Friday, October 22, 2010

$5 Quick and Easy Shoulder Rig

Before we get started, I need to apologize for neglecting this blog. I have a couple of product reviews, some DIY projects and an audio series brewing in the background but they’re all still works in progress. However, yesterday I was inspired to build a simple shoulder stabilizer rig – partly out of need but mostly as an experiment. This is what came out of that inspiration.

A Common Problem

Anyone who has ever shot video with their compact video camera (or iphone or point-and-shoot) quickly discovers how difficult it is to get a stable shot. The problem is simple: these little cameras weigh almost nothing – a few ounces at best. Without some weight in your hand, the camera bounces all around because your free arm isn’t a very good camera stabilizer. And, of course, you don’t realize how bad the footage is until you look at it. For smoother footage, you need a real camera stabilizer.

You could just mount your compact video camera on a tripod. Most non-phones have a tripod thread waiting on the bottom. But what fun is that? These little cameras are made for mobility and planting it on a tripod sort of defeats the purpose. Monopods are better – they’re small, lightweight and portable. You’ll get a more stable shot but there has to be a better way. Years ago, when cameras were big and bulky, they sat on your shoulder and you held the front with your hands. Two or three ‘mounting points’ made the camera more stable and you could still move freely. What if we could do that with our compact video cameras? We can!

Off To the Hardware Store

My wife gives me a fair amount of (deserved) grief over all the PVC pipe projects I do. Working with PVC pipe is a lot like playing with Tinker Toys only you get to adjust the parts to fit the project. It’s cheap, easy to work with and, if you screw up, just start over.

For this build, you’ll need a 10’ stick of ½” Schedule 40 PVC pipe, a handful of fittings and some PVC glue. Here are the parts I used:

6 – Tees
4 – 90 Degree Elbows

2 – 45 Degree Elbows
8 – 1.25” Lengths

2 – 12” Lengths

2 – 5.5” Lengths

2 – 3.5” Lengths

1 – 8” Length

1 – 2” Length

I arrived at the final design after some trial and error. I’ve seen several of this type of rig where the handles were symmetrical. Since the back rests on my right shoulder, it just made sense to offset the handles for comfort. Of course, you can modify the design to fit your body, shooting style or whatever. Also, I wasn’t completely convinced the 1/2” PVC would be stable enough. But after cutting and gluing everything, it’s very solid. So far, this one works for me.

Construction is simple, so I won’t spend much time on it except for a few hints. First, if you don’t have a PVC pipe cutter, go buy one. My local Harbor Freight had one on sale for $3.49 and it’s one of the most convenient tools I’ve ever bought. Yes, you can use a hacksaw and it will work fine. But the pipe cutter is faster and makes clean, straight, burr-free cuts. Plus, it doesn’t leave any plastic ‘dust’ on the garage floor. Second, dry-fit everything before you glue it. Test the rig for alignment and comfort before you make anything permanent. When you’re ready to commit, break out the glue. Remember, this stuff sets fast – like super glue fast. Twist the pipes in to get maximum coverage, but aim for your final position. You’ll have just a couple of seconds to adjust things before it sets up. I assembled the tee and elbow sections first and pressed them down on the garage floor to align. Wipe off any excess glue with a paper towel, but don’t get it on your clothes. It doesn’t come off easily.

Adapt and Conquer

You could totally use the bare pipe rig right now. Drill a ¼” hole through one of the front tee joints, insert a 2” 1/4x20 bolt (use a couple of washers for a better fit), mount your camera and start shooting. But it looks kinda ghetto, doesn’t it? For a more professional look, paint the rig black. I used Rustoleum Metallic Black spray paint – mostly because that’s what I had lying around. It’s not officially ‘rated’ for plastic, but it seemed to work well.
Next, I installed two Schwinn bike handlebar grips – also lying around from a project that never materialized. You can find these at your local Walmart for about $8. They really dress up the rig and make it easy to maintain a tight grip on the gear. Use some liquid soap, hand lotion or other water-based slippery stuff to help with grip installation. They won’t go on without some persuasion.

I drilled extra vertical holes at every cross section of the rig. I knew I wanted one in the front for a camera and one in the back for audio accessories. The others are for future setups. PVC is easy to drill, so you could put holes anywhere on the rig to mount whatever you need. I’m still designing a shoulder pad but not sure how it mounts yet.

As you can see, this simple shoulder rig works with all kinds of cameras – including my Kodak Zi8, Canon GL2 and even a full DSLR. I really liked the feel of the DSLR setup with the audio equipment on the back. The counterweight effect really balanced things out and make the rig easier to hold steady. If you wanted extra weight, I guess you could use a stack of fender washers or fill the pipes up with sand as you assemble.

Give it a Shot

When you get a few spare moments, consider building one of these simple PVC shoulder rigs. Pipe and fittings literally cost just a little over $5. I had all the other bits and pieces, but if you had to buy it all from scratch, it might cost $15-20. It took me about 30 minutes to cut and glue all the pieces. Drilling, paint and grips took another hour. You don’t have to stay with this design. Use it as a starting point and build one that specifically suits you. I really like mine and can think of a couple of friends who could use one right now. Christmas presents maybe…?


  1. Very nice!! I think I may have to give this shot. Thanks for posting. BTW, I'm basically a noob. I know this stabilizes the camera, certainly better than "hand" held, but what kind of footage are you shooting with this? Do you have any examples? Thanks!

  2. Hal,
    This is great, I built one in about 15 minutes after reading your article I found on Cheesycam. I had all the pieces lying around from previous pvc projects.

    I am looking at modifying this design to add a wood plate across the top to have an even surface for the camera mount.

  3. Great DIY Hal! Find an old harness from a marching band drumline and make multiple connections for different stabilizers!

  4. Great post! Can you tell us how you mounted the SLR?

  5. I'm about to go buy the parts.

    How would you connect an iPhone to the rig?


  6. I'm glad everyone is enjoying this little project. Cheesycam has a time lapse video someone made of building this rig. Worth a view.

    @Jon S: I simply drilled a 1/4" hole through one of the tee sections and mounted the DSLR with a 1/4x20 bolt and a flat fender washer. This kept it stable but I think I'd prefer a quick-release mounting plate in the future. I also like the idea of bridging the square 'hole' with some kind of plate. Thinking on that one.

    @Izhar: Here's an interesting iphone mount I found online:

    I think that would do the trick if you added a small ball mount. Or, you could just shoot vertical video :-)

    There are other holders out there, that's just the first one I found.

  7. Hal,

    I thought I would share this mod with you.
    I took your original (great) design and added additional 'T' connectors to the middle. This widened the design by a few inches.
    With this mod, I was able to craft (from a 3/4 pvc bushing, 1/4 x 20, 1 1/2 inch screw, large and small washer) a quick mount.

    There are three female mount points on the mod, for additional accessories with a tripod screw.

    Here is a photo:

  8. I built my shoulder rig from Schedule 80 PVC rods, since Sch. 40 were not available, and I'm happy about that because they're heavier and sturdier and they are gray!
    I've mounted my NEX-5 with the Helios 44-2 lens and the Zoom H1. It feels stable and well balanced.
    Here are a couple of pics.
    Hal, thank you for a great idea and design.

  9. Great idea, I mounted my rails to it. Here's a little video I made while I constructing it. Cheers

  10. this is great
    but how i will focus while using this shoulder rig ?

  11. Thank you for sharing your design, I implemented and I've made ​​some changes, hopefully will be useful to someone.

    Please check it:

  12. Nice post guys... this got me thinking and will build
    my own rig soon:)

  13. I love this post and all the comments are great as well! I am looking to build one but I am going to try to modify it so the camera mounts on the left side of the mount rather than the right side. That way you will be able to see the LCD of a DSLR much easier.

  14. Here's my interpretation:

    -a little bike tube rubber to keep the camera snug on the bolt.
    -handles equidistant, to make one-handed camera adjustments easier from either side
    -a plate would be nice on the front, as some have suggested. I found a printmakers plate, aluminum, at an art supply store which is roughly the same size. Will try to mount it, or eventually a quick release adapter.
    -Looking to add a custom bean bag on the rear for weight and shoulder cushion.

    Thanks to you and everyone for showing their work. It was a fun time putting this together and am about to use it for a job :)

  15. This was literally the quickest DIY project to put together I think I recall taking on. The cutting was a breeze and it assembles quickly. It literally took more time to get in and our of the Home Depot than it did to cut and dry assemble this thing.
    Thank you for the instructions, I can't wait to finish it up and try it out.

  16. i made this rig my selve and added some stuff to it please check my videos on youtube look for me on youtube as jmstudioNY

  17. Great Instructions! This was the first steadycam I have ever built and I think it came out rather well. There are now some other steady rigs I am looking forward to building because of all the fun I had doing this one. I made a flickr set of my rig.

    Cheers! Seth

  18. Its really wonderful information. The more advanced shoulder mount that comes in the ProAim DSLR kit allows you to be able to attach various accessories to it, and you can customize the positioning of the camera in such a way that it fits exactly where you want it to.

    Jib camera crane

  19. Just found this. Nice and simple. Thanks!

  20. I find many useful things herewithcustom video productions

  21. Thanks Hal, Awesome idea and great instructions. I am adding to it for the pad and a front support for a lens hood, possibly a top mount for low shots and a tripod mount. Tutorial will be on You Tube at potsey1. And of course you will get kudos for the inspiration for the design....AWESOME!

  22. Has anyone tried this with a DVX100