Building Display Shelves

DEAR MIKE: My wife and I were wandering through some model homes last week and discovered some shelves we want to install in our home. They looked like solid wood jutting out of the wall with no visible means of support. How is this done? -- Ray R.

DEAR RAY: The shelves you are describing look complex and seem to defy gravity. Although they look tough to build and install, they are surprisingly easy. If you take a closer look at these shelves, you may notice that they are about as thick as a door. That's because they are made from a door.

These shelves will draw lots of attention because there are no brackets or hardware to hold them up. They seem to just spring out of the wall and would be perfect for displaying pictures, artwork, or your mother's dish collection. You can align or stagger the shelves and make them any length you want -- just so long as they are not longer than the door.

The only caution would be to not make the shelves too deep -- the shelf gets weaker as you place more weight closer to the front edge.

For about $15, you can buy an interior hollow-core slab door that will yield two shelves, each measuring 12 inches deep by 80 inches long (the size of the door is 24 inches by 80 inches).

Measure the depth and cut the door lengthwise with either a table saw or a circular saw and a straightedge clamped to the door as a guide. Once the door is cut, use a chisel and remove the cardboard supports (now you know why the door is so cheap) inside the door to a depth of about two inches.

If you want a shelf that is less than 80 inches long, you will need to cut the door to that length and fill in the hollow with an end block. Since these types of doors have solid wood only around the perimeter, if you shorten the shelf, you will always have a space to fill.

You can cut a scrap piece or you can pry the veneers off the end piece you won't be using. Since it is already the correct depth, it is only a matter of gluing and clamping the surfaces together.

Measure the space in between the veneers of the door. You will cut a 2X4 to this width and length, and bolt it to the wall. This cleat will give the shelf its strength.

When you go to buy the lumber, hold the 2X4 on end and sight down each side to avoid warped or twisted pieces. Passersby will think you really know what you're doing. Buy the straightest lumber you can find.

On the wall where the shelves go, you need to make marks showing the location of the studs. Use a studfinder and a pencil.

Grab a level and, along the stud locations, make level lines that span the length of the shelves. Hold the cleat against the wall and drill a hole with a one-eighth-inch bit through the cleat and into the wall. Put a washer on the end of a one-quarter inch by 3 1/2-inch lag bolt, and screw the lag bolt through the cleat and partially into the wall stud until it is firm.

Repeat with each stud location, making sure you align the cleat with the level lines. Tighten the lag bolts once you have the cleat positioned.

Dry-fit the shelf over the cleat and check to see if the back edge of the shelf fits closely to the wall.

If you are not satisfied with the fit you can scribe the shelf to the wall. "Scribing" cuts the back edge of the shelf to the profile of the wall.

Use a flat carpenter's pencil or calipers and hold it against the wall. Push the pencil around the shelf so that it makes a mark on the back edge of the shelf which will identically match the texture and contour of the wall.

Then, use either a block plane or a sander and remove the veneer down to the line. Slip the shelf back on and you will have a perfect fit.

I highly recommend painting the shelf before attaching it to the wall because it is a pain to cut-in around it after it's hung. So when you are ready to hang the shelf, use yellow carpenter's glue and apply it to the top of the cleat and to the bottom inside edge of the shelf (this will minimize dripping glue on your floor). Slide the shelf onto the cleat and place a small carpenter's square with one edge against the wall and one edge resting on the shelf.

When the shelf is at 90 degrees, tack the shelf to the cleat with one-inch brads. The brads won't provide much strength, but they will hold the shelf in position until the glue dries. Wait at least 24 hours before stacking your cookbooks on the shelf.

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