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Trailhead to a Wedding

My mission seemed simple.

My planned route, straightforward.

Little did I know of the myriad perils lying in wait on the trail before me.

It all began innocently enough.

“Hey Dad. Carrie & I were wondering. You know those trailhead register boxes? Well, we thought it would be great to have one of those boxes as our wedding guest sign in register, especially if you made it. What are our chances of that. Do you think you could make one?”

“A trailhead register box? That’s a fantastic idea! Can I make one? Well, it’s just a box on a post. How hard can it be? Yes, I’m sure I can make one. I’d be happy to, in fact. It will be a fun little project.”

As simple as that, my journey began. Little did I know of the perilous adventure I had just undertaken.

That conversation occurred sometime during 2023’s winter. As the planned wedding date was not until the end of October, I had plenty of time. Or so I thought, as I mulled things over.

As spring turned towards summer, sometime in mid-June, I decided I had better get started. I began with some online research. I Googled “Trailhead Registers”. I quite quickly discovered there are nearly as many different trailhead registry box styles and designs as there are trailheads.

However, I basically knew what my son & daughter-in-law to be meant when they said, “trailhead register box”. They meant a standard NYSDEC register box. So, I decided a scouting trip was in order. I snapped several pics, taking notes and measurements of the trailhead register boxes at Ampersand Mountain and South Creek to use as my model.

Ampersand Mountain Trailhead Register

Several things immediately stood out to me as I took measurements and jotted down notes. First, even these two boxes varied. Everything from box dimensions to mounting post and registry sign-in box door construct, even the pencil holders and hinges were different. Alas, even amongst DEC register boxes, there just seemed to be no absolute standard design. So, I made measurements and took notes on each of them and decided I would integrate the best of both designs, using a father’s artistic license to create a uniquely elegant wedding register box design of my own.

As I did so, there were several immediate factors I clearly had to consider. No matter the design, this box would be front heavy, especially with the door open, a wedding register sign in book lying upon it, and folks leaning on that door and book as they signed names and wedding messages in it. Register boxes at trailheads were mounted on heavy posts driven into the ground, presumably secured there by rocks or poured concrete. Either way, they were, for good reason, quite sturdily mounted.

I also had to immediately consider and calculate the width of the wedding register book into my design. The standard DEC box door, lying open, measured 25×13.5 inches. The boxes themselves were 25 inches wide, 23 inches high in front, sloping backwards to 18 inches. The sides were angled, 10 inches wide at the top, 5 inches at the bottom.

There was a front top piece measuring 4×25 inches, and a front bottom piece measuring 3 3/4×25 inches. The door mechanicals were hinges, two interior chains, and a wooden turn latch at the top. The backwards sloping roof measured 12×27 inches, allowing for overhang, and had no shingles. The entire thing was constructed of some type of all-weather 3/8-inch particle board, fastened together with a variety of nails or staples, all painted NYSDEC brown.

Some Box designs I had seen had wording at the top, either “Register” or “Please Register”, generally in yellow lettering, at top. The Ampersand Moutain box (pictured above) had no wording.

So, armed with the photos and measurements, my immediate questions to bride & groom were:

#1 “Are you envisioning a tabletop or stand-alone box?”

#2: “What are the dimensions of your wedding guest registry sign in book?”

After some bride/groom to be consultation back & forth (I tried explaining to my son that there was really only one vote & that vote belonged to the bride, but he seemed to be having no part of that concept, so I just stayed out of it and figured he’d eventually learn that lesson the hard way.) Anyways, after said back & forth consultation between the betrothed, which also necessitated the employment of a ruler (luckily for my son, not to be used on him, at least, not at that point), the answers to my questions were eventually forthcoming.

“There won’t be room on the guest sign in table, so if it’s not a problem, we think we will need a stand-alone post mounted box. Our guest sign in book, open, measures 22- & 1/2 inches wide x 8 & 3/4 inches tall.”

Those two answers immediately presented me with two additional construction challenges.

First, I had to design a base and post mounting construct that would support a large, front heavy register box, with the door open, a guest register sign in book lying on it, and folks leaning on that to sign their names.

Secondly, at 22 & 1/2 inches wide, once I added in enough clearance on each side for the internally fastened door chains and the guest sign in book to open and close freely, the 25-inch standard DEC box width would not be sufficient. After sketching things out, I determined that to successfully accomplish its task my wedding register box door would have to be 27 x 14. Which meant, in a nutshell, not only would my box be front heavy and free-standing post mounted, but it would also be bigger, and thus heavier, than the standard DEC trailhead register box construct.

So, undaunted, I set out to tackle the first leg of my journey; constructing a base. I further broke that down into two parts. The first thing I needed to do was come up with an aesthetically pleasing free-standing register box mounting post.

My thoughts immediately went to cedar.

My initial base design plans involved a cedar log post somehow mounted in a cedar base in the form of some sort of Lincoln-log type tower. So, not quite certain, in the end, how many cedar log posts my design would require, I purchased nine of the straightest, relatively knot free cedar posts I could find, set about stripping the bark from them, and, since I would not be driving them into the ground, cutting off the ends.

Once this task, (which, for anyone who has not stripped bark from a dry cedar post, is a task all its own. Stripping nine of them to my liking occupied my evenings for the better part of a week.) Once this task was complete, I took them all to my basement workshop, where I selected the straightest, most knot free post from amongst them and set about deknotifying it down as smooth as I could get it and cutting it to length.

To determine the proper free-standing guest register box sign in post height, I used my mom as a model. I measured the height of her kitchen counter, then added 18 inches to account for the box height once mounted. The final result was a cedar log mounting post 54 inches tall, with the top 18 inches notched back using a series of backsaw cuts and a wood chisel, and two equally spaced bolt holes to ensure secure support on the post itself for the register box once it was mounted.

Satisfied with the result, I then sprayed the post with Australian Timber Oil. Symbolically, this was the same oil I had used when surgically repairing the scars on our family’s summer cedar log home, Middle Saranac Lake’s Bull Rush Bay lean-to.

Once the post was complete, my attention turned to the base. It became quickly apparent that my Lincoln Log concept was not going to work. So, I abandoned ship on that effort, did a quick compass check, and altered my course.

With no clear concept of what my wedding register box base would now be, I laced up my boots, grabbed my truck keys, and headed out confident that I would “know it when I see it.”

I left the house uttering what would become my journey’s oft repeated phrase;

“I’m headed to LOWE’S!”

After perusing the isles seeking a new base construct solution, my eyes came to rest on a decorative cask design flower barrel in the garden section. Wide at the bottom, not to tall, molded from a heavy-duty all-weather composite material, it seemed perfectly suited for my project.

While I was there, I purchased several sheets of nice 1/2-inch 2’x4′ birch plywood, finished 1.5″ poplar for framing, a variety of hinges, screws, bolts, wingnuts, and lengths of mounting chain, all either galvanized or stainless steel to enhance wedding register box all weather capability, plus two bags of concrete.

Once home and unloaded, over the course of the next several days, I proceeded to drill a hole in the bottom center of the barrel, a corresponding hole up through the bottom center of the post, mount the post in the barrel on a 3 1/2 inch long galvanized bolt, then secure all of that upright and even in the barrel using tight wraps of aluminum flashing and my go to solution for everything: duct tape.

I then traced out and cut a piece of 1/2 inch scrap plywood to fit securely over the post and tightly into the barrel.

Wedding register box mounting post now secure in its base, I then began constructing the box itself.

Initial wedding box construct, in birch.
(I will now finish this box in the manner I envisioned, for my wife, for Christmas.)

I was making good progress, moving right along, “cooking with gas”. The back, bottom, and sides came together nicely. As I prepared to finish the framing and add the roof before focusing on the front, door & mechanicals, I began envisioning the finished product. That birch wood grain was gorgeous. I wanted to stain it, with elegantly inlaid engraved writing “Carrie & RJ”, “Welcome to Our Wedding”, maybe a date or additional message. I envisioned the final product being elegantly artistic with some unique fatherly touches.

I had several questions though. So, before proceeding further, I called my son for some betrothed input and consult.

“Birch?! Dad, why are you making it out of birch? We don’t want fancy. We don’t want stain or fancy lettering. We want it to look exactly like the DEC boxes. We are just looking for basic.”

At that moment I thought,

“I don’t know what you’re looking for, son of mine. But wedding or no wedding, I know what you’re about to get…”

I did not say that though (until now). Instead, I scowled, said a few choice words under my breath, turned to my wife and once again uttered my refrain,

“I’m headed to LOWE’S!”

This time I bought their four best sheets of 2’x4′ 1/2″ pine plywood and finished 1.5″ pine framing. I returned home and recommenced wedding register box construction, phase II. This time in pine. Unlike it’s DEC counterparts, with both transportability and longevity in mind, I fastened everything together using screws instead of staples or nails.

Once I had the roof in place, I hefted the box. Using 1/2-inch pine, it was even heavier than I had estimated. Before beginning work on the front, mechanicals & door, I decided to mount what I had done thus far on the post and give the whole thing a test run.

Wedding Register Box, Phase II:
Pine box, post mounted.

Decorative half barrel base.

At that point, sans front or door, my barrel base construct appeared to be sound. Everything was stable and solid.

So, I forged ahead. Over the course of the next several weeks, I worked on cutting, sanding and installing the front, door, and mechanicals. I encountered several challenges enroute. First, after much testing, experimentation and measuring, I determined that small, decorative hinges simply would not cut it. That register box door is remarkably heavy, especially with folks leaning over a book to sign it.

However, selecting the heavy-duty hinges created unanticipated problems. Those hinges required half inch screws. The plywood I had been using thus far was 1/2″. In order for my door hinge screws to be securely fastened and not poke thought the door, my entire front was going to have to be made of thicker plywood.

So…yup! You guessed it!

“Hun, I’m headed back to Lowes!”

I was now the proud owner of four sheets of 2’x4′ 3/4-inch pine plywood, and two boxes of longer screws that I would now need as fasteners.

At this point I should mention some other problems I along my route encountered. My wedding register box was 27 inches wide. My plywood boards were only 24 inches wide, which meant I had to cut each piece the long way. Further, because my plywood boards were also only 48 inches long, cutting 27-inch pieces the long way meant, either way I turned each plywood sheet, I could only get one register box sized 27-inch piece out of each piece of plywood I purchased.

That problem very soon was compounded. I had already cut and installed the roof board with a front overhang measured for 1/2″ plywood. Once I installed the front top, bottom pieces and door cut from 3/4 inch wood, my front overhang looked ridiculously out of proportion, and I did not have a remaining piece of 1/2 inch plywood big enough to cut another roof.

So, once again;

“Hun! I’m headed back to LOWE’S!”

I had by that time purchased a total of 13 sheets of 2’x4′ plywood: four birch sheets, five 1/2-inch pine sheets, and 3 3/4-inch pine sheets. I finally had enough to finish constructing the box, but as long as it wasn’t more than 24″ wide, I had enough partial plywood sheets left to build a small house!

Adding a front bark on wood hasp cut from an ironwood walking stick one of the kids had cut one year on a Bull Rush Bay camping trip, I completed my wedding register box construct. Not without incident though. As I was sanding down roof #2, my old Sears & Craftsman vibrating hand sander literally fell apart in my hands.

I long ago should have bought stock in LOWE’S.

One brand spanking new DeWalt variable speed hook & loop (a fancy term for Velcro- I discovered) random orbit sander later, I finally finished to standard my basic wedding register box construct.

I even remembered the pencil holder.

I wasn’t quite out of the woods yet though. Now that my box was complete, I wanted to test mount it on the post again, to ensure my post/base construct would still stably support its weight, with the door mounted, and open.

Unfortunately, with the door open, it wouldn’t. The whole thing wanted to tip over forward. I had to rethink my base construct. As I was doing so, another consideration filtered into my mind. I had originally intended to fill the barrel base with concrete. However, I had transport issues to consider. Not only did the base have to be sturdy and stable, but I also had to be able to get it out of my basement, into my truck, to the wedding venue site (which was at Echo Lake Lodge in Lake George), unload it, get it into the wedding venue, situate it and set it up where folks wanted. Then, after the wedding, I would have to reverse the whole process.

A barrel filled with enough concrete to secure the base was going to weigh 17 tons. So, I ditched the concrete concept, and instead, once I got the entire contraption on site and set up, would fill the barrel with a couple buckets full of pea-stone gravel, of which I had plenty of outside in my on-hand gravel pile.

I still wasn’t certain though, that that was sufficient, even with four nice rocks (possibly harvested from Middle Saranac Lake, although I ain’t formally admittin’ nothin’) as a base top counterbalance. The last thing I wanted was a wedding day catastrophe as the register box toppled over on top of some poor guest attempting to sign their name in the book.

My barrel base needed a base of its own, an exterior base. So, I went about making one. Luckily for me, I had plenty of construction materials on hand. Less luckily for me, However, was the fact that cutting an 18-inch round hole in the center of a piece of 3/4 inch plywood proved to be too much to ask of my old Sears Craftsman scroll saw. That old saw got so hot it started smoking in my hand as I cut. Luckily for me, this time I did not have to make yet another trip to LOWE’S. Amongst the myriad tools I inherited from my father was a really nice, high-end scroll saw.

I finished cutting and building my wedding register box its own exterior base.

Now I was confident that I could fairly easily disassemble, load, unload, site situate assemble and transport my wedding register box to and from the venue in three separate pieces (not counting decorations/accent pieces, two buckets of gravel and four nice heavy decorative ballast rocks). Those pieces consisted of the exterior base, interior barrel base (with post semi-permanently mounted), and, last but not least, the wedding register box itself.

Satisfied that my wedding register box construction was complete, I spray painted the base matte brown to match the barrel and give the post the aura of being sunk in the ground. I then drilled several holes in the base, gathered together a variety of decorations to accent the ensemble (including a nice fungus & lichen accented birch log that may or may not have been harvested from Middle Saranac Lake’s Ship Island), then sent photos to RJ & Carrie for confirmation that I had stayed on the trail and was nearing the summit.

Their emphatic reply:

“Yes! That’s perfect! You nailed it!”

Now the questions were, did they really still want me to paint it? Or was there still a chance I could convince them to celebrate the wood’s grain by letting me stain it. Whichever they chose, what shade or color did they want the box? Also, what did they want for lettering, and what size? “Register”, “Please Register”, “Register Here”? Letters etched in bare wood? Etched in and painted? Or yellow lettering simply painted on?

I decided to make my final pitch and let them answer that question by putting together several samples. I headed back once more to LOWE’S. This time for a variety of paints, stains, stencils and brushes.

While I was at it, I decided to give them three front handle options to choose from as well.

Then it was off once again. this time not back to LOWE’S, but on a road trip to visit our soon to be newlywed couple in Corning.

Upon seeing the options, it took Carrie & RJ but moments to make their selections. They chose to have the box itself spray painted in Satin Espresso. For lettering they chose simply “Register”, etched in 2-inch letters, painted yellow. Finally, as their door latch/handle, they chose natural, bark on, unpainted.

Final bride/groom selections made and all questions answered, I returned home and set about trekking the final leg of my route, all the while reminding myself as I painted that box “This is their wedding, not yours.”

I must admit though, once painted and polyurethaned, the final product did come out pretty nice.

I went to Hobby Lobby to purchase fall colors. I had intended to use real fall leaves, but the process of successfully gathering and preserving them proved prohibitively daunting. My final touch was adding to the post an authetic vintage DEC trail marker. My wife and I I spotted it in an antique shop in Tupper Lake on one of our early fall road trips.

Everything then sat secure in my basement until it was time to load it all up and head off to Lake George for the wedding. Loading everything into my truck for the wedding went smoothly. I even thought to include two cans of spray paint for touch ups and a bag of spare parts. I could only hope and pray that everything arrived intact, and we were able to assemble and decorate the wedding register box on schedule and according to plan.

The Lodge at Echo Lake venue & views were spectacular.

Our soon to be newlyweds were even blessed by a rainbow.

The wedding register box somehow got set up, situated and decorated, without hitch or giddy-up, on schedule, as planned.

As to the wedding itself, that’s a whole ‘nother story.

One I will leave to the newlyweds to tell.

What I will offer is this:

A word of fair warning to anyone who chooses to follow my route.

When building a box to a registered wedding…

All routes lead through LOWE’S.


Until Our Trails Cross Again: