and quantities of ropes and spars described here should be a good starting point for your pioneering kit. You can always add more equipment as the number of Scouts participating increases, or if some Scouts become more skilled in building a wider range of projects.


Knowing that this pamphlet might be used by Scouts all over the world presents some problems concerning availability of suitable species of trees to use for spars. Generally, pine makes the best spars because pine trees are straight. Also, when pine is stripped of its bark and dried out, it makes spars that are not too heavy, therefore suitable for “Scout-size” projects.

If pine is not available, cut spars from the straightest trees you can find. It might be to your advantage to make spars from hardwood species of trees. Given the strength of hardwoods, you might be able to use slightly smaller diameters as a weight-saving measure. Don’t overlook softwood spars for light, smaller projects.

Some lumberyards and farm supply stores carry round, treated fence posts that can be used for short lengths. Barn poles might also be available for a few of the longer lengths. Remember that barn poles are quoted at the top diameter, not the butt end. The supply yard might let you select and match what you need.

On all spars, you should remove the bark and cut the ends square. It is recommended that you cut all the spars to exact, even lengths, regardless of their butt diameter, as shown in the chart below.

Large Pioneering Kit: SPARS for Multi-Unit Use
Color-Code for Spars
Color-Code for Spars

There are several combinations of lengths and diameters of spars suggested for this pioneering kit. This is because various projects might require the same length spar, but in different diameters depending on where it is to be used in the structure.

Both ends of the spars in your pioneering kit should be color-coded with a band of paint to denote length. Here are the colors that can be used to easily show the lengths of the spars without having to measure them each time.


The best all-around rope to use for pioneering projects is pure manila, three-strand, twisted. (Refer to the “Rope” section.)

All ropes in your pioneering kit should be whipped on both ends. In the case of plastic rope, whether it’s twisted or braided, it must be first melted back and then whipped.

Large Pioneering Kit: ROPES for Multi-Unit Use
Rope Color-Code
Rope Color-Code

Ropes cut to the standard lengths shown above should have the ends color-coded with a dab of paint to denote the length. Here is a recommended color-coding system for all rope, regardless of diameter of the rope:

You might also have a need for ropes of specific diameters and lengths that are used for projects that are built often. These should be identified with a tag and coiled separately. These ropes, along with slings, grommets, strops, and anchor ropes should be stored in a separate box.


In addition to spars and ropes, your pioneering kit should contain some basic equipment needed for building projects. This equipment includes

  • 2    round-point long-handle shovels
  • 4    wooden mallets
  • 50   pioneering stakes
  • 4    binder twine boxes
  • 1    bow saw
  • 1    hand ax
  • 10   wooden cleats and nails
  • 8    welded steel rings, 3/8″ x 3″
  • 8    screw pin shackles, 3/8″
  • 10   quick links, 5/16″

You might also find that putting this equipment on a trailer that can be pulled by a truck will help get your pioneering kit to your project site. The trailer will also help you move your pioneering kit to a dry shelter when not in use.