So I built an easel

When I started painting last summer I bought a cheap wooden tripod easel online, not knowing what I’d need or whether I really wanted to invest too much in what was a brand new, possibly short-lived hobby.

Monday of this week, I took that easel out of the house for the first time, to drive over to my friend Jesse’s place to do art together.  The easel promptly fell into two pieces.

“Jesse”, I said to him, “I would like you to have this easel.”

And so I was without a place to paint, and with a bunch of paintings in progress, and it became urgent to fill my self-imposed need.  And I decided to do it the hard but cheap way: build my own.

Here it is, assembled as of earlier this evening.

Finished easel, with work-in-progress painting of Freyja the cat.

I didn’t design it; this is following very closely on the reasonably detailed plans that have been online for a decade or more care of an artist named Ben Grosser; you can find the plans right here if you’re curious about building one or just want to see what I was working off of.  It’s a project that’s been recommended a number of times over the years on the art discussion site Wet Canvas, which is how I found it.  Thanks, Ben!

But I did build the goddam thing, and let me tell you: I am neither good at nor well prepared for woodworking.  I did a lot of things badly, out of a manic desire to get this thing done ASAP.

After cutting most of the lumber, getting ready for assembly.

Some of the more problematic bits in the construction:

  • Built it out of sodden, dodgy pine 2x4s bought from an outdoor lumber yard near the house
  • Frequently declined to measure twice before cutting once
  • Eyeballed a fair few things, pencil marked a few others sloppily, leading to some poor fits
  • Chiseled some things that chiseling wasn’t really the right job for
  • Propped a lot of wood up on my shitty sawhorses for lack of a workbench leading to slightly dodging sawing decisions
  • Made do with one clamp where two or three would have been advisable
  • Did the worst job you’ve ever seen with a router I borrowed from the local tool library

But!  It got built.  It stands up.  It holds a painting.  For all that I’m delighted.

Rear view of the upper clamp assembly, built from 1×2 pieces.

I deviated intentionally from Grosser’s originals plans in a couple ways, mostly based on feedback from other folks who’d built their own and made notes:

  1. I built the upper clamp assembly out of several chunks of 1×2 instead of jigsawing the negative space out of a whole piece of 2×4; I didn’t have a jigsaw and wasn’t satisfied with my initial attempt to fake it with saw and chisel.  This alternative worked well and was easy enough to put together.
  2. I added two additional 1×2 vertical supports, to the left and right of the specified central support. I’m working on fairly small canvases right now and having some intermediary supports they can lay against will help keep them stable.
  3. I only drilled holes every six inches, rather than every two, up the front of the easel’s main 2×4 supports.  These are holes for the 1/2″ dowel pegs that keep the lower clamp/shelf in place; I’m unlikely to need more fiddly canvas placement than six inch intervals for now. Can drill more later if that changes.
  4. I skipped the casters, since I don’t expect to move this thing around casually; right now I’m working in a corner of my pretty small office and there’s nowhere else for it to go!  (This creates a problem, though; where the main support hinges on a couple of carriage bolts against the bottom frame, the bottom of the main 2×4 uprights sticks out below the frame a little.  With casters lofting the whole thing up a couple inches, no problem; in this case, it’s awkward and threatens to gouge the floor.  Compensating for now with some felt pads, but later I’ll cut some of the material off the bottom of those.  Should have thought it through and put the carriage bolt hinges higher on the base to begin with, I guess.)
Rear of the easel.

I also made a couple changes accidentally by not following the plans quite to spec.

Lazy measuring meant the bottom frame wasn’t quite as wide as it should be, so the main support baaaaarely fits in there (like, using a hammer to encourage it barely) and I had to skip the washer between the base and the main support entirely.  So a bit more friction there than intended.  Still moves fine, though, so I think I got away with that.

And the spacers between the thin 1×2 supports and the crossbar on the rear of the main support (the bit the upper hinges on the rear supports attach to) are a little bigger than the plans say, 1.5 inches instead of I think 1.125, because I was lazy and just used some 1×2 chunks turned sideways instead of trimming/cutting pieces.  This means the thin central supports don’t quite line up flush with the main 2×4 supports on the sides as you move up.  Not probably a big problem, but it’s a needless inconsistency.  It also means I need to allow for a bit more give in the moveable lower clamp/shelf, which is a pretty tight fit at the moment.  Hopefully the wood drying out will help.  (Or maybe it’ll make it worse!)

Just literally the worst routing.
Just literally the worst routing.

And good god, my router work.  This was meant to be a nice clean 3/8″ vertical channel just wide enough to accommodate a long bolt with a wingnut securing it in place; as is the channel was a good 1/2″ wide at least, wider in some parts, and snaking around drunkenly.  I added a washer behind the wingnut there just to make sure it wouldn’t fall through the goddam thing.  And this is the better of the two router jobs; the other adjustable support is a disaster area.  I may shore these up with some metal strips on either side just to proof against the wingnuts failing and letting the easel tip backward catastrophically.

But.  But I built it, and it works, and I’m thrilled.  It’s overkill but I’m delighted.  I’ll be able to paint with gusto without the damn easel tipping over.  I’ll be able to put a little weight on it to compensate for my not-so-steady arm.  I’ll be able to tack up reference material all over the place.  I’ll be able to build out little bits of utility add-on here and there easily.  I’m excited.

At What Cost, Easel

And, hey, if you can manage the wherewithal to hack this thing together, it’s cheap.  It’s a goddam bargain if you don’t kill yourself in the process.

Grosser suggests that it’s less than a hundred dollars in materials, and that panned out.  In fact I was mostly surprised what I spent on the non-lumber portions; I paid about $42 at the lumber yard for the wood (8 eight-foot pine 2x4s, 4 eight-foot poplar 1x2s, and a yard or so 1/2″ diameter wooden dowel), and $54 at Ace Hardware for hinges, bolts, washers, nuts, wingnuts, a box of screws, and a 1/2″ drill bit.  It’d be fair to cut out the cost of the bit (I’ll have it to use for other stuff) and most of the box of screws (likewise), so hardware cost is more like $40 for the easel itself.

So, $82 altogether.  I could have gotten slightly straighter, much drier 2x4s without spending more by shopping around for somewhere with a ceiling; I could also have made do with salvage boards just fine and saved most of the lumber costs right there.  I also could have cheaped up on the hardware a bit; the four door hinges in particular were about $15 of the cost and I’m sure I could have found some used ones around.  Someone with a lot of hardware bits on hand would have saved here or there on the rest too.  Still, that’s nutso cheap for an industrial-sized easel.

Time cost isn’t awful either: all told it was probably 6 or 7 hours over the last two days (Tuesday/Wednesday is my “weekend” with my current MetaFilter schedule) and much of that time was lost to my inexperience with this sort of woodworking and my lack of any kind of proper workspace and toolset for the job.  Access to a table saw and a little bit of planning would have reduced by a big chunk time spent cutting the pieces; likewise a drill press or a drill jig would have made some of the boring a lot snappier and cleaner, and a jig or bandsaw would have sped up a couple of the detail bits.  Also, if I had a second power drill, I wouldn’t have had to swap drill and screw bits so often.  And a router table would probably have helped, though that was only two (horrid) cuts.

I’d guess someone with a better setup and a little more confidence in the process could have knocked the whole thing together start to finish in 2-3 hours.  If I find I really like this thing in the long run and friends do too, that someone could end up being me given access to a decent shop.  But right now I’m physically sore as hell and can’t really imagine getting up to a recreational repeat of the process any time soon.

Next time I decide to build an easel I think I’m gonna aim smaller.  Get something portable to replace the one I so generously abandoned into Jesse’s care.

Author: Josh Millard

I manage and help moderate the community website MetaFilter, where I go by "cortex"; in my spare time I get up to all sorts of creative nerdery on the internet and in Portland, Oregon.

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