Build Stuff, the book: Floating shelves

Here’s another sneak preview from my upcoming book, tentatively titled, “Build Stuff With Wood.” It’s due out from the Taunton Press in fall 2017. Stay tuned for updates!

My favorite thing about building stuff is the engineering. Sure, I like the deep satisfaction that comes after each major stage of a project, and the show-and-tell at the end, but the best thing is how making things tickles the problem-solving part of my brain. We’ve been building stuff for a millennia, and so we are designed to love it. Our survival depended on it.

One of the best bits of DIY engineering I know is the floating shelf. You build a box from thin plywood or MDF with solid-wood strips at the edges. It’s like an airplane wing: strong in all the right directions but still feather-light.

The real trick comes when you leave out the wood strip at the back edge, and screw it to the wall, creating a mounting cleat. Then the box slides over that strip, and you screw down through the top layer of plywood into the cleat.

Rock-solid, with no visible means of support!

You can make the shelves as long and thick as you want. With thicker skins and wider sticks inside, a floating shelf can probably hold a whole row of books without a problem (or your collection of My Little Pony figurines). You can do a clear finish like I did on this project, or paint the shelves for a more seamless look. I would make painted shelves thicker, for a blockier look, and probably use MDF skins instead of plywood.

Floating shelves are a conversation starter for sure, but they also offer a clean, modern look that puts special attention on the items you place there.

You make a hollow box using thin plywood with thin solid-wood sticks sandwiched in at the edges. Yellow glue holds it all together.
You screw one of those same sticks to the wall studs and slide on the box.
Before I even drive a screw, it already stays put!
To lock the shelf onto its cleat, you drill clearance holes through the plywood skin (but no further) and pilot holes down into the cleat within …
… and then drive a row of screws down into the cleat. If you sink them a hair below the surface, no one will notice them. Then you load them up with action figures.



Make furniture from natural slabs

Furniture made from thick slabs of wood is all the rage. There is something about the wavy natural edges once covered with bark, or the beautiful grain, or just the massive scale that feels like bringing the soul of the tree into your house.

You might think this type of furniture is out of reach for your skills, and you would be wrong. You can find these big slabs in every region of the U.S. and beyond, and you can get a big industrial woodshop to flatten them for you for less than you probably think. Then you can strip off the bark and crosscut the ends with simple tools, and you apply an amazing finish just as easily.

And best of all, if you aren’t up to building a base for your big slab, there are lots of screw-on legs you can find. That’s how I made the desk you see above, to fit a tight spot in my daughter’s room. That’s another cool thing about building your own stuff: You can make it fit your life in every way.

You can also mount your slab atop a found object, like a piece of industrial machinery. The key is knowing how to get the slab from rough to ready.

It starts with finding a slab to buy. There are lumber dealers that specialize in them, and they’ll usually have a big selection. To save some cash, try asking around your local woodworking club to find people who make things from slabs and might have some extras on hand. They’ll have less to choose from, but will probably be willing to part with one or two to free up some space.

From there, here’s how to turn the raw material into a piece of furniture:

By asking around my local woodworking club, I found a huge local shop that will surface a slab for about $50. They even let me pull my truck into the building!
The big expensive machine they use is a wide-belt sander. They actually rent it (plus an expert operator) for $60 for 1/2 hour, which is enough time to surface two slabs if you have them.
It’s awesome to see the grain start to emerge under the faded roughsawn surface.
When you get the slab back home, pry off the bark with whatever tools that work. Don’t be tempted to save it; it will only fall off after a few seasons. Finish smoothing the edges with some sandpaper.
Using a straight fence, make a nice clean crosscut on the ends.
Then use a sanding block and some rough paper to sand away the saw marks. Then work your way up through the finer grits, sanding the entire slab and breaking the sharp edges.
Polyurethane makes a nice finish for a slab. For more on applying it, check out this blog.
The payoff is beyond words, and you’ll enjoy it for a lifetime. This is walnut, one of the very best woods for slabs in North America.
Next I screwed on some hairpin legs in the Mid-Century Modern style, which I got from, one of the awesomest places for woodworking supplies and ideas. That turned my slab into the desk you see at the top of this blog, but I could also have chosen shorter legs to create an amazing coffee table.



Saw guide is the great equalizer

I wanted to call this blog, “My favorite jig ever,” cuz it is, but Google doesn’t like vague titles so I called it out by name. Anyway, here’s why this jig sits at the pinnacle of Mt. Awesome.

Woodworking can be an intimidating hobby, and one of the big hurdles is the tablesaw. It takes some cash and space to have one, and a lot of know-how to operate it safely.

OK, so imagine being able to do most everything a tablesaw can do with the circ saw you probably already own and a simple guide made from two pieces of MDF or plywood? Believe it. This shop helper is known by all sorts of names, but I just call it a saw guide.

Here’s the deal. If you want to do better than a rough cut along a pencil or chalk line, you can always just clamp down some sort of straight edge to guide your circular saw. That works OK, but it requires some fussy measuring and alignment to offset the fence each time so the blade ends up right on your layout marks. This saw guide solves all that and more.

You just screw or nail a low fence to a thin base, and then run the saw along that fence to trim the edge of the base. Magic! Now the base will show you exactly where the saw will cut every time you use the guide. What’s more, that zero-clearance edge stops chips and splinters from lifting upward and leaves a clean edge on your workpiece.

Make the guide from 2×4-ft. pieces of MDF, which are easy to find at the home center and easy to transport home. That will create a 4-ft. guide, long enough to handle almost everything you’ll throw at it.

So you just plunk the saw guide down on your pencil marks, and the saw makes a perfect cut right there. If you are careful with your measuring and marking, and you have a circular saw with a halfway flat base that won’t rock much, you can get cuts as good as a tablesaw can make, in any direction, on any type of wood. Everyone needs this jig!

Here’s how to make a saw guide:

First you need to measure from the blade to the edge of the base on your circular saw. You’ll need to cut the base of the saw guide wide enough so that the saw will trim off a little bit.
Thin 1/4 in. MDF works awesome for the base. You’ll notice I like to use rigid foam insulation to support plywood cuts. You can just cut right into it.
Make the fence from 3/4 in. MDF. Cut a strip at least 7 in. wide, and be sure you cut it from one edge of your sheet of MDF so you have the factory edge still there, which is going to be the straight reference edge of your fence.
Use fat 3/4-in.-long screws to attach the base to the fence from below. Be sure to countersink the clearance holes in the base so the screws sit a little below the surface.
Last, use your saw to trim the base to its final size. Now the base will show exactly where the saw will cut–every time!