Let’s examine what it takes to build a pedal board. Things to consider are the foundation, or the “board” part of the pedal board, fasteners, power, cables, the effects themselves and how they’ll be chained. And finally the transportation and protection of the board.
The latter affects your decisions about the first. Several manufacturers make prefabricated open-and-play pedal board boxes. These tend to cost between $60 and $300 and are pretty sweet, but since their sizes are predetermined the manufacturer of the board is deciding how much space you have to install pedals and sometimes what dimensions those pedals must be, which are decisions you should have the ability to make for yourself.
Ideally your board should fit in a road case, perhaps designed for a mixer or even a small keyboard, or an old suitcase or attaché case. Anything less will not afford enough protection or stabilize the pedals during travel. And such containers are designed to pack maximum protection into minimum weight, verses building a wooden case to carry one’s pedal board, which always results in a crazy-heavy box.
To get a concept of the dimensions of the container you’ll need, consider the effects you’ll want with you on gigs. If it’s a half-dozen or less, something like a used road case with a 12-inch-by-24-inch interior and a detachable top should do. Just flip it over, unlock the clasps and the detachable top becomes the pedal board base. These show up on eBay and at pawnshops for $10 to $20 or a bit more.
If you’re a pedal hog, and I mean that in a good way, you might want to get a used keyboard case for $50 or less, which can typically accommodate a board with a dozen or so pedals. Buy a few pieces of foam once you have your board assembled and place it on top of the pedals before you close the case to help stabilize your stomp boxes during travel.
If you’ve got a case with a detachable top, the dimensions of your board are determined. Otherwise measure the bottom of the suitcase or other container your pedal board will travel in to determine what the dimensions of the board will be.
Once you’ve got your dimensions, it’s time to pick a suitable material to cut to size for the board. Quarter-inch thick plywood will do. It’s light and durable enough to do the job. I once had a bandmate who used an Ouija board, which looked cool, but was a little too flexible. My board is a particleboard from Home Depot covered with black melamine. It’s heavier than plywood, but it’s lasted for nearly 20 years and dozens of reconfigurations and hundreds of thousands of road miles without compromise. It’s also heavy enough to resist sliding around on stage no matter how hard I stomp a pedal. Further, the black melamine coating looks better than the black paint job I’d recommend for plywood. Making the board disappear on a darkened stage as much as possible keeps it from distracting the eyes of fans from your awesome playing technique, guitar faces, windmills and the like.
The best fastener for securing pedals to the board is Velcro. Get the two-inch stripping in a 15-foot length. That width covers the bottom of many pedals or can be doubled for bigger boxes, and there’s cost savings in buying the larger container. Plus, you’ll want to have extra Velcro in case you need to reapply a pedal or reconfigure your board.
Before you begin to do a final layout of your board, consider power. Voodoo Lab and Gator both make excellent power source boxes that can be anchored on your board and, with a single wall-socket plug, bring power to a half-dozen or more pedals via their adaptor jacks. Keep battery operated pedals to a minimum. They will run out of juice when you least expect it, and the cost of batteries is considerably higher than investing in an on-board power source to run multiple effects.
If you’ve got a small enough board, however, you might need nothing more than a Velcro-pasted-down power strip to bring electricity to a few adaptors. Every pedal board should have on-board power, to keep the need for extension chords and adaptor wires on stage to a minimum.
Now it’s time to lay out the board. Whatever fits works, as long as you can reach all the controls comfortably during a performance. Be careful not to place raised pedals near recessed ones or place any pedals too close together. Every footswitch must be accessible.
There are several schools of thought regarding signal chains. But the prevailing opinion is that you’ll want to have a tuner up front, where it’s most accessible and can be used as an on/off for your signal while tuning or changing guitars. Next would come boost or EQ pedals, which serve as primary tonal building blocks. Then come the compressor, overdrive and distortion family of boxes, followed by post drive coloring effects like chorus, delay, phase shifting and the like.
One more thing: Do yourself a favor and buy high quality stomp box connector cables. These degrade with use over time, and the better they are the longer they last. Be sure to check your stomp box jacks before each gig if possible, too, since they become loose during travel and may need to be screwed back in place to insure a trouble-free signal.