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How to Make Built-in and Adjustable Shelves

My aim with DIY projects around the home is to look for innovative space-saving ideas and save costs on materials by recycling.


Adjustable Shelves with a Hewn Effect

Step By Step Guide to Make and Fit

This is rather an ambitious project in that it mixes new with old and blends the two; but the principles are simple and can be easily adapted for making simple shelving for anything you wish; whether it be a book case, or shelves to store DVDs, CDs, or display your best ornaments.

To match and blend the shelving unit with our old built-in cupboard and shelving required creating a hewn effect; something I'd never done before and for which I knew little about. On searching the Internet I couldn't find anything useful on this subject, just a few websites on using the axe to hewn oak beams; which in this case would be inappropriate. So after some experimenting I devised my own simple and effective technique of using a jig saw to hew the wooden shelves, as demonstrated below.

How to Build and Hew Shelves Video Guide

Visual step-by-step guide on making shelving; including hewing and wood staining to match existing cupboard and shelf unit.

The above video was made with my son’s help. Having recently passed his degree in 'Broadcast Media' has set up his own photographic and film production business 'Proper Job Productions' and kindly volunteered to film the progress of this project for me. After doing the 'colour correction' and 'white balance' he passed the film clips to me for final editing and production; multimedia being a hobby of mine.

Preparation and Decoration

Removing Shelves to be Replaced and Painting Wall and Ceiling

Good preparation and making the finishing touches to any DIY Project goes a long way to making the difference between a 'job done' and a 'job well done'.

In this project the first step is to remove the two shelving units added over the years and take it back to the original drinks bar and shelves. Then after brushing down, washing and cleaning the areas to be painted, paint the ceiling and the wall (which is to act as a backdrop for the new shelving); painting the wall with white emulsion and the wooden slats above the bar in white gloss.

Normally I'd back a freestanding shelf unit or bookcase with hardboard or 3mm (1/8 inch) plywood which can give added strength and stability to a free standing unit; but as these shelves are to be built-in, with an existing wall mirror behind some of the shelving, and as I aim to match the new style with the existing cupboard and shelves, the wall will act as the backing for these shelves.

I don't normally paint shelves because once painted always painted; and anything painted has to be repainted once every five to ten years to keep it good. I normally prefer a wood finish not only because it looks natural but also because (apart from a bit of dusting and an occasional polish) it's maintenance free. I generally prefer the lighter wood effects such as oak and teak; but not pine as I feel it's too light. To achieve this effect I'd often rub teak oil into the wood and finish with a coat of beeswax applied with 'fine wire wool'; and if using 3mm plywood backing rub teak oil into that too, which brings it up to a rich oak like effect.

However on this occasion, as I'm matching new with old I need to use a dark wood stain and will be using 'Jacobean Walnut' by Sadolin, a durable oil based exterior wood stain.

If making a built-in unit where the wall is the backing then I always paint the wall white specifically to reflect maximum light making it easier to see what's at the back of the cupboard.

Replacing Two Wall Supported Shelves

Previously Designed For Wine and Sherry Glasses

As part of the preparation prior to repainting the walls I also needed to shorten the two original side shelf supports.

The two original wall shelves were just 75mm (3 inches) wide. Their only support was from the back by a baton screwed to the wall, therefore they didn't have the strength to hold anything heavy; just the wine and sherry glasses they were designed for.

As part of the new build I replaced these with two new wall shelves 100mm (4 inches) wide and supported them from the sides as well as the back. To make these shelves butt against the new shelving unit I was building I needed to trim a little off of the shelf supports. Rather than taking the whole lot off the wall and cutting the supports to length in my workshop I decided to use my SoniCrafter as an expedient and efficient way of making the adjustments; as shown in the video demonstration below.

The new shelves were then hewn on the leading edge to match the rest of the design, keeping the existing batons as back supports, and adding extra support to the side by fixing the wall shelves on the cupboard side with dowel and glue. This was done by drilling holes into the edge of the wood and corresponding holes in the adjoining wood (as described in detail below). Once all the other shelving units were assembled (for their final fit) the sides were glued and fixed to the side panel support of the new adjoining shelf unit with a couple of nails (from a nail gun).

I could have made these two original shelves wider than 4 inches, but as they are above the cupboard top (what was originally the bar area) if they were any wider they would protrude out too far, potentially making the cupboard top slightly less functional and would also make the whole cupboard area less aesthetic.

Wall Shelves

Wall Shelves

Using the SoniCrafter Saw to Cut Shelf Supports Fixed To Wall

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Cutting Wood to Required Length and Width

Measure Twice and Cut Once

Preparation is essential, ensure all the required tools and materials are too hand and plan beforehand how you intend tackling the DIY Project.

Normally if you were making a standalone cupboard or bookcase you could draw detailed plans and cut all the wood to the required lengths and widths at the start. However, with built-in furniture walls are never straight and square, and quite often neither are the ceilings or floors. Therefore, it’s prudent to measure, cut and test fit the wood in stages; as I’ve done for this DIY Project.

In order to ensure the cuts are straight and square use a square on a straight edge for cutting wood with a hand saw and use the square to ensure the blades on your electrical saws are square; and for accurate measurement when marking out for cutting ensure you keep your pencil sharp.

For cutting the width I don’t have a rip-saw or rip-saw bench but with a bit of ingenuity it is possible to accurately cut wood width using a standard circular saw with parallel guide and using clamps to hold the wood securely to a suitable bench. Using just one clamp at the end of the wood will not work as the wood will just slide sideways as you’re using the circular saw. However, placing two clamps (firmly tightened) close together near the end of the wood does work; and when the saw reaches the end stop and reposition the clamps to a new location behind the saw so that you can finish the cut (see pictures below).

Using a workbench or portable workbench may be ideal but if you don’t have a portable workbench or you intend cutting a long piece of wood a large and sturdy patio table can do the job equally well. However, when cutting wood in this way always triple check that the part of the wood being cut juts out far enough so that there is no risk of you accidentally cutting into your workbench or patio table.

Safety First – Always wear appropriate protective clothing, most particularly in this case protective goggles and before you switch on your electric circular saw double check the electric cable is behind you with no risk of accidentally being cut by the saw and at all times during the cut be conscious of where the cable is and that it stays safely behind you. I always make a point of ensuring the electric cable from the main power source is behind my legs and that I’m cutting the wood away from that power source to help ensure the cable always stays well away from the saw and in a safe position.

Cutting Timber to Width with a Circular Saw

Hewing Wooden Shelves

Creating a 17th Century Style Effect

Creating a hewn effect in wooden shelves was new to me but to match up with the existing cabinet and shelves was something I needed to master. I searched the web but could only find references to hewing beams with an axe to stimulate the effect of hewn wood before the days of saws.

Obviously wielding an axe at floorboards to create the effect would be too destructive so I needed a gentler approach ideally using tools I have to hand rather than buying specialist carving tools which I may never use again; a craftsman and wood carvers would have suitable tools for carving wood, as no doubt would a cabinet maker or carpenter. However for DIY woodworking normal woodworking tools are not so suitable for carving wood in this fashion.

Therefore after experimenting on scrap wood with various tools to hand I found the electric jigsaw to be ideal for the job; I found it to be simple, easy and quick; and it produced a good match to the hewing effect on the original cabinet and shelves.

The technique I developed is simple enough, and is as follows:-

  1. Securely clamp the wood to your workbench.
  2. Put on protective goggles.
  3. Ensure the power cable is behind you with no risk of it slipping in front of the jigsaw blade and being severed.
  4. Hold the electric jigsaw upside down between 30 degrees and 45 degrees near the top edge of wood and turn it on full speed.
  5. Introduce the blade to the edge of the wood and cut irregular waves into the wood with a sweeping motion, varying the depth, length and angle of the cut to simulate the irregular effect of hewn wood. Proceed along the whole length of the wood in this sweeping wave motion being as free, creative and as artistic as you wish.
  6. Turn the wood over, re-clamp and proceed as before.
  7. Quickly sand down with rough sandpaper and optionally finish with fine grain sandpaper.

Hewing Wooden Shelves with a Jig Saw

Making the Plinth

The Shelf Unit Base

The plinth for the new shelving unit is designed to the same style and dimensions as the plinth in the original shelf unit, 90mm (3.5 inches) high so the back sits above the existing skirting board; and a depth of 150mm (6 inches). As part of the plinth will sit in front of the existing wall mirror and be just over 3mm (1/8 inch) away from the wall where there is no mirror a 3mm (1/8 inch) beading is fixed to the back of that part of the plinth resting against the back wall. The alternative would have been to cut a 3mm slot to fit the plinth around the mirror; but sometimes the simple approach can be the best e.g. by simply adding a strip of wood (beading) to fill the gap between plinth and wall where there's no mirror.

The top ledge overhangs the base by 12mm (1/2 inch) and two chunks of wood 50mm (2 inches) by 75mm (3 inches) are added to each end as a sturdy footing to hold the whole plinth sturdy and to take the weight of the shelving and shelving contents above.

The leading edge of the plinth was hewn to match the style of the existing. The two side feet were then cut and one used to set the circular saw to the correct width for cutting the front of the base for the plinth, see pictures below.

The plinth was fitted together with wood glue (no nails) and a few nails (with nail gun) to hold it firm until the glue sets.

If the plinth had been wider it would also have needed support at the back but with the back support being set in greater than the thickness of the skirting board e.g. 18mm (3/4 inch) so as to give a few millimetres clearance.