Flatiron Cornhole: Boards

The “Gold Crown” of boards

When I started playing competitive cornhole, I noticed an obvious difference between cornhole and pool which I had been playing seriously for a couple decades. I was stunned that cornhole equipment had not become as  consistent and standardized as pool equipment. The best pool rooms all had top brand tables. The rooms were in competition for top players who were very particular about equipment. The standard for pool tables in those days was the Brunswick Gold Crown. Cornhole clearly needed something similar. I was determined to build a practical set of boards that were solid and functional and played consistently, so that every player from beginner to professional could play under consistent conditions.

The “Flatiron” name

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The “Flatiron” atop the Superstitions Mountains east of Phoenix

Just to the east of Phoenix was the Superstition Mountains where I liked to hike. One of the steepest and most popular hikes was called Siphon Draw. And at the top of Siphon Draw was the Flatiron. The Flatiron was shaped like an old-fashioned clothes iron, like you might remember from the old Monopoly game token. It jutted out like a large flat platform from which you could see the whole city below. It occurred to me that the Flatiron looked like a cornhole board. What better symbol to reflect quality and permanence.

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A contribution first, business second

I didn’t set out to make a set of boards that would be the foundation of a successful business. My goal was to build the boards I wanted to play on, and to do it in a way that might open doors to a broader audience one day. It was a hobby, and a challenge, and an attempt to make a contribution to the game. But I also wanted to innovate. First and foremost I was indulging my creative impulses.

I sensed an opportunity to make the best boards in the industry. When I think I can achieve something like that, I feel like I have to go for it. But the business reality was formidable. I think I knew that, but it was still a learning process. A sensed a window of opportunity on the competitive side of the game that was growing explosively. But the game was still a backyard game and a tailgating game. It was steeped in a long tradition of home made equipment and laid back standards. And I knew not to take that on.

Furthermore, a very large percentage of buyers cared more about having their favorite team logo on their boards than how well they played or held together. The local competitors were small enough they just painted team logos on their boards without concern for consequences (copyright infringement for not paying licensing fees). But I didn’t want to limit my potential by ignoring good business practices. That was another major reason that the board part or the business was constrained from the beginning. But it did not matter as much in the narrow market segment where I wanted to gain acceptance.

Making quality boards

I was among the most dedicated players, playing many hours every day and participating in every competition I could find. As a consequence I was also at the center of the game and I knew every serious player in the area. It didn’t hurt that my partner and I dominated competition for the years we played together. It was helpful that I knew every concern and complaint, and heard every suggestion that any players had. I was able to get a very good idea of what made the best equipment. and I had a way to get immediate feedback from the most respected and experienced players.

The following is a partial list of the characteristics I thought were most important…

Quality materials. First and foremost I was determined to use the highest quality materials. The standard Pro boards at the time were made of 3/8″ birch plywood. But many local board makers were making sets with 3/4″ that was a bit more sturdy and played a bit better. The 3/8″ was adequate if the boards were designed with proper support, but 3/4″ could be tooled better and would support a better design that was machine cut and could be assembled with greater precision.

I experimented with a large selection of woods and other materials. That even included some exotics like plastic, plexiglass, and carbon fiber. But in the end I decided that 3/4″ birch (true grade A Baltic 11 layer) was the best without being prohibitive in cost or weight.

Machined construction. Also important was high quality consistent construction. A good solid top was the most important part and that could be achieved with nothing more than good material and finishing. But I noticed how wobbly and weak and inconsistent the other products were, including the best pro models. Even at pro tournaments you could finds towels under the legs for leveling and older boards that would collapse during play. I knew that a better design and precision machine cut parts could solve those problems easily. With CNC equipment I could design a tongue-in-groove construction that was highly precise and easy to assemble from fabricated parts. It was a great challenge and a lot of fun to learn how to design mortise-and-tenon parts that could be cut by CNC and assembled with precision. Fortunately, I met someone who had a state-of-the-art CNC shop and was willing to work with me making endless prototypes for two years!

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Flatiron boards being cut by CNC machine.

kit2In the kit shown here, the mortise and tenon construction can be seen along with the precision parts. Notice the curved legs and grooved base. With this construction, the parts could be glued together using wood dowel supports and the result was a very sturdy product with tremendous precision and no visible screws. An awesome design that would retain the perfect dimensions even if you jumped up and down on them!

Sturdy legs. The folding legs were a flaw in most other board designs. They would not always have the correct angle, and they would become uneven with wear. My legs had to be made with precise sizes and perfect fits. They had to have a sturdy crossbar. They couldn’t just abut the back frame like most others – they had to be braced by a flat surface that would not wear. And they had to use clean fitting hinges (not bolts) that would not wear down and would fit accurately.

classicbraceNotice the hinge design, the rubber feet (actually a non-marring material that is safe on hardwood floors), the heavy (inch and a half) thickness, the removable pins and washers (rubber washers internally not shown). You can also see one of the magnets that hold the folded legs in place while carrying. I’m also proud of the branded logo, a distinctive and economical way to identify the boards.

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The rightmost photo above shows the positioning of the crossbar. As simple as this would seem, it’s actually unique among all boards I’d seen previously! It’s important for top play that the crossbar not interfere with a large number of bags made in the hole. Top players very often make all 8 bags. If they stack up on a a cross bar and have to be cleared during a turn, it’s a source of annoyance. But if they protrude too far out the back or at too severe an angle, they affect the sturdiness or robustness in a negative way. The requirements of the lockjaw design (below) further constrained the legs, making this design about the only workable configuration!

Surface

A consistent high quality professional surface was key to good play. The shop I was using could apply a spray-on heat-cured lacquer that provided an unrivaled finish.

Classic Boards

See http://flatironcornhole.com/classic.htm.

The Classic boards were the most economical and popular design. They were built to rival ACO boards and any homemade boards with fold-away legs. They were especially strong and were perfect for bars and public courts.

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Lockjaw Boards

The Lockjaw portable board design stands out as especially innovative. It was a new implementation of an old idea that had been poorly executed many times in the past. Combining two solidly-built professional quality boards into one unit for carrying is very challenging. Several previous products had done a reasonably good job with light-weight plastic boards, but no one had done it well at all for sturdy wood boards.

My goal was to make a set of portable connectable boards with sturdy materials that were portable, safe, robust, convenient, and economical. I added a number of important constraints.

Here is a list of the constraints I imposed on this design:

  1. Solid tournament quality with highest level of consistent play
  2. Ability to conjoin safely and securely for portability
  3. Fast and easy to set up and take down for one person
  4. No loose or detachable parts that could be lost or dangle
  5. A single latch
  6. Latch not subject to breaking or loosening
  7. Snug conjoined fit with no slack or tightness
  8. Slight variations in warp caused by age should not affect fit
  9. Not too heavy for a person to carry with one hand
  10. The legs must fold under and not be required to detach when conjoined
  11. Suitable and safe indoors and outdoors, no marks or scratches on  floors
  12. No “creep” during play (can be a consequence of vertical flex)
  13. When the two halves are partially joined, such as in the middle of being attached or detached, there should be no opportunity for either board to be damaged by dropping, twisting, or levering the boards apart. This is a critical but VERY challenging constraint! Without this constraint, the boards could be destroyed by a simple accident or an inexperienced user.
  14. The conjoined boards can be carried and set down on any surface such as a road of concrete drive without concern for scratching the top surfaces. This is critical for transportation and storage. Note the corner bumpers in the photo below.
  15. No separate handle to be attached. Nothing removable needed for carrying.
  16. All parts inexpensive, off the shelf, and readily available from multiple sources

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Results

After hundreds of prototypes, only one joining and latching method emerged. It consisted of three parts:

1. The right latch

There was a particular type of draw clasp latch (pictured above) that was self-contained and retracted completely when not in use. It was also mechanically simple and familiar enough that no one would be confused by using it. It could hold very heavy boards together without breaking or slipping, and it could be made to anchor securely to the boards. It looks simple enough in hindsight!

2. Conjoining of the boards

Another challenge was designing the boards so they could conjoin together but could still have folding legs that did not detach from the boards when conjoined. Some designs achieve stability by sandwiching boards like a gift box, but they require legs that detach completely (or clumsily fold inward lengthwise, or some other very awkward mechanism). I considered those designs too burdensome to set up and take down, and the removable legs could be lost or broken or could detach and be tripped over.

Other designs simply used two standard “box” boards with the bottoms abutting and clasped together. That design required two or four latches and was still very clumsy.

My design featured side boards that were indented (shown) so they fit together forming a natural handle and leaving enough overlap to incorporate a form-shaped connection on the edge opposite the single latch.

3. Single latch mechanism

The mechanism that allowed for a single latch required the opposite edges of the two boards to slide together and fit in a way that would not come free while the opposite side was latched. This required a very precise design of the fitted pieces. In fact, I believe only one combination of shapes would support this action properly and fulfill constraint 11 above. I have not shown the matching connections here to help protect the  design.