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Zig-Zag Shelf


This is, a fairly unique display shelf project. It was a commission from some friends of mine for a shelf that would be placed at the end of a stub wall that divides two rooms. As such, the shelf would have no back. It would be open on both sides, and therefore visible from both rooms. It was also designed to look kind of like a stack of boxes. Here are the plans and designs that I worked from while building it.

This shelf was built from Cherry. I started by cutting down a lot of boards, trying match the pieces to the plans. There were a number of wide boards, and I did not want to cut them down to fit my 6" jointer. So, I quickly built a planer sled so that I could "joint" them using my planer. (Some of the boards were flat enough to just send through the planer, but others had some twist in them such that they rocked, and these needed to be flattened on one side before planing.)

The sled is simply a piece of 12" melamine, with a lip at the end. There were also some runners screwed under the sled, to ensure that it stayed flat.

You use it by placing a board on the sled, adding wedges to the corners to stop the board from rocking, and then use hot glue to secure the board in place. I could then run it through the planer a few times, to flatten the top of the board. Once it is flat on top, I can remove the board from the sled, flip it over, and then proceed to use the planer as normal.

I only planed the boards enough to be mostly flat on both sides, which was at about the 1" of thickness mark. I then proceeded to glue them up to make them wide enough for the 12-inch pieces I needed.

(As an aside, every piece of wood in this project is 12" wide. Not sure when I've had a complex project where all pieces were the same width.)

I then ripped them to their final finished width of 12", and then continued planing them to their final finished thickness of about 3/4" thick. By proceeding in this manner, if the boards were not perfectly flat after glue them together, the second round of planing would fix that.

After planing, I used the plans above and cut all the boards to their final size. I then sanded all the flat faces. It's much easier to sand now, as opposed to when the project is fully assembled.

I then set up all the pieces on the bench, using clamps to hold them, laying it all out as the final shelf was planned. I then could move boards around as desired, making sure I was happy with their placement -- selecting for colour and grain and defects. This is the time to decide what boards you want to feature, and which ones you want to place in a less prominent location.

I made generous use of painters tape and labelled each piece with a number, and also marked which pieces were for the front, and which for the back, and also which face was facing in versus facing out. All of the horizontal shelves, for instance, needed to have FOUR sets of joinery, and with the zig-zag nature of the shelf, it was critical to mark all the boards so that I did not drill holes in the wrong place.

Take a second look at the plans above, especially the 2D layout with all the dimensions noted, and you will see that the setback dimension changes from shelf to shelf. The top shelf is set 7" back, the next one down is 6" set back, and so on.

I chose to use dowels to assemble this shelf. In large part, this is because I have a Dowelmax Dowelling jig, which is extremely accurate. It's also very versatile, and can be reconfigured for differeing operations. This is very good, as there were three different kinds of holes to be drilled: First, there were dowel holes drilled into the ends of the upright boards, shown here.

(next two photos)
Second, there were dowel holes drilled into the face of the shelf boards, aligned with the ends of the shelf. Finally, and most challenging, there were rows of holes in the face of the shelf boards for the uprights that were inset from the ends of the boards. For those I made extra L-shaped spacer jigs that hooked over the ends of the shelf boards, to help with aligning the dowelling jig.

I first assembled three separate sections of the shelf, which made up three boxes. These were clamped and left to dry individually...

(Next photos)
... I then joined those three boxes together with uprights, and clamped it all together.

The topmost smallest box+shelf was added last. It is exciting to see the project take shape at this point.

I then applied multiple coats of Minwax oil-modified polyurethane. As a display shelf, I know that sooner or later someone will put a plant or glass of water on it, so polyurethane is a good choice with it's water resistance.

For a base, I made a simple plywood box, and attached it with pocket-hole screws. The client is planning to wrap the bottom with baseboard, so I spray-painted it black, so that if there is a gap along the top, it will make a nice dark shadow line.

I also spraypainted some 2-1/2" screws black. These are to be used to fasten the shelf to the wall

Here is a look at the finished shelf. (This is a screenshot from the build video, where I was showing how tall the finished unit is -- 80 inches!)

This was a commission piece for a client, and for privacy reasons I unfortunately can't show the finished piece installed in their house attached to the stub wall. One of the photos below shows it posed against a backdrop, which is the best I can do to show how it will be installed.

Some of the Tools/Supplies Used In This Project: (Affiliate Links)

Dowelmax Company
NOTE: at the time of publishing (May 2023) Dowelmax is not currently available on amazon. It has been in the past, so I am keeping the following links, but right now only the link above to "" is known to work.
Dowelmax Dowel Joinery Kit
Dowelmax Drill Guides for 1/4" Dowels
Dowelmax Dowels

Kreg Pocket Hole Clamp
Kreg Pocket Hole Jig
(I have older versions of these Kreg tools)

Minwax Oil-Modified Polyurethane
Irwin Quick Grip XP600 Clamps
Painter's Pyramids
DeWalt DW735 Planer
3rd party blades for DW735

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See Also:

Dollhouse Bookcase

Bookshelf Bench

Floating Walnut Shelves