Grad Student Decor: White Boards


I think best on my feet, especially when I’m doing several lines of calculations. In my sophomore year at Stanford, I started putting up cheap 3′ x 3′ tiles of dry erase boards around my room so I could write myself notes and work out simple problems. The following year I was hired as a ‘resident tutor’ in a four-class dorm, and decided to go all-out:

My wall in Granada House, Stanford circa 2004.

My mid-year feedback had lots of students complimenting me on my white boards and I have since gotten lots of e-mails asking me where I bought my boards. I’m not sure if I was the first person to put up large boards in a Stanford dorm, but I sure helped popularize them! Anyway, I figured it’s about time that I posted some information to which I could refer people.

“Do it yourself” white boards are much cheaper than ready-made boards at office supply stores and are an immense help if you’re a visual thinker. For whatever reason, I also find that I do tedious calculations much more carefully when it’s up on the wall. One also saves on scratch/doodle paper.

In a nutshell, cheap white boards are available at Home Depot, with larger 4′ x 8′ boards costing something around $10. You may have to ask for “dry erase boards,” “tile boards,” “shower boards” or “melamine,” though these may refer to slightly different surfaces. While these are decent-quality boards that will erase well, one shouldn’t expect them to last much longer than a few years. Leaving the board un-erased for some time can lead to permanent staining and cleaning with rubbing alcohol can damage the surface and make future erasing ineffective. You can’t really beat the porcelain white boards that you’ll find in classrooms, but their costs are an order of magnitude larger. That being said, with good care I imagine one could make the boards last through an entire undergraduate career.

Be careful to pick a flat board and not to let it warp as you bring it home, or else you may have some problems keeping the board flush with your wall.

Before you put your board up, you’ll want to plan ahead. If you’re using more than one tile, figure out where the seams and borders will be and mark them with blue painter’s tape on the wall. This is important since marker dust will slip into the seams and can stain the wall. Blue painter’s tape or masking is especially nice since it will not cause any damage to the wall, either.

The biggest problem is sticking the board to your wall. As a student, you probably aren’t allowed to drill holes into your wall to securely fasten the boards. For smaller tiles you can use several strips of removable double-sided mounting tape, but a roll of this tends to be more expensive than your board. Instead, I suggest using small 1/2″-3/4″ nails, perhaps in combination with mounting tape. Yes, this will poke holes into your wall, but if you choose the skinniest nails, you’ll be able to use paint thinner or even toothpaste to blend them in at the end of the year.

(By the way, if you happen to be a Stanford student living in Lagunita court, be advised that the walls contain asbestos–hence the thick layers of insulation and latex paint.)

As a final touch, you may want to give your board a border. I was happy using blue painters tape to cover the edges of the boards.As far as markers go, I haven’t yet been able to determine if any particular brand or type of marker is much better than any other. Expo 2 seemed to work well for me, though I’ve always been very fond of the scented markers.

Here are some very useful links for those interested in applying their own white boards:

  • DIY Dry Erase Board Wiki, part of Elephant Staircase. They suggest plexiglass as an ideal writing surface.
  • Kevin Kelly Cool Tools: Marker Board Walls, includes information for those interested in a more expensive ceramic board.
  • Make a Whiteboard, includes a list of alternate white board surfaces and white board cleaners. I do not agree with their assessment that isopropyl alchohol is good for one’s board.
  • Shower Board White Boards, some reports of trial-and-error attempts at white board surfaces and cleaners. It notes that a product called “Goof Off 2” seems to contain similar active ingredients to Expo’s white board cleaner.

As a side note, most particle theorists (myself included) seem to prefer chalk boards over white boards. There’s something enjoyable in the sound and texture of chalk, and so it’s unfortunate that their weight and chalk dust make them poor choices for an apartment or dormitory. For those who don’t mind spending a little more (both in money and time cleaning), one can use window markers and pretend to be Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind:


One Response to “Grad Student Decor: White Boards”

  1. wow, I really thought that googling “grad student decor” would be a long shot, but this totally delivered.

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