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Apr 25, 2010

Mods to the French Easel, #1 . . .

I'm all about the mod. Anything that can get me set up and painting more quickly once I'm out of the car is a "good thing" -- to steal a phrase from the quintessential queen of crafts, Martha Stewart. Yesterday, I did a nifty mod to my French easel.

I like to use a French Mistress when painting en plein air. Hey, it ain't what you think! I don't have some demure ingenue handing me brushes and tubes of paint as I need them, massaging my brow during the most troublesome passages, making me feel -- well, I'd better stop here and just move on before I get myself into trouble.

My French Mistress is a folding palette which rests on the drawer of my portable easel. I'll explain why I use a French Mistress, instead of the stock palette, in another post. You can see my French Mistress in the last image in this post if you don't know what one is.

So to keep 'splaining . . .

My first French easel broke down last October in Big Sur for good. It lasted for 26 years and I consider that decent value. For a while I thought I'd make it through my entire painting career with the same one, like a high school kid who manages to make a single peechee last all four years. My easel has suffered a world of hurt over those years. It has been dropped, dragged, bumped, and even soaked a couple of times in two different rivers  -- but it still did the job of holding my canvases, and carrying my gear. Until last October, that is. The last ten years I've been screwing, drilling, punching, gluing, and tying that box back together until it looks like something out of a low budget monster movie.

However, the wood finally gave out. There is no more triage to attempt. It's D.O.A. Nothing left to put back together.

I though I'd try one of these new-fangled easels everyone keeps going on about. The Easy-L, the Open-M, the Soltek, and so forth. And they do look pretty nifty online and after much deliberation I settled on the Easy-L as a replacement. When it arrived I made two piles of gear: one with the Easy-L, accompanied by its requisite tripod, and all my paints and other accouterments. And then I added the assorted containers and bins I'd have to use to carry everything in. In pile number two I put my old French Easel, my Mistress, and all the same paint and stuff that normally gets carried inside the easel itself. (Long ago I fitted that easel with back straps and a waist belt, which left my hand empty for carrying optional things like water and food.) Hmmmm. Guess which pile turned out to be the smallest and most efficiently packable? Pile number two with the French easel. So the Easy-L went back to the manufacturer and I ordered another French easel from the art store. A beechwood Mabef. The  exact same one I bought a quarter century ago. Apparently I hate change. I switched the backpack straps to my new easel and voila! Back in business.

Then I started obsessing about the wasted space you can find inside a French easel. Been thinking about it a long time, actually. There is almost 40% of unusable volume within the box, located between the palette and lid when the box is closed. (Sure, that space is there to accommodate the paint left out on the palette, but hear me out. Remember the French Mistress?)

So how could I exploit that wasted space for more storage? It was driving me crazy.

I found the answer at the Container Store.

Below is a Expand-A-Drawer® Cutlery Tray from the Container Store: 

The tray is 12"- 24" x 18" x 2-1/4", Meaning it is 18 inches long and expands from 12 to 24 inches wide. And it is is 2-1/4 inches deep. Ignore the expansion capability. We don't need it. Throw the side parts away. Or recycle them if you can. They are plastic.

With a few mods, the center part of the silverware tray fits perfectly into my Mabef French easel drawer. After you pull out the rinky-dink stock aluminum compartmental divides, the space measures 11.5 x 18. 125 inches.

With these simple mods, the center tray, minus the pull-out sides, fits perfectly into the pullout drawer of the Maybef easel. Perfectly. Almost too tightly. Apparently the bottom of the tray is exactly 11.5 inches, not 12 inches!

Here are the mods:

NOTE: I also swapped out the wooden sliders you find inside the lid for some smaller, hard rubber bushings. They grip just as well as the wooden ones and they have a lower profile that clear the edges of the plastic tray when the easel lid is closed. Those wood sliders (now bushings) are what clamp the lower rail to the easel box as you raise and lower your canvas. Swapping the wood sliders for bushings still permits me to carry any size canvas I want on the French easel, as it was originally designed. I'll keep the wooden sliders because I can easily re-attach them hould I ever want to go back to the original design. So no permanent mods have been made to the French easel itself! Only to the cheap plastic tray.

Here is the tray in place once the easel has been set up and opened:

With the lid closed, the plastic tray almost touches against the inside of the wooden top, leaving less than a 1/8 inch gap. So the easel lid itself keeps all my paint and gear in their respective places. No need to use a loose palette as a cover. (Remember the French Mistress? That's my palette.)

In fact, I in figuring this out I ran into an unexpected bonus! I can now set up my easel, and pull out the plastic tray with all the stuff neatly laid out in it, and lay the tray on the ground at my feet. Normally, I grab all the stuff and throw it down helter-sketer, like a game of pixie-sticks, and rummaging through it to find what I want. Now the paint and gear stays nice and arranged, and because the tray is plastic dew, dirt and mud is no longer an issue.

My set up, all ready to go:

Oh, and the French Mistress? It's getting late. Perhaps we'll cover that in another post . . .



19 reader comments:

Celeste Bergin said...

I'm sorry you didn't like "my" EasyL (I love the thing--) Old habits die hard. I can see why you prefer this set up --it is truly like having a studio outside..what a remarkable job of improving it. I am impressed. I hope you'll show us a step by step of getting the lead white onto your panels smoothly. Do you thin it with turpentine some?

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Hi Celeste.

It isn't that I didn't like the Easy-L, or the Open-M boxes. I think they both serve a good purpose, especially if you are willing to confine yourself to working smaller paintings outdoors. But it turned out that neither was the one-solution easel I was hoping for. (My expectations, not the manufacturer's shortcomings.) I expect I will buy a smaller Open-M for traveling at some point. My friends who have one tell me they are bomb-proof. That's important if I am far from home doing a painting invitations. Breakages mean down-time, and down-time means fewer paintings.

Heck, even the ubiquitous French easel, which has had over 150 years to evolve into its present form, is not perfect. There is a hinge point at the bottom of the lid which requires constant retightening, and if you don't remember to do it the wood screw that are used as a pin will eventually wear out the wood around it. (That's the area which finally gave out in my old easel and this is my next mod. I'm still thinking about how to fix that.)

I'm probably obsessing too much over the issue, but hey, there you go -- being a little OCD is a good thing for an artist.


And thanks for suggesting I do a step-by-step of applying lead ground to a panel. I'll do it for the next post -- now that I have a new camera, thanks to you. (grin)

I hope you tried the sample I gave you. Curious to know what you think of it.


Jeri Desrochers said...

I have been wondering if I could use a French Mistress like an Open M by adding a tripod mount on the bottom of the box - what do you think?

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Hi Jeri. Funny, I gave that serious consideration myself.

As in, is it possible to mod a French Mistress to make it work like an Open Box M? Even started sketching it out.

But due to the way the FM top opens to make shelves on either side, I couldn't come up with a panel holder without a lot of effort. And not without buying an Open M, an Easy-L, or Guerrilla Box and cannibalizing parts. So why not just buy one of those and use it as is? (Rhetorical question.) All those easels use the same clam-shell concept, with the palette being the bottom shell and the painting support being the top.

Still, it does seem feasible. The oak box of the FM seems sturdy enough to take a tri-pod mount. It's just figuring out how to add the panel holder that stopped me.

But now, Jeri, you've got me thinking about it again. Race you to the patent office!

BTW, last week I ordered an Open Box M (11 x 14 for the largest mixing area.) I'm waiting for it to arrive. I doubt I will be able to lay the FM on top of it but it will be the first thing I try any once it arrives.

(Sigh) I do love my mistress...


Jeri Desrochers said...

Thanks for the info. I haven't been able to see a FM in person to see if it could be done. But I may get one anyway to use as a palette like Scott Burdick does - looks nice!

Jeri Desrochers said...

Hi again Thomas,
From your photo above it looks to me like you have the French Companion, not Mistress? See http://www.aswexpress.com/art-supply/catalogs/0053196000000. The Mistress looks like it has a panel holder at the top. If it does I was thinking a hinge setup like Open M has might hold that in a vertical position.

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Sorry Jeri, but your link takes us to an image of a French Companion sitting on a French easel. That "panel holder" you see behind the mistress is an easel laid flat. The French Mistress is resting on the pulled out drawer of the easel.

See: http://www.cheapjoes.com/art-supply/JR886006_19580_jack-richeson-french-companion-wooden-briefcase.asp

for a clearer image,




The only difference between the FM and the FC is the size.


Jeri Desrochers said...

duh - oh! I think I just figured out that the photo of the FM is sitting on an easel and that is the easels panel holder I am seeing. Never mind! I will have to think about a panel holder option.

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

The image is confusing. If you figure something out for a panel hold I'd love to hear about it.


Charles Gardner said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Thomas, thanks for your wonderful ideas and photos. I'm a pastel painter and have been considering getting a French Mistress to use with my French Easel. But, I've been concerned with how stable the FM would be on the easel shelf. Do you have a method for securing it to the shelf, especially on windy days...or in my case, an accident-prone painter??

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

The French Mistress and Easel are both rather heavy in their own right. I wouldn't expect the wind to be able to tip it over, especially if you are using the FM to hold your heavy pastels. Unless you've attached an umbrella to your set up, which I never recommend anyone do.

However, a small C-clap on the front lip might hold things in place if you are still concerened.

Let me know what you end up with.


Mary Aslin said...

Thanks for this post. I have tried many setups (including the Easy L) before settling on the French easel. Told my husband that the "tried and true" still is the most compact and works the best!

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

And thanks for your comment too, Mary. I'd also add that including a small phillips screwdriver in with you paints is a good idea as the screws in the easel tend to work themselves loose quite easily. Tightening up the screws up after you set up can really help keep the easel from jiggling around as you work.


Billy Guffey said...

Ha! You said "jiggling". Sorry, my inner child coming out.

This makes me want to get my French Easel back out. The problem is that I scavenged the panel holder off mine to add to my paintbox. I use a Take It Easel (and love it) and quickly made a box to use with it.

Do you happen to know where I can find parts for the French Easel? Here's a link to paintbox fix so you can see the parts I stole from the French Easel.



Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Hi Bill:

I don't know of any manufacturer that would sell you just the panel/canvas holder from their easel but I bet yo could check Craigslist.org often and find an entire used easel you could cannibalize on the cheap.

I have used a gloucester-style easel myself with a similar paintbox after seeing Stephen Griffin and Tim Bell at work and it is a great set-up for larger paintings.

I thought of the same thing, to attach an old French easel carrier to my paint box so I am glad to see you already worked it out. Even to the point of cutting down the bottom ledge. Nice touch!

Keep painting,


SWOPS said...


I know this is an old post but I had the same problem with 'loose screws'...

Not sure if you tried this, as you haven't mentioned it...

An old Carpenters trick to repair worn screw holes is to push a matchstick into the hole. Snap off the matchstick level with the top of the hole and screw in your screw.

This works well even on door handles, which tend to have more use and torque applied to them than most easels will encounter..

May be worth a try :-)



Fine Art By Robert Francis said...

Hi Thomas,
Great work and I use FE and FM always. Hint: When your wood screws finally are irreparable drill the hole out and dowel it with a good wood glue. Next day drill the dowel to refit wood screw.

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

A fine suggestion, Robert. Thanks!