Introduction: French Cleat Mini Easel
I recently completed a wood-letter sign for a great alternative folk rock band, The Mascot Theory. But now that they're on tour, they needed a way to display the sign on stage while they performed.
The solution? A short, sturdy easel that uses a French cleat system to keep the sign from falling off. Such a stand should let the band display their sign out in front of their equipment without blocking the show.
The easel is based on an A-frame design found across the internet. (Here’s another Instructable of a similar design.) The dimensions were derived from a combination of the sign size, basic easel principles, and my own knee height. The supplies were almost entirely scrounged from stuff that was sitting around. I even managed to use up some more deck wood.
More advanced woodworkers could use dowels or mortises and tenons for the joints. I opted for screws instead for speed and ease of construction.
This easel worked great for this purpose, but I could see a lot of other uses for it as well. A more delicate presentation could work for displaying a family photo on a desktop, for example.
Step 1: Tools and Supplies
Here’s a detailed list of the tools and supplies that I used for this project. But many of them aren’t mandatory. If you don’t have a table saw, you could sub out a hand saw and use pre-ripped boards instead.
- Table saw
- Drill bits: A thick one and a thin one. The thick one should match the width of your screws, including the thread. The thin one should be closer to the shank of the screw, skipping the treads. This way, the threads will grip the thin hole in the surface wood and slip in the thick hole in the facing wood, pulling the two pieces tight together. I used 7/64” and 5/32”.
- Router: Used to round the edges. If you don’t have one, you can embrace the sharp-edged look.
- Orbital sander: Not necessary, but it makes the sanding much more humane.
- Sandpaper: 120 and 220.
- Clamps: Two types: One spring clamp and one stronger version, such as a quick clamp or a screw clamp.
- Jointing jig: If you have a jointer, you won’t need this. Mine is based on John Heisz's tapering jig. Steve Ramsey offers another great option.
- Countersink bit
- Level: Most sizes would work. Even a level on a smartphone might do the trick—as long as you don’t drop it.
- Wood: I used old deck wood and ripped it to width. You could buy 1 ½” boards and skip the ripping if you like.
- Drywall screws: 2”, and 2 ½”
- Chain: I used spare chain from hanging shop lights.
- Small screws for the chain: ½”
- Small hinge: I pulled mine off an old cabinet.
- Glue: Not critical. I used Titebond II. But just about any wood glue will work.
- Stain: I used Minwax wood finish penetrating stain, special walnut 224.
- Clear coat: I used water based Minwax Polycrylic protective finish spray, clear satin.
Step 2: Figuring Out Dimensions
The first part is figuring out what size this easel needs to be. Here are a few helpful bullet points, developed with help from my wife, Abby, a structural engineer, and Wikipedia’s easel article:
- The base should be 1/3 of width of your sign.
- When the easel is deployed, the front sign should be displayed at a 20 degree angle from vertical. You can achieve this via a combination of chain length and back leg length.
- The top of the easel should stick out an inch or two above the sign. This is purely cosmetic—and I screwed it up on mine, actually. But it looks fine whether you can see the easel on the top or not.
- I chose 1.5” by 1” for the leg thickness. This gives the legs a “flat” look.
- I thinned down the crosspieces on the front face by about 1/16” on each side. This gave the front face a little more depth.
In my video, you’ll see that I waited until the structure was mostly built to determine many of the leg lengths. Instead of this, I could have used basic geometry for triangles. This site lets you insert the measurements you know you want and gives you the measurements you need for the rest of the triangle.
Step 3: Milling the Wood
This step is going to talk about taking a wide, rough board and turning it into a usable leg piece with a table saw. This process works great for those of us who don’t own jointers or planers.
If you bought lumber that matches the thickness of your legs, then skip this step. Same goes for if you have a jointer and a planer. Your tools will work better than my method, so feel free to move on.
My boards started off in 3-4 foot lengths. This made it easier to run them through the table saw. But longer boards could save you time in the long run, as long as you have a nice outfeed system.
First, we’ll make a square edge on one side of a board. Clamp your first board into the planing jig. Adjust your table saw fence so the blade will cut off just the rough edge of the board. Run the jig through the saw.
Now, we’ll use that square edge to cut a parallel edge on the other side of the board. Flip the board over so the square edge is touching the fence. Adjust the fence so that the saw will cut off just the rough edge of the board. Then run the board through the saw.
Next, you’ll repeat this with the rest of your lumber. Having this done before ripping the leg pieces the rest of the way will ensure that all of your leg pieces are the same size.
Next, we’ll cut our boards into 1 ½“ strips. Set your fence so it’s 1 ½” away from the blade. Then run your boards through the saw until you have a bunch of 1 ½” strips.
If you’re starting with a nice chunk of wood, instead of an old piece of weathered deck wood like I used, then this step is complete. But if you still have rough surfaces remaining, then our final step will be to quickly mill them off.
Flip your leg strip so that a rough side is facing the saw blade. Adjust the fence so that the board is tight against the blade. Run the board through the saw, checking to see that the cut completely removed any rough surface. If rough spots remain, repeat the above fence adjustment, then cut the board again. Once you have a nice surface, run all of your boards through this way. If a few of the boards have rough spots that didn’t get milled off, that’s OK. We’ll sand those off later.
Finally, we’ll mill off the last rough side. Flip the board over so the rough side is facing the blade. Repeat the last process until you have nice leg pieces with consistent sides.
Step 4: Cutting the Legs, Cleats and Support Bar
In this step, I’ll show you how I decided on the dimensions for my easel by taking measurements and adjusting the plan along the way. But as I mentioned earlier, it might be easier to do this with some basic geometry. See the “Supplies” section for more on that.
Engineer Abby recommended that a good starting point would be to make the width of the base of the easel face about ⅓ the width of the sign. My sign was 52”. For a round number, I settled on a width of 18”.
I set two leg pieces on my workbench and clamped down the ends closest to me.
I then took my ruler to the top of the easel face and found a width that looked nice. About 12” seemed to fit the bill. I knew my sign was 13” tall, so I used my tape measure to create an imaginary sign for reference to find the placement of the top bar. I marked a line for that bar.
Now I needed to find the angle of my front face legs, based on the width of the bottom and top crosspieces. I needed this angle so I could cut the ends of the crosspieces consistently to form a pseudo triangle.
I eyeballed the legs so they looked to be about the same angle. Then I used my digital protractor, with one side against a leg and the other against the edge of my workbench, and found the angles for both legs. One side was 82.6, the other 83.6. I needed both of the angles to be the same, so I did some math. Here are two approaches:
- Add both angles together. Divide them by two. This is your angle.
- Subtract the smaller angle from the bigger angle. Divide that number by two. Add the result to the smaller angle subtract it from the larger angle. They now should be the same.
Abby the math whiz told me about the first approach—after I had already completed the second. I’m including them both here because, dang it, my formula did work! It’s just needlessly complex, so it introduces more possibility for error. But hey, there’s often two answers to every question, so you pick which one you want to try.
My angle was 83.1 degrees. I set my protractor to that number, adjusted my legs so they were 12” apart at the top mark, and clamped them down again at the correct angle.
Next, I set my miter saw angle to my 83.1 degree angle. (If you don’t have a miter saw, you could use the miter gauge on your table saw for this part.) I cut off one end of a leg piece, then took it back to my clamp set up. I put the angle side up against a leg, eyeballed where it looked nice, and marked a line on the other side. Then I took this piece back to my miter saw and cut it, being careful to cut it at the right 83.1 orientation. I set this final piece in place between my clamped down leg pieces. I repeated the above steps for the top piece.
(In retrospect, I didn’t really need to be so precise for fitting the crosspieces; as long as they were the right angle, they were going to fit into the assembly within a fraction of an inch or so from where they were supposed to be. But I didn’t lose much time doing it this way, and my cross pieces ended up exactly where I planned for them with this approach.)
Finally, I milled my French cleats. I set my table saw blade to 45 degrees and sliced it in half down the middle. I then eyeballed it against the face frame and decided to go with a 16" length. I cut down the board—and did the same with a rectangular piece for the support bar. I then cut off the remaining rough sides of the board, being careful to do them in parallel.
Step 5: Dry Assembly
With this method, we’re going to screw the face legs and crosspieces together. Other approaches might be stronger or hide the joint better. Two examples include dowels or a mortise and tenon. But I was crunched for time, so I just used screws. They are plenty strong, and they will be hidden by the actual artwork most of the time, so I think they are acceptable here.
First, we’ll clamp the legs in place to make it easier to screw them together. Set your first vertical leg along the edge of your workbench. Set the bottom crosspiece so it intersects with the line you marked for it. Use a clamp overtop of the two pieces to hold them together and flat to the table, leaving space on the outside face of the leg.
Next, we’ll predrill the holes. Starting with a countersink bit, drill two indentations that line up with the crosspiece into the side of the leg piece. Use a 7/64” drill bit to drill two holes into the leg piece and all the way into the crosspiece, matching the length of your screw. Switch to a 5/32” drill bit and drill two holes just into the leg itself. Then screw your screws into the holes. Because the hole in the leg was bigger than the screw threads, the screw can draw the leg tight against the crosspiece.
Repeat this process with the rest of the front face.
Now we’ll work on the back leg. Set your protractor to 20 degrees, the standard easel display angle, and hold your easel up against it. (A helper would be valuable here.) Use a tape measure to eyeball how long the back leg needs to be. Cut the back leg to that length.
Back at the front face, mark a 3” line along the center middle of the back of the top crosspiece. Line your cabinet hinge holes up with the line. Mark the holes’ centers with a punch. Then screw the hinge into the crosspiece. You might need to predrill holes for the screws for some woods, but I didn’t need to.
Double check the back leg length. Does it seem overly long? If so, take it off the frame and cut it down.
Otherwise, if everything looks OK, it’s time to take it all apart again. Feel free to mark the boards’ orientations on the end grain, where it won’t get blown away by sanding, to make it easier to put them back together.
Step 6: Edging, Sanding, Glue Up
In this step, we’ll do final shaping and gluing before we stain the wood.
Start by thinning down the thickness of the front face crosspieces. This will add some depth to the front face. Use the table saw to rip about an ⅛” inch of the front and the back faces of the crosspieces. Run both pieces through the table saw, one after another, to keep their thicknesses consistent. And be careful to make sure they are facing the correct direction. (You could do this step earlier, but shaving them down here instead makes it easier to install them in the center of the legs during assembly.)
Head for the router. Use a ¼” roundover bit to round the edges. Virtually every edge gets rounded over—except for the ends of the crosspieces. Those should be flush with the legs.
Sand all of the pieces, paying special attention to knock out any rough patches or blade marks left behind during the milling process. I used 120 and 220 grit sandpaper in two separate steps. Then clean the dust off. A vacuuming followed by a dry towel wipe down works great.
Now it’s time for some glue. Screw your … screws … into the legs so they barely stick out the other side. Add some glue to the ends of the bottom crosspiece. Screw the screws in the rest of the way, being careful not to strip the wood threads if you’re using a power tool. Then repeat for the top crosspiece.
Let the glue dry for at least half an hour, but overnight is better. Sand off any glue squeeze out spots.
Step 7: Staining and Final Assembly
I’ll talk about how my finishing process went using walnut-colored Minwax stain and clear satin Polycrylic spray, but follow the directions for your choice of products. I chose both items because I already owned them and they matched the look I was going for.
Brush on a light, even layer of stain for the first coat. Boards with nails can hold the wood up while it dries. After 15 minutes, wipe off any excess. Wait 24 hours, then lightly sand the surface and apply a second coat. My boards only needed two coats.
Lightly sand the boards again. Now, lightly spray the Polycrylic spray on all the surfaces. Let it dry for 30 minutes. Lightly sand, wipe and coat again. The product recommends three coats, but I got away with only two.
Once everything is dry, reattach the back leg. Using clamps as stops on your workbench, stand up the easel so the face is again at 20 degrees while resting on the back leg. (Or go get your helper again.) Grab your length of chain and stretch it from the back middle of the bottom crosspiece to the back leg. Mark the points where the chain meets the wood with a pencil. Remove any excess links if the chain is too long. Then set the easel down and use ½” screws to attach the ends of the chain to those two points.
Now we’ll mount the French cleats and support board. This part will vary greatly depending on what you’re trying to display. Mine was a big chunk of solid wood, so I could drill holes willy nilly all over the place. You might be using a wooden frame, where you have fewer mounting point options. Adapt or disregard as you see fit.
Take your first cleat and clamp it to your sign, hook facing in and down, about ½” to 1” from the top of the board. You can use a torpedo level to keep the spacing consistent across the top. Drill two countersinks on the left and right sides of the cleat. Drill thin holes through those countersinks all the way through the cleat and into the sign. Drill larger diameter holes just through the cleat. Now attach the cleat to the sign with screws.
Repeat with the support board on the bottom of the sign.
Finally, we’ll attach the mounting cleat to the easel. Lay the easel down, face up. Set the sign down onto the front face, roughly where you want it. Slide the mounting cleat underneath the sign and interlock it with the face cleat. Mark the location of the mounting cleat with a pencil, then remove the sign and line the mounting cleat up with your mark again. Predrill holes, just on the left side of the cleat, using the previous steps we used for the face cleat. Then drive in a screw until it’s almost tight, but not quite.
Flip the easel up on its legs. Put a spring clamp on the face leg under the right side of the mounting cleat to hold it roughly level. Set a torpedo level on the cleat and adjust the clamp until the cleat is level. Then clamp the cleat in place, preferably with a stronger type, such as a quick clamp.
Set the easel on its back again. Repeat the predrill process, this time for the right side. Screw a screw in tight. Then repeat for the other side.
Set the easel upright. Mount your artwork. That’s it! You’re done.
Thanks for reading! And good luck!
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