Woodworking

Shoe cabinet build – project report

Shoe cabinet build – project report

New workshop

Woodworking is fairly new to me, as I wrote before, and this was my first “real” woodworking project.

Once we moved into a house, setting up my workshop was first on the list. I bought all the main machines I knew I’d need, quickly put together a workbench and was itching to get started.

Talking to one of our friends about all this, they were very interested in the fact I was going to do woodworking, and immediately had a project for me.

They needed a “shoe rack” of very specific dimensions and couldn’t find one in the stores.

Being young and stupid, latter more than former, I jumped on the opportunity. I wanted to help and thought it would be a great chance for me to learn.

First project: Shoe cabinet

Once we got into the details of what they needed, it turned out to actually be a cabinet, not a rack.

Luckily, they also didn’t seem to have anything very particular in mind in terms of style and were happy for me to do it the way that was easier for me.

Of course, I overestimated what I could do so I made my life harder than it needed to be as you’ll see.

After discussing different options and what they would look like, this is what we came up with:

  • 1m tall
  • 1m wide
  • 40cm deep
  • Three shelves, giving 3x20cm compartments at the bottom, and one 40cm at the top
  • Natural timber look top and shelves, everything else white
  • Would need to have doors

Instead of basing it off some existing project plans, I decided to completely design it myself. For my first project, that was a mistake because I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out the best (or any) way to do something.

Mistakes were made
  • It’s a lot easier to start with existing plans, especially as a beginner.

Another mistake I made at the same time was not drawing out the full plans at the beginning.

I rushed to cut things, so I just drew the rough dimensions, figured I’d start with the top and shelves and then go from there.

I never did that again. It’s easy to make mistakes with full plans; without them it’s a roulette.

Mistakes were made
  • Don’t be lazy, draw out your full plans. It will help a lot avoiding mistakes. Otherwise, prepare some extra timber and a lot of extra time.

Next up was figuring out what materials I needed and how much it would cost.

Long story short, I wanted to make everything out of construction pine, 70x35mm. I didn’t want to use particle board, and I was driven by cost. My friends would be paying for the cost of materials, and I was comparing it to similar things you could buy at IKEA. For reference, a ‘2x6’, or 140x45mmx2.4m board costs ~20USD here, and from what I’ve seen online, it’s about $4.30 in US.

IKEA certainly isn’t buying its timber in Australia.

I’d re-saw the boards in two, getting 2x12mm boards from each, and then laminate them together for shelves and sides, and use 24mm for the top.

Re-sawing didn’t go as expected - the boards would bow like crazy as I’d re-saw them, and I struggled to get two for one as I expected.

Worse, once I made some of those thin boards and laminated them together, the resulting panel was both too weak (a 12mm, 1m-long shelf just wouldn’t work for shoes) and the next day it deformed so much I had to throw it away.

Mistakes were made
  • Not all timber is the same. There’s a reason why construction timber is the cheapest you can buy, and it’s not just because it’s not all dressed. It comes from the middle of the tree, most prone to movement, and is not dry enough for furniture making. Also, even though a piece of timber might be strong enough not to break for a certain application (like a 12mm shelf for shoes), you need to take into account support, and the fact it will deform under pressure with time.

The top

With my plan to use construction timber for everything failing, I had to find another solution.

For the top, I found some recycled Oregon pine at a recycle yard that wasn’t too expensive. It came from a decades-old factory so it also had a nice story to it, and I knew it was dry enough - perhaps too dry but that’s another story.

I jointed the boards and glued them up, but didn’t use cauls across so the top didn’t turn out completely flat (I also probably clamped it down too hard). This was one of my first panel glue-ups so hopefully I can be forgiven.

Mistakes were made
  • Use something to make sure boards don’t go up and down in a glue-up. A couple of cauls clamped to either side usually does the trick.

Since the top was too wide for my thicknesser, I went to it with a hand plane. Perhaps because the wood was so dry and prone to splintering; because I hadn’t set up my plane properly; because I didn’t know how to use a plane in the first place - it was chipping a lot, causing more damage than it was helping.

Mistakes were made
  • Using tools that haven’t been set up properly (i.e. sharpened in this case) causes more damage than good. I’ve made this mistake many more times before learning to spend the time to set up the tools - including machinery.

I reverted to sanding, and just spent a lot of time getting it all (somewhat) flat.

Lastly, after cutting the panel to the final size I wanted to shape the edges. I’d do a chamfer on the bottom, and round off the top of each edge.

I knew I’d need a router for this, and having never used one, I went to the store and got a cheap router with all the bells and whistles (i.e. one that has everything but nothing works properly).

I also got the bits I needed - a full box of no-name bits for the price of one high-quality bit.

This router caused me a lot of grief; from bits running out to dust guard being in such an awkward place that I removed it in the end, I just didn’t like it.

On top of that, the wood was chipping really badly as I was rounding off the edges. Also, I couldn’t get the bit to go straight, even though I was using the bit bearing - it would go around knots and harder parts of the wood.

As I learned much later, this was due to buying cheapest (and fairly dull) bits, as well as going against the grain. The fact that the timber was very dry and happy to chip didn’t help much either.

Mistakes were made
  • Don’t buy cheapest tools. I knew this already, but was still seduced by the lower price. Unless you need the tool for an odd job here and there (and one that doesn’t need to be precise!), you can get whatever is cheapest. But if you need it to do quality work, or use it a lot, better buy a smaller selection of tools than buy crap.

This forced me to reduce the size of the top, and consequently the whole cabinet by a couple of centimeters.

In the end, I wasn’t able to get a perfectly straight edge, as the router kept jumping over some knots and digging into other parts of the piece that were soft.

However, because the wood is so beautiful, the top turned out really nice, even with all the mistakes I made, and albeit the smaller finished size than planned:

In order to stabilise it as much as possible I went ahead and applied a couple of coats of clear, water-based polyurethane.

This was ok, but looking back on it I should have filled the knots and other holes first. Somehow I thought it would look good if I left them “rustic”, and although it does have a charm that way, I think it would have been better if I filled it with epoxy to make sure nothing moves and there are no holes.

Mistakes were made
  • Fill the knots and cracks before applying finish. Leaving them open makes it harder for the finish to protect the piece, there’s the possibility of knots falling out, and it just collects dust and other debris in those holes.

Shelves

For shelves, I found some second-hand “premium dressed pine” originally from Bunnings. For Australians, it’s this: Bunnings dressed pine

Since this is still quite thin, to avoid sagging I decided to put a divider in the middle of the cabinet, with a half of shelf of each side, so 6x50cm pieces.

Again I prepared the boards and glued them up - this time the glue-up went considerably better. It was still not all perfect, but it looked good.

This pine wasn’t very stable either - the shelves would cup one way or another every couple of days depending on the weather.

I tried freezing them in place by applying the poly finish on a day when they were particularly flat, which helped a bit. They would also be in an apartment and not a garage made of a few cement sheets thrown together, so I hoped they wouldn’t move that much.

Sides and doors

Ok, so that was the easy part. Ha!

As you can tell by now, I have a tendency to grossly underestimate the effort and complexity of doing something.

So, I decided to go with frame-and-panel doors instead of simple flat ones.

The frames I’d make out of the construction pine. For panels, I’d use plywood to avoid issues with wood movement and having to make them floating.

At this stage, I got a router table - a Triton work centre - under which I mounted my crappy router. The table worked fine, although having a plunge router underneath with no way to adjust the depth easily was quite bothersome. Or I’m just lazy.

I cut all the grooves and tenons on the router table.

The biggest issue I had here was my router bit running out ruining the frames/stiles or making them not fit together snugly.

Also, I learned the router is a very noisy machine (and I thought of getting it while I lived in an apartment!) and I was very wary of using it much considering my neighbour’s backyard is just next to my garage and noise insulation is virtually non-existent.

Another issue I had was that the plywood I got was not perfectly flat. I was able to squeeze it into the frame, but it didn’t sit as flush with it as I’d hoped.

After ruining several rails and stiles, running out of timber and not wanting to use the router anymore because of noise, I selected the best pieces I had and put it together.

My plan was I’d glue it all up, and then use putty to patch everything and make it flat. After painting, you wouldn’t be able to tell. Well, so I hoped.

I made at least 5 or so passes patching all the damn holes and imperfections in those doors and sides.

I had to use putty that was sandable and paintable. Unfortunately, it was shrinking after drying, and no matter how much I sanded it I couldn’t get it perfectly flat with the timber.

The result was that no matter how much I tried, I just couldn’t make it nice, flat and seamless as I wanted.

Mistakes were made
  • Putty can’t fix everything. Also, as I later learned, what you use for putty matters a lot. Just because it says “sandable” and “paintable” doesn’t make it the best choice.

As I wrote above, the doors and sides would be white. I bought the paint before I started work on the project, and my original idea was to use the semi-transparent white, to show the grain through the paint. So I bought a can of “liming white” paint, barely enough for one coat.

Unfortunately, that was completely wasted money because after all the putty adventures, semi-transparent paint wouldn’t cut it. I needed something thick.

I ended up painting it with some 4 coats - a couple of undercoats and a couple of top coats.

Mistakes were made
  • Using paint to hide mistakes (especially the non-flat kind of mistakes) is very expensive. Also, one big can costs less than five small ones.

With the sides and doors, I made a lot of mistakes and they didn’t turn out perfect, but I (and my friends) really liked the finished look of the frame-and-panel carcass. I was lucky they were happy with a “rustic” (a.k.a. imperfect, came from a 200-year-old farm) look of the finished piece so none of the problems were a big issue.

Bottom

For the base, I originally wanted short legs that would sit at a slight angle, something I later learned is called mid-century modern style.

However, I couldn’t figure out how to construct that so I went with a simple frame instead, with a bit of a curve in the front and back to make it look nicer.

For this, I used some Vic ash I had, and I cut the curves using the band saw.

Again it came back to setting up the tools. My band saw wasn’t set up properly which caused a lot of issues, and I didn’t get the curve that I wanted.

To put the frame together, I used open tenon joint - considering the body would sit on top of this, it would never be seen and it could never go the other way.

Inside the frame, I put a piece of plywood to sit flush with it, and to serve as the bottom shelf. This one I painted white because I considered it a part of the cabinet carcas and not a loose shelf. To support it, I added 4 small planks to the cabinet base, and screwed this bottom shelf into them.

Putting it all together

The carcass

There were two more pieces I needed - the back and the divider. I used 18mm plywood for the divider, and 12mm for the back.

To put everything together, I used biscuits and glue. Biscuits helped me align everything, and I don’t expect much movement from any of these parts (it’s all plywood and long-grain sides of timber).

Here I was too eager to cut and made biscuit slots on the wrong side of the base. I should have redone the whole base, but I thought I’d be able to just fill the slots easily and was in a hurry to finish the piece so I didn’t.

Also, the slots were too big to just fill with putty. I should have used pieces of timber (biscuits?) and then only fill the remaining gaps with putty. This way, it kept shrinking and took a long time to make flat.

Mistakes were made
  • If you can fix a mistake well, do. But, if the problem is too big it’s often better to just redo the piece. Also, don’t try to fill big holes with some kind of putty filler. Wherever possible use pieces of timber instead.

After gluing up, all pieces were holding each other together and (fairly) square.

Attaching the top

I knew I had to account for the top movement, because it was just one large panel of solid wood. I couldn’t screw it in from underneath because it was sitting directly on the cabinet sides and back.

I created a small inside frame, 4 small planks which I glued into the sides and back, and a loose one in front of the doors. Similar to what I did for the base, except these ones were fitted together into a full frame and painted.

To allow for the top movement, I made slots for the screws I used to attach it. Three screws in each side of the inner frame, with the slot on the top so the cabinet top can move. Unfortunately I forgot to take photos of this.

Shelves

For shelves, I cut small strips of plywood to serve as supports, which I screwed into the sides. The shelves simply sit on top of these.

Doors

My friends wanted golden hardware for the doors, and I used simple butt hinges. To make sure the door stays closed, I used magnetic catches. This is how it all looked like:

There are no handles in these photos because my friends wanted to get their own handles, which I installed once I delivered them the cabinet:

I was hesitant to deliver the project, because I saw all these errors and I felt like it just wasn’t what it was supposed to be.

Luckily, my friends loved it, which is the only thing that matters really. If they meant it.

So that’s it. A very long project, lots of problems and frustration, but overall it was a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to the next one.

Maybe something a bit smaller. And simpler. Like a cutting board. Or a candle holder. We’ll see. (update: my next project was a bathroom double-sink vanity. Yeah, smaller.)

Final thoughts
  • I wrote the first draft of this post several months ago, and that was several months after completing the project. Since then, I’ve made a few more and learned a lot. It’s funny how looking back on it, I see even more mistakes than I originally thought I made. For many things, I would have now taken a different approach. But it was a great experience and I’m grateful to my friends for putting up with me 🙂
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