Are Sharpies sharp enough for cedar?
May 19, 2010 7:19 AM   Subscribe

What is the best easy way for me to make permanent marks on cedar, as a child's growth chart?

We have a cedar board (maybe a 1x6? not entirely sure) that we intend to use to mark our son's (and any later children's) height growth through the years. I wanted something detachable and movable because when my family moved when I was 9 we lost all those years of marks on the kitchen door frame, which sucked.

My main question is my third one, but they make more sense in the following order:

1) Should I use something other than cedar? If so, what? (And can I get it in short order?)

2) Should I paint or stain or seal the cedar? With what?

3) What should I use to make permanent marks on the cedar? (Assuming I stick with it unpainted and unstained ... but if you think I should paint, stain, or use different wood, let me know what to use for that.) Will a sharpie be fine? Should I get a special pen or marker? I'd prefer it be something easy to keep in a drawer and replace, nothing too fussy or fancy, but I can be persuaded.

I'd also be interested if anyone had clever ideas for mounting it so it would be removable.

I'm not super-interested in pretty; I'm interested in durability.
posted by Eyebrows McGee to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Sharpie does fade in sunlight - if you use it to write garden-stakes, for example, they're often illegible by fall. I'd actually go with ballpoint, because it not only makes an ink mark but cedar is soft enough that it would also leave a little gouge. I am not an archivist or an ink expert, though.

I'd say to go ahead and attach your board to the doorframe or whatever with screws - it won't be taking any abuse, really, so just a 3 screws (ends and middle) should do it. And sealing/painting isn't important to the purpose, but could make it look good wherever it's mounted... say if you painted it to look like the doorframe except it was detachable?
posted by aimedwander at 7:25 AM on May 19, 2010

Wood-burning pen? You can seal it after the kids are done growing, too.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 7:28 AM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Treat the cedar with lemon oil, do it annually.

Don't "write" on the board, engrave it... use a small dremmel tool, it will never fade. you could even shade the engraving with a sharpie periodically to make it easier to read.
posted by HuronBob at 7:29 AM on May 19, 2010

I would find something sharp and carve in little lines. I would also get new planks for each kid. This does two things: First, it means you can carve little lines in and know that he first one is age one, the second age 2, etc. etc. without confusing one kid and another. THe second advantage is that you can let each kid keep their own plank when they grow up.

If you really want just on piece, consider getting a square "plank" and mounting it as some sort of pillar. Do one kid on each side. If you have a fifth kid, then you'll need a new plank, though.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:29 AM on May 19, 2010

My family's used an unstained 6'6" piece of molding that hangs on a nail in our kitchen. We've used everything from sharpies to pens to pencils to mark it, and all the marks look good (we've had it for at least ten years, maybe fifteen). It's out of sunlight, though.

The nail works pretty well. Occasionally it will jostle loose and hit someone, but that's life.

On preview: the dremmel's a great idea.
posted by punchtothehead at 7:32 AM on May 19, 2010

One of These inexpensive woodburners by Dremel.
posted by sourwookie at 7:33 AM on May 19, 2010

Seconding a wood burning pen. It sounds a lot more involved than it actually is. Definitely something you can just toss in a drawer.
posted by phunniemee at 7:35 AM on May 19, 2010

Cedar is fine. It is durable in weather (and ages to a silver color when unfinished and exposed to sunlight), but it is soft. One consideration is that its grain is very loose and open, so it will readily soak up a Sharpies ink, making it hard to print crisply. It can get a little blotchy.

I would use a different species of wood that is also naturally weather resistant and that has a tighter grain so your writing holds its form. One of your better lumber yards should have a selection. I would suggest teak. Or Ipe (sometimes sold as Ironwood), or even mahogany. You want this to last a lifetime, so spending a couple extra bucks will be a good investment.

As for the marks themselves, I would use a cut line that you can make with a basic utility knife. Cutting the grain will ensure that the mark is permanent and always clearly read. Maybe the first child is a solid line, the second is a dashed line, and so on. These would be visible regardless of stain color. Stain and clear finish to taste. Good luck.
posted by nickjadlowe at 7:37 AM on May 19, 2010

Response by poster: Man, you guys are speedy and have excellent ideas!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:38 AM on May 19, 2010

Sharpies are very likely to bleed on cedar and leave fuzzy, hard-to-read lines. Note that whatever you choose, you can test the method on another cedar plank before you make anything permanent.

This is going to seem way too simple, but I've handled cedar planks a lot for boatbuilding, and pencil is what we use. It is clear, easy to read, easy to fix a mistake, permanent, non-bleeding, and creates a slight indentation. This may not be as cool-looking as woodburning (my favorite suggestion also) but pencil on cedar is no slouch.

I think if you are going to continue to write on it for many years, you won't want to clearcoat it. Once the coat gets old it's likely to crack and splinter any time you try to make new marks on it.
posted by Miko at 7:42 AM on May 19, 2010

A soldering iron will work fine as a wood burner. Obviously, do this after your kid has moved out of the way. I'd only do this on untreated wood.

Cedar will often fade to gray, especially if it gets any sunlight. You could treat it with deck stain, or coat it with spar varnish, which blocks UV light.

Soft woods like cedar or pine will dent easily. Walnut, oak or maple will be more durable, and look great with just a top coat of polyurethane, varnish, shellac, etc. Unless you're really going for a specific color, nice wood often looks better unstained. You could just treat it with walnut oil or mineral oil, which will keep off the fingerprints and still allow you to use a wood burner. Oil treatments need to be reapplied every few years, but you can treat your wooden cutting boards at the same time.

Or for something easier, a Sharpie paint marker. This would easily write over any finish or paint, but not oil.
posted by hydrophonic at 7:45 AM on May 19, 2010

Nthing If I Only Had A Penguin's suggestion to use a separate plank for each kid. If these do become the movable family heirloom you're hoping for, you don't want them fighting over this because you charted their growths on just one plank.
posted by marsha56 at 7:49 AM on May 19, 2010

I built a new cedar gate. One of my cut lines was too short (measure twice, cut once) so now at the top of the gate there is a nice pencil line which does not want to come off, after a year out in the weather. It's there to stay (unless I maybe sand it off, which I am not willing to ass with).

So I would say pencil, if you want to keep it simple.
posted by Danf at 7:53 AM on May 19, 2010

At my cottage, there's an old board showing the heights of my dad and his siblings growing up, 60 years ago, that has not faded at all. Looks like it was painted with generic indoor paint and written on in heavy pencil, probably the old-style mechanical kind where you slid the lead in the front. Unless the paint flakes, it looks like it'll be around basically forever.
posted by pocams at 7:54 AM on May 19, 2010

Ooh, I like the soldering iron idea. Burnt cedar smells nice, looks nice, and is durable. I also agree with oiling the wood for durability.
posted by booknerd at 9:25 AM on May 19, 2010

Don't get too fancy; it's more important to mark it often than mark it cute. Carpenter's pencil will work, not fade, and pencil is pretty traditional for this task.
posted by theora55 at 11:57 AM on May 19, 2010

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