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How to Build a Chalkboard Message Center

Taking a cue from classic window trim, Tom Silva and Kevin O’Connor dress up a chalkboard with molding from the home center

Although everyone these days seems to communicate electronically, there’s no denying the old-fashioned appeal of making a list, writing a message, or creating one-of-a-kind artwork with just a stick of chalk on a blackboard. It’s the favorite medium for restaurants to list their daily specials; maybe it’s time to follow suit in your kitchen.

Sadly, many message boards are minimal affairs without the necessary real estate for creative chalking. That’s not a problem for this message center, with its generous 21 ½-by-31 ¼-inch black chalkboard. Nor is there anything skimpy about the robust moldings that surround it; TOH general contractor Tom Silva modeled them to look like a window trimmed in classic Colonial Revival style. While the frame looks expensive, Tom and TOH host Kevin O’Connor built it with standard-dimension, solid-wood stock, which is readily available at home centers and lumberyards. Even better, there’s no need for rip cuts on a table saw or fancy joinery; everything goes together in a few hours with screws, glue, and nails.

Shown: Tom and Kevin show off the results of their work, complete with to-do list. The frame around the blackboard is made of poplar, an inexpensive hardwood that takes paint beautifully. A coat of primer and a couple of top coats are all that’s needed to finish this piece.

Step 1


Illustration by Gregory Nemec

See how to assemble this project, and find some useful tips for working with trim. Soon you may be doodling with chalk on your own message center.

Step 2

Cut Pieces to Length

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Using a miter saw, trim the parts for the inner and outer frames to the lengths specified on the cut list.

Step 3

Assemble Inner Frame

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Align the end of the 1x3 top piece flush with the face of a 1x3 side piece, then use a No. 8 countersink and bit set to drill two pilot holes, as shown. Drive 3-inch deck screws into the holes. Repeat on the top piece’s opposite end.

Tip: Drill two holes at once. Pilot holes are a must when driving screws into thin stock, but drilling lots of them can get tedious. So wherever possible, stack two boards on top of each other and drill two pilot holes in one go, as shown. Then, when you’re done with the top board, countersink the holes in the bottom one.

Step 4

Attach the Side Casing

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Miter one end of a side casing, so its short point falls ½ inch shy of the frame’s top. Glue the casing to the frame leg so the square ends sit flush with each other and a 1⁄4-inch reveal separates the edges of frame and casing. Fasten them with brads, as shown.

Step 5

Finish the Casing

Photo by Anthony Tieuli. inset illustration: Harry Bates

Repeat Step 4 and attach the remaining side casing to the frame’s opposite leg. Now cut miters in both ends of the top casing, and glue and nail those ends flush to the miters at the top of the side casings. Take a damp rag and wipe away any glue that squeezes out of the joints.

Mitering Tip: To find where to cut the miters in the top casing, place it upside down on the side casings, as shown. Mark where the points of the sides touch the top, then cut the miters at those marks.

Step 6

Assemble Outer Frame

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Align the end of a 1x4 side piece flush with the face of the 1x4 top piece. Drill two pilot holes, as shown, and drive deck screws into the holes. Repeat with the second side piece. The legs of this frame are 3 ½ inches longer than the legs of the 1x3, to support the crown molding that’s added in Step 12.

Step 7

Put the Frames Together

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Run a bead of glue on the legs of the 1x4 frame, and then lay the casing and 1x3 frame assembly on it. Align the ends of the casings flush with the ends of the outer frame’s legs and with those legs’ outside edges. Fasten the casing to the outer frame with brads.

Step 8

Make a Backer for the Crown

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Cut a length of 1x4 to match the width of the outer frame. Glue and nail a 6-inch-long scrap of 1x4 to the face of the backer so that about an inch of scrap projects past the backer’s edge, as shown. This projecting portion acts as a cleat to support the backer’s bottom edge.

Step 9

Attach the Backer

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Run a bead of glue on the exposed part of the 1x4 frame, on the cleat, and along the backer’s bottom edge. Slip the cleat under the top casing, butt the backer’s glue-covered edge against the casing, and fasten the piece in place with brads.

Step 10

Mark the Crown

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Hold a length of crown molding against the backer, so the molding projects at least 4 inches past both sides. Mark the bottom edge of the crown where it touches one end of the backer piece. Without moving the crown, mark where it touches the other end of the backer.

Step 11

Miter the Crown

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Place the crown upside down on the miter-saw table so it rests at an angle against the saw’s fence with the marks at the top. Make a 45-degree miter cut at the mark on the left, as shown. Swing the saw blade and make a 45-degree miter cut at the right-hand mark.

Step 12

Cut the Returns and Finish the Crown

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Stand a length of crown upright on its square-cut end next to the frame. Mark the bottom edge where it touches the corner of the backer. To make the returns, set the crown upside down on the miter saw, and cut a 45-degree outside miter at the mark. Repeat the marking process on the other side of the frame, swing the saw blade, and cut an outside miter in the second return.

Glue and nail the bottom edge of the long piece of crown to the backer, then glue on the returns. Line up the profiles of the two pieces, as shown, and secure the returns with brads.

Step 13

Prep the Stool

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Cut a 1x6 so it’s 2 ½ inches longer than the distance between the legs of the outer frame. Run a router with a 3⁄8-inch roundover bit over all the sharp edges on the front and ends of the stool. Now center it on the frame, as shown, and mark a line where the legs of the inner and outer frames are located.

Step 14

Attach the Stool

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Drill two pilot holes at each line marked in Step 13. With the stool placed unrouted side down, line up the holes with their respective frame ends, then drill through the bottom of the stool at every pilot-hole location, as shown. Drive a 3-inch screw into each of the pilot holes.

Step 15

Make the Apron

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Using 1x4 stock, cut outside miters on each end of the apron front the same length as the outer frame. Glue and nail 4 1⁄4-inch-long mitered returns to the front’s ends, and put a 3 ½-inch support piece in its center. Glue and toe-screw the assembly to the stool, as shown, using 1 5⁄8-inch screws.

Step 16

Install the Chalkboard and Attach the MDF Backing

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Place the assembled trim facedown and measure the outside dimensions of the inner frame. Using a circular saw with a guide, cut the chalkboard to those dimensions. Tack the board to the frame with brads.

The backing supports the chalkboard and keeps the trim assembly square. Measure the inside dimensions of the outer frame and cut the MDF sheet to match, using the circular saw and guide. Draw four lines on the sheet corresponding to the centerlines of the inner frame. Lay the sheet in place, drill pilot holes with the countersink bit, and screw the sheet to the inner frame. Fill the holes left by the brads with putty, prime and paint the wood, then hang the piece on the wall.

How to hang it: At a hefty 25 pounds or so, this message center needs to be hung securely. Here are two options.

French cleat: Attach one cleat to the back of the piece and the other to a pair of studs. Then simply hang one cleat on the other. With this method, the message center will project from the wall slightly.

Keyholes: If you prefer your message center to sit flush against the wall, then cut keyholes in the MDF backing. First, drive a deck screw into a stud at the desired height. Drive a second screw, level with the first, into a neighboring stud. Transfer the centers of the screwheads to the MDF’s top edge. Using a plunge router, make a vertical 1⁄4-inch-wide-by-1-inch-long slot 2 inches below each mark. Drill a 5⁄8-inch hole at the slots’ lower ends, then hang the piece on the screws.