I wanted to replace my old W&N Dart field easel with something more durable. Don't get me wrong, the Dart served me well for about four years. It was the right size, the right price (about $40) and quite versatile. But the difficult to replace carriage bolt threads wore out quickly and I have hands that start hurting quickly. I continue using wooden easels because sand jams aluminum telescoping legs, and the snap locks are even more painful for me to operate.
I flip-flop between oil or acrylic, depending on the weather, and I work on canvasses larger than the average field painter, say 24 x 30 or 24 x 36." My workhorse is the Mabef Giant easel, but there are times when I cannot carry a 40 lb easel into the field. Enter the M-29 Mabef field easel.
Now that you know my field painting idiosyncrasies, you should knowI have continued to stick with Mabelf easels because the workmanship and design is very good. Unfortunately, if you've used them, you probably also know they are made to hold european-sized stretchers. If you do not paint on panels you are doomed, since 1.43" inches wide is the widest the canvas holder goes…and I paint on 2" wide canvasses.
Hack #1: Expand the holding width of the retainer
styrene high-impact plastic. You can drill it and sand it. Styrene high-impact plastic is hard but lightweight. I used woodworker's glue and a clamp to attach this piece to the existing retainer and this gave it the desired width. I drilled the hole after it was firmly glued. Unfortunately I had to go to the hardware store to get a longer carriage bolt…in a metric measurement. They didn't have exactly what I needed but they had regular machine bolts that did the trick.
There is also the matter of the top of the canvas holder. The retainer piece there needed a "lip" or stopper to keep the canvas from sliding off its position. I first tested the size I would need by placing one of my regular canvasses in position and marking it off with a pencil. Since the TAP folks cannot cut pieces that small, I sawed a small piece of red oak moulding, and carefully (because it is so small) glued it to the outer edge of the retainer.
Hack #2 Design a minimalist way to hold the palettes I use
On cold and rainy days my left hand cannot hold a palette for too long. When using acrylic, my palette is a piece of rigid high density polyethylene or HDPE. It is easy to scrape dry acrylic off them, which is how I like to dispose of these toxic paints, and you can get palette-sized scrap for $2.00. But HDPE is as heavy as a box palette. I also like to use paper palettes because they are lightweight and I can save oil paint if I fold the paper and open it in my studio.
The M-29 comes with two canvas holders that slide up and down. I was thinking of permanently removing them because they were narrower than the retainer and thus impossible to expand to 2," but then I had an idea taken from the heavy-duty palette holders Mabef sells for the Giant easel. What if I could attach lightweight sticks to the canvas holders?
The biggest advantage of this way of holding a palette over the "shelves" sold on the market is that you can adjust the height at which you want your palette. Very ergonomic. I also like the low weight and that I can carry the paintbrush sticks with my regular brushes.
Hack #3: Add a carrying strap
You might think this is a straightforward and simple procedure, but it is not. Field easels are built mostly of long, thin pieces of wood. Attaching a handle in the middle, for example, with screws longer than ¼" is out of the question, as the legs won't easily extend if the tip of a screw is causing friction.
Hardware Elf, a company that sells such pieces to individuals.
In order to screw on a ring loop plate to the easel, you must be able to to so to a part of the easel structurally strong enough to handle the weight of the easel and the pulling forces of a strap. For the M-29, this is at the back ends of the easel. The top was easy but I ended up having to glue a piece of red oak moulding to the bottom back end just so I could screw on the ring loop plate with the tiniest little wood screws.
Maybe Mabef will take note and come up with an "american" version of the M-29. I don't think they are in a hurry to do it, since our disposable income is rapidly shrinking, and the entire world uses the metric system. But it does not hurt to dream!