Playtime Easel

Biscuits and knock-down hardware make for an easy build.

What’s more fun than to build a child’s easel and watch your kids get creative? This stand-up play station offers two artists’ areas: a blackboard with a chalk tray for spur-of-the-moment designs and a more studious side equipped with an almost limitless roll of drawing paper and a supply box, ready for lasting creations that can be separated from the roll via a clever tearing mechanism. Fun, colorful shapes face-glued to the frame entice youngsters to play. Two of these decorative blocks are outfitted with magnets that mate with magnets in the drawing panel to hold down the corners of the paper. I used cherry for the solid-wood parts of this project, but any clear and relatively straight-grained hardwood will do. This easel is fun to build and makes for an enjoyable weekend project. Consider enlisting a young’un to help.

Clamp an L-shaped stick assembly to the bench to safely hold the stock while you slot the stiles for #20 biscuits.
To assemble a frame, clamp one stile to the bench, and attach the two rails and the panel. Then cap the assembly with the remaining stile.

Make the frame and panels

1 Mill the stiles (A), rails (B, C), and panels (D, E) to the sizes in the Cut List.

2 Ease all the edges on the stiles, rails, and panels with a 1⁄8" round-over bit.

3 Sand the stiles and rails through 220 grit, as well as the panel faces–but not the panel edges.

4 Lay out the holes for the magnets in the drawing panel (D) and in the top rail (B) above it, as shown in Figure 1. Bore the holes to a depth of 9⁄64", using a 1⁄2"-Forstner bit in the drill press.

5 Lay out and cut slots for #20 biscuits in the stiles, rails, and panels, approximately where shown in Figure 1. Adjust the cutter to center the slots across the panels’ thickness, with the exterior faces oriented upward, and referencing the joiner’s fence, as shown in Photo A.

6 Spray one coat of blackboard paint on the exterior face of the blackboard panel (E). After this dries, scuff-sand with 320 grit. Then spray on another coat, and let it dry for 24 hours before handling. To “charge” the unsanded surface before assembly, rub a piece of chalk lengthwise over it, and then wipe off the excess with a chalk eraser.

Assemble the frames and panels

1 Initially assemble the blackboard panel frame, as shown in Photo B, applying glue in the biscuit slots and along the mating edges of the assembly parts.

2 Unclamp the stile, and place the assembly onto bar clamps. Pull the joints home, and check for square and flat (Photo C) before leaving the frame to dry.

3 Repeat the procedure for the drawing panel frame assembly.

Tilt the blade to 12° and adjust the fence so the cut results in a sharp edge on the thickest portion of the blank. Use a pushstick to keep fingers safe.
When routing the pencil tray, hold the work against the first block, lower it onto the bit, push until it reaches the second block, and then lift.

Make the box and tray

1 Mill the box and tray parts (F, G, H, J, K, & L), except for the corner blocks (I), to the dimensions in the Cut List, mitering the sides (G), the box bottom (H), and the aprons (J, L) to 12°, as shown in Figure 3. Don’t rip the 12° bevel on the tray (K) for now.

2 Bevel the aprons (J, L) on the tablesaw by angling your tablesaw blade to 12° (Photo D). For reference, the sawn surface is the face that will contact the easel. Alternatively, this cut can be made on the bandsaw.

3 To prevent a starved joint, size the end-grain at the ends of the bottom (H) by applying a light coat of glue, waiting a few moments before adding fresh glue, and then clamping the sides (G) to the bottom. Check the assembly for square before setting it aside to dry.

4 Join the front (F) to the side/bottom assembly (G, H), this time sizing the end grain of the sides before adding a fresh coat of glue to all the mating areas, and clamping as before.

5 Make the triangular corner blocks (I) by first beveling the edge of a board and then ripping the beveled section free. Crosscut the pieces to length, and glue them into the corners of the box. No need for clamps; just rub them in place.

6 Rout the 1⁄2"-deep stopped groove in the chalk tray (K) using a 11⁄2" core box bit. Outfit your router table with stopblocks mounted on an auxiliary fence, as shown in Photo E. Make the cut in several passes, the last being a skim cut for a smooth surface.

7 With your tablesaw bevel gauge set to 12°, rip the 78° bevel on the chalk tray (K).

8 Lay out and drill 1⁄4" through-holes in the box and tray aprons (J, L), where shown in Figure 2.

Be sure to reference the front face of the aprons on the drill press table to keep the holes aligned properly. Slightly chamfer the holes on the outermost face so the connector bolts will seat properly.

9 Glue and clamp the box apron (J) flush with the rear edges of its mating parts (G, H). Also glue and clamp the tray apron (L) flush with the rear edge of the tray (K). 

10 Temporarily clamp the chalk tray to the blackboard panel and the box to the drawing panel, centering them across the width of the easel and aligning the holes in the aprons so they’re 3" below the top edge of the bottom rails (C), where shown in Figure 1. Guiding a 1⁄4" bit through your apron holes, drill through the stiles (A).

Hinge the panels together

1 Glue and pin-nail or clamp the hinge blocks (M) to the top of the stiles (A), where shown in Figure 1. Make sure to orient the grain horizontally.

2 Lay the two panels head-to-head on the bench, with their inside surfaces facing up.

Check that the panels are in line with each other by laying a long straightedge against one edge of the panels. (A straight piece of plywood works fine.) Attach the hinges, as shown in Photo F.

Rout the channel that connects the hole to the edge of the side rail by guiding the base of the router against a fence clamped to the workpiece and bench.
To mark the hole center in the end of each side rail, insert a punch through the hole in the stile, holding the punch level and in line with the rail.

Make the side rails

1 Refer to the Cut List to mill the side rails (N) to thickness and width, and crosscut the ends to 78°, as shown in Figure 1.

2 Lay out the 1" hole for the paper roll dowel (P) on the inside face of each side rail, centering it across the rail’s length and width. Drill 3⁄8" deep into each rail with a 1" Forstner bit on the drill press.

3 Chuck a 1"-diameter straight bit in a plunge router and set it for a 3⁄8"-deep cut. Then set up a fence to rout the channel for the dowel, as shown in Photo G.

4 Temporarily clamp the side rails (N) to the frames using blocks clamped to the stiles so that the edges of each side rail align with the edges of the bottom rail (C), while set back 1⁄8" from the inside edge of the stile (A). Then mark the locations of the connector bolt holes in the ends of the side rails, as shown in Photo H.

5 Clamp each side rail in the bench vise, and use a 1⁄4" bit to drill about 2" into each rail end (Photo I).

6 Drill the intersecting holes for the cross dowels using a 13⁄32" brad-point bit on the drill press, as shown in Photo J.

7 Working on a low bench or the floor, fold the assembly on its side in an “A,” and install the side rails, box, and tray using the connector bolts and cross dowels.

8 Make the shoulder blocks (O) to the size in the Cut List. Glue and pin each block to the inside face of the bottom rail (C), with the block centered on the inside face of the side rail (N). Avoid spreading glue onto the side rails.

Using tape as a depth gauge, drill a hole in each end of the side rails. Two squares placed 90° to each other help you drill straight and square.
Drill the 33⁄8"-deep hole for each cross dowel on the drill press by clamping the inverted rail against a tall fence.

Make the decorative blocks

1 Make the decorative blocks (Q) from any wood you like. Figured woods such as curly maple can really pop when colored with dye. Trace the outlines on a 9⁄16"-thick board.

2 Use a 1⁄4" or narrower blade on the bandsaw to cut closely to the outlines. Refine the shapes using files and power sanders, finishing up with hand-sanding through 220 grit.

3 Round over one face of each block using a 1⁄8" round-over bit on the router table. For safety, feed the pieces using a jig made from 1⁄4"-thick acrylic outfitted with scrap wood handles, as shown in Photo K. Round over both faces of the two blocks you choose for the paper holders.

4 Drill a hole for a magnet in each paper holder. Center the hole on the back face of the holder, and use a 1⁄2" Forstner bit in the drill press as you did with the top rail (B), drilling 9⁄64" deep.

5 Dye the blocks using bright-colored aniline dyes, and then apply a single sealer coat of clear finish.

6 For easy block attachment, remove the box, tray, side rails, and hinges. Lay out the blocks in a pleasing pattern on each panel (avoiding the top rail on the drawing paper side), and glue and clamp them in place. Spread glue judiciously to prevent squeeze-out, and use clamping pads.

Make the paper cutter

1 Select a dense hardwood for the cutter (R), and mill it to the dimensions shown in the Cut List. Bevel one long edge of the cutter at 65° to create a knife edge on the workpiece.

2 Lay out the holes for the magnets, as shown in Figure 1, and drill them 9⁄64" deep, as you did with the top rail (B), using a 1⁄2"-Forstner bit in the drill press.

3 Using the excess from the 36"-long paper roll dowel, cut the handle (S) to the length shown in the Cut List, clamp it to the bench, and plane a 1⁄8"-wide flat along one edge.

4 Center the handle on the cutter with clamps, drill countersunk through-holes in the back of the cutter, drill pilot holes in the handle, and secure the handle with glue and 1" brass screws.

For full-sized patterns of the decorative blocks, visit, and click on Magazine Patterns.

Apply the finish and magnets

1 Sand all of the parts, making particularly sure that the corners and edges are kid-friendly.

2 Disassemble everything, mask off the blackboard, and apply at least three coats of wiping varnish to protect against grimy li’l hands.

3 Orient each magnet to its mate so they attract each other, and mark them for assembly.

4 Brush epoxy into the magnet holes in the top rail (A), drawing panel (D), paper cutter (R, S), and the two paper holder decorative blocks (Q). Press and twist the magnets into the holes until they’re level or just slightly below the surface. Wipe away any excess epoxy with denatured alcohol. Wait a day for the epoxy to cure before putting the cutter into use on the frame.

Put it all together

1 Remount the hinges using brass screws, and reassemble the easel with the connector bolts and cross dowels as before.

2 Cut the dowel (P) to fit between the pockets in the side rails (N). (Note: Don’t apply finish to the dowel, as the paper roll spins better on bare wood.)

3 Stand the easel upright, and slip the dowel through the roll of paper and into the side rail pockets. Pull the paper up and over the drawing surface frame, and snap it in place with the paper cutter and paper holders. Stock the box with drawing supplies–and watch someone get creative!  

About Our Designer/Builder

Andy Rae is an award-winning furnituremaker whose career spans several decades. He has authored a number of books on woodworking, including The Complete Illustrated Guide to Furniture and Cabinet Construction (Taunton Press). He currently makes his home in the mountains of western North Carolina.

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