Make gridwork balusters for your porch

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This is the gate I made, with the small gridwork pattern I copied later for the balcony railing system. Japanese-style grillwork like this is called kumiko.

Back in 2016 I designed and built a Japanese-style gate, which appeared in Fine Homebuilding magazine this past year, and appears every day in my backyard (the best part). I visited the Portland Japanese Garden for inspiration, as well as a few websites and Google images. Once I settled on the design for the gridwork panel in the door, I realized it would also work at larger scale for the railing system on an upper balcony that sticks out of the house, just across the backyard patio.

 

Well, this year (2018) I finally got around to those rails and balusters on the balcony, which used to be that generic contractor grade you see on condos and apartment buildings. Fine for what they are, but a combination embarrassment/challenge for a woodworker like me.

I started by pulling down all the wobbly posts and rails and taking it all to the dump. Then I covered the joists with TimberTech, the same excellent composite decking I used on the deck in the backyard, and screwed new posts onto the deck using these long, awesome, decorative screws designed for thick timbers, from Home Depot. The posts are cedar, as is everything in the new rail system. I added top rails to the posts, and screwed a composite deck board onto the top of each one.

The next key part was adding a bottom rail, with would complete the rectangular frame where each panel of gridwork would go. To keep those bottom rails parallel to the top, I just made a spacer stick, which I pressed the lower rail against when screwing it into place. BTW, I held it in place with a combination of angled screws and these decorative angle pieces, which look nice.

As for making the grillwork balusters, I started with 1-1/2-in.-square cedar stakes/balusters you can buy at the home center. Then I did some drawing to scale up my original, small grillwork to suit the thicker pieces. You want to get the horizontal spacing adjusted so there are even spaces at each end.

Then I cut all the pieces to fit inside the rail system. Your spaces will probably vary from post to post, so keep track of which grid pieces go where. The vertical lengths should be consistent, since you used that spacer stick to set the lower rails. As for the rest of the process, I’ll let the photos do the talking.

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I started by notching the vertical pieces. Those only get four notches each, two near the bottom and two near the top, so you can do those with a dado set, using your tablesaw’s rip fence as a stop. They key is to make each notch narrower (1-3/8 in.) than the thickness of the cedar pieces (roughly 1-1/2 with a lot of variance). You’ll see why later. As for the depth, you should try to nail that, exactly halfway through the thickness.
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To cut the notches in the horizontal grid parts, I created a jig like this one, which clamps to your miter gauge. You just cut a notch in the fence, and plane a small stick to fit in it. Then you move it over and cut another notch in the fence that is the same distance away that you want each vertical piece in the grid.
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You cut the first notch just like you did before, using the rip fence as a stop. Then that first notch goes over the stick you inserted in the fence jig, like so. The tricky thing is that the typical dado set stacks up just over 3/4 in. wide, and you need notches that are 1-3/8. So you bump your already-cut notch against one side of the little key and make a cut…
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… and then bump it up against the other side of the key to cut the rest of the notch. You continue this way as you work your way down the whole row of notches. The jig ensures even spacing. Unfortunately, it’s also pretty sensitive to how much side pressure you apply against the key, so check every third notch to be sure the the widths are staying consistent, and go back over them if needed.
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The last step before assembly is to plane the sides of all the pieces to 1-3/8 in. wide, so they all fit into their notches. Do a big dry-fit to make sure they do. Make sure they all go in easily, and run tight pieces through the planer if needed, marking where they go in the grid. When everything goes together nicely, you can brush glue into the notches and assemble the grid for real.

 

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Installing the panels was easy. I just screwed strips to the rails and the posts as a stopper at the back edge of the gridwork, using the spacer in the next photo to maintain the right inset.

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Then after the grid goes in, you screw identical strips in front of it, trapping it solidly in place. Works great!
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The new rail stem looks awesome. My last step will be to tack on cedar planks near the top of the joists, to cover the ends of the deck boards (and that patch of dry-rot!). I’ll put spacers behind those thin cedar planks, to keep water from getting trapped there.

 

 

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Easy record rack: Store your vinyl in style

I continue to design and build DIY projects for Digital Trends, and this is one of my new faves. It’s a great-looking, super-functional rack for your collection of vinyl records, which also happens to be totally easy to build. The how-to video is up now, and here are some of the highlights.

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This rack is nothing more than four simple pieces, notched together.

The four parts of the rack are held together with simple notches, which are so sturdy on their own that you don’t have to nail the fit of each one and they don’t have to be glued. That means you can cut them with a wide variety of tools, by hand with a coping saw, or by power with a jigsaw or bandsaw. If you’ve got one, I believe a dado set would do the tidiest job, but it’s not necessary.

I found one gorgeous 10-in.-wide jatoba board at my local hardwood shop, and cut all the parts from that. You’ll need about 60 in. of length, and a 1-in.-thick board will look better than 3/4, though it’s all good. You don’t even have to nail the dimensions, but the 10 degree angle in the feet and the splay of the sides is pretty close to perfect I think.

Here’s a PDF with the angles and dimensions I used: Record rack dwg

You’ll need a tablesaw to cut all the parts to width cleanly, though you could do it with other tools. Another option is to ask your lumber dealer to cut up the board to the lengths and widths you need.

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After that, there are a couple of really cool tricks for laying out the notches. Start by chopping the feet to that 10-degree angle on the ends. I used a miter saw for that. After penciling in some tick marks for where the notches begin, you can use the end of one foot to lay out the notches in the other! Just lay one foot atop the other, reversing the angle of the end to create the same 10-degree angle in the other direction.

To get the other side of the notch, there’s another simple trick. Lay the foot on edge on that first line and trace its other side.

In other words, you are using the actual boards themselves to lay out notches that will fit them. The notches in the tall sides are square, so laying those out is easier, but still use the feet on edge to lay out the second side of each one.

After that I used a jigsaw to cut along the inside of each straight pencil line, and then made curving cuts to remove the waste piece between them. Then I sanded the whole project to 220 grit, broke the edges lightly with 150-grit paper on a block, and applied two coats of Minwax Teak Oil, rubbing each dried coat with a brown paper bag to burnish it–another great trick. As you can see, jatoba takes a beautiful polish.

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Create a screw sign! Tell the world, “a maker lives here”

I first saw this project at Maker Flat, a Portland B&B created by Bryan Danger and filled with handcrafted furniture and accessories. On the front deck was this awesome sign with the house number formed by screws, acting as pixels of a sort. I was blown away and decided right then to both make one for my house and to put a picture of Bryan’s sign in my next book (chock full of maker projects, coming out in fall 2018).

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Here is Bryan Danger’s house sign, which was the inspiration for my own.
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And here’s mine, which looks awesome next to our front door.

Since the book only contains a picture of Bryan’s sign, with no how-to, here is the step-by-step for creating one like mine. You can do it all with a cordless drill, but it helps a lot to have a drill press for the pilot holes, so each screw goes in perfectly square and the sign ends up looking very uniform.

Also, I used about 6 lbs. of 2-1/2-in.-long stainless steel screws, which aren’t cheap. You want stainless steel, which won’t rust or tarnish outdoors. I drove them into a cedar decking plank, which will weather to a nice gray. But you could use other outdoor woods for your sign, like white oak, teak or ipé, and put a finish on them to preserve the color if you want. Personally, I’ll enjoy the contrast between weathered wood and the shiny screws.

I also took advantage of a sweet Woodpecker’s T-square for laying out the grid, though a normal square and tape measure would work too. Read on for all of the steps and tricks.

We love the finished sign, and visitors always stop to give it a close look. “Gorgeous,” one said recently. Music to my ears.

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If you get all the screws evenly spaced and at the same hight (more on that later), they will catch the light all at once and look amazing.
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Step one is creating a grid. I used this big awesome T-square from Woodpeckers for this step, sticking my pencil in the the holes and sliding the square to draw parallel lines. The key here, aside from accuracy, is creating a grid that will space the heads of the screws as close as possible without them touching. 3/8 in. worked well for my screws, which are #10s.
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Design is the hardest part. Draw circles on your grid to simulate the screw heads. What you are actually doing here is creating a font. I had to re-do this whole grid and layout thing three times until I had created numbers I liked!
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Here’s the whole layout. Note how the slanted part of the number 7 actually has screws that land halfway between grid lines. Sticking strictly to the grid forces all diagonals to be 45 degrees, which is too much for some numbers.
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Use an awl to punch the center of each hole. This will keep the drill bit from wandering.
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You can drill these 3/32 in. pilot holes by hand, but a drill press guarantees they will go in square for a perfect-looking sign. Let the bit find the center of the dents you punched earlier.
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Sand away your pencil marks. If you want to apply a finish of some kind, this is the time to do it.
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Sneak preview!
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Here’s the trick for getting all the screws at the same height. Drive one row at a time with a cordless drill, getting them as close to the last row as possible. Then…
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Put a flat board next to the last row you drove, and adjust the screw heights by hand, feeling with your fingers to be sure they are at the same level as the board. Your fingertips are super sensitive to any differences. Note: I drove the first few screws all the way through the board, so their tips just reached the back side, and then planed this board to the height of those screws.
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I attached 4 keyhole hangers from Rockler.com for hanging the sign. That’s it! Screw the sign to your house and be the envy of the neighborhood.
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There’s no mistaking the look of handcrafted work.

 

Some of my easiest projects are now on video

With the help of two really cool companies, I’ve been producing videos of some of my coolest new projects. As always, the main idea is totally do-able projects that are totally worth doing, like the stuff in my 2017 book, “Build Stuff with Wood.” Links to the videos are below, and I’ll provide more as time goes along.

One company is Woodpeckers, a manufacturer of top-class woodworking tools right here in the U-S-of-A (Ohio actually). I’ll be sharing all sorts of techniques and projects on their YouTube channel. So subscribe to see all my future videos. This time around, they asked me to design a project around their new M2 box clamps, clever little gizmos that keep parts at perfect right angles while you screw or clamp the joints together.

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I designed two cool mitered boxes in the Mid-Century style, and attached hairpin legs to turn then into little side tables or nightstands, with an opening in the middle for books and storage. Here’s the video that shows how the box clamps help.

The other company is Digital Trends, a hip reviewer of all things tech, based right here in Portland. They’ve hired me to design and build a bunch of stuff, like the pallet-wood beer caddy I blogged about here, and super-cool frames for your nicest vinyl records. Those frames were inspired by something very similar by Jonathan Odom of Instructables.com. He is a fountain of amazing ideas. I especially love how the album covers can slip in and out without removing the frame from the wall. Beautiful as they are, those record are meant to be played!

The caddy video is here, and the record-frame video is here.

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In all cases, with Woodpeckers and Digital Trends, I provide the designs and do the building, and they produce the video, which is nice for both me and you! Hope you like them!

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My next book: A hands-on guide to the handmade revolution

I just handed in the final chapter of my next book, called “Handmade: A Hands-On Guide,” and I wanted to give you all a taste. While my first book, “Build Stuff with Wood,” is all about…wood, this one blows open the doors to a dozen other ways of making things. There is a new handcrafted revolution happening, and it’s breaking down the old boundaries with an explosion of pure creative joy.

A brief history is in order. When the digital era first arrived a few decades ago—with video games and cable TV at first, then the Internet, social media, YouTube, Netflix, and so on—it dealt a crushing blow to the hands-on life. All you had to do was look around your neighborhood to see fewer people working on their homes and gardens, fixing things for themselves, and doing crafts like woodworking.

But the urge to make things by hand is an ancient one, and refuses to die. As best we can tell, homo sapiens walked upright onto the world stage 200-300,000 years ago, with a genetic lineage that extended millions of years before that. That makes modern society a mere instant in human history. We evolved—body and mind—to resist the brutal forces of nature, by hunting, gathering, making and using tools, and mastering all of the materials we could get our hands on. Our survival depended on it.

I argue that much of what makes us truly happy contains echoes of that evolutionary history: love, laughter, cooperation, outdoor living, being self-sufficient, and making things with our hands. For many of us, digital natives or not, these essential experiences are more deeply satisfying than pressing buttons and swiping screens.

Building things unites your body and mind in a single task, forcing you to focus on the moment, slowing your chattering monkey brain to a more methodical, peaceful pace. You were naturally selected to love it.

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Like any tool the Internet can be used for good, bad, and everything in between. The whole time it was rendering us helpless, it was also feeding a rebellion. Inspired by the hacker movement and empowered by the Web, a new generation of makers began using digital tools like 3-D printers, laser cutters, microcontrollers, and circuit boards to build things on their own, outside the reach of corporations. Soon they were mashing up their projects with wood, metal, and other building supplies, and a rediscovery of traditional crafts soon followed.

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It’s a Golden Age for makers of all stripes. Dozens of YouTube channels, blogs, and sites like Instructables.com will teach you how to DIY almost anything.
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Makerspaces are popping up in urban centers around the world, answering a new generation’s need for equipment, education, community, and a place to work. This is ADX in Portland, Oregon.
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Facilities like The Build Shop in Los Angeles offer affordable rental time on 3-D printers, laser engravers, and more, with expert help available.
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There are community workplaces of all kinds scattered around the country, like San Francisco Community Woodshop, which offers education and excellent equipment.

 

While, admittedly, most modern citizens are still heading toward those floating recliners at the end of WALL-E (a must-see movie for readers of this blog), there are unmistakable signs of life. Etsy has exploded with artisanal goods. Makerspaces and community workshops are popping up all over. School systems are learning that STEM doesn’t stick as well without hands-on experience, and shop classes are making a comeback under hip new titles like “Engineering.”

Whether they call themselves makers, woodworkers, leather crafters, inventors, hackers, or just people having fun, there is a common thread: the desire to build something rather than buy it.

This new maker movement is way more about creativity than perfection, about using whatever, tools, skills, and supplies you have to make something cool. And the old boundaries just don’t matter. Want to mash up micro-controllers with wood and metal parts, do it.  Want to dive deeply into a traditional craft, that’s great too.

“Handmade,” coming out in fall 2018, is for everyone on the outside looking in, enticing them with a wide range of projects anyone can do with simple tools and supplies. Better yet, you’ll be making practical items that will become part of your life. Here is just a small taste.

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Ezra Cimino-Hurt builds boom boxes into vintage suitcases, with high-end components that put real soul back into your mp3s.
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Jed White made this steam-punk lamp with copper pipe, an Edison bulb, and a few simple electrical supplies.
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Geoff Franklin shows how easy leatherwork can be with elegantly simple items like this tabletop valet.
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Mike Warren, of Instructables.com, made this tabletop fireplace with concrete and plumbing pipe, and a super-simple casting method.
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Mike’s fellow full-timer at Instructables, Jonathan Odom, designed and built a cardboard chair that is amazingly sturdy and comfy!
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This outdoor table, with 2×4 base and concrete top, is the brainchild of Brad Rodriguez of FixThisBuildThat.com.
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And Rob Leifheit made this awesome LED sign with an IKEA frame, a laser-cut mask, a few LED strips and a $10 LED controller that makes the colors dance.

Why everyone needs Forstner bits, and which ones to buy

I recently tested a pile of big drill bits for an article in Woodcraft magazine, coming out in the April/May issue (#82), and along the way I uncovered some amazing values in Forstner bits, which the magazine doesn’t mind me sharing with you. Here’s why this is big news: If you plan to do any woodworking at all, you can survive without Forstner bits for a while, but not long, not if you want to do really nice work.

Simply put, Forstners do everything that a normal drill bit does, but better, and they add a bag of magical tricks that no other bit can perform. Big holes with dead-flat bottoms? No problem. Drilling at an angle, or with the bit halfway off the wood? No sweat. Seriously. Forstners can do it all.

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No doubt you’ll start your career with a standard set of twist drills, with the usual V-shaped tips. Sick of those wandering off the mark, you’ll discover brad-point bits, with a sharp tip that keeps the bit on track, and cutting spurs at the edges that ensure a clean entry. Sometime soon after that, you’ll need to drill holes bigger than 1/2 in.–which is the biggest bit in most kits.

At that point, you’ll head for the home center and see what you can find. Spade bits work pretty well, but they dull fast in hardwoods, and they have a long center spur that makes it hard to drill stopped holes in most boards. Hole saws work OK, but are pricey, considering the fact that they can’t drill stopped holes, and can’t go through anything thicker than about 3/4 in.

Enter the almighty Forstner. They are one of the priciest bits, but their meaty build and unique cutting geometry makes them extremely durable in the toughest woods. And no other bits drills cleaner, in more ways, or with a flatter bottom on stopped holes.

Get a set, say up to 2 in. or so, and you’ll find amazing ways to use them: clean counterbores for bolt heads, overlapping holes for clearing out almost all the wood in a mortise, decorative cutouts, dog holes in bench tops, and too much more to mention here.

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Forsner bits make lovely decorative details, and drawer pulls like this one in a walnut nightstand I built.

By the way, ignore those folks who say Forstners can only be used in a drill press. They work just fine in handheld drills, as long as you start slowly and go in square. Save the angle and overlap tricks for the drill press.

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I tried almost every major brand of Forstner bit for the Woodcraft article, and there is good news for bit buyers.
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Lee Valley’s sawtooth-style Forstners were the best overall performer in my tests, beating out much pricier bits. They are made of high-speed steel, which holds an edge much longer than standard carbon steel.
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The WoodRiver bits from Woodcraft were the best performers for the buck. This 10-pc. set goes up to 1-1/2 in., and it’s a steal at $55.
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And here’s a bonus tip for happy drilling. The best bits will drill clean entry holes, but always back up your workpiece with some scrap wood. It will support the back of the hole, guaranteeing a clean exit too.
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This is the back side of the hole. Pretty darn clean.

 

Hanging tool panels are handy and mobile

There are lots of ways to store tools in your shop, from chests to wall cabinets to pegboard. These hanging panels are my favorite system. They are simple to make, they keep all of your essential tools at your fingertips, and they can be easily re-hung in new spots when your workshop layout changes (it almost always does). The keys are the simple french-cleat system used to hang the panels securely on the walls, plus the variety of holders that keep the tools both secure yet totally accessible.

You might think pegboard does something similar, but it doesn’t. It’s not as easy to move around the shop, and a lot of the pre-made holders don’t really hold woodworking tools well. As for wall cabinets and tool chests: The former has doors that you will end up keeping open, turning it into a wall panel, basically, and the latter puts your tools out of reach, which is a total PITA when you are trying to work efficiently.

As for what to hang on the wall, I put everything except my chisels and hand planes. I have a lot of these, and they are easy to store and protect in drawers below my workbench. They are plenty accessible that way, and the holders they would require are a bit over-the-top. But if you use these tools every day, you might want to put them on the wall too.

For this project, I bought two 2×4 panels of birch plywood, 3/4 in. thick, from the home center, though the super-strong French-cleat system will let you hang panels of almost any size. To make the panels look more finished, I put an arc on the corners with my belt sander, then rounded all the edges with my router, using a 3/8-in. roundover bit.

The French cleats are nothing more than a strip of plywood that I ripped in two with a 45-degree bevel cut on the tablesaw. You could do the same thing with a circular saw: Just start with a wider piece, clamp it securely, and run the saw along a straightedge as you make the cut.

One part of the cleat screws to the plywood panels, and the other screws to the wall. To get a really strong grip on the wall, look for wall studs. In my case, I put plywood on the walls instead of drywall, making it easy to hang things anywhere. That’s a great shop tip. As for the cleat that attaches to the plywood panels, be sure to use screws that will almost pop out the front side of the panels, so you get a really good grip. I used 1-1/4 in. deck screws, countersinking them a bit in the cleat so they reached deeper into the panels.

As for the tool holders, this is where the fun really begins. Whether you hang your tools on wall panels like me, or put them in a wall cabinet, some of these holders will work for you. By the way, I had fun making custom holders, and they do add handcrafted flair, but not every tool needs one. I also used common nails and screws and a couple of cool magnetic holders. Check the photos below for the rest of the story.

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The panels surround a window in my shop, letting me walk up and grab what I need. Full disclosure: I’m doing some videos and articles about Woodpecker hand tools, so they sent me a bunch for that purpose (the red ones at right). They are wonderful tools, and I’m excited to have them.
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Here you can see the super-simple French-cleat system, a bomb-proof way to hang panels and cabinets. It’s just a strip of plywood with a 45-degree level cut in it, with one half attached to the panel/cabinet and the other to the wall. The strip at the bottom of the panel just keeps it an even distance from the wall top and bottom so it looks nice.
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I cut the cleats a little shorter than the panels are wide, so they hide behind it. Notice how the bevel pulls the panel in toward the wall and holds it there securely.
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Layout tips: Lay the panel flat first and lay the tools on it, trying different layouts. Make the holders at that stage too, so you can be sure they fit. Depending on the holder, you might need extra room about the tool to pull it up and out. That’s why I needed extra space above the big triangular square. Wait till the panels are mounted to actually attach the holders, to be sure it all works as you go.
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Here’s a cool holder for squares. It’s just two strips of wood with thin pieces glued between them. Be aware though that tools in this type of holder will need to be pulled upward. As for the little square at bottom, all that needed was a simple rabbeted ledge to sit on. Sweet.
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Two hook rulers (love those) sit in slots.

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This was a fun one. I slotted the top edge and the end of this block on the tablesaw, to hold a specific square.
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This type of holder works for any L-shaped square.
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Screws and nails are plenty good for some tools.

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This panel has a bunch of other holder types on it. They all work well.
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I love my Japanese kebiki marking gauge, so I gave it a special spot on the panel. I made the groove simply by drilling overlapping holes with a Forstner bit.
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I love these magnetic holders from Lee Valley Tools. They screw into a 1/4-in. hole.
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If I had more of these magnetic holders, I would have used them! They hold small hand tools securely with a rare-earth magnet, letting you pull the tool straight off the wall.
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Here’s another one of those slotted holders, made from four pieces of wood glued together.
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This one holder is home to my combo square and my bevel gauge.
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Dowels work well for some tools. I usually chisel a little step on the top edge, so the tool doesn’t want to fall off. Hope these tips and ideas are helpful!