Q: How to build a drip winder

A: This is a reprint of an article I first published in Growing for Market's November 2009 edition. As of 2015 I've built several more for more farms and still love them for their simplicity and functionality. The original ones are still in use. I've modified this article with an older design that's slightly easier to build and just as functional.


Spooling out new drip tape isn’t too bad with just a stick and something to hold it up, but rolling it back up for storage is much easier with a winder. For larger farms there are PTO driven winders that take special plastic spools and will retrieve tape quickly, but these are expensive and require a tractor to power them. A winder will spool out new or used drip tape, and it will roll it back up into compact, manageable bales that can be stored and then reused. I got the design for one from Mike Raymond when he was the manager of Holcomb Farm CSA in Connecticut. I’ve built a few different versions for different farms and I’ll describe my most recent design here.

The winder is made from standard iron plumbing parts you can find at a good hardware store and two plywood rounds. It uses short pieces of PVC or ABS water pipe for spools. The winder can either sit on a simple stand made from scrap lumber, or better, it can be mounted on a garden cart so that it can be easily wheeled around the farm and from bed to bed.


Building the Winder

To build the roller itself you'll need two 24” rounds of plywood. 1/2” is probably best but anything that's not totally flimsy will work. Buy 1/2” black pipe nipples in the following lengths (galvanized will also work, but is unnecessary): one 12”, and four 6”. Also buy two 1/2” elbows, four 1/2” flanges, eight flat head machine screws to fit through the flanges and the depth of your plywood thickness, and eight T nuts to match the screws.

To assemble the winder take the plywood rounds and drill a hole in the center large enough for the center of the flange to stick through. Drill four holes for the mounting screws and T nuts and mount the flanges, one sandwiched pair per round so that the threads of the flange are extending into the center hole of the plywood. Screw the 12" nipple to flanges that extend into the plywood. Add the 6” nipples to the flanges on the outsides of the plywood rounds. Put one elbow on one of the 6" nipples, then the second elbow, and finally the last 6” nipple making a simple crank.

To make the winder work you need a center for your spool and a stand to hold it up while you crank. I make the spools out of scraps of 2” or 3” PVC, whatever will slide over the center of the winder. Any stiff plastic pipe will work but don't use cardboard. I made that mistake my first year and the next spring when I went to recover the spools the centers had dissolved from moisture left in the tape. The spools need to be cut very square and to the exact length that will be captured firmly in the center of the roller. To find this measurement tighten the rounds onto the 12” nipple and measure the distance between the rounds close to the flanges. Then loosen the rounds until there's only about two or three threads holding them onto the nipple and measure again. You want a length between these numbers.

For a simple stand that works with a garden cart take two 2x4s that are 7” longer than the width of your garden cart and drill a 1” hole of an inch from the edge at the center of the 2x4. Notch this out so that the winder axles can sit down in the notches. Cut two 17” lengths of 2x4. These are screwed to the opposite side from the notches in the long 2x4s to make a rectangle. This frame sits on top of the garden cart, the roller sits on top of the frame in the notches.


Using the Winder

Drip tape comes in very compact rolls and it's impossible to get it that compact when you wind it back up but for the sake of saving space, it's important to wind the tape as tight and flat as possible. To start insert a new PVC spool in the center of the winder. Make sure that the tape in the bed is open at both ends to let water and air out and that it's lifted and not held down by weeds. Make a full wrap around the spool and start winding with the crank while holding a little tension on the tape and pinching it flat to exclude as much air and water as possible. Work the tape back and forth as you wind so that it fills the spool evenly, this is important! If you come to couplers remove them. When you come to the end start a new piece of tape by leaving about 12” of the old tape pulled tight and capturing the new tape under it, as you start winding slowly again the old tape will capture the new and then as the old tape end is about to come out of your hand move it under the old tape to keep it from coming loose (this is a fancy way of doing this which makes unrolling easier).

The spool is full when you get to within an inch of the edge of the plywood round. At this point you need to tie up the spool and start a new one. Be very careful with this next part if you want to be able to reuse the tape without hours of tangled tape frustration. Lift the winder out of the notches and place the winder crank side down on the handle of the garden cart. Carefully unscrew the plywood round from the winder exposing the roll of tape. Using poly twine (not natural twine which will rot like the cardboard I warned against earlier), carefully drop the twine end down the inside of the spool and lift the bottom edge of the roll enough to pull the twine around and tie it tightly. Do this in three or spots around the spooled tape to make a tight bale. Handle these bales carefully and store them on their sides so that they do not come apart at the edges (which would signify disaster).

In the spring you can just remount the bales on the winder, cut or untie the twine, and then roll the tape back out. For easiest use, if you have different lengths or types of tape, wind them on separate spools and label the spools clearly with something that won't rot or fade. I have used this system on miles of drip for more than 12 years now and it works really well, but it is not at all idiot proof so pay attention to what you're doing. The neater you are with the process the better it works.


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