Thursday, February 4, 2016

Build A 12 Cubby Shelf

I had a customer come to me a few weeks ago, asking if I could build a cubby bookshelf. Initially they wanted 9 slots to hold the fabric cubes they wanted, but eventually decided they wanted 12. Other features were that they wanted a half-inch of space on each side of the cubes, and that it could be stood up two different ways (i.e., it could stand on one end and be shorter, then turned on the other side and be taller). This was mainly because there was a child in the house and, as he grew, they wanted to be able to place certain things out of his reach by turning it on end.

Also, at first, they wanted it to not have a back and to have a solid wood face frame. They eventually decided that, to make it more stable, a back would be best, and that they would skip the face frame and just do an iron-on edge veneer. They also selected the stain to be used, and wanted it made out of oak plywood.

So, I set to work drawing some sketches, calculating some measurements, and so forth. I eventually came up with a plan that I could use.

I decided to do dado joinery for the internal parts of the case, but pocket screws to join the sides to the top and bottom. This is mainly because my table saw is a small contractor's saw, and cutting rabbets on a long piece, like these would be, is risky. Not only is there a risk of kickback (due to trying to manhandle a large panel across a small saw), but there was a risk that the rabbet would not be cut square or at the right depth.

I rough cut the plywood pieces to length and width, then used the table saw to cut everything to final dimensions. I then laid out the dado slots for the shelves, and cut those out. I purposely cut the top and bottom pieces a little long so that if I had miscalculated on what their length should be, I had room for correction (it turns out my math was correct, so I just cut them to size as planned).

Assembly wasn't too difficult, other than just the sheer size of the piece was sometimes difficult to manage. I don't have clamps that are long enough to be used on this, so I glued everything together and used brad nails (and, in some cases, the weight of the cabinet itself) to hold everything in place. I made sure to clean up any glue squeeze out.

After the case was assembled, I laid it on the floor, checked for square, then measured for the back. As I said earlier, cutting large sheet goods isn't really an option on my table saw, so I glued and tacked it onto the back in one sheet and then took my panel saw and rough cut it to fit the back. I then took my router with a flush trim bit and cleaned up the edges.

Cabinet assembled, before stain and finish was applied.

As you can see by the photo, my measurements were pretty accurate, so I went ahead and applied the edge veneer. It's very simple to apply, you just get a household iron, heat it up, cut the veneer to the length you need, lay it on the wood, and run the hot iron over it. Press it down and smooth it out while it cools off, to avoid it raising back up.

After the veneer was in place, I gave everything a good sanding down through the grits (since this plywood was pre-sanded, I started at 120, then went to 180). I took my dust collector and cleaned up all the dust from sanding, then turned on my shop's air filter and let it run for several hours overnight, so that it could collect whatever dust was in the air. I came down the next morning and did another cleaning with a tack cloth, and was ready to begin the finishing process.

The customer wanted a dark walnut stain. I applied the first coat to the insides of the cubbies, and started seeing problems with the color and with blotching. I'm fairly sure it was the plywood itself, it just didn't seem to want to accept the stain very well. But the odd part was that when I did the outside of the case, it came out perfectly. So I let the first coat dry, did a light sanding, and applied another coat to the insides of the cubes, this time letting the stain sit longer. When I wiped it off, there was virtually no change to the appearance, except that it was slightly darker. I did two more coats on top of that, trying to get it darker, but to no avail. The blotch, thankfully, didn't get worse with each coat. I showed some pictures to the customer and asked if they'd like me to use a different stain, but they said it was ok, since the problem areas were going to be filled with those cloth cubes anyway.

As long as the customer is happy, I'm happy, but I will admit I was a little disappointed in how the stain turned out. I'm pretty sure I didn't mess anything up but just to be sure I'm going to take a piece of scrap from this project and do a little testing, to see what the problem is, exactly, so that I can avoid it in the future. But by all means, if I do go to do another piece like this, I will test the stain out on the scraps beforehand, and I'd suggest doing the same thing yourself. That, or paint it and avoid it altogether.

Cabinet after stain and finish applied.

All in all, this project took about three days to build, and most of that time was in letting the glue and stain/finish dry. It's a pretty simple project if you have the space to build it (I was really pushing the limits in my small basement shop), and you can build it without a lot of the tools I mentioned. Pocket screws would be just fine in a project like this, although getting the screwgun into the cubbies could be tricky at times. A circular saw and a straight edge can make the cuts you need if you don't have a table saw.

If you decide to build one like this, I'd love to see it. Either email me or share it on my Facebook page.


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