I recently began plein air painting, which is painting outdoors on location. I quickly realized my need for a lightweight, portable field easel that would work for both sketching and painting.
I searched around for pochade boxes and French easels, but couldn’t find exactly what I wanted. My requirements were that it be:
- easy to set up
- adjustable height and angle
- I could see myself using it.
So I did some research and hacked one for very little money.
The driving inspiration for my easel came from fellow illustrator, James Gurney. He has a Facebook group centered on the fine art of building field easels and pochade boxes. Check it out here.
The cost of my field easel was less than $125.00 (US) all in. Here’s how I made mine:
Parts for a field easel
The advantage of a tripod-style easel is its flexibility. It’s easy to adjust the height and the angle.
I found this Rangers lightweight, aluminum alloy, folding ball-head tripod. It weighs less than 3 pounds, folds to a compact size, and can be easily adjusted for all sorts of terrain. It also allows you to change out the ball head or use it as a monopod.
It includes a hook on which I hang my field pack. The weight of the pack helps stabilize the tripod.
I used some scrap quarter-inch masonite pieces and half-inch pine boards I had laying around my garage.
I cut them to 9 x 12 inches with a hand-help power saw (TIP: don’t use a saw blade meant for pine or drywall on masonite, and vice versa.) And then I sanded them.
Other options are pine, oak, and cherry. Or use an opaque, matte finish plastic that has good rigidity.
Neodymium Disc Magnets
I embedded several neodymium disc magnets into the half-inch pine (I used a power drill with a router bit and then chiseled out the excess pine material) and secured them with Gorilla® Glue. Remember to use a bit of water with the glue.
Avoid the need for glue by using these instead.
Torque hinges provide adjustable tension so that you can position your board at any angle. I wasn’t able to find them at my local The Home Depot or Loews so I went online. The tension adjusts via screws in the hinges.
Note: these hinges don’t allow the easel to close flush, so consider counter-sinking them. I didn’t do that, so my easel has a gap which is where I store my watercolor sketchbook.
Tripod mounting plate
Just a regular mounting plate to fit a tripod. I purchased several plates to use with my easel so that I don’t have to switch from camera use to easel.
Quick release tripod mount
If your tripod doesn’t have a quick release plate, you’ll need one. It attaches to the tripod and screws into the metal mounting plate on the back of the easel board.
This is a water-activated polyurethane glue that creates a bond by expanding into the material you’re gluing.
Not exactly part of the field easel but very handy when I want to sit while painting is this handy saddle-seat travel stool.
It’s surprisingly comfortable! It’s lightweight, folds easily and includes a carrying handle.
How to build your tripod-mounted field easel
Once you have all your parts, you can assemble this easel in under two hours. Here’s how I did it on a rainy afternoon accompanied by hot coffee.
1] Cut two boards to size. The size I used is 9 x 12 inches, but you can cut them as large as 18 inches on the long side, depending on how portable the size is for you.
Use any wood boards no thicker than 1/2 inch. If you use hardwood such as cherry or oak, use quarter-inch depth.
2] In one board, use a router and woodcarver tool to create craters in which the magnets will sit. Use a router bit that’s just larger than the magnet diameter.
To cut away the excess material, use a wide carving tool such as the Speedball lino cutter shown.
3] Attach the torque hinges to connect the two boards. If you want the hinges to mount flush with the board you’ll need to cut away some of the board.
Use the large center screws in the hinges to adjust the friction.
I mounted them as shown, which leaves a gap when the easel is closed. I tuck my sketchbook into that gap for transport.
4] Cement the disc magnets into the craters with Gorilla Glue. Remember to dampen the wood and the magnets with water before applying the glue. Avoid getting the glue onto your skin.
5] Screw the tripod mounting plate to the back of the board that has the magnets. I positioned center on the long side, but closer to the hinged side than the open side.
6] Put it all together. Attach the quick-release mount to the tripod and play around with height and angle adjustments. You’re now good to go with a basic field easel and can customize to your heart’s content from here on.