Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Certifiable Guide to Tweaking the Beaufort Easel

Excerpts. You can download the entire document as a PDF if you want.

(Download the whole thing, all 2.8 mb, here).

I’ve purchased my last easel
That, of course, is a joke. Those who paint never could possibly purchase their last easel until (as Stapleton Kearns says) the death bunny comes hop-hop-hoppin’ along.

Anyway, my most recent easel is a Gloucester-type, made in China and sold by Jerry’s Artarama (and ASW Express). It's also known as the Anderson easel. 

Prior to early 2014, I’d only seen pictures of this design, primarily in Stapleton Kearns’s blog, http://stapletonkearns.blogspot.com/ . Then in January, I saw the design in person at Stape’s Snowcamp workshop in New Hampshire. At that point, I knew I wanted it. I played with building my own, but concluded that I had too few tools, too little skill, and too few hours to build my own.

The Beauport version of the Gloucester easel, photographed in one of its natural habitats, 32 inches of New England snow. (The other habitat? Planted firmly on granite shores north of Boston.)

The Gloucester - for real plein air painters

When you first meet it, the Gloucester easel is just a bundle of sticks. This bundle can be arranged into a 3-sided pyramid whose base is nearly as wide as its legs are tall. This makes it eminently usable (read: stable, not blown over) in the Cape Ann area, which often experiences high winds.

Because each of the legs is adjustable, you can set the Gloucester easel up on nearly impossible sites, including sea walls built from huge blocks of granite, wildly hilly countryside, or 24 inches of snowpack during a blizzard. The first two these physical features are found all over Cape Ann. The third is found in the colony’s Vermont and New Hampshire winter haunts.

Its size and features make it really good for
(a) Tall painters. You can use it to paint at eye level even if you’re in the NBA.*
(b) Real plein air painters (see previous 2 paragraphs; it sets up in all sorts of wild sites)
(c) Continuing your athletic development (lots of stretching and lifting in carrying and setup)
(d) Painting a very wide range of sizes, literally 4 x 5 inches to 4 x 5 feet or more.
(e) Fast setup (55 seconds to set up with the tweaks in this document; 1 minute 15 seconds to tear down and stow)
                *Most of the Gloucester and Rockport artists were 6 feet tall and over.

Two vendors today

There are two sources for the Gloucester easel right now:
The first is from Tobin Nadeau. His hand-crafted, Vermont maple and brass version is the Take-it-Easel. http://www.takeiteasel.com/index#nice1

The Take-It-Easel is ready to set up the moment you buy it

The Beauport takes tweaking.

To be perfectly accurate, you can use it right out of the box if you want, but the Beauport takes tweaking if you want to be happy with it for years to come.

Advice nearly everywhere: buy the Take-It-Easel
Most sources will tell you to buy the Take-it-Easel. It costs three to four times as much as the Beauport. Apparently it’s worth it: many who began with a Beauport have set them aside and purchased a Take-it-Easel, including Dan Corey, who outlined the most important fix to the Beauport (see Tweak 1 below).

However, if cost is an issue, the Beauport is an attractive alternative. Since I had used 98% of my supply of disposable income at Stape’s workshop, I had to opt for low cost. The Beauport’s quality—at least the once I received from Jerry’s—is good. The wood is good, the machining is good, and overall the hardware is at least okay.

First, some nomenclature:
Parts of the Beauport. The C-wire is shown here with its spine up; in a moment, you’ll see that they have to be spine down. Holes running from hallway up the left and right legs are for canvas pegs (not shown--what is shown is the accessory panel holder that clamps onto the legs). Three holes visible at the bottom of each leg are for leg extensions (3 come with the Beauport).

Day 1 – The first tweak… and it’s cogent and rational
Of course, once I received the Beauport, I wanted to make it just like its high-end sibling. The process starts more or less rationally with a simple fix that simultaneously (a) converts the Beauport to the original design and (b) makes setup and teardown much easier.

Unfortunately, as the days progress below, you see distinct veins of madness creeping into the picture. You start tweaking and things keep occurring to you.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed messing with the Beauport.

Tweak 1
Do this tweak if you do no other

It’s Dan Corey’s fix, posted in 2010, http://danielcorey.blogspot.com/2010/05/beauport-easel-fix.html

His description is not 100% clear, but the fix is genius. Here it is
(1) On the back leg, permanently affix the back C-wire on the 2 support sticks
(2) Pull the brass pins between the 2nd C-wire and the front of the sticks, so you can slide the front C-wire all the way up the stick for hanging (see next step)
(3) Add a hanger (cup hook or strap) at the top of the back leg for parking the support stick assembly.

Anthony Sell has excellent additional pictures of Dan’s fix, pictures that make the fix more clear, and he adds some ideas of his own: http://sageartsstudio.com/wp/blog/2010/09/18/breaking-in-my-beauport-easel/

To provide a pivot for the back C-wire on the rear leg, Dan suggests using one of the fittings for the strap that comes affixed to the easel. However, you can use anything from a screw eye to (my option) a heavy leather pivot or hinge scavenged from an old purse from a thrift store (see Tweak 6 for a use of more of this purse, which was made of quality thick leather).

Heavy leather hinge or mount for permanently affixing the two supporting sticks (the sticks are in the up or parked position). This hinge was made from a $3 thrift-store purse and buttoned down with a hand-cut chunk of brass and a screw. The rectangular brass above the mount isn’t part of the hinge. It’s the follower or brace that’s part of the leg adjusting mechanism.

Note that the C-wires are positioned so that the spine of the C-wire is on the bottom and the squarish sections that the sticks slide along are aimed up. (In the picture above, the spine is toward you while the squarish sections extend toward the back.) That’s opposite to official set up photos and video.

Day 2. Only a little crazy.

Tweak 2
Life-enhancing loss prevention
On the right leg, back off the nut on the screw that acts as the pivot for the crossbar. Put a drop of Loctite Blue 242 on the threads and re-tighten the nut. Otherwise over time, this nut works itself off as you raise and lower the crossbar while setting up and taking down.

Day 3. Mmmm, magnets.

Tweak 3
Life-enhancing cross bar slam prevention
The crossbar has a bad habit of slamming down to the ground as you’re setting up the easel unless you somehow hold it during setup. That takes three arms. You can follow Sell’s model: use a rubber band to hold it. However, you can persuade it to stay in place with a magnet on the crossbar that gloms onto a short steel bolt or screw head in the right leg.

 Day 4. Maybe things are getting out of hand.

Tweak 4
Hand-saving smoothing of spring levers
As-shipped, the ends of the spring levers are roughly cut off. Most of them have burrs that will tear up tender fingers. Round off the ends of these levers (2 per leg) with a small file.

It’s pleasant work as you carefully file burrs off of the cut wire. But, it’s also a little tedious and you begin to think as you carefully guide your little file here and here on the wire ends. Well, maybe you don’t, but I began to think, and that’s when Tweak 5 popped into my head—I have to admit, maybe I was getting a little light-headed by this point.

Tweak 5
Add knobs to enhance comfort (and cool looks) and enable gloved operation of the spring levers
If you like to be out in -15 F weather painting a snow scene, add little knobs to your spring lever ends. That way, you can swing them out and adjust the legs without removing your gloves. In more clement weather, the little knobs are far easier on your fingers than the naked bent wire adjusters.

Use 12mm diameter (almost one-half inch) black acrylic round beads (eBay, $3.50 for 24 with shipping; you’ll use only 6). Drill out the bead holes with a drill bit that’s around the same diameter as the spring lever ends (which on my Beauport is 0.12 inches, just under 1/8 … translating out as a 3/32 inch bit.

Knobs epoxied onto the wire adjuster on left leg. 

Tweak 6

Storing the hooked rod
Drill a pilot hole and insert a brass screw eye. If the eye of this hardware is too large, reduce the diameter with acrylic (or, as you see below, dimensional fabric paint).

Alternatively, do nothing and just put the hook through one of the peg holes in one of the legs as you tear the easel down. 

Tweak 7

Add a shoulder-saving pad on the easel strap
Actually, this one’s not so crazy. Carrying the folded easel on your shoulder using just the thin strap provided with the Beauport will hurt as the strap digs in. 
Make a pad from any tough yet soft material. This one’s leather (from the same purse that donated the hinge/pivot in Tweak 1, above). If you want pre-built, go with a rifle sling, $12 to sky’s-the-limit.

(Of course you can use the Beauport easel’s bag, which has a shoulder pad of sorts.)

Tweak 8

Turn long pins at the front into hanging hooks
[Detailed in the PDF; we'll just show the results below. Again, you can download the whole thing, all 2.8 mb, here).]

Hook bent from the extra-long brass pin at the front of this support stick, handy for hanging brush holders, medium cans and so on. Note palette/paint box stop glued to the top of the stick.

Tweak 9

Replace steel stops (staples) with brass screws
At the top of the inside of each leg there are 3 ordinary steel staples driven into the wood. These stop the brass sliding portion of each leg from traveling too far north.

They pull out with use—and even if they stay in, they will almost certainly rust. Replace them with small round head brass screws, leaving the heads standing proud of the surface to act as a positive stop.

Detail of folded easel near top. Three small brass wood screws (highlighted) replace the original steel staples. They prevent the brass followers (visible  at the bottom of this picture) from traveling too far north when you're retracting the legs.

Tweak 10

Make a handy, combo Velcro strap and peg holder
The Beauport comes with 3 leg extensions. You can turn one of these into a combo Velcro strap and peg holder.

Add a brass staple to one leg by bending a handy piece of brass wire and drilling pilot holes. This hand-made staple then acts as the anchor point for a 23 inch long, 7/8 inch wide Velcro strap (about $4 for 3 from Lowe’s, item #184584. Velcro model # 90700.) The strap has the typical Velcro hooks on one side and the fuzzy hookable stuff on the other side, with a fairly strong hookiness. On this Velcro strap you can thread the 4 of the supplied canvas pegs, 2 with staples and 2 with slots for straps, as a way of holding these otherwise easily-lost pieces during transport.

Combo easel wrap and peg strap. Velcro strap runs from a brass staple added to one of the extension legs (not visible). The strap has a red coating on the near end for visibility and to provide a handy pull tab. The canvas pegs slide onto the strap.

Tweak 11 is too silly to put here -- it's just to prevent wear at the back of the crossbar, where it rubs on two screw heads.

Tweak 12

Add a third angled hole for the hooked rod
As shipped, both modern models of the Gloucester easel come with 2 holes drilled at the top of the left and right leg. These are for the hooked rod that holds the top of the canvas. The hole in the left leg is drilled at a more acute angle than the hole in the right leg, so when the rod is in the left leg, it extends closer to the horizontal than is the case when it’s stuck through the right leg. You end up with 2 different angles for the rod. If you want a 3rd angle for more versatility, add a drilled-out block to the back of the rear leg.

According to the Take-it-Easel site, Vermont painter Eric Tobin invented this third hole. It sets the hooked rod at a 3rd angle, one that is quite a bit more vertical than the standard hooked-rod holes. In this 3rd hole, the rod is parallel to the back leg. Take-it-Easel calls this the “Tobin hole” and is a $32 option. I made my own from a 1.5 inch long piece of oak cut from an oak stair bull nosing (around $3 from Home Depot) and drilling a 5/8 inch diameter hole more or less parallel to the back leg. 

 [More detail on making and affixing is in the PDF. And again, you can download the whole thing, all 2.8 mb, here.]

Tweak 12

Make snow shoes

[More detail on making in the PDF.]

Tweak 13

Add landing lights
This one's inspired by Stape’s reason for not using the Gloucester easel in crowded areas: ”In a crowded city a big Gloucester easel becomes a traffic hazard and dorks always trip over its legs.”

I took a clue from those antennas with airplane warning lights. Place flashing red LED lights at the bottom of the left and right legs when in civilized areas where bystanders are around. The idea is to alert bystanders that the legs are there—and hopefully keep them from tripping over them. I simply took the headbands off 2 cheap LED head lights and used a strip of brass to mount them on a piece of dowel with a cup hook in the end. The cup hook is closed with pliers to marry the light and the dowel forever.

LED landing light, captured mid-blink.

Where the 2 landing lights go - in the holes drilled for the leg extensions.

Day 8 - Enough's enough

Tweak 14- make a custom painting box
Why, yes, the support sticks seem to call out for an oversize palette, and an oversize palette just aches for an oversize paint box.

I made mine out of 3 sheets of foamcore plus a couple pieces of small wooden molding and a remaindered wood picture frame. Oh, and some pieces of leftover artist’s canvas for hinges. Total cost, under $15.

Why, no, it won't last. It's foamcore.

[I don't really go into how I made this, even on the PDF. If you really want to know, I'll write that up and send it to you; contact me at dgehman@rcn.com ]

[Finally, in the PDF, I outline a few further tweaks, not done yet (and maybe never to be done): 
  • Change the adjusters from bent wire to elegant pull knobs
  • Stiffen the legs
  • Spiffing it all up
If you want the whole thing: download it, all 2.8 mb, here).

So that's it.

Someone will ask: why go through all this? Why not just buy the Take-It-Easel. There are a lot of answers.
  • 200-300 more dollars
  • I like tweaking things
  • I got started and couldn't stop.


  1. brilliant. absolutely brilliant. This was exactly what I was looking all over the web for. I have been weighing the decision of the T.I.E. vs. the Beauport for weeks now. I have saved enough for the T. I. E. but, I could buy 3 beauports for that price. Now that I know what I would have to go through to make it closer to a Take it easel, I can make a much more informed decision. Your rational look at the two Gloucester easels has made it much easier for me. Thanks again!!!!

    1. Thanks for your comment - and thanks for the kudos. Keep in mind that some of these tweaks are over the top. In retrospect, the really indispensable ones are: (1) the Dan Corey Fix, attaching the support sticks so they fold/unfold quickly; (4) or (5), smoothing the adjusting levers and/or adding knobs; and (10) the combo strap & peg holder. I'm guessing you could ask Dan Corey for REAL in-depth comparison and contrast, since he moved from the Beauport to the T-I-E and will know more about the latter than I could possibly gather from a couple days' observation at Kearns's Snowcamp.