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Shaker Style Shelves Routing Project

Shaker Style Shelves Routing Project
  This style is very simple & uncomplicated. It is mechanically functional yet still retains elegance.
Shelving units of any sort are always in demand no matter what your style of decor. Books, ornaments, CDs all need housing and nicely proportioned shelving can often make a really decorative feature rather than being just purely functional.

A recent commission was for a set of “very simple” shelves to accommodate a collection of figures, and as I have recently taken an interest in the Shaker style of furniture, it seemed a good opportunity to explore it further. The very simple lines and subtle uncomplicated detail of this style can be very elegant. Definitely a case of less is more.

However, there is a fine balance between being crude and being simple, a concept the Shakers developed to a fine art. To me the secret lies in using material that is nicely figured and leaving that to do the talking, rather than trying to dress it up with lots of fussy detail. Also, the degree of delicacy is enhanced by using relatively thin sections. I would never have thought of using 1/2 inch material for a job like this and would always have used at least 3/4. However look at the result. It is mechanically functional yet still retains elegance.

The style of this unit is a virtual copy of a design I found in a Shaker book, so I take no credit for it, but I do particularly like the juxtaposition of the rigidly angular sides and the sweeping curved ends, so simple!

Faced with the prospect of having to make several of these units I started by making a couple of jigs to form the sliding dovetails to join the sides to the shelf ends. This is a complex joint to cut by hand, particularly in volume, but the router and a simple jig make short work of it and to a standard far higher than I could ever achieve any other way.

The next issue is the material itself. True Shaker furniture is made from native timbers such as maple or black walnut, but I had to provide finished units in a ‘brown’ colour. I don’t like staining, particularly on figured timber as the results can be very unpredictable. In the end I settled for Iroko, a much maligned timber but one that can be highly decorative if you pick it carefully.

As with many timbers these days, it is unlikely that you will find it in thin sections, so you will have to re-saw your own from thicker stock. This is not a problem if you have a half decent bandsaw and a planer thicknesser, but there are a few golden rules for successful re-sawing.

1. For a start allow for plenty of waste. It is no use expecting to get two 1/2 inch pieces from a 1 inch board. Uneven drying, in-built growth stresses and blade wander will all conspire to make you end up wasting probably a third. I started off with 1 1/4 inch material, and just managed to finish the two boards flat and true at 1 inch.
     
Selecting the Material
  2. You can of course help matters by selecting the material carefully in the first place, but that is not always an option. If there is a choice always go for quarter sawn material, characterised by having the annual rings at right angles to the face of the board. As well as generally being more decorative, the re-sawn boards will be a lot more stable.
Selecting the Material
  3. Straight through-and-through material, where the rings are more perpendicular to the face of the board, is far more likely to move after it has been cut.
Selecting the Material
  4. To make the re-sawing process as accurate as possible start by planing a square face and edge on each board, to give you a decent reference surface. Planing will also give you an immediate indication of any other problems with the timber which you might not have noticed before.
Selecting the Material
  5. In this case some of the boards were revealed to have a large amount of ugly sapwood which I had missed in the selection process.
     

Sawing the Work - 1

Sawing the Work - 1
  6. Re-sawing is hard work for the bandsaw, so fit a new sharp blade, ideally something like a 5/8” x 4 tpi for deep cuts, and set it up carefully.
Sawing the Work - 1
  7. Feed the timber through the saw slowly, but with constant, even pressure, keeping the planed face and edge against the fence and table.
Sawing the Work - 1
  8. Sometimes if the blade set is not even, it tries to cut off to one side, but overcome this by drawing the cut line and feeding the timber through freehand at the necessary angle.
Sawing the Work - 1
  9. Take care as you come to the end of the cut and use a push stick to keep your hands well away from the blade, a lot of it will suddenly be exposed as the cut is completed.
Sawing the Work - 1
  10. You will immediately see some form of distortion in the cut boards although you will see that it is far less in the quarter sawn boards on the right. The plain sawn boards have bowed along their length with a much wider gap in the middle. They have also cupped slightly, but all this is quite normal, albeit frustrating, hence the need to allow for plenty of waste.

Ideally, leave the re-sawn boards to condition in a warm room for a few days as the distortion will continue further as the moisture gradient settles out. Only then can you start to flatten them out ready for use.
     
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Sawing the Work - 2

Sawing the Work - 2
  11. The first stage is to surface them, concave face down to straighten out any bowing.
Sawing the Work - 2
  12. When this face is flat, thickness them all but take care with the grain orientation to minimise tearing. You amazed how much ends up in the dust extractor before you finish up with straight and true stock!
Sawing the Work - 2
  13. With any woodworking project and particularly with small scale ones like this; it is vital that matching components do just that! So cut them together to ensure that lengths and widths are identical. A small strip of double sided tape will hold them securely enough for cutting. Leave the widths a little over at this stage as there will inevitably be some breakout as you cut the housings.
Sawing the Work - 2
  14. Set out the position of the shelves on the sides, the proportions are important here and generally heights diminishing towards the top look best. Try making a scale drawing if you are not too sure how it will look.
Sawing the Work - 2
  15. To cut the dovetail housings use a suitable jig that can be clamped to the work, but make sure it is square up against the edge of the side.
     

Cutting the Dovetail Housing

Cutting the Dovetail Housing
  16. Fit a fine height adjuster to the router as well. Not only will this serve the obvious function, but it will also stop you accidentally releasing the plunge and losing your height setting.
Cutting the Dovetail Housing
  17. Cut the groove straight across in one pass. Ideally making a relief cut with a smaller two flute cutter first.
Cutting the Dovetail Housing
  18./19. Then use the indexing pin on the jig to locate the side for the next cut, and repeat the procedure until both sides have been cut.
Cutting the Dovetail Housing
  20. The breakout can be removed by re-planing the edge, or alternatively clamp a spelch strip to the back of the work to stop it happening in the first place.
Cutting the Dovetail Housing
 
     

Cutting the Shelves

Cutting the Shelves
  21./22. The tails on the ends of the shelves are cut with another jig, but now you will probably find that using the router in the right direction, i.e. pushing it away from you ends up producing a very ragged cut.
Cutting the Shelves
 
Cutting the Shelves
  23. In this situation, where the cut is very small, it is quite safe and acceptable to ‘back cut’, i.e. use the router the wrong way and make an initial light pass pulling the router backwards to just sever the fibres.
Cutting the Shelves
  24. Then you can make the main cut the proper way and the result is much cleaner. (Just watch that the timber doesn’t slip down in the jig, as here, or the shoulders will not be even.)
Cutting the Shelves
  25. Using a jig like this allows you to knock off a whole batch of shelf ends in no time at all, but check the fit of the first one so that it slides into place with just a gentle tap, before you cut all the others.
     

Cutting the Sides

Cutting the Sides
  26. The sides can be profiled next, and again a template makes short work of getting everything identical. Cut the shape from a piece of MDF and make sure the edge is perfectly smooth and don’t forget to allow for the guide bush margin if the finished size is critical.
Cutting the Sides
  27. Stick the template to the work with a strip of double sided tape, using a clamp to squeeze it together to get the full grip. Cut the sides out on the bandsaw leaving them 2-3 mm bigger than the template. Don’t make them any bigger or it will be unnecessarily hard work for the router.
Cutting the Sides
  28. To trim back to the template use a bearing guide trimmer, it doesn’t really matter whether the bearing is at the top or the bottom of the cutter, my own preference is for the top as this allows a better view of what is happening. Trend Ref. 46/09X1/2TC.
Cutting the Sides
  29. Set the depth of cut so that the bearing is running full on the template, and trim away!
Cutting the Sides
  30. It is so easy and you will get perfect, clean cuts even on the end grain sections.
     
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Bevelling the Edges

Bevelling the Edges
  31. Of course you will have remembered before you cut the end profile that the two pieces are now ‘handed’, if not go back and start again!
Bevelling the Edges
  32. Try a dry assembly, gently tapping each shelf into place and marking their width.
Bevelling the Edges
  33./34. Two of them need to have the edges bevelled to match the shape of the sides, so gauge the angle using a sliding bevel, transfer this to the circular saw and make a trimming cut.
Bevelling the Edges
  35. Return the saw to 90 degrees and cut each shelf to its final width, removing any breakout on the ends of the joint at the same time.
Bevelling the Edges
 
     

Lacquering

Lacquering
  36. Try another dry assembly to make sure everything lines up properly, a few wipes with a finely set block plane should tidy up any minor discrepancies!

Now glue it all together, and although the dovetail joint is self cramping I still use some gentle pressure from some sash cramps to maintain squareness while the glue sets.
Lacquering
  37. Finish is a matter of choice, but on a project like this try a couple of coats of brushing lacquer which dries quickly, gives a good seal to the surface but doesn’t end up looking too glossy.
Lacquering
  38. Finished shelf unit.



Written by Alan Holtham - Established woodworking author and video producer.
     
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