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How To Make a Shelf Unit Using Repurposed Wood

Updated on March 4, 2015
A shelf unit made from pieces of old furniture.
A shelf unit made from pieces of old furniture.

Making something out of nothing.

Having some years of woodworking experience, I have learned that there are many very nice pieces of wood in old furniture just waiting for their second chance to get noticed. For that reason it can be a good idea to save a few pieces of wood if you have the room to do so.

If you are like me and constantly building things, it can get expensive to buy new lumber all the time. If someone hires me to make something, new wood will be used. The rest of the time reclaimed wood is used whenever possible. The added bonus is finding something amazing that everyone else passed over.

Scrap pieces from another book case.
Scrap pieces from another book case.

Building a shelving unit.

The project that will be showcased here is a shelving unit. When using reclaimed material, the material will sometimes dictate the sizes and limits on the piece that you are building. If you are flexible with the size then this won't create an obstacle for you. With this particular piece, (and I made two of them), there was nearly enough material to do what was needed. I had to go purchase a board for a couple of shelves. It cost me a whopping $4.97!

I started with the reclaimed wood in the photo and was able to build the two units that were 34" wide by 36" high and 12" deep. In the various photos you will see holes drilled for floating shelves. I just used wood filler to cover the holes and took additional measures to add strength to the unit. When working with material like this, staining usually out of the question. I will have to use paint for a finish. What is the next step? Read on!

Gluing up the side panels.
Gluing up the side panels.

Selecting the pieces and gluing up stock.

The first thing that you seek out are the pieces for the top. These have to be the best boards because they will be the most visible. Next, select the pieces for the sides, the second most visible pieces. If needed, glue the boards together to create your needed width. I strongly recommend using biscuit joinery or some other form of joinery so that the boards line up perfectly.

Make the finished sizes a little longer and a little wider that what you actually need. This way you can cut your perfect finished sizes on the table saw. When you set up the table saw to make a cut, cut your side pieces at the same time to assure everything will be exactly the same size. I will usually oversize my pieces by about an inch in length and width so I have just enough to shave off to make the pieces my true size.

Using biscuit joinery to assemble the panels.
Using biscuit joinery to assemble the panels.

Making a fixed shelf and the web frame.

The next thing to do is to make a fixed shelf. A fixed shelf just means that the shelf is glued permanently in place and can't be moved. In this unit it will be a structural member that will hold the bottom of the cabinet together. The bottom shelf is held to the sides by cutting dado grooves in the side pieces about 2" from the bottom. The shelf should fit these grooves perfectly so be careful not to make them too big. A second dado is cut at the top for the web frame.

To cut the dados, I used a table saw. You could also use a router to get the same results. If you don't own either of these tools then you could simply glue the pieces in place, but they won't be as strong.

If my cabinet is 34" wide and my dado groove is 3/8" deep, (half of the board thickness), then my bottom shelf needs to be cut 33 1/4" wide to make this over all width of the cabinet. When assembled, this shelf will hold the bottom of the unit together.

We can now make the web frame. The web frame is simply four boards that are cut about 1 1/2" wide, made the exact size of the bottom shelf, joined at the corners, and placed at the top of the unit. I used a "lap" joint to assemble the corners on this unit. The lap joint takes half of the board thickness off of each end and when assembled, will be the exact thickness of a full board. (See photo) Make sure the web frame is square when gluing it together!

Like the bottom shelf, a dado will be cut at the top of each side for the web frame to fit in. The dado notch at the top will be open on the top. Eventually, the top board will rest on this surface. By using a web frame instead of a full board, it not only is easy to make but saves on lumber. The top will be attached later without showing any fasteners.

Using lap joints for the web frame.
Using lap joints for the web frame.
Check to make sure that the web frame will be square when it sets up.
Check to make sure that the web frame will be square when it sets up.

Gluing up the case.

This is the exciting part! The pieces start to come alive and resemble your shelving unit. Start by getting everything ready such as having the clamps close by, having the wood glue ready, put down some old paper to protect surfaces from glue drips, etc. I even went a step farther and sanded the top portion of the bottom shelf and the inside of the sides. It is easier to reach these surfaces before assembly.

Lay your side pieces, dado side up, on your work surface and put glue in the dados. Next, put your web frame and bottom shelf on your work surface and raise one side at a time to fit the shelf and the web frame into the dados. Repeat on the other side. Clamp your work with two clamps on the bottom, front and back; and two clamps on the top, front and back.

Hold a square on the inside of the unit as shown. Adjust until everything is square. When the unit is square, temporarily secure a couple of pieces of smaller wood at an angle to the front of the side and the web frame. (See photo) This will keep the unit nice and square until the glue completely sets.

Gluing up the sides, web frame, and bottom shelf to form the case.
Gluing up the sides, web frame, and bottom shelf to form the case.

Attaching the top.

With your case assembled, it is time to secure the top. The top will be over sized because you will put trim on the face of the unit. On this unit, I did more of a traditional style so I accounted for a face frame as well as a small ogee trim to be attached as well. If you want more of a contemporary style then just account for the face frame without any extra overhang.

This top is over sized it so that I would get an overhang on the sides of 1" on either side and 1 3/4" on the front. This gives room for the face frame on the front, trim that is 1/2" thick, and an additional 1/2" overhang over the trim. Again, this is your choice.

After determining what size will fit your particular unit, attach by placing screws through the web frame on the underneath side and up through to the top. If you use 1 1/4" long wood screws it will allow 1/2" of the screw to hold in the top, making the top secure without protruding through. I used 3 screws along the front and 3 along the back, and 2 screws on each side. (See photo)

This is a view showing the dado that was cut to receive the web frame.  The web frame is glued in place.  Now place screws from the underside of the web frame as shown.
This is a view showing the dado that was cut to receive the web frame. The web frame is glued in place. Now place screws from the underside of the web frame as shown.

Putting on a face frame.

Now it is time to make your unit look a little more dressy! Take a good measurement of the width. You should have 34" or something very close. Cut a nice board without blemishes to this length and make 2" wide. Note: if you aren't putting any extra trim on then make the board only 1 1/2" wide. Put a bead of glue along the edge of the web frame and 2' down the sides. Place the trim board in place and either clamp or finish nail in place. I did both.

Next, take a measurement from the board that you just put on to the bottom. Cut two boards this length and make them 1 1/2" wide. Again, glue along the edge of the sides and put the two trim boards on. Clamp in place or finish nail.

Finally, make the bottom trim board. You can either cut a piece that will cover from the bottom shelf to the floor or you can make it narrower if you choose. If you look in the photo you will see that I cut a decorative curve in mine. When finished, glue in place.

By gluing the face frame on, you let the frame be another structural member. This will make a very strong cabinet.

A little embellishment that I added.
A little embellishment that I added.
Boards cut 1 1/2" wide for the face frame.  The top piece will be 2" if you put extra trim on.
Boards cut 1 1/2" wide for the face frame. The top piece will be 2" if you put extra trim on.
The trim that I added onto the face frame to give a more "traditional" look.
The trim that I added onto the face frame to give a more "traditional" look.

Placing ledger boards for shelves.

Because these side panels had several holes drilled in them, we will use some ledger boards to rest the shelves on instead of cutting dados. This will keep the structural integrity of the side boards. With the face trim that you just put on, these boards will not be visible.

These ledger boards are 1" wide strips, cut to match the depth of the unit, in this case 12". With this unit two shelves were used in addition to the bottom shelf. Mark the desired location of each shelf and draw a reference line on the inside of the side panels. Next, drill two holes in each ledger board 2" from each end to accommodate screws that will mount the boards. The holes will help the screw travel through the ledger without splitting it. I used a 3/16" bit.

If you want to totally hide the screw altogether, follow up by drilling a 3/8 hole about 1/4" deep right on top of the 3/16" hole. This is called countersinking. After you mount the boards you can cut pieces of 3/8" dowel to use as plugs. When sanded flush, they are hardly noticeable.

Put glue on the back of your ledger boards and place them on your shelf reference line. Screw in place using screws 1" long of you countersink the heads. Use 1 1/4" screws if you don't countersink the heads.

Ledger boards for the shelf to sit on.  The screw heads are still visible but a 3/8" dowel will fill in the hole and cover them.
Ledger boards for the shelf to sit on. The screw heads are still visible but a 3/8" dowel will fill in the hole and cover them.

Securing the shelves.

Take a careful measurement for the shelf size. Cut you shelves to the exact size. I needed the shelves to be a full 12" deep so that meant gluing some boards together first.

The next step is securing the shelves to the ledger boards. This step is not entirely necessary but if humidity changes cause the shelf to change, it can create a "rocking" motion. I chose to glue these shelves down. At the same time it add more strength to the cabinet.

Gluing the shelf to the ledger board.
Gluing the shelf to the ledger board.

Placing the back on.

The final construction stage is putting a back on. A back is usually a structural member but if you built your unit as I did mine, the cabinet is strong enough to stand alone. I chose to put one on because it gives it a nicer look.

To put the back on just simply measure your finished size from the back and cut a piece of 1/4" plywood to fit. It is best to reduce the size of the back by 1/4" on all four sides. This keeps the plywood slightly hidden. For example, this unit is 34" wide so the back was cut 33 1/2". The height was 36" so the back was cut 35 1/2".

note - If you look closely at the first picture in this article you will notice that the back of the first unit that I built was put on in sections, leaving 2" of open space just above each shelf. Electronic equipment will be placed here and needs air ventilation.

The finish!

The grand finally with any project is the finish. I started by using wood filler to take care of any surface imperfections. The wood used here was pine that had knots in it. I didn't want to take a chance with knots weeping any sap through the paint so the initial coat was with an oil based primer. This will seal the wood thoroughly. The primer was followed with two coats of latex paint.

Finished unit with a coat of primer and paint.
Finished unit with a coat of primer and paint.

The finished project.

Some of the items needed for this project were:

  • Sandpaper ( 100 and 120 grit )
  • Sanding discs for orbital sander ( 120 grit )
  • Oil based primer
  • Latex paint ( color of choice )
  • Wood glue

You can see that with a little ingenuity, flexibility, and vision that you can create new things out of old ones. I tend to take this on as a self challenge. This entire project cost me a little over $20 for the one board and the finish materials to make two of these units. It gives me enjoyment and I hope it will you as well!

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    • MHiggins profile image
      Author

      Michael Higgins 2 years ago from Michigan

      Thank you monia saad. This is now an addition in my daughter's home. Many things can be made with repurposed wood. Thanks again!

    • monia saad profile image

      monia ben saad 2 years ago from In my Dream

      Good job. Suffice to say I am grateful to you. Even the pictures show everything. Final shape of the utmost beauty . thank you

    • MHiggins profile image
      Author

      Michael Higgins 2 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks for stopping by, Besarien! Yes, the oil base primer will stop the pine knots from weeping sap. I'm glad that you enjoyed the hub.

    • Besarien profile image

      Besarien 2 years ago

      Beautiful work! I did not realize that latex worked well directly over an oil based primer. Your hubs always teach me something useful for which I am grateful.

    • MHiggins profile image
      Author

      Michael Higgins 2 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks for stopping by, Phyllis. I'm glad that you enjoyed the hub. I really like doing the projects so much that I almost don't like for them to come to an end. I have to keep looking for the next one to start! :) Thanks again for the complement.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      I love reading your articles on creating/restoring wood pieces. This shelving unit is exactly what I need in my apartment - one on each side of a small window. Wish I could hire you to come make them. The finished product is lovely - sleek, elegant, sturdy and very useful. Thanks for sharing this project.