Once you’ve got the boards cut to length, decide on a profile for the side pieces. If you’re feeling jaunty and self-assured, mark the shape directly onto the board and cut it out with your jigsaw. If you’ve gotten into trouble this way in the past, draw the shape on cardboard first and cut it out to be sure it looks OK. Some people like to construct entire mockups in cardboard just to test the dimensions. I prefer to wing it and live with my mistakes, which explains my van, but that’s another story.
Next, draw the wavy shapes for the 18″-long top and bottom rails. To achieve symmetry in your design, take a 9″-wide piece of paper or cardboard and draw a curvy line on it. Cut the design out and trace it onto one half of the 18″-long board. Then flip the cardboard over and trace the design onto the other half of the board. Repeat the process for the bottom border, varying the design a bit so it isn’t exactly the same shape as the top.
If you have an earnest reverence for our outhouse heritage, you may have the urge to add a crescent-moon somewhere on your unit. Draw the shape where you want it and drill a generous hole in the middle of the moon. Insert your jigsaw blade into that hole, and proceed to cut out the moon. You should definitely use a scrolling blade for this purpose. A scrolling blade is more delicate than a regular jigsaw blade, and can handle tight corners that would make a standard blade buck.
Once you’ve cut out all your pieces, “round over” the sharp edges with sandpaper so they’re soft and aged-looking. If you find sanding unfulfilling, either lower your expectations or use a cornering tool to ease all the straight edges. Cornering is a hugely satisfying activity, producing lovely curly shavings that can be used later for homemade potpourri.
After all that sanding you’re going to want some instant gratification. It’s tempting to screw the whole unit together right here, right now. But do yourself a giant favor and put the stain, paint or clear-coat on the individual pieces before you go any further. It is SO MUCH EASIER than having to cover all the multiple surfaces of the shelf-unit after it’s assembled. Besides that, glue squeeze-out will glom on to bare wood during the assembly process, but if your boards already sport a coat of finish, the glue can be easily wiped off.
My favorite finish is shellac. It’s made from the excretions of “lac” bugs that live in trees in India and Indonesia, and if that’s not a great conversation starter I don’t know what is. This bug residue is scraped off the trees, and then cleaned, filtered and mixed with denatured alcohol to make one of most interesting and least noxious finishes I know of.
There are two ways to buy shellac: pre-mixed or dry form. The pre-mixed stuff has a limited shelf life, so you usually end up having to throw a lot of it out. I prefer to buy dry shellac flakes and mix them with high-quality shellac thinner. “Super Blonde” shellac from Lee Valley Tools is brilliantly clear, plus it’s de-waxed, which means it doesn’t water-stain.
Even if you don’t work with shellac as your final finish, at least brush a couple of quick dabs of shellac on any knots. This will seal the knots and prevent sap from oozing up under your chosen finish. In fact, shellac is a great primer coat for pretty much any finish except stain, so don’t resist using this fine gift from the bug world.
Fit to be Tried
Now you’re ready to dry fit the whole unit. Lay it all out with the sides, shelves and borders in place. This is your opportunity to identify the tallest spray cans in your battery of personal care products. Space the shelves accordingly, so everything fits nicely on the unit when you’re done. Clamp everything together lightly, and then square the shelves using a speed-square. Now reef on those clamps so they’re nice and tight. Use a pencil to mark a light line on the side pieces under each of the shelves for reference later when you’re doing the final assembly under the duress of knowing that the glue is starting to set up.
While all the clamps are in place, pre-drill pilot holes for your screws so you don’t split the shelves when you drive the screws. Then, right on top of the pre-drilled screw-holes, drill larger holes to a depth of 3/8″ to make a cavity for the plugs that will hide the screw heads. To avoid drilling the plug holes too deep, it’s a good idea to wrap a piece of masking tape around your drill bit 3/8″ from the end so you know when to stop.
Now for the wet fit. Take all the pieces apart and apply a modest bead of glue along the edges of the shelves and borders, plus a dab on each end of the towel bar. Reassemble and clamp everything together, and drive those screws. Use a damp rag to wipe away any oozing glue around the joints.
Just Say ‘Yes’ to Plugs
Once your screws are in place, fire up the plug-cutter and cut the plugs in a scrap piece of pine.
Once you’ve cut about 30 plugs, use a knife or screwdriver to pop each plug out of its little hole. They’ll pop easier if you lever the knife perpendicular to the grain. TIP: As an alternative to cutting your own plugs, you can buy pre-cut hardwood plugs at the hardware store, but hardwood looks funny when used with a soft wood like pine; the color of the wood doesn’t match, plus hardwood isn’t as absorbent as pine so the plugs take finish differently and refuse to blend in.
Before inserting each plug into its pre-drilled hole, place a drop of glue on the bottom of each plug and smear it around a bit.
When you have your unit plugged, wait 20 minutes for the glue to set up. Then use a flush-cut saw to cut each plug flush with the surface of the cabinet. If you don’t have a flush-cut saw, you can take the plugs down fairly quickly using a sander loaded with #80-grit sandpaper.
Once the plugs are cut and sanded, touch up the plugs and sides of your shelf-unit with shellac or whatever finish you’re using.
Now it’s time to mount your unit on the wall. My favorite mounting technique is to screw two 2″-long strips of metal plumber’s tape (which has prepunched holes) on the back of the shelf-unit, and then lift the unit onto waiting nails anchored in studs above the toilet. Finding the studs is a matter of importance, because you don’t want your unit crashing down on you while you’re otherwise occupied with a good magazine.
Also, it’s vital to leave enough room between the toilet tank lid and the shelf-unit. If the toilet floods, you need maneuvering room to whip the lid off, plunge your hand into the dank tank and slap the flapper back down. You’ll remember this ritual from the first time you knocked something into the toilet, and tried to quietly flush it away. For more of Mag Ruffman’s plans, visit Anything I Can Do. PW