My dad is an amazing craftsman. He taught himself basically every remodeling skill, and completely renovated the house where my younger sisters grew up over the course of 15 years. These projects included building out a finished attic, building a garage, building a deck, building new radiator covers, and pretty much affecting almost every surface of almost every room. I was always amazed by this and kind of felt like maybe some day I could become as handy as he is, but aside from building a bunch of picture frames in college I haven’t been much of a wood whisperer.
I think that is changing. For the last three years, Julia has been after me to somehow obtain a built-in bookshelf to cover an awkward and unfinished space in our hallway/dining room area. I finally asked my very skilled friend Dan for some help, and he was actually willing to get involved! We set out to complete the project in time for a proposed holiday party.
I haven’t been much of a wood whisperer.
I think that is changing.
Since the space was uneven, we started by building a wall behind the would-be shelf. Then we built a box on the bottom to act as a base and bring our bottom shelf height in line with the existing base board. I had an electrical outlet ready in that location, so once the wall was built we mounted it to one of the 2x4s.
Next, we built a box for the top, and secured it the bulkhead and to our wall. We then cut sides from a sheet of pine plywood. The left side had to be a bit wider since it is the visible side and overlaps with the wall we built.
After that, we used clamps, a square, and a circular saw with a cutting depth of 1/4″ to make dado-like channels in both sides for our shelves to slide into. This part of the process was one we were quite proud to complete successfully. Once we had made those cuts, the side pieces held the value of at least three or four hours of each of our time, and we treated them preciously.
We used luan backing; it’s like a very thin plywood. It worked pretty well, except the saw blade kind of tears up the surface veneer — it works better to use a straight edge, clamp, and project knife. We found some cheap shelving pine at Home Depot. It was pre-cut to our desired 12″ depth and was just a few inches beyond our desired width. Around this time, we noticed a problem: the right side of each shelf was flush with the front, but the left side of each shelf was protruding about 1/4″. We could not figure out why or how this could be, and it was a good stopping point.
When we resumed the following Saturday, Dan had a solution in mind. We placed shims behind the right side of the luan, attaching them every 15″ or so all the way up and down our built wall. This bumped out the right side so that our shelves now protruded past our vertical faces on both sides. This required us to shave a bit of depth off of each shelf. Dan handled the cuts like a pro.
This is how the
illusion of perfection is achieved.
Once the shelves were in, glued, and screwed, we began the finish work. We used cheap, preprimed pine 1×2″ and 1×3″ to create facade pieces. These hid the raw plywood edges and made the facade feel more well… finished.
Mid-project, Julia and I stayed in an Airbnb over Thanksgiving and really liked the finish detail of a built-in at that place, so I took some pictures and Dan and I replicated it. The border around the edge on the side makes the shelf feel taller and less bulky. Actually all of this finish work mimics what we saw in the Airbnb shelf. The other thing you want to do at this point is sand any places where pieces of wood are not totally flush. Sand those areas until they do appear flush. This is how the illusion of perfection is achieved. I missed a few spots.
Wood putty and finish screws were my friend here. The finish screws have a smaller head so they want to sink below the surface, which creates a little depression to fill with putty. Then just sand and paint. Screws? What screws?
After a paint job, it was finally time for Julia to realize her dream of decorating this new space, and for Dan and I to pose with our masterpiece during the Moccia holiday party.
If I haven’t made it totally clear, I had no idea how to do this project. Dan was the brains of this operation and I learned as we went. He did too, I’m sure, but yeah just sayin’ — Dan’s the man. Also, Dan’s dad, much like my own, is an incessant tinkerer and craftsman, and he lent us tools throughout the process, so thanks to him.
After Dan and I had gone through the shelf project, I wanted to prove to myself that I had retained some new carpentry skills, and I wanted to find out if I could implement a similar (but smaller) project on my own. I also wanted to see if I could do it without a circular or miter saw, since the finest saw I have is a jigsaw — a vintage Craftsman I picked up at a thrift store for $10.
My target? The cruddy particle board medicine cabinet that came with our house. It was fine, but it was held up by about 11 screws all anchored in drywall, the cardboard backing was warped, and I had wanted to replace it for a long time. I had scrap material left over and I was ready to use it.
I started with some sketches and looked at some existing products online.
I basically built a box, added the middle shelf, and did the finish work in a very similar way to how it was done on the book shelf. Instead of a side border made with 1×3″ boards, I instead used 1/4″ lathe attached with wood glue, which seemed more appropriate for the smaller scale of this build. I then added a crown around the top for a more finished look.
Doors were also in the plans. I initially intended to build them from a 1×2″ frame, then attach luan to the front and a lathe border for the inset look. However, the lathe would have bumped out the depth of the doors beyond the depth of the finish pieces that frame the front of the cabinet, so I instead just attached luan to the inside of the door frames. Cool. The finer inset look would have felt a little more sophisticated but this works pretty well aesthetically and it was much easier to do.
My great friend Jeremy told me about an excellent hanging method, which basically lets gravity do all the work. To make it happen, I basically ripped a board in half with a 45 degree tilt on my saw, creating an interlocking set of two. One of these is mounted (with use of a bubble level) to the wall, anchored into studs (found with a, you guessed it, stud finder). The sister piece becomes part of the cabinet, and the two of them together form our hanging bracket. The cool thing is you can remove the cabinet at any time without tools, because the contact of those two 45 degree cuts is what holds the cabinet against the wall. It’s brilliant!
So yeah, here it is. The handle hardware is from Etsy, sourced from a forge in Florida. The hinges are from Home Depot. Since finishing this I have built a couple of utility items: First, a simple shelf above our washer/dryer and second, a crude boxy thing that converts stairs into a level surface for a ladder. Maybe I can finally paint our stairwell and change that last not so great light fixture.