The first idea I came up with when Tim asked if I would do decorations for Sandy’s retirement party was a chalkboard for all of the guests to sign, like a guest book. I liked the idea of making things to decorate for the party that were somewhat interactive and/or could be reused. Tim reminded me that his mom’s aesthetic is essentially “lake-y,” since the party would be held in their beautiful lakehouse that they’ve spent the past six years renovating (Tim comes by his skills honestly, remember).
I had seen tons of tutorials for homemade chalkboards online and got some Martha Stewart Crafts Chalkboard Paint from Michaels when it went on sale, so I convinced my friend to help me hit up a handful of thrift stores in the Clintonville area, on the hunt for frames to make over. I found a handful to use (along with some other goodies that I’ll get to later) and with a can-do spirit (spiked with a hearty dash of trepidation), I launched into the project.
The frame I decided to use for the chalkboard was the most rustic and “lake-y” in silhouette, as well as the largest. It held a very intricate needlepoint scene, which the woman ringing up my purchase at the thrift store complimented. I muttered something about only needing the frame. (If anyone wants that needlepoint, they’re certainly welcome to it. I haven’t had the heart to separate it from the mat and toss it in the trash.)
This closer shot shows the rough-hewn texture of the wood. I suspected that the ridges would hold the finish that I was planning pretty well, to make the frame “lake-y.”
We had some finish-grade luan plywood left over from constructing the inside of our bathroom storage, which I was hoping would work for the chalkboard surface. (I did not really have a plan B on this part, and it really stressed me out, once I started painting and saw how much the grain of the surface still came through, but in the long run, I think it worked out okay.) I managed to cut a piece to the size of the back opening of the frame (which was tricky, using the circular saw one-handed, since I tackled this part while Tim was out on a run), and sanded the edges and the front until they felt smooth. I lightly sanded the edges of the frames, where a few splinters were coming up, and taped the hanging wire, because there were some loose ends that had jabbed my hands a few times as I was working with the frame. I’m klutzy enough without letting my materials cut up my hands unnecessarily.
Next I primed the frame and the plywood. I’d read that one of the things that you want to avoid in a chalkboard-paint project was for the surface to be uneven, so I got a smooth foam roller, with no nap, to avoid any texture to the surface. I didn’t want to waste any chalkboard paint by letting it soak into the surface of the plywood, so the primer seemed like an important step. Priming the frame also seemed important to get the white paint to adhere well in the next step.
I learned from the priming step that painting into a mitered corner was difficult if you didn’t want the brushstrokes to look sloppy. Since I was concerned that the brushstrokes might be highlighted by the glaze finish I was going to apply, I taped off the corners at an angle before I painted with the white latex trim paint. I painted two parallel sides at a time, two coats with drying time in-between, and then retaped the other side of the mitered corner (being gentle over the still-pretty-fresh paint the tape now covered) and did the other two sides. This method came out pretty well to get the corners looking neat, with brush strokes that matched the miter. Next time I would use wider tape, because I still managed to paint past the far edge of the tape in a few places, which left a bit of a line parallel to the diagonal mitered corner.
It took three coats of the chalkboard paint until I was pleased with the surface. The color came out this lovely soft grey-brown (the bottle just calls the color “grey”), which I thought would go pretty well with Sandy’s decor.
Now came the glazing effect that I wanted to apply to make the frames more “lake-y.” I had originally planned to distress the paint, but the more I read about distressing techniques, the less sure I was that it would produce the right effect. All of the distressing techniques seem to involve ripping the paint away through one means or another, and I wasn’t loving the rough-looking edges of the paint in the examples. None of Sandy’s stuff looks like it’s gone through a war, her antique pieces just look gently loved. If I had been working with bare or stained wood, I might have strategically sanded parts to make them look worn, but with a fresh coat of paint, I thought I would need a different approach. Finally I spotted a tutorial that mentioned glazing and I started to look into that more. It seemed that the technique would involve mixing a pigment with a clear material, which you would then paint on and wipe away, leaving the pigment behind in certain areas, such as various crannies and grooves and detail work in the piece you’re applying the glaze to. I liked the idea of the the crevices of the frames being a little darker, I thought it would produce the aged look I was going for, while still looking clean.
I got the Behr Premium Plus Faux Glaze at Home Depot and used some brown acrylic paint I had left over from projects I did for my sister’s baby shower. The ratio was 4 parts glaze to 1 part paint and I used a plastic measuring cup that we had, though if I were doing it again, I’d reduce the amount I made by half, as I ended up dumping a fair amount of glaze. I mixed and applied with a foam brush that I had in my craft supplies.
After applying the glaze with the sponge brush, I let it sit for about 30 seconds and then wiped gently with a cloth. I didn’t press very hard, because I didn’t want the fabric to pick up the glaze left in the uneven parts of the wood, just to wipe it away from the top. You can see that the striations in the wood are really pronouced now, with the glaze darkening the depressions in the wood. I reapplied in a few places where I didn’t love how the glaze had wiped away, but after about 5 minutes I was happy with it.
I don’t have great pictures of the assembly of the chalkboard, because I did it at 8 o’clock at night with no natural light, but I used a combination of wood glue on the inside front edge of the frame (the part the glass/picture would rest against if you were framing something normally) and after placing the chalkboard plywood in the frame, I used some hardware that Tim suggested called “glazier points.” They have a pointed end that you drive into the side of the frame, while the flat part helps hold a panel in place. It always helps to ask Tim for his thoughts on assembly options, because I was at a loss until he came up with that plan.
After “conditioning” the chalkboard the day of the party (I just hadn’t had a chance to do it before then), which consists of rubbing the chalk flat against the entire surface of the painted area, and then wiping it down with a damp cloth, I wrote a message at the top of the board and hung it in place of one of Sandy’s pictures in the dining room. I wish I’d realized that the chalk that Tim told me we had in the garage had been colored before we’d gotten to the lake to set things up, because I think that white chalk both would have been more visible and looked better, but the kids seemed to enjoy the different colors, so it turned out okay. (I didn’t set out the blue or purple chalk, because it was barely visible in the dim light.) I’ll probably get Sandy a box of white chalk to use with it in the future, if she ends up erasing everyone’s names and using it for seasonal messages or lists. I found the pigments in the colored chalk to be difficult to erase from the surface, so I can’t really comment about the ease of erasing from chalkboard paint (I’d read that people had mixed results, so I was nervous about that). Wiping the surface with a wet paper towel got rid of the chalk well enough, though I had read not to do that too often, as it’s not ideal for the paint finish. The thing that had worried me a lot, the slightly-rough texture from the wood grain, ended up not to matter. If I were purchasing new materials for a project like this, I’d probably get some MDF or super-smooth material, but it seems like a good way to use up scrap plywood with a finish surface if you’re not buying new. (I’d also consider filling the grain with wood putty, but I haven’t worked with that before, so I’m not sure how well that would go.)
So there you go, the process for making a custom chalkboard. The possibilities are pretty broad, from frame choice and paints/finishes. I would be curious to try the recipe Martha Stewart has for making your own chalkboard paint, which would really open up possibilities with regards to color of the board itself. It was appealing to me, knowing that we already had primer and latex paint around from our renovations, but getting small quantities of that sort of thing for a project like this shouldn’t worry you. (Seriously, the thing that gave me the most pause was the price of the glaze, but I will have enough for tons of projects in the future and I found it pretty easy to work with, so I was happy.) Let me tell you, if I can handle a project like this, you can too.