Do It Yourself: Whiteboard (Part 3 – Wrap-up)

Continued from Part 1, Part 2.

So the whiteboard project is pretty much complete. The 4×3 foot sheet of poly arrived a few days after I ordered it.

A few days later, I made a trip over to my local home improvement store seeking out some thinner MDF. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any — the only MDF I found was way too thick — so I went with a 4×4 half-inch sheet of birch plywood that I had them cut down to 4×3.

A few cans of white primer spray paint later, I had a pretty decent backer board for my new whiteboard. The rigidity of the plywood really helped achieve that flat surface I was looking for, and the birch veneer on the plywood allowed me to spray paint it relatively easily, without needing too many coats. The reverse of the plywood also looks much better than the face of most other plywood.

Once the spray paint dried, I lined up the poly and plywood and drilled 1/4 inch holes about 2 inches in from each corner. Inside the holes, sandwiched by flat washers, I slipped a 1 inch hex bolt and fastened it with a nut. I bought 6 bolt/nut sets, but 4 seems sufficient so far. Voila you have your whiteboard.

Now you’ll notice I don’t have the full-size grid behind the poly like I previously described. Instead, I only have a 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper towards the top right corner. That’s because I haven’t yet found a place that will print a larger poster-size sheet inexpensively. I figured I’d try Kinkos, but the guy told me it was like $7.50 per square foot. So for a 12 sq.ft. sheet, it would end up costing me more than the poly and plywood combined! So in the meantime, I spray painted one side of the plywood and it works perfectly. If I were to do this again, I’d probably hunt out white melamine — it’d give me the sturdiness I was looking for and eliminate the need to spray paint one side.

So I’m still hunting out a place to print cheap black and white posters — I guess if I come up fruitless I could align and tape multiple 8.5×11 sheets together, but that’s more hassle than it’s worth in my opinion.

EDIT: I guess I misheard the guy at Kinkos Fedex Office, it turns out they only wanted $0.75 per square foot — so my grid print (full-size PDF available here) only cost $9 + tax. I updated the cost breakdown accordingly.

Lastly, I’ll try to sum up my costs:
Poly + shipping (~50)
Birch Plywood (~25)
2 Cans Spray Paint (~8)
6 Bolts / 6 Nuts, 12 Washers (~2)
Grid Print (~10)
Total: ~$95

The whiteboard rocks — I enjoyed building it — and I hope this will help someone else with their own whiteboard construction project.

Posted Tuesday, February 8th, 2011 under do it yourself.

19 comments

  1. I should add that I found a site that sells 1/16″ polypropylene, but am concerned that might be too thin and difficult to keep uniformly flat.
    When I commented that it was 2011, I was reading your copyright date of 2009…I didn’t notice that you posted this project in January-February.
    T

  2. Hi!

    Awesome work! I have a lot of questions if you have the time to answer them.

    Any updates? Have you left marks on the plastic for more than a 5 days? Do they still come off?

    Any suggestions on mounting a larger sheet (maybe 4′x6′ or 4′x8′) to a wall? It would be a white wall so I would not attach the plywood to the back like you have. I probably need a stud finder and some self-tapping bolts?

    You can get an 4′x8′ sheet from mcmaster for $50. They also have a huge number of other plastics to choose from. There are a couple listed with good chemical resistance. Polypropylene is one of them. Polyester is another (I have a sheet of PETG and will test). The others besides PVC I have not heard of… and some are expensive!

    I went by two local plastic stores and they had no idea what would work. Thanks for these great posts!

    M.

  3. Thanks for the comments — for some reason I haven’t been notified by email of comments so I’m just seeing them now.

    As to the questions:
    Do I think 1/16″ is too thin?
    It depends. One of my ideas for this project was to have an interchangeable background (currently it’s the 1 inch grid). With an interchangeable background, it is very important that your background stay uniformly pressed up against the back of the plastic. When your plastic is allowed to flex away from the background, even a quarter of an inch, it is very hard on the eyes when writing. It seems this is because when writing on the whiteboard, it presses the plastic back to the background, but when not pressing on it, the plastic flexes forward away from the background. I’m not really sure how to explain it better than that.

    In fact, even my choice of 1/8″ sees a little bit of this towards the center of the board, furthest from the anchoring bolts.

    But, if you weren’t interested in an interchangeable background, and were willing to affix your background to your plastic, then I would imagine that 1/16″ would work fine. A compromise might be to laminate the background and then affix it with, say, double-sided tape. It seems like that would be the best of both worlds, although a little more expensive due to the lamination.

    Have you left marks on the plastic for more than a 5 days? Do they still come off?
    Yes, they do! I’ve left marks on there for 3 weeks and they came off without even having to use spray! I’ve found that the non-low-odor markers are easier to erase, but even the low-odor bold ones are erased completely (and I mean COMPLETELY) not too much extra effort.

    Any suggestions on mounting a larger sheet (maybe 4′x6′ or 4′x8′) to a wall? It would be a white wall so I would not attach the plywood to the back like you have.
    I guess it would depend if you wanted a background. If you did, you should consider my suggestion about either permanently affixing a background or affixing a laminated background, both with double-sided tape. This is especially so in your case because walls aren’t always perfectly flat, and allowing the background to separate from the plastic is very distracting when writing.

    In terms of actual mounting, I would absolutely suggest finding studs. Even though the plastic is relatively light, the (sheer?) stress you’ll be applying while erasing will eventually work out bolts / screws from drywall. Self tapping bolts should do the job, but I would think that screws would also work (you may want more than 2 per side, but they’d give you a much more low-profile look).

    I’d be interested in seeing how the other plastics turned out — but for the cost and performance of poly, I’m not sure it will be easily beaten.

  4. Thanks for the response!

    Some follow up questions and comments.

    What do you use to erase? The standard expo eraser? I got two sample sheets of polypropylene and a paper towel seems to work better than the expo eraser. I am worried about scratching though so I’ve been careless my two sheets have some scratches… they get filled in with the marker and do not erase unless I get a paper towel wet and go over them in the direction of the scratch.

    Have you had any issue with scratches?

    In ‘Part 1′ you said that low odor markers came off easier. Here are you saying the opposite? Or is it just that longer term the bold ones are easier to wipe off?

    I tried a wet erase marker to. Works great but needs a wet paper towel or sponge to remove.

    Have you considered adding a catch below your board to help control dust when wiping off the markers? Or do you have another solution?

    I think I am going to GO BIG. I plan on ordering two 4′x8′x1/8″ sheets from McMaster for my office (they can not UPS or Fedex that size but one of their distribution centers is right near by so the freight shipping will be cheap). I do not mind having a bolt going into each stud along the top and bottom of the board so I hope not to have the ‘board bending off the wall’ issue.

  5. What do you use to erase? The standard expo eraser?
    Yep, the standard eraser.

    Have you had any issue with scratches?
    No, not really. I just took a closer look and wasn’t able to find any. Are you sure these scratches are from your eraser and not from scuffing during shipping, etc?

    In ‘Part 1′ you said that low odor markers came off easier. Here are you saying the opposite?
    In my last section I misspoke — I meant to say that the “bold” or non-low odor is a bit more difficult to erase, but not much trouble at all. Thanks for the catch, I’ll update my comment after this.

    Have you considered adding a catch below your board to help control dust when wiping off the markers? Or do you have another solution?
    I have thought about it, and agree that it would be very useful. I underestimated the amount of marker dust that would result when you erased things when I originally conceived of this. In hindsight, adding a marker tray (as whiteboards are often seen with) would also serve to catch the dust. As to how to construct it, I have been trying to think of a better idea, but if I were to build it now, I would probably screw a ~1/4″ thick by, say, 4-5″ wide pine strip to the bottom of the board and tack to it some sort of moulding. Something like this is a little fancier than what I had in mind, but is along the lines of what I was thinking. I’d also probably seal it with polyurethane or paint so I could wipe it clean.

    You plan sounds great — I’m excited to hear how it turns out. Not only will you have giant, functional whiteboards, but you’ll be saving hundreds of dollars.

  6. Annette says:

    Martin,
    how about giving us an update on your project. I’m curious how it turned out? Are you happy with it? Did you use the backing? Is the plastic sheet flat on the wall? I’m thinking about doing the same in my kid’s bedroom.
    thanks!

  7. Hi!

    I emailed my comments to Jim. I will post them here too.

    We did it! We attached two 4′x8′ sheets of polypropylene to our walls and now have one huge white board!

    First the good and the not so good. Then the description of the process.

    == The good ==

    - Looks great!
    - Works!

    == The not so good ==

    - Some of the low odor expo markers you MUST use a spray to get them off cleanly. If you do not, they smug and leave a faint tint behind that does not seem to come off (although after a few days of writing over it and erasing properly it does seem to fade). Maybe the McMaster polypropylene is slightly different than the one Jim got? The worst so far is the green color. Do not use green! Some colors do not have this problem at all and erase great. Plain paper towels work best and even better if you spritz the board first.

    - Since our board was so big, by the second and third day, the middle of the board started sagging out some. It may be the heat (we were running the AC when we were installing it) but it is probably just the weight of it. We did hold the board flat and it was flat the day we finished attaching it to the wall. I think to get around this we should have just done the top bolts and let the board sit for a day or three and let it flatten out… then attach the bottom bolts. With the the top bolts in the whole board was bowing out (this may have been because we left them standing up in our office for two weeks before we got to installing them and the way they were standing they had a slight bow). Not so critical in the end because we do not lean on the board and we do not write so hard to even notice it is off the wall (and we did not put a background in).

    == The processes ==

    The parts:

    The self drilling bolts:
    http://www.mcmaster.com/#94059a550/=dgsyw6

    The polypropylene:
    http://www.mcmaster.com/#8742k933/=dgsz6m

    The polypropylene of this size is shipped motor freight, not UPS or FedEx. Fortunately there is a McMaster distribution warehouse in my city so they came the next day and only added $20 to the total cost.

    The Notes:

    - To find the studs we used an electronic center finding stud finder. After using this I think one of the magnetic ones may have worked better. The studs in our office should be 16″ apart but the stud finder seemed to be off one way or another.

    - We tried using a level to make the board straight but this office was remodeled about a year ago and it seems like they did not make the ceiling straight. When we had the board straight according to the level, it all looked crooked. This means either the level is off or the ceiling is crooked. We quickly stopped using the level and just did what looked good.

    - We found out quickly that the self drilling screws have trouble going through the polypropylene. There were three of us, so two held up the plastic and one person used a regular drill bit to drill through the polypropylene and then quickly switched a nut driver onto the drill.

    - The board was held up just fine with only three top bolts… so we switched from two people holding it to one person flattening out the board while one other person drilled the plastic and the bolt in.

    - It would have been _MUCH_ easier with an impact drill/driver since the studs in the office are old and tough. We really had to push and a few times it did not seem like it was going to work, the bolts got really hot, and we smelled a little smoke. :D It was a good idea to use the bolts… using something with a phillips or flathead would have been impossible.

    - With all the screws, we maybe missed the studs with two or three in each board. We are not sure how that happened, but who knows whats going on behind that wall! The plastic was not too heavy so we probably only needed to attach to a few studs on the top row.

    - We only had to redo one bolt because we think we hit a nail… the bolt it would not go in through the drywall. We think there was probably a nail there. We added a second hole right above the first one in the polypropylene. It worked out because the washer was big enough to cover most of the hole and this is one of the bottom bolts so you can not see the first hole unless you are on your knees.

    - Before we put the bottom bolts in we use a paper towel on the end of a stick to reach up behind the polypropylene to clean out the drywall and wood got stuck back there while drilling in the top bolts.

    - The ends of the board are pulling away from the wall. We need to add a bolt in the middle on each side to hold them down.

    Overall we are thrilled! It was fun and tough. Despite the not so good parts listed above this was totally worth it. We do not have the usual ugly white boards and we did not have to pay for the really nice ceramic-metal ones.

    Thanks to Jim for the inspiring posts!

  8. Martin, thanks so much for your follow up post! I’m happy to have helped. Sounds like you did a great job!

  9. Awesome! I just ordered my Polypropylene sheet from freckleface.com, I think this will do exactly what I was looking for (solution diagrams) and save me from buying a porcelain over steel whiteboard for 3x the cost.

  10. I’ve been thinking of going the DIY route on a clear whiteboard as well, but have been considering a 1/2″ thick lexan to keep it extremely sturdy. I didn’t plan on having a backing, but rather just affixing it to the wall at the four corners. In terms of size, I’m thinking 4×8′.

    My biggest concern is around lighting — i.e. backlighting. Without it, I’m guessing it’s significantly more difficult to read, correct?

    Any thoughts or lessons learned would be much appreciated.

  11. I don’t think back-lighting is necessary unless the wall is extremely dark. Just now I slipped in a few colored index cards I had lying around and the visibility wasn’t really affected. Note that I’m using the “frosted” plastic. If the lexan you’re using is more transparent, back-lighting may be more of an issue.

    Back-lighting might be interesting though, and I’d be curious to see how it turns out if you decide to go that route. In my head I’m thinking of something similar to the light “tables” doctors use to view x-rays, photographers to view negatives.

  12. Padfoot240 says:

    A couple of questions;

    1) How did you handle the screws/nuts/washers from the surface to the backboard? Are there washers on the outside front and in between the two materials? Or are they just in the middle on either side of the nut? I guess what I’m asking is what is the order :) .

    2) Do you mount this board anywhere?

    3) Is the material you selected still holding up? Ghosting or anything now?

    Great write up!

  13. @Padfoot:

    1. There are washers on the front but not between the plastic and wood. My setup goes bolt, washer, plastic, graph paper, wood, washer, nut.
    2. I didn’t mount the board. Currently I have it on top of one of our side tables. This gives us a good height at which to utilize the whole board as well as the flexibility to move it if we find the need.
    3. It is! There is still no ghosting, even for text left there for months before being erased. Every once in a while I’ll use spray to clean areas of the board thoroughly, but even without spray I haven’t noticed ghosting.

    The only thing I’ve had to do was drill the holes in the plastic a bit bigger. Somewhere between the size of the bolt and the size of the washer. I did this because, over time the wood bent very slightly resulting in a bit of a bubble where the plastic came off of the graph paper. It was no big deal, but a little annoying to write on. The bubble was at most 1/4 inch. By widening the holes in the plastic, I was able to loosen the bolts, re-flatten the plastic, and then tighten the bolts eliminating the bubble.

    Hope this helps!

  14. Fantastic post.

    I’m thinking of either mounting one giant 4×8 board or putting two 4×3 boards side by side. Again…I’m mostly concerned with the rigidity of the board. Any suggestions?

    Martin…
    - What color are your walls (behind the whiteboards)?
    - How is your 1/8 in. 8X4 PE sheet from mcmaster holding up? I’m mostly concerned with keeping the board tight against the wall and not having it “sag out” in the middle. Over time has that issue become any worse? Do you think I would be better off with a 1/2 in. thick sheet?
    - Any new pointers on mounting?

    Jim
    - Where did you get your 4×4 PE sheet? And do they offer 8X4′s?
    - Thanks again for the great post. Huge money saver.

  15. @LA,

    I got the sheet from freckleface.com. And although it looks like they offer a 4×8 sheet, its the first size that requires motor freight, likely making the final price a bit more expensive.

    I was worried about having the sheet shipped via UPS, but the company wrapped it very well in a few layers of cardboard and the original protective material and it arrived in great condition. I was very happy with their service.

  16. Based on these posts and the excellent article, we ordered ten 3×4 polypropylene sheets, 3/8″ thick, and five 4 x 8 polypropylene sheets, 3/8″ thick, for a total of 15 whiteboards. We ordered the sheets from freckleface.com and had all of them delivered by motor freight. I took just over a week to arrive in Scottsdale, Arizona from Ohio.

    First impression: The boards are installed and they look great. When writing on these boards, the marks are clear, looks good, and does not run. Since we wanted to avoid using a backing so we ordered 3/8″ thick sheets and installed them directly on the wall. 3/8″ is PERFECT for the 4×8 sheets but is perhaps overkill for the 3×4 sheets. I think 1/4″ would be suitable for the 3×4 sheets.

    Because we didn’t need backing, installing was a piece of cake. We created a template of where we wanted the hole to go, marked the walls using the template, put anchors into the drywall, marked the sheets using the same template, drilled holes in the sheets, and screwed in the screws. Easy and fast.

    Next, the edges of the sheets are reasonably smooth but not finished. I plan on bringing in some ultimate fine sand paper sheets to finish of the sides. To be fair, I am anal that way; no one else in the company feels it is an issue, and no one noticed the fact that all the edges weren’t finished.

    One thing I am very happy with is these finishing caps we used to install the sheets: http://www.displays2go.com/Category.aspx?ID=4258. We have 10 caps on the 4×8 boards, and 8 caps on the 3×4 boards. They look great! We did buy longer screws and anchors instead of using the screws and anchors that came with the caps since we used 3/8 sheets.

    Issues: I am not thrilled with the performance of the board regarding erasing. The board is great for writing but to fully erase the board, you have to use a cleaning liquid. We are using the Expo Bold series dry erase markers and will try others to see if they reduce the need for the liquid. In total, we spend $1,600 for 15 whiteboards, and caps (including delivery). The estimate we received for actual glass whiteboards was just shy of $9,000 (without delivery).

    Overall, with all things considered, on a scale of 1.0 to 10.0, we give these a 9.5. The look, the writing performance, and the price collectively would be a 10.0. The temporary “ghosting” gets a score of 8.0 because you must use liquid cleaner to have the writing disappear. As I wrote above, perhaps different markers would raise the score. Nevertheless, without question, I recommend “rolling” your own boards instead of buying them.

  17. After reading everything in here I just ordered a 4×8 sheet from freckleface.com, and I got two thin steel 4×4 plates from McMaster to make it magnetic as well. We’ll see how this goes. I’m thinking a sheet this big I’m going to need something fairly rigid as a backer and I’ll use contact adhesive to laminate all 3 layers. Maybe paint the back of the polypropylene white so the adhesive is hidden behind that and there’s a surface to reflect the light. Well, here we go!

    Upon further reflection this probably isn’t going to cost a great deal less than a proper porcelain-on-steel board, but doing it yourself is the fun part.

  18. Terrific article, Jim. The best one I’ve found about DIY whiteboards. One question for you. Did you consider glass? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

  19. Hi all, due to some serious comment spam, I turned on comment moderation but forgot about it, so I just approved a few comments that were months old. (Sorry!)

    @Garland,

    Thanks for the update! I think the sandpaper is a great idea. Indeed, the edges can be sharp. Probably not enough to cut yourself, but a nice smooth curve never hurt anyone, and makes it more professional I’m sure.

    As far as the markers go, I think trying other markers is a good idea. I had a bit more trouble with the Expo Bold than I did with the Expo “Low Odor” markers, but I was still able to erase it without any visible trace. Occasionally, for notes I’ve left on there for more than say 4 months, I’ve seen slight ghosting. In that case, any trace is still easily removed with the Expo cleaning spray (although any random cleaner is likely fine as well).

    The screw covers you listed look gorgeous, and a perfect addition to the project. Thanks for posting the link!

    I think your score of 9.5 is very reasonable and your rationale sound. I hope you’ve found (or will find) markers that behave better and allow you to award your project a perfect 10 :-)

    @Brian,

    I’d be really interested in hearing how the board turned out. The steel plates providing a magnetic backing is something I’ve always thought would be really cool and desirable, but couldn’t figure out something that would fit our budget.

    As for painting the back of the poly, I think that’s a good alternative to painting the front of the backing material. As I might have mentioned previously, over time, the wood backing can slightly flex or the bolts loosen enough for the poly to shift. We’re talking only millimeters here, maybe less. This results in a little bit of play between the poly and the backing toward the middle of the board.

    Again, nothing significant and it’s not a huge deal, and it’s barely noticeable, but painting the back of the poly instead of the front of the backing would resolve the visual issue. The one downside to that approach (for us at least) would be that you wouldn’t be able to insert any sort of “graph paper” insert like I did. But if that’s not something you’re interested in, I think painting the back of the poly is a better approach, especially since it allows you to use adhesive in addition to / instead of bolts.

    @Mark,

    I did consider glass. Glass was where I may have ended up had I not been able to find a plastic that worked well (didn’t ghost, etc.).

    I had a few reasons that pushed me in the direction of plastic over glass. 1) Fragility. I originally wasn’t sure whether I would permanently mount the whiteboard on the wall, or instead prop it on a file cabinet / table. I saw some advantage in being able to move the whiteboard to different rooms if the need came up. If the board wasn’t permanently mounted, I feared that a glass board had a significantly higher chance of breaking than a plastic one. Sure, the plastic could scratch if it was dropped on the corner of a desk, but it’s possible that wouldn’t ruin it as it could a glass board. 2) Weight. For most of the same reasons as Fragility, but also in the case that I decided to permanently mount it, I wanted the least stress on the mounting hardware as possible. 3) Mounting options. I have no idea whether this is actually the case, but to me, mounting glass on a backing board would be significantly harder than mounting plastic — mostly due to the fact that I don’t think you can just throw bolts in the corner of the board without risking the integrity of the glass. It’s true that there are hardware fasteners like clips made specifically for mounting glass / mirrors, but I was just more comfortable with plastic, and the “unforgivingness” of glass kind of worried me.

    Thanks everyone for your comments and updates,
    -Jim

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