Make a house number plaque
A custom house plaque is a great weekend project, and you can probably find most of the materials you’ll need in your shop’s offcuts bin.
The only specialty items you may need to make this plaque are the house numbers themselves, which you can buy locally or online. You could also fabricate wooden ones yourself if you wish. If you go that route you can make numbers with a much different look, font or size than what’s commercially available and create a sign that’s even more customized to your home.
Nicholson marked all his solid wood strips so he could remove all the knots yet still have usable lengths of material for the sign face.
Strike Reference Lines
Strike opposing 45° reference lines from the centre of the base. These lines will guide you when you’re laying out the first few pieces.
Ensure the first two pieces are accurately fixed to the base and at a 90° angle to each other. These two pieces will form the basis for the design.
Hand Cut the Small Pieces
Hand cut any small pieces for safety and accuracy. It’s okay to leave the solid wood strips long, as they will be trimmed flush with the base later.
Tiles Glued Down
Leave the tiles long while the glue sets. Patience and accuracy when lining up and attaching all the strips pays off with an even, gap-free pattern.
A router or laminate trimmer equipped with a flush trim bit will help flush the solid wood to the base. If tearout is occurring, a hand plane may be your best bet. Once one long edge has been flushed, a table saw and mitre gauge can also help with the other three sides.
Although Nicholson painted his frame once it was installed, you could also use contrasting solid wood for your frame.
Make your marks from the project itself. When it comes to the final piece of the frame be sure to sneak up on a nice fit so there are no gaps.
Planning is critical
Like all projects, the most important step is planning. Make sure to measure out the size of your plaque, based upon your desired mounting area. I used strips of painter’s tape to get a good idea of what would look proportional. This took only a few moments and gave me a great idea of what the final project dimensions should be. After some trial and error, I ended up with a finished plaque size of 18-1/2″ × 9-1/2″ × 7/8″.
Materials for the great outdoors
My sign won’t be in direct sunlight or get much rain or snow on it, as it’s under an overhang. Water will damage some woods and finishes more than others, but sunlight will wreak havoc on pretty much any wood it shines on. Sunlight causes wood discoloration and checks, not to mention causing most finishes to deteriorate quickly. If the elements will be an issue for your sign, use durable materials, adhesives and finishes, and touch up the finish as soon as it starts to degrade.
Cut the base
For the base, I used a piece of 1/4″ Baltic birch plywood that was in my offcut bin. Baltic birch is ideal here, as it is stable and measures an actual 1/4″ (most other 1/4″ sheet goods don’t). If you decide to use another dimension of plywood, make sure to take this into account for future steps. Avoid MDF and particleboard altogether, as they aren’t suitable for outdoors, even when painted.
Mill up the herringbone blanks
I also had some leftover hickory from a past project, so I milled up a few 30″ long sticks to 1-1/2″ wide and 1/4″ thick. Once the longer sticks were prepared, I cut them to 8″ on the mitre saw. It’s always a good idea to leave project parts long to help keep your hands away from blades and bits. The long sticks yielded about 20 8″ tiles and allowed me to cut away knots and other imperfections that I didn’t want in my final project.
Lay out the pattern
With the tiles cut, head back to the bench. Mark the centre of the short end of the plywood, and strike two lines in opposite directions from your centre mark (both at 45°). These lines are critical and will be the basis for your pattern, so ensure these lines are accurate.
Apply waterproof PVA glue to the back of your first tile, and then align it with your marks. Fasten it down with a 23-gauge pin nailer, using 1/2″ long pins. If your base isn’t a true 1/4″, use 3/8″ nails to avoid blowouts. The solid wood tiles should overhang the panel, as they will be cut to final size later.
Apply glue to your second tile and align it with the opposing layout line. This will give you the starting “V” of the herringbone pattern. Continue this pattern by gluing, placing and pinning tiles until you run out of space. When you get to smaller sections of the base that cannot support a longer tile, cut some smaller tiles with a handsaw to roughly fit the space. Avoid using power tools, as your hands will be far too close to the blade. Leave your panel to dry overnight.
Trim the panel
Clamp the panel upside down on your workbench and carefully trim off the excess material using a jigsaw. Aim to leave about 1/16″ of material overhanging. Next, flip the panel over and reclamp it to the bench. Chuck a flush trim bit into a trim router and run the bearing along the plywood base to clean up the overhang. This will leave you with a perfectly flush panel. If you find the grain direction of the overhanging solid wood is causing you grief and tearing out, using a hand plane to flush the edges is a good approach.
It makes sense to finish this panel now, so add a finish of your choosing. I like the natural look of hickory, so I added three coats of exterior water-based polyurethane over a few days, sanding between coats with 400 grit sandpaper.
Prepare the frame blanks
The next step is to mill up stock for your frame. I used poplar, but other species like pine would work just as well. The finished dimensions will be project-specific and the frame should be cut to fit. I milled up two long sticks at 32″ × 1″ × 7/8″, and then machined a 3/8″ wide by 1/2″ deep rabbet in them to accept the panel. I cut this rabbet on the table saw using multiple passes with a FTG blade, but it could also be safely cut on the router table using either a bearing guided rabbet bit with starter pin, or a straight bit and fence. Avoid making this cut with a handheld router as the likelihood of the router tipping during the cut is high.
Mitre the frame
Using the project itself for measurements is a good idea here, as it will greatly reduce errors. Using the mitre saw, cut a 45° mitre on one of the long trim pieces. Then align the inside of that mitre with one corner of your panel. Make a small mark on the opposing side of the trim, and then return to the mitre saw to cut the opposing mitre. Align the piece, and then nail it down using an 18-gauge nailer.
Continue in this fashion, working your way around the panel. When you get to the final piece of trim, really take your time and sneak up on a tight fit by making multiple light cuts until it fits just right. Nail as needed, and then fill the nail holes. I like to add some glue to the mitre joints as I assemble the frame.
After the filler dries, sand up to 180, mask off the panel with painter’s tape, and paint the frame a colour of your choice. I went with black, as it matches the house numbers I purchased.
You could also use a different species for the frame to include some contrast in your project, rather than paint the frame.
Finishing up and installation
Follow the manufacturer’s directions for installing the plaque numbers that you purchased. Most often it simply involves centring the numbers and then marking, drilling and driving the included screws. Many come with templates to assist you. If you made your own wooden numbers, add those instead.
Installation will vary depending upon the exterior house material. The house this plaque is installed on is brick, so I drilled out two holes and inserted some plastic plugs in the mortar to mount a cleat (which is easier to level). If your home has vinyl siding, specialty hardware is available if you don’t want to drill into the vinyl siding. Other options include using a brick hanger, picture wire, or simply driving screws through the frame itself into plugged holes.
Make sure to double check the plaque for level. Then sit back and enjoy the compliments you’re sure to receive from your friends and neighbours.