The Basement Easel

Article by Darren Rousar.

The completed setup.The Basement Easel and setup. Notice, as in this article here, it is in the proper Sight-Size arrangement.

In addition to a still life stand and a shadow box, the third main requirement for a Sight-Size setup is a stable easel. If you are just starting out, it is likely that you do not yet have a formal studio. A basement or spare room will do just as well. This article is about creating an easel that will work in an unfinished basement.

The Basement Easel was born out of the desire to show my students that sometimes we need to make do with what we have available. Most had basements in their homes, so that became the location for their makeshift studios. To set a good example, I am using our basement for the demonstration which follows.

Our basement is unfinished and it only has a seven foot tall ceiling. This is problematic because many manufactured easels, when extended, are taller than that. Those that are smaller are often quite wobbly, so much so that when you try to draw on the drawing board the upright support of the easel moves back and forth a little bit.

To create the following easel you will need:

  • 2, 2″ x 6″ x 8′ studs – to be used for the easel’s uprights*
  • 1, 1″ x 6″ x 4′ board – to be used to attach the easel to the joist (if your joists are parallel to the face of your drawing board)
  • 1, 1″ x 4″ x 4′ board – to be used to support the bottom of your drawing board or canvas
  • A box of 3″ screws
  • A carpenter’s level
  • 4, C-clamps
  • A saw
  • A power drill/screwdriver

*In that my basement is only 7′ high, I can use the leftover lumber for the two cross-braces at the top and bottom of the easel. If your ceiling is higher, you will need a 2″ x 6″ x 4′ stud.

Since I will be clamping the top of the easel to one of the floor joists I first needed to measure the distance from the basement slab to an arbitrary place on the joist. This measurement will determine how tall the easel will be.

Measuring floor to ceiling.Measuring floor to ceiling.

My intent was to create an easel with two uprights spaced less than a foot apart. A wider spacing would provide more stability, perhaps, but since I was using 2″x6″ lumber I knew that it would be stable enough.

With the aforementioned measurement in mind, I cut the two uprights to length.

Cutting the uprights.Cutting the uprights.

I will use the remaining lengths as the cross-braces. If your ceiling is higher than mine, you will need to cut cross-braces from an additional length of lumber.

Before you screw the cross-braces to the uprights you should pre-drill the screw holes. In the image spread below you will see me using one of the braces to mark the upright (left image). This mark gives me the area where I will pre-drill (right image). Be sure to mark both ends of both uprights and then pre-drill into all four areas.

Pre-drilling holes.Marking and pre-drilling the cross-brace holes.

In the image below I am screwing one of the uprights to the top brace. Kneeling on the brace, as I am in the picture, provides some pressure on the upright to keep it in place while I screw it to the brace. If you do this, do not kneel too far away from the brace. You want your bodyweight to put pressure on the connection, not bow the upright away from it. As it is, I went a little too far back myself.

Connecting the uprights to the braces.

The next step is to decide how to attach the easel to the floor joist above. In my case, the joist runs parallel to the face of the easel, therefore I needed an attachment brace. If yours run perpendicular, you will not need one.

I measured the overall width of the easel and added 4″ to it. This length then gave me the width of the attachment brace. I used some scrap 1″ x 6″ pine and cut it to length. I then pre-drilled and finally screwed it to the top end of the back of the uprights. I will eventually clamp this brace (and therefore, the easel) to a joist.

Connecting the joist attachment.Connecting the joist attachment.

Now that the uprights of the easel are finished, it is time to think about how you will attach your drawing board or canvas to it. You could create a set of sliding holders, like you see on store-bought easels. Since I felt that this was a bit beyond my students’ wood working abilities, and my easel was to be temporary, I decided to simply use the screw and clamp method. This means that I will screw the bottom support to the easel and clamp the top of the drawing board to it as well. Therefore, I needed to cut a length of 1″ x 4″. I cut mine to 24 inches long.

Before assembling the easel in the basement, I recommend setting it in the area for a week or so. Although this is dried lumber, you still need to make sure that it acclimates itself to the humidity in the room. If you do not, you may find that the length of the uprights shorten a bit over time. When that happens, you end up with an easel that hangs from the joist rather than rests on the floor. Either way, this may happen eventually and I will discuss that in a moment.

To attach the easel to the joist, I first needed to make sure that it was both level and vertical. Most basement floors will have a slight downward pitch towards wherever the floor drain is, so you will want to be aware of that as well. As you can see in the images below, I am checking both the front to back and side to side angles with a level.

Checking for plumb.Checking for plumb.

While you might do this yourself, an additional pair of hands would help to hold the easel level while you are clamping it to the joist. Notice that in my situation there are 110v and 220v electrical lines running precariously close to the work area. As I have it arranged, there is no danger. Still, it is always best to be careful.

Clamping the easel to the joist.Clamping the easel to the joist.

While I am clamping the attachment to the joist, I am also standing on the cross-brace at the bottom of the easel. This assures that the clamp tightening does not inadvertently raise the easel off of the floor.

Standing on the bottom cross-brace.Standing on the bottom cross-brace.

As I mentioned above, over time the wood might continue to dry and therefore shrink a little. If this happens to you, and you are in the middle of a project, gently push a couple of shims underneath the base to help connect the easel back to the floor. When you finish your project, loosen the joist clamps and re-tighten them while standing on the base cross-brace.

You might also put a heavy weight across the brace before this happens.

After clamping both sides of the attachment brace to the joist I turned my attention to the drawing board support. This, of course, needs to be level so the first step is marking that on the uprights with a pencil.

Since I knew that I was not going to move this, I decided to screw it to the uprights. I also knew that with this easel I would never want to draw or paint anything that was lower than about 4″ from the top of the still life stand. This knowledge gave me the vertical position of the support.

Leveling the drawing board base.Leveling the drawing board support.

Next, keep the support level and center it on the uprights. Once in position, place a mark on the board where it crosses each upright. These are where you will pre-drill holes so that you can screw the support to the uprights. While screwing it together, place the level on top of the support so that you make sure nothing moves. Again, another pair of hands would be helpful.

Attaching the drawing board support.Attaching the drawing board support.

The final step was to support the top of the drawing board. I chose to clamp it to the uprights of the easel rather than create a wooden support. This solution works fine with a drawing board, but would not work when using a canvas. In that case I would use an additional board.

One of the clamps used to attach the top.One of the clamps used to attach the top of the drawing board to the easel.

The completed Basement Easel, in position with the still life stand, shadow box and a hanging cast is shown at the top of this article.

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