Monday, July 11, 2011

DIY Files: Industrial(ish) Kitchen Shelf

So, there's this little no-man's-land strip of floor between my house's kitchen and living-room zones (the front area of the structure is "open floorplan"). The wire "storage cube" tower was never intended to be permanent, as it's both very wobbly and prone to collecting cat-hair tumbleweeds. Nonetheless, until recently it was the only thing keeping random fruits, root vegetables, small dishtowels, compost bucket, and bottled beverages in any semblance of an organized configuration.

(above photo: the "before" -- vaguely functional, but thoroughly rickety)

We could have easily gone and purchased some random Ikea shelf to replace the coated wire thing, but as my experience last year building a window-seat-inspired storage bench for my living room was so fascinating and rewarding (I made a thing! out of wood! for my house!), I decided to seize the opportunity to build something "from scratch". We still had a fair amount of random wood laying around in the garage from our various renovation activities since moving in, and I liked the idea of reclaiming wood from the house and using it for something else for the house.

I love the look of old (but neatly cut and assembled) wood in combination with grey steel, and really that was my primary starting point: I knew whatever I came up with would involve both wood and metal. Style-wise I wanted something along the lines of this Restoration Hardware piece (which at the time of this writing is "on sale" for $1995).

Mind you, I don't consciously recall seeing this "Salvaged Wood and Steel Shelving" unit (pictured above) prior to starting my shelf project but given my penchant for mooning over the industrial sci-fi-esque bits of the RH catalogs that occasionally come in the mail here it is conceivable (nay, likely) that I was subliminally inspired by this or some similar item.

Either way, I am happy to report that I did not spend anywhere near $2000 to make my version -- the wood was basically free as it was all salvaged/scrap, and the wood stain along with nearly all the metal hardware I used (screws, brackets, etc.) I already had on hand as "leftovers" from prior projects. The only materials I bought new were the steel rod-stock (two lengths of 3/8" dia. from Orchard Supply) and a small package of washers. My grand expenditure total was thus somewhere in the neighborhood of $12 (not counting tools, but we've been accumulating those here over a long period of time so there was no major in-project expense in that department).

Cutting To Size And Shape

The bulk of the wood for this project came from two long (10' x 1') planks that had served as closet shelves in their former life. The office closet renovation project was "cat oriented" enough to fit in better over at Felines Are Wonderful, so I described it in some detail in a post over yonder, but basically the reason those old shelves came out was because they weren't allowing me, my partner, or our four acrobatic kitties to utilize the space they occupied very well.

That closet was vastly improved with the addition of a few tall Ikea shelving units, but then we had these giant old boards to deal with, and they spent several months sitting idly on the floor of the garage. I put up with tripping over them (rather than actually doing anything with them) for a fairly long time, mainly because I did not want to deal with the paint (more on that in the next section).

At any rate, when I finally got going on the kitchen shelf project, the first thing I did was cut the boards (using a jigsaw) so that I had four 48" long sections and two 24" long sections.

Interestingly (well, to me at least) the decision to make the vertical side pieces "split" was mostly based on the fact that I simply didn't have enough wood of the right length to make those pieces solid all the way along the desired depth of the shelf. I am really glad things worked out that way, though, because solid sides would have been too "heavy"-looking, especially given the dark stain I ended up using.

Still, once I decided on "split verticals", I was faced with the challenge of how to rip the 48" boards along the lengthwise vector. I don't have a table saw, and most of the handsaws I've got available here are of the crosscut variety (meaning they don't work well if used in the direction of the grain). So after some internal deliberation, I ended up just using the jigsaw again, albeit in conjunction with a plethora of clamps and random wood bits serving as holding jigs.

The results were...surprisingly good! I would totally rip boards again this way if I had to. The key is being patient and keeping track of what your hands are doing, angle-wise. Jigsaws are awesomely versatile devices, but they're not very forgiving of even tiny changes in how you're holding them (and along a 48" length, a small error will tend to propagate). My edges weren't dead-on right-angle perfection when I was done, but they were close enough to be very easily squared out with a few sweeps of the hand plane.

Meanwhile, one of the 24" pieces was cut down to 22" (as that was the target width of the shelf) and then ripped lengthwise themselves into four approximately 3" sections. These were to serve as the "back slats" of the shelf. The other 24" piece was set aside and later used to make part of the top of the unit.

Probably the most "complicated" cutting-to-shape that had to be done in all this was the carving out of the little rectangular niches for the back slats to sit in. The usual thing to use for this is a router, and my partner has one, but I don't know how to use it yet so I ended up cutting the edges out with a handheld pull saw and then chiseling out the inside.

The results of this were...meh. I am still not entirely happy with them, and if I had to do it over again I would have (a) measured more carefully, and (b) considered expanding my tool horizons. I was able to make the niches I ended up with "work", but it took me much longer to even get them to "passably okay" than it would have to get them "perfect" if I'd planned things out better and used the proper tool(s).

Overall, though, the cutting-to-size-and-shape part of this project went pretty quickly. Much more quickly than the next part!

(Above photo - my rectangular niches, after I'd cleaned them up some and started working on the dowel joints. Note that this was also taken after the paint had been removed, which is described in the next section).

The White Paint Of Doom (And The Removal Thereof)

The closet shelf boards which comprised the bulk of source material for my shelf were covered in several layers of very hard white paint (and possibly primer in the case of one of the planks). The kitchen planks I used to make the storage bench had been painted with what seemed to be the same stuff, and at that point in my evolution as a DIY-er I had no clue how to get rid of paint/finish that wouldn't come off with a bit of hand-sanding. Thus, in that case I just ended up painting over the old paint with new paint of a more decor-appropriate color scheme.

In this case, though, I knew I wanted a more natural wood look. Which of course meant all the old paint and primer and whatever the heck else the previous owners had slathered on the wood had to come off. Toward this end, I purposely waited until I had the boards cut to size before getting into paint removal. I don't know if this is standard practice or not, but for me it definitely made things easier as it "broke the seal" of the paint.

Still, the paint-removal phase was the least pleasant part of this project. Sure, it was satisfying to (eventually) get to where I could actually see the grain, but it was by no means fun getting there.

For some reason the weather seemed to be either hot or rainy whenever I had a free hour or two to devote to paint removal, and neither of those conditions was especially comfortable to work in.

Gigantic pink "Darth Vader Meets Hello Kitty" respirator masks are no fun in the sun, and orbital sanders will spray fine dust all over your garage even with that little bag on the output and even if you've got the garage door open and are hovering under the edge of it to avoid getting your tools rained on. Bleah.

As for the actual process of getting the paint off, this entailed many hours (over the course of several weekends) and lots of going back and forth between the following tools:

(1) Heat gun (super cheapie Harbor Freight model)

(2) Hand plane (as opposed to the type of plane that flies in the sky)

(3) Random orbital sander (Milwaukee 5" diameter)

(4) Paint scraper/putty knife thing

Basically I just used one tool for as long as it seemed to be "doing something" to the paint. I.e., I:

- waved the heat gun over the surface until I started seeing bubbles,

- scraped off the bubbly bits with the putty knife,

- turned on the random orbital sander (using coarse 60 grit sanding discs) and zzzzzzzed at the painted wood until the disc got all clogged up,

- planed the surface (holding the plane at an angle actually goes a long way toward paint removal, so long as you aren't concerned about taking some of the wood with you),

- applied the heat gun again,

...and so on. Until the paint was gone. Which, as I said, took a while. But I digress. Bottom line: paint went away, and I was left with lovely clean wood-planks (see below).


As stated at the beginning of this post, I started off with a pretty clear idea of what I wanted the shelf to look like. I also knew its dimensions (48" tall by 22" wide by about 14" deep). What I did not know was the precise manner in which I was going to assemble the unit. That I had to sort of figure out as I went along, though certainly next time I build something similar I will be able to draw upon this experience and plan things out more thoroughly from the beginning.

I began the assembly process by connecting the four horizontal slats I'd cut to the rear vertical side supports. The result vaguely resembled a ladder (see below):

Each slat was held in place by four dowels (two on each side) and two screws (one on each side). I didn't use any glue for the dowels as they were mainly there for alignment; the screw provided the force needed to keep everything from coming apart.

Also, doweling jigs are awesome things -- basically they clamp to the edge of the board and (in conjunction with a "collar" around the drill bit acting as a stop) they turn what might otherwise be a frustrating exercise into something quick, neat, and easy. Some people use a drill press to get even more precise control over their dowel holes, but thus far I've had fine luck using a doweling jig in conjunction with a regular battery-operated handheld power drill.

Next I made the top shelf, which served the double function of providing an uppermost surface for the shelf and holding the sides parallel to one another during assembly. The top was very easy to make; I just screwed some skinny wood pieces to the bottom of a larger piece, the larger piece being made of two board chunks doweled together to get something of the desired dimensions.

The bottom shelf, meanwhile, went through several iterations before I settled on it. Initially I made something that stuck out between the side pieces (in the center), but that ended up sending shockwaves of misalignment all the way up through the entire piece, forcing the whole thing out of square. Eventually I settled on a nice frame-type thing that both held the side pieces together and provided a resting place for the lowermost shelf.

As for the two "middle" shelves, those actually ended up being installed last, mainly because I had to get creative in order to find enough wood of the proper width/thickness. Despite the closet shelves having been quite large, there just wasn't enough wood there to provide enough material to make every part of the shelving unit I was trying to make.

I had lots of small scraps but I didn't want the unit to look TOO "patchworky", so one thing I actually did was re-salvage a board from a CD rack I'd constructed last year from a combination of Ikea parts and garage wood. That particular board had always been too big for that part of the CD rack anyway so it actually improved things when I removed it and replaced it with a skinnier one I couldn't use for the kitchen shelf. In the end I had plenty of wood and while of course it wouldn't have been a moral failing if I'd needed to "cheat" and use a piece of new wood, it was still nice to be able to meet my self-imposed salvage challenge.

The center shelves were attached with a combination of galvanized steel brackets, wood blocks, and small shelf pins. You can't really see the wood blocks or the shelf pins because they're in back, but the galvanized steel brackets are quite visible and I think they fit the shelf very well.

(almost assembled!)

The Metal

Screw threads have always seemed vaguely...magical, for lack of a better word, to me. I mean logically I know there are big factory machines that spew out perfectly-cut screws by the trillion, but the idea of people being able to make threads OUT OF METAL, IN THEIR OWN GARAGE didn't even occur to me until relatively recently. My partner is something of a metalworking hobbyist, though, and he recently introduced me to the wonders of the tap and die.

I won't explain the mechanics of how it works here (no need to rewrite Wikipedia) but below is a picture of my threads being made!

Other than the steel rod pieces I threaded, metal bits used in this project consisted of several standard wood screws, four right-angle brackets, and washers and nuts for the ends of the threaded rods. None of these were structurally modified from their store-bought configurations aside from surface finish -- thanks again to my metal-wise SO, I learned in the course of this project that many common metal hardware bits will change color in the presence of a blowtorch flame.

That said, I also learned that torch flame won't do a heck of a lot to galvanized steel -- the only way I was able to dull the brackets at all was via soaking them in a solution of apple-cider vinegar and salt. And more importantly, I learned that zinc-plated STEEL will adopt a nice dull greyish look when torched, but mere zinc alloy will MELT BEFORE YOUR EYES. I had a leftover Ikea bracket of some variety suddenly (and to my shock and amazement) bubble up and collapse on itself before my eyes when I tried flaming it.

(above - galvanized steel brackets, which I used for shelf supports)

(above - nuts and washers on the threaded rod ends)


To my mild surprise, it was evident after I'd gotten the paint off that the closet shelves were made from two different types of wood. I am guessing one of them was older than the other (possibly old enough to be original to the house). The one I suspect to be newer looked like standard-issue white pine (the stuff you get in the random lumber section at the Home Depot, etc.). Nothing "special", but still wood, and I was more than happy to have it to re-use.

The more "interesting" piece looked to be...Douglas Fir, possibly, though I am not a wood expert. It was slightly darker than the white pine and even had a few of what looked to be "bird's eye" markings. It smelled piney when cut so I am sure it was some variant of conifer, but again, not a wood expert here. Either way, upon seeing the two types of wood in their naked state, my decision to stain was clinched. While the grains looked complementary enough, the two wood types differed enough in hue/tone so as to make them look a bit clashy in their unadulterated state.

I should preface the remainder of this section by stating that I have very little experience with stain. Mostly I've just used the standard oil-based stuff that most of the hardware stores in my area seem to carry. It's very liquidy and you have to stir it a lot to keep the color consistent. I used gel stain once on another prior project and that was very nice to work with, but I didn't want to buy more stain for this project (seeing as it was partly a "let's be cheap" challenge) so I stuck with my trusty and seemingly bottomless cans of Minwax Ebony and Dark Walnut. I didn't actually care overmuch about the result being perfectly uniform -- I mean I wasn't trying to make pine look convincingly like something else, I just wanted it to look dark and salvagey.

All that said, there's not much to relate here about the staining process. It went something like this:

(1) Stir stain in can (wooden paint stirrers work fine)

(2) Put on nitrile gloves. Put one gloved hand into old sock. Dip old sock in stirred can of stain.

(3) Wipe stain all over wooden thing. Let sit for about 20 minutes.

(4) Wipe stain off wooden thing with clean old sock.

(5) Go over the entire piece again with the random orbital sander (plus hand sanding to get rid of any really prominent "swirl" marks) once the first coat of stain is dry.

(5) Inspect piece again for any annoyingly uneven/non-flat edges, etc., and plane those down until they meet my evenness/flatness standards. Apply light stain coat to areas where I ended up scraping back down to the bare wood.

...and that was it! Of course the fact that I was kind of going for a rustic/salvaged look in the first place made things much easier. If I'd wanted the finish to look "neater" I'd have treated the wood with shellac (thinned with denatured alcohol) first, as pine is notorious for sucking up pigment unevenly. Also, given that this shelf unit is going to live indefinitely in my house, I figure I can always go back and alter the finish (up to and including sanding down to the bare wood again if I decide I just want to start over) if I am so inclined.

Summary Conclusion Thing

I made a shelf. I made a shelf for far less money than it would have cost to buy a comparable one from a fancy furniture store. It fits nicely in the space it was made for. There are some things I would have done differently if I were to do it over again. E.g., I would definitely have stained all the wood BEFORE assembling the unit (you can't actually TELL now that there are random un-stained surfaces on some of the boards, but I KNOW THEY ARE THERE and it bothers my brain on some level).

I would also have measured more thoroughly and been more careful about making sure things were square/level. This will be much easier now that I know that my garage floor is NOT perfectly level.

But for the time being I am quite pleased with how this piece turned out.

Photos below show the shelf in its new home between the kitchen and living room (and the cup-hooks used to hang the bags of garlic, etc., were a total last-minute inspiration -- one I am very happy about, given the number of times I've had garlic bulbs dessicate into nothing because I forgot they were there)

It's exactly the size and shape to fit the space it was made for, it complements other living room / kitchen furniture, and it has already proven itself a stable landing platform for vertically-inclined felines. Hooray!


403 said...

Nice work!

Comrade PhysioProfh said...

Totally fucken BADASSE!!!!!!!!!

urocyon said...

Very nice! Yet more encouragement to build things. :)

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Lindsay said...

Hi, Anne.

I am not really sure where else to put this, but I thought, since you are a photographer and also make things, you might be interested in this project.