How To Build a Customized Wall Unit

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Top Shelf: A Built-in Wall Unit Brings a Whole Room Together

When it comes to living space, everyone seems to want more. But what if you have the opposite problem? Our Jane-in-training, Ellen, had just bought her first home and had no idea what to do with her living room. She wanted to use the space to entertain as well as for storage. When it came to deciding what road to take, she was lost.

Too often furniture serves only one purpose, and Ellen needed two! For this reason (and the excuse to use power tools), we plunged headfirst into building our own custom shelving unit complete with built-in seating.

Interested? Building your own furniture is not as daunting as you think, but it does require a lot of steps and an abundance of patience. To get your head around this project, first think about what it is you really want out of a piece of furniture and check out catalogs and stores for ideas. This is your chance to build exactly what you want, but you have to know what that is!

Step 1

So, what are ya' going to build?

The first step of this project involves choosing a pattern. You can either go with ours or another pre-existing pattern pulled from a book or the Internet, or draw your own. and have patterns for tables, chairs, chests, even toys for children that start at just a few dollars. Information for projects includes drawings, a materials list and sometimes, instructions on how to use power tools, such as a router. Opt for one that is relatively simple if this is your first project.

Step 2

Determine how much wood you'll need for your project

The shelving unit we built was a total of 15' long. If you have less wall space or just want a smaller unit, adjust your measurement accordingly. Or you can always opt for not including all components. Either way, use your imagination and fill your wall with a fun and functional design element.

We used four sheets of birch plywood for this project, chosen for the wood's light color and nice grain pattern. After we determined the cut list, we cut all our boards to size. Make sure you measure at least twice before making any cuts.

The best way to cut full sheets of plywood is to either set up sawhorses, use a work table or use crates on the ground (as we did in this project) for support. Not only do you want to support the board you are cutting, you should do the same for the piece that will be cut off to prevent pinching and stalling of the circular saw's blade.

Jane Tip: If you are using a saw, don't forget your protective eyewear and mask! If it's been a while since you worked your circular saw, take some time and practice until you can cut a straight, even line. If you aren't comfortable using a saw, your local home improvement center will make all of the cuts for you.

Step 3

Measure twice, cut once!

Next, mark your cuts. Do this one at a time since as you cut, the wood that turns into sawdust, "kerf", accounts for that 'lost material' in your overall measurement.

On plywood sheet #1, mark your first cut by measuring 11.75" in from the edge of the board. (See diagram) Do this in two or three places from top to bottom to be sure that the line you trace is straight. Then, use a straight edge and place it on the marks. Once it's aligned, draw your mark.

wall unit step 3



Step 4

Straight-edge anyone?

For the next cut, use your straight edge as your guide for the circular saw. If you're right-handed, measure the distance from the cut line of your saw base (indent for 90 degree cuts) to the edge of the base guide.

Ours was 5½". We then added 5½" beyond our line and drew more marks. This is where we clamped our guide. Before you cut, hold your circular saw next to the guide and ensure that your blade will in fact line up on your line. If so, you're good to go!

Step 5

Steady as she goes!

Start your circular saw by depressing the 'trigger' on the handle. Some models have safety locks that you must first depress prior to pulling the trigger, so read your manufacturer's instructions first. Be sure to let the blade start spinning first before cutting into the wood. Go slowly and steady for the full length of the plywood and be sure that when you get to the end that you continue to cut straight through the plywood until your saw is out on the other side.

Step 6

You're such a cut-up

Continue in this manner making all your cuts to match the cut list. You'll cut several of your longer 'strips' of boards into shorter lengths per the cut list. Since these will be shorter cuts, they'll be much easier but the overall cut process is still the same as Steps 3 through 5.

wall unit step 6
Step 7

Smooth out the edges

Once all your plywood is cut, give each board a good sanding. Since you're working with birch plywood, we recommend starting with either 80 or 100 grit to get the edges smooth and just lightly sand the face (broad part) of the board. And don't forget to wear your protective eyewear!

Step 8

Put your iron to a better use

Apply veneer tape to the edges of the plywood that will be exposed. This hides the raw edges of the plywood and makes it look neater and more polished. You'll simply need to place the strip over the edge to finish and mark the length, then you can cut it either with scissors or a razor. Edging comes in iron-on form, which is what we used. Peel and stick edging is also available if you want a quick alternative to the iron.

Step 9

Clean up your edges

Once dry, it's time to trim the edging. Use a razor and slowly go over the parts that hang over the plywood, using the edge of the wood as your guide. Just be sure that you don't cut into the wood!

Or, another option is to go with power. There is a tool called a laminate trimmer which is basically like a mini-router. You'll use a pilot flush cut bit which basically is just a router bit that has a ball bearing on the end to guide your cut—it rolls along the plywood while the blade of the bit cuts off the excess veneer to make it flush with the plywood.

Repeat steps #8 and #9 for all exposed sides of each of your board pieces.

Jane Tip: We didn't edge the back sides of the boards as they'll be facing the wall. We also left the edges that would be attached directly to another board since they too wouldn't be visible in the end project.

Step 10

Sanding, one more time!

Now comes the time for finish sanding. We know it seems like a lot of prep work, but the beauty is in the details! You'll want to be sure that your finished piece is smooth and shows the wood grain well.

Put a 150-grit sanding disk on your random orbit sander and sand all your pieces, including the newly-applied edging. Be sure not to press too hard on the corners of the edging when sanding—you don't want to pull it up. But even if you do, you can re-heat with the iron to melt the glue and adhere again, or use a dab of wood glue. Once you've sanded with 150 grit, give it a light final sand with 200 grit.

Step 11

It's all coming together: assembly

Now, you should have all of your wood cut, sanded, stained and ready to assemble! This is a great opportunity to do a "dry run" with your pieces, just to see how the arrangement will look.

Step 12

Side towers first

Starting with the S-shaped towers, line up one of your 2.5' x 11.75" boards (the length or run of the shelf) with one of your shorter 18.5" x 11.75" boards (the height or rise). You'll want the rise to be on the inside of the run (see diagram) - this will allow the boards to support the majority of the weight, not the just the fasteners (screws).

wall unit step 12

Step 13

Glue for extra stability

Adhere your pieces with wood glue to give your piece of furniture added stability. Be sure to use stainable wood glue so that it doesn't show in the final piece. Don't use too much, though! You don't want any spill over.

Step 14

Pilot holes help avoid split wood

Then, hold flush and pre-drill pilot holes first. Next, insert your 1 5/8" screws to attach boards. We used two screws for each joint (where the boards were attached).

Step 15

An interesting 4th side

Now you will insert the pipe into the open side of your assembly. We purchased 1/2" plumbing pipes with threaded ends in the plumbing section of our local home improvement store.

We used 1/2" floor flanges for each end of the pipe. These allow you to screw the pipe right into the flange which has four holes for screws to attach to the wood. Use 3/4" #8 wood screws with big enough heads that won't pull through the holes on the flanges. You're using the shorter 3/4" screws to be sure that they don't go through the other side of the wood!

Align the pole unit halfway back from the front edge of the boards and approximately 1/4" in from the edge. Attach the top and bottom with your smaller wood screws. Be sure you measure both the top and bottom to ensure that your pipe assembly is perfectly plumb (straight up and down).

wall unit 15

Step 16

Complete the towers

Now continue adding boards per #12-15 above and then inserting the poles until you have your two shelf units.

wall unit 16

Step 17

Side box assembly

Repeat steps Step 12 through 14, but you'll be using boards for each side and for the top and bottom. Basically, you're creating a rectangle with the boards. You'll then take the pipe assembly unit as Step 13 and place this in the middle of your newly-created box. This will help to provide stability as well as strength to your unit and will tie it in with the two main towers. Repeat to make two of these units.

wall unit 17

Step 18

Bench seat assembly

Take your lengths or runs (top and bottom pieces) and place the two side supports (or risers) in place. Glue and attach with screws through pre-drilled pilot holes. Then, mark equal lengths in for your two interior support boards. These will be the same size as the two end boards.

wall unit 18

Be sure to mark the top and bottom to be sure that your boards are plumb. Place a bead of glue on the top and bottom, push board into place, (you may need to tap into place with a hammer) and then screw through the top and the bottom of the unit into the divider. Repeat for the other divider.

Step 19

Putty up the gaps

Check for any gaps where the boards meet. You'll want to put some stainable wood putty in these areas either with your finger or with a putty knife. Let dry and sand smooth with #150 sandpaper or finer.

Step 20

Almost there!

You are almost done! The only thing left is finishing! We chose a natural wood stain finish to enhance the wood grain but not change the wood's color.

Brush on the stain in the direction of the wood grain being sure to get all areas but don't let the stain pool. As birch is a hardwood, it isn't necessary to use wood conditioner, however you may wish to if you're concerned about uniformity of your stain. Usually wood conditioner is only necessary on softer woods such as Pine or when you're using a darker colored stain.

After the stain dried according to manufacturer's directions, we applied three coats of water-based Polyurethane being sure to allow ample drying time in between each coat and doing a very light sanding with 200-grit sandpaper in between each coat to smooth out.

Step 21

Installation—stable does it

Start by placing your two towers where you want them in your room against the wall. Then place your bench assembly in between. Be sure that the location is correct. Locate a wall stud behind the tower units using a stud finder. Mark their location. Next, using an L-bracket (see diagram), screw one side into the stud with the other side of the L on the underside of your shelf. Then, screw it into your shelf. You may want to use two L-brackets per tower to ensure stability. Be sure that both towers are tight to your seating unit which you will attach next.

wall unit 21

Step 22

A place to sit

Now, attach your seating unit to the towers to create one cohesive and stable unit. Use 1-1/4" screws and screw from the inside of your bench unit directly into the side of the tower unit (per the diagram). Use about three or four screws per attachment location.

wall unit 22

Step 23

Create your padded bench seat

wall unit 23Cut a scrap piece of plywood to the same size as the bench top or a few inches shorter on the ends as we did here to allow for drinks to be set down. Then take your foam and place it on top of the plywood, followed by batting and finally - the fabric.

Using a staple gun, stretch the fabric tight over the foam and batting and attach to the bottom of the wood. Once all sides have been attached, place your padded seat on top of the bench assembly. Attach from the underside of the bench assembly with 1 ¼" screws - be sure you don't use screws that are too long or they're likely to poke a guest in the rear-end!

Voila! Custom-Made Furniture!

After that final coat has dried, you can your new piece of furniture. We brought Ellen's room together with a few inexpensive decorations, such as a rug, pillows and picture frames, all of which can be interchanged for a quick makeover sometime down the road.

Building the shelving unit turned Ellen from a Jane-in-training to a full-blown Jane! The unit allowed her to store and display books and photos, while the benches gave her room to entertain. If you are looking for a piece of furniture that just doesn't seem to exist, we encourage your to build your own. Because it is custom-made, it will be the perfect size, shape and color. Now, if only clothes shopping was that easy!

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I believe the correct word is VOILA, not viola (this is a musical instrument; the other means the same thing as Ta Da! Look at what I did!!). OK, now I have my Grammar Cop comment out of the way. The wall unit looks terrific, but in my living room, our TV and entertainment unit is in the corner by my fireplace. Suggestions for adapting this design to fit a corner location, anyone?

I want to build my daughter a cube or modular bookcase but have litle money and very little experience. Any suggestions.
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