How to Build a Busy Board Step-by-Step

I spent a lot of time growing up in garages. They were the manhood museums of my late grandfathers; they held a half-century’s worth of their work and whatchamacallits. Tools, scraps of metal and wood, sawdust, two-stroke motors, and oil cans tell the story of the men in my family. It was in those garages that I could see the remnants of their labor, projects unfinished, or pieces of the past hanging from some old, rusty nail on the wall. Fishing poles, cedar wood planks, lawnmower parts, and metal coffee cans full of odds and ends: these dusty, forgotten relics were my toys and teachers when I was young.

From as far back as I can remember, I loved tinkering in the tactile world of my grandfathers’ garages. They were a treasure-trove of history and experience. I spent many summers there building, exploring, and imagining. In fact, much of my current knowledge of carpentry, plumbing, mechanics, or general handiwork is built upon the foundation of those many summers in some detached, back-of-the-property garage.

Now that I have a son, I want the same sort of hands-on discovery that my grandfathers’ garages gave me. Unfortunately, there are a number of things currently working against my son having the same sort of workshop-experience I did: 1) those old garages that I used to play in are all gone and 2) I currently live in an apartment, so I can’t get a good collection of junk going without my wife’s disapproval.  As such, I needed a way to give my son a small collection of odds and ends to play with so he could tinker and toil as well. Thankfully, my wife is a Pinterest connoisseur and she knew exactly what my son Jameson and I might like. 

Creating a Busy Board

One evening this past spring, Natalie and I were lounging on the couch and she showed me a picture of a “busy board” on Pinterest. She thought that I might like to build one for Jameson.  The truth was, however, I had never seen one before. Busy boards weren’t a thing in the Midwest in the 1980s and -90s; kids kept busy in garages, yards, or the woods. Despite my ignorance, I was hooked, and I absolutely wanted to build one. This would be a great way for him to get some of the hands-on experience of a garage from the comfort of our second-story living room. I immediately downloaded the Pinterest app and started collecting information and ideas. At first, I was going to make a large play table with embedded Lego plates, model-train tracks, insert storage drawers, and removable busy board sides, but my wife knew we didn’t have the space for such a piece. Furthermore, she knew that my all-in-one play epicenter would absorb every free minute or extra dollar that I had during the summer, so she vetoed the initial blueprints. Instead, we settled on a smaller A-frame busy board that could be easily folded and tucked into a corner of the room— so off I went. 

What follows is a detailed list of my process and my product in the world of busy board building. If you have ever considered building one, especially with limited resources and space, some of my steps and ideas may will help you along the way. 

busy board gets inspected by my son

Step 1: Brainstorming

I mentioned this previously, but gathering ideas was the necessary first step. Pinterest was, hands down, the best place for seeing the handmade work and ideas of others. A Google search also produced some results, but most of the run-of-the-mill search engine search results were mass-produced, factory-made busy boards (also known as sensory activity boards). Thus, Pinterest or Etsy were my go-to apps for one-of-a-kind pieces. From there I saved the designs or design-pieces that I wanted to incorporate or modify for my own use. I never drafted a scratchpad blueprint; I simply solidified the A-frame design in my head, and after about two weeks of idea collecting, the next stage began. 

Step 2: Material Collecting

Since I am a consummate planner and perfectionist, this was the longest process for me. I collected material for about five weeks (and could have easily collected for five months to ensure that I had a diverse enough set of material). I decided early on that the various hardware, objects, and thingamajigs I set out to find had to meet at least one of three important characteristics: 1) they were movable, 2) they made noise, and/or 3) they had different textures. Naturally, things that move, make noise, and are textured are fascinating for children, so I figured these guiding principles would be useful. The following is a short list of five of the places I went to purchase material as well as some of their pros and cons: 

  1. Home Depot: 
    • Pro: There’s a wide array of material genres (i.e. plumbing, hardware, wood, metal, PVC, etc.) and the items are new and often pre-packaged— something to consider if your child is going to be playing with them.
    • Con: New hardware gets expensive rather quickly.

2. Lowe’s:

    • Pro: There’s a larger selection of hardware (i.e. screws, locks, clamps, hinges, etc.) than Home Depot, and again, the items are new and pre-packaged.
    • Con: This, too, is expensive. 

3. Harbor Freight: 

    • Pro: The hardware is less expensive than either Home Depot or Lowe’s and the items are new. 
    • Con: Harbor Freight metal is of a poor quality. I’d never buy tools for myself there, but the quality is good enough for a child’s busy board (which is really a Pro). 

4. Thrift Stores/ Yard Sales: 

    • Pro: Cheaper than chain stores and the opportunity for unique items is exponential.
    • Con: You have no idea where this stuff has been, so it’s a risk to have your child put second-hand stuff in their mouth, even if you wash it. 

5. Michael’s: 

    • Pro: There’s a ton a unique textiles, crafty items, and thingamajigs for relatively cheap. 
    • Con: There aren’t too many garage-like, tough, man-metal items here. 

Most of the material: hinges, clamps, knobs, bolts, latches, casters, etcetera I purchased came from either Home Depot, Lowe’s, or Harbor Freight— and out of those three, Harbor Freight was my preferred location since it was cost-effective, the material was new, and they had some unique items that I found nowhere else. If I were to recommend only one, Harbor Freight would be my brick and mortar choice. Naturally, there are online retailers, and I did buy one specialty item on Amazon, but on the whole, I wanted to handle all of my items in store before I made my selections so I could visualize my busy board-in-progress. 

At the end of my collecting, I spent around $150.00 to $175.00 on material— admittedly more money than most would want to spend on a project such as this, but I did buy more than I thought I would need and I have a tendency to overdo things in the first place (which is why my all-in-one play epicenter table was nixed by my wife in the first place). It is possible to do this for much less, especially if you have a garage already full of hardware and other odds and ends. 

Step 3: The Build

I started with two 1”x 18”x 24”  untreated pine boards (I purchased from Lowe’s) to make the A-Frame. Pine is a soft wood, so I didn’t want to leave it untreated or keep the natural look. That’s why I also purchased a quart of Minwax Polyshades: Stain and Polyurethane, 2-in-1 (in Mission Oak Gloss). The polyurethane helps waterproof the wood, and the dark color would help hide any nicks or scratches. Also, I find dark colors gives wood a rich, sophisticated look, so I applied three coats of the stain and let them dry thoroughly before I went any further. 

I chiseled out two indentations to flush-fit two 3.5” brushed nickel GlideRite door hinges with square corners on the back of both boards. I felt that any hinges smaller than 3.5” would not adequately support the weight of the boards with all of the hardware that was to be attached to them. After the hinges were screwed in and the A-frame could now stand on its own, it was simply a matter of pre-arranging the hardware to see where it would best fit and/or work with other pieces on the board before I permanently attached them. I played with the layout of a few times before I finally made my choice as to where I wanted to place things. Again, I was going for a diversity of mobility, noise, and texture on each side, so my layout was predicated on those aforementioned principles. 

After I made my layout choices, I then began attaching my hardware with 3/4” flathead, wood screws. I purchased a box of 50 of these, and I used more than that, so I’d suggest a box of 100.  I also needed some 1” flathead screws for the hardware with more depth, so I’d suggest a box of 25 of these as well. A few items weren’t as easy to attach as simply screwing them to the board because they didn’t have any pre-drilled holes, so a drill with a few different sized drill bits is helpful for this project. I used a Craftsman 19.2 volt, cordless drill with a DeWalt tapered web 1/2” drill bit set (which contains bits from 1/16” up to 1/2”). These particular bits can drill through both wood and metal, so it was invaluable.

The Final Product

It took me about two days to get all of my hardware and material attached to the board. I need to chisel out a niche for the door handle mechanics to sit down into; I also had to shorten some of my links of chain and modify some of the various other pieces in order to make them fit. The following are the photos of my finished product along with a detailed list of my chosen materials and where I acquired them.

Side A: 

busy board side A

  • One 4” x 17” self-adhesive rubber safety mat with tread surface (for texture; from Harbor Freight)
  • One exercise resistance band, cut in half (that I knotted at both ends and mounted to the rubber safety mat with two 4” metal plates; from my own exercise equipment)
  • One 3” screw lock carabiner (that I attached to the resistance bands; from my own hiking gear)
  • One chain door lock (from Home Depot)
  • One nylon-mounted bear bell with little printed bears (bears are a running theme in our home; from my own hiking gear)
  • One 5” welding angle (that looks like an arrow and required me to drill a whole through the center of it so I could soft mount it for spin; from Harbor Freight) 
  • One magnetic, felt dry eraser (that I drilled a hole through so I could soft mount it for spin; from my own teaching materials)
  • One 1” mounted roller ball bearing (from Harbor Freight)
  • One 3” caster (that I drew a design on with a sharpie marker; from Home Depot)
  • Two small interlocking cogs (that are soft mounted to allow for spin; from Michael’s)
  • One 1/2” self-adhesive rubber pad (for texture; from Michael’s) 
  • One 3 1/4” spring door stop (from Home Depot) 
  • One “Helping Hand Hands” hobby tool with magnifying glass (that I had to drill holes in to mount; note: the magnifying glass is poorly built so my son pulled it off rather quickly; from Harbor Freight) 
  • One 6” stainless steel gate latch (from Home Depot)
  • One laminated steel Master pad lock and key (for the gate latch; from my own junk drawer)
  • Two 2” spring snap carabiners (to attach to the key for the lock; from Lowe’s) 
  • One 8” strand of 1/4” stainless steel chain (to link the two carabiners; from Lowe’s) 
  • One 6” door knob/lever (with internal spring mechanics that I needed to embed in the wood so the backing was flush with the front of the board; from my own toolbox)
  • Two 2” metal clamps (to clip the carabiners to; from Lowe’s) 
  • One 4” magnetic steel bowl (that I needed to drill a hole though to mount; from Harbor Freight)
  • One 2 1/2” O-ring with bracket (from Home Depot)
  • One mens camouflage tactical paracord survival bracelet (stretched out for texture; from my own hiking gear)
  • One 2” aluminum rappel O-ring (from my own hiking gear)
  • One 4” window screen tension spring (from Lowe’s) 
  • Four 1”  screw eye hooks (to attach the springs and the tactical paracord survival bracelet to; from Lowe’s)

Side B: 

busy board side B

  • One 4” barrel bolt latch (from Home Depot)
  • One 6 1/4” long 3/8” threaded rod (from Lowe’s) 
  • Four 5/8” nuts (that spin on the smaller 3/8” rod; from Lowe’s)
  • Eight 5/8” washers of varying sizes (that spin on the smaller 3/8” rod; from Lowe’s)
  • Two 3/8” nuts (to secure the 3/8” threaded rod; from Lowe’s)
  • Two 3/8” crown hex nuts (to secure the 3/8” threaded rod and protect my son’s hands from the sharp ends of the rod; from Lowe’s) 
  • Two 1” x 1” corner brace bracket (to hold the 3/8” threaded rod; from Lowe’s)
  • Three small combinations wrenched (secured to the 3/8” threaded rod from the closed end; from my own toolbox)
  • Two 2” D-rings with brackets (to hold the chain; from Home Depot)
  • One 10” long strand of 1/4” stainless steel chain (to clank against a metal sign; from my own tool box)
  • Two 1/2” screw lock carabiners (that attached the 1/4” chain to the D-rings; from Lowe’s).
  • One combination Master lock (for the chain and/ or latches; from my own junk drawer)
  • One 2” metal clamp (to secure one end of the 1/4” stainless steel chain; from Lowe’s)
  • One 7” x 9 3/4” metal sign (for the chain to clank against and to protect the wood; never mind where it is from) 
  • One 16” black nylon clip belt (that I cut from some old hiking gear) 
  • One 1/2” stainless steel pulley (mounted with a screw hook; from Lowe’s)
  • One 16” gold roped tassel with knotted balls and fringe tips (that I attached with a 1/2” pulley; from a thrift store) 
  • One 2 3/4” boat cleat (to tie the roped tassel to; from Lowe’s)
  • One 7” red grip flange base vertical toggle clamp (from Harbor Freight)
  • Three small interlocking cogs (that are soft mounted to allow for spin; from Michael’s)
  • One 7” black bear cast iron door knocker (because bears are a running theme in our house; from Amazon)
  • One 8 1/2” black and gold zipper (that I attached with a staple gun; from Michael’s) 
  • One 4” window screen tension spring (from Lowe’s)
  • One cam action window sash lock (from Lowe’s) 
  • One 4 1/2” padlock hasp door clasp (from Home Depot)
  • One 1/2” self-adhesive rubber pad (for texture and to cover up a mis-drilled hole; from Michael’s) 
  • One 2” C-clamp (that I drilled a hole through to mount; from Harbor Freight)
  • One 4” nylon velcro pouch (that I cut from some old hiking gear) 
  • One 1/2” self-adhesive rubber pad (for texture; from Michael’s)
  • One 3 1/2” round aluminum duct vent cap (that I drilled holes through to mount; from Home Depot)
  • One 3” paint brush (with the handle cut off so I could mount only the bristles; from Harbor Freight) 
  • One key ring with four random keys (attached with a screw eye hook; from my junk drawer)
  • On the top/ sides: 
    • Two 4 3/4” steel handles (mounted to the top to easily carry the board when it is folded; note: they will pinch your fingers when the board closes if you aren’t careful; from Lowe’s)
    • Two 11” strands of 1/4” stainless steel chain (mounted to each side of the board with 1” screw eye hooks to keep the board from fully opening and falling down when it is in use; from Lowe’s) 

busy board side view

The True Test

After completing the project and giving it to my son, it is obvious there are some items on the board that he loves more than others. Without question, his top five favorite items, in no particular order, are as follows: 1) The 7” black bear door knocker; 2) The three small combination wrenches secured to the 3/8” threaded rod; 3) The nylon-mounted bear bell; 4) The 3” caster that I drew a design on with a Sharpie marker; and 5) The 3 1/4” spring door stop. Further,  the last one is absolutely his favorite as it makes a fun springy noise when he flicks it. If I were to build another busy board, I’d certainly put these five items on for it’s obvious that Jameson loves the noises and the movement. 

son tries out the busy board

It may not be a garage full of stuff, but a busy board is a great start. Making it was a ton of fun, and it’s even more fun to watch my son as he plays with it. If and when we have a second child, he/she will certainly be getting a busy board of their own with a whole new batch of hardware and hands-on play things. Hopefully by then he/she will have an actual garage to run amok in, for there are no greater lessons than the ones we learn with our own two busy little hands. 

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Heey, this is rad! Love how he is eating it though 😀 like the zigzag pattern on the grey wheel, too 😉 the bear knocker is very cool, adding it to my list of busyboards parts now here.

  2. Dustin Moody says:

    Thanks so much for posting this. I’m working on a busy board project for my soon-to-be one year old son. This is a helpful tutorial.

    1. Mike McDowell says:

      Perfect! Glad it can help you, Dustin!

  3. D & C says:

    We salute the parents that are ambitious and industrious enough to undertake the building of a busy board. Especially when there are bored children around…

    But if there’s a parent out there that finished this article and proclaimed: “that’s gonna be a no from me,” our little shop recently unveiled our own Busy Board. It’s brightly colored and has all sorts of fun elements.

    We are the most affordable Busy Board we’ve seen online especially after the promo code on our website is applied. Hoping the Reno dads are ok with us posting our link. Happy entertaining!

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