So, I finished my Plein Air easel today. I am proud of it, so I figured I’d share it here – I think the idea of using a bar is pretty inventive, and I think it’s going to be useful when it’s warm enough for me to get outside.

Inspiration

I should start by saying I was inspired by Joseph Zbukvic’s easel. Dan Marshall makes an easel inspired by it, so clearly I’m not the only one envious of his setup.

My Old Easel

I had a French Easel that I modified a bit last year. I added a nut to so I could screw it into a tripod. I added straps so I could carry it like a back pack, and I painted the inside of the drawer with white enamel so it would be water resistant. You can see that one above.

There are a few things I wanted to improve. First, I wanted the drawer to be on the left (because I’m left-handed.) I also wanted mine to be a bit more robust, because the old one started splitting a bit (see how the drawer tilts down?) I didn’t like the vertical supports on the easel because quarter sheets are too short in landscape to securely fasten to it. And the drawer worked, but in order for it to be a work surface, it has to be partially closed while I worked, so brushes and other items were regularly too deep in the drawer to be easily accessed.

I started by trying to just rebuild my French easel, but soon decided to just start from scratch so I could have all the features I want.

Requirements

Before I started rebuilding, I decided my easel needed to be:

  • accessible for me as a lefty
  • made out of wood
  • weather-stable
  • self contained
  • light enough to carry on hikes
  • capable of tilting from 0-90 degrees
  • capable of storing quarter sheets
  • large enough to store my supplies
  • tripod-ready
  • water resistant
  • flat bottomed
  • capable of holding my coffee mug

My New Easel

I made my easel from 1/2” plywood because plywood tends to warp less in humidity and temperature changes than solid wood. I chose furniture grade plywood so it wouldn’t look awful. And, I used quarter-inch plywood for the shelf, to keep it slim, and keep the weight down. The plywood came to $20.

Here it is closed. There are three draw catch latches that keep the lid closed. I bought brass catches, which cost $5 each.

Here it is from the front when it’s open, and ready to paint. If you look closely you can see four metal dots near the top. These are the screws holding the brackets on the back. I screwed them fully through the surface, and then used a file to make them flat with the work surface.

Here it is from the back when it’s open. The arms support a brass rod, and there are brass brackets attached to the underside of the top. (I couldn’t find the brass brackets that I wanted, so I bought hand rail supports, and used the brackets that came with them.)

The bar is fed through these brackets, so the top isn’t attached to the storage box/base of the easel, it just “hangs” on the brass rod.

The rod is solid brass, so I had to buy a tap to cut threads into each end. I had never done this before, but it turned out to be really easy, just drill out a hole in the end, then use the tap with the drill on low to cut threads.

Here you can see the shelf attached to the side. I used a piano hinge to make the shelf fold out, this lets me have a work surface that extends beyond the front of the easel, making a kind of “L-Shaped” work space.

Because the top isn’t attached to the base, I can quickly level it by simply lifting from the bottom.

Here’s another shot where the top is tilted back to level by lifting it from the bottom. (That tin is keeping the surface elevated.)

This is useful because it lets me level (or even invert) the work surface without having to loosen the nuts. Then, I can let go and it returns to the original angle.

If I keep lifting until the lid is inverted, with the bottom pointing at the sky, the lid slides right into the grooves cut out for the brass bar.

In this shot, you can also see the shelf as it is stored in the box. On the bottom of that shelf are aluminum bars that I added to the bottom. These slide into grooves on the bottom of the storage base to attach the shelf. I made these by cutting an aluminum bar with a hacksaw and using a drill to make holes for the screws. I also used a really big bit to carve out some… uh… counter sink dimples (?) so the screw heads would lay flat. I went with aluminum because it won’t rust. (I couldn’t find a brass bar, or I would have used that instead.)

I had to cut grooves into the sides so that the bar can extend out to both arms, and the lid can close fully. As a result, if I turn the work surface “upside down” I can stand it up in these grooves – which has proven to be a good way to access the storage without having to walk around to the back of the easel.

Here you can see the easel from the back with the lid inverted. The leather handle, and arms are from the French easel, so these were “free.”

Here’s the easel closed, and upside down. You can see the grooves that I cut into the bottom (with a chisel). I cut another groove perpendicular to those, and another aluminum bar sits in that groove. This way, the easel sits flat on a table. The aluminum bar on the bottom holds the shelf, and it’s stronger than plywood of the same thickness.

Here’s a closeup of the aluminum bar and the grooves that the shelf sits in. You can also see my heavy-handed polyurethane finish – I went a little nuts with the poly in an attempt to make it as water resistant as possible.

Here you can see the grooves that the shelf slides into. I also choose to use dove tails to build the box because I figured that would be the strongest way to build it, especially because I’m using plywood.

And lastly, here’s the nut. I screw the tripod into this nut, and the easel stands securely with just that little nut.

That’s it. It took me several days, but mostly because I had to redo things a few times because the design changed as I went. I haven’t tested it yet outside, so I’ll update after I’ve taken it out a few times.