The merbau shelf

Rummaging through the wood stack, I stopped at a nice, long board of merbau. A nice and clean looking one, perfect for a wall shelf above the piano.

Browsing Pinterest is like taking the kids past the wall of assorted candies. They did not WANT candy until they SAW the candy, therefore they NEED the candy immediately! Or the tantrum that follows reaches 8 on the parents of Richter’s scale.

Come to think of it, I do that too… Sans the tantrum. Usually.

As a parent – and a sucker for candy (who isn’t??) – I understand the mechanism which makes Pinterest work. You look at one image, and in the corner of your eye you see another one. And another one… Soon, the bag is filled with milk chocolate figurines, sweet lips, and, and, and…. Well, you get the picture. Youtube can be like that too. You look at an interesting video about the decline of English infill planes, and all of the sudden you are half asleep at 2:48 in the night watching crazy drivers #36. The curse of autoplay. But I digress.

A blank canvas….

I’ve saved a LOT of pictures to my pinboards in the Pinterest app. We wanted some shelves on the walls when we bought the house, so I went on a hunt. The wall shelf is a result of that expedition. So is the one I wanted to make as soon as I got the merbau board in my hands.

10 minutes after the blank canvas above…

After a quick skim with the plane, the board revealed its qualities. Ticked the box for chocolate as well.

Looks like rasped chocolate for a Queen Maud’s pudding. A dessert from Haugesund, the nearest town an hour’s drive from here. Try it!!!!

Merbau has some really nice grain with big pores and medium surface luster. A durable and hard wood, easy to work. It becomes reddish brown when it ages, but is a more orange-brown color freshly cut.

I marked the lengths for the shelf parts, made the knife wall and cut them slightly oversized. (read my article about saws for further details on knife wall and hand sawing) The bench hook / shooting board is great for this.

I could of course use the miter saw, but since I need to shoot the ends of the board anyway it would just be a hassle (I had a rant about that recently…). It is faster to use the hand saw, really. Machines do have their place, but is not the answer all the time. Especially when you are making one-off’s like I’m doing here. The best part, in my opinion, is that I do not have to put on any PPE. Hand tools means very little noise, almost no dust and you have more control.

The long piece is for the shelf, while the two shorter ones are for the back frame. Next task: flattening the pieces removing any cup, twist or bow, then take them to dimensions. At this point, no decision had been made for the round, horizontal support piece.

I planed one face and then ran each plank through the thicknesser until the opposite face cleaned up. I did not take all the planks to the same thickness, just made each one even in thickness. I prefer to use machines for donkey work like that, but hand tools for the finesse.

I then swiped the smoothing plane over the surfaces to remove the machine marks. The last task was to plane the edges square, and make the two boards for the upright even in width.

I made a round dado on both planks to initialize the slot for the horizontal support piece. One side came out a bit crooked, but most of that error will be removed or hidden later on. Time for glue!

Masking tape was used to make a hinge for a bookmatch situation. This is an easy way to ensure minor glueups going your way. The tape holds the boards aligned until you can get clamps in place. Slow and steady, and this works great every time.

After spreading glue on both surfaces (waaay too much – i need to get hold of a toothed glue spreader of some sort!), I then closed the «book» and clamped it up. The glue that oozed out was wiped off and the upright was left to dry.

After the glue had cured fully, I cleaned up the edges and cut the notch for the round batten at the top of the upright.

Time to fit the shelf. First job: create a shallow dado to ensure a tight fit. I had a minor slip with the marking knife on the bottom side, which I will have to mask. Probably with a tiny chamfer.

When the fit was tested and verified, I used my Veritas dovetail saw to cut the tenon sides perfectly. I then used a chisel to hog out most of the waste, then the router plane to create a perfect bottom in the dado, at the correct depth. I sneaked up to (or down to?) the desired depth. Merbau is a pretty splintery wood, and I wanted a clean bottom. Why is anybody’s guess. It’s not like anybody will ever see it… 😉

This is a good saw. Might be time for a sharpening session, though. It is starting to feel dull. Which means that it is.

The router plane (Record 071) came with a spear point cutter, but I ordered a replacement cutter for the Veritas router plane. The notch for the adjuster wheel needed a bit of file work to fit, and adjusting it is a bit troublesome at times – the cutter slides over and binds the adjustment wheel. Might need to file a bit of relief. Other than that, it works great. When the clamp is tightened, the cutter is perfectly stable. This is a great tool!

Smooth and perfectly flat bottom.

Time for a test fit. I adjusted the dado in a few places, and the shelf slid into the dado with mild persuasion. Once I do a final pass with the cabinet scraper, it should fit in there perfectly. I will use hide glue to fasten it. That way, I can remove it easily should I ever need to.

I then made the round batten. I started by measuring for about 20mm diameter.

A holdfast to hold the plank while marking for the cut.

I then cut the batten on the band saw, planed to the line and marked each face, divided in three equal sections.

I planed to the marks, making an octagonal batten. Notice the planing cradle I made. Just a 45 degree cut in some scrap made a very handy tool The groove stops short of one end, making a planing stop for the work piece to rest against..

You get from square to round by halving the facets. Each successive stroke at a slightly different angle, and you get to round pretty quick. You can choose to sand the surface smooth afterwords, but I prefer to leave all those tiny facets as a mark of a hand made item. I tried my best to make the batten as round as I could, but a slight discrepancy is okay in my book. Afterwards, the batten looks smooth and round – but touching it tells a different story. I quite like that.

This is my setup. A Veritas planing stop, a holdfast and a batten. A planing cradle for the stock and a 04 smoother plane.

Done. Now for a test fit and a thorough evaluation of the dimensions and proportions – and some “sleeping on it”. Nothing is taken to final dimension or finish at this stage. The last surface prep will be done when everything is decided. You can take away, but you cannot add. That sort of thing.

After giving it a good night’s sleep and studied the shelf from a distance in situ in the living room, I cut off the top and bottom of the upright to make it less Frankenstein’s monster’s fore head at the top (what has been seen, cannot be unseen…).

I cut a knife wall all the way around, cut to the line and then planed the end grain smooth. The knifewall is a great technique – you can see the wall in the image, before I planed the end grain to that knifewall. No tearout and total control.

Some keyhole brackets for hanging the shelf. The center to center distance is written at the back. I used a power router with a small bit to make the recesses. I routed the bulk away, then cleaned the edges with a gouge. I really need a set of better gouges so that I don’t have to use the squealer for such things…

I gave the parts a final once-over with the cabinet scraper adjusted to a very fine cut, eased the edges and corners with a small chamfer and cut and shot the pin to the same length as the shelf.

Glueup and finishing

I used Titebond liquid hide glue to glue the shelf and the pin in place. That way, I can disassemble the shelf in the future should I ever want to. The pin could’ve been left loose, but I wanted to make sure it stayed put. A screw from the back would also be an option, but I just glued it at the same time I glued the shelf in place.

I then applied two coats of Osmo TopOil with added white pigment, to lighten the color somewhat. It is the first time I’ve used Osmo, and it won’t be the last. I love the feel and color of the piece – much better than a lacquer or varnish finish.

I then hung the shelf on the wall and played around with placement of the leather straps. The natural leather color was WAY too light compared to the shelf, so we decided to dye it in a darker brown color to blend it better with the shelf. We did not like that the strap came up at the back of the shelf like that – it was a bit too much. The suede side does not look very nice either.

I thinned the leather dye 5:1 to make it easier to achieve an uniform color. A wad of polishing yarn held by a hemostat makes the mess controllable. Sort of. I’m writing this almost a week later, and the area around one of my thumb nails are still a vivid brown color. I did use gloves for most of the work.

Most of.

After the dye was completely cured, I made hoops on the ends through which the pin will pass. I thinned the end slightly, marked the seam holes, used an awl to pierce the leather and then I sowed the hoops together. You can find some images and a description of that process in this article.

A quick test to check the fit, and a bit of experimenting on placement and where the leather straps shall stop.

Not bad at all!

The loops are slightly oversized; I did not like the look of a very tight fitting loop. The droplet form looks just right to me.

There are several methods to keep the leather firmly against the wood. I did not want the leather to droop below the shelf, and contact cement is perfect for just that. Other options would be to use half tanned leather (leather with a core of raw hide, widely used in Scandinavian knife making) as you can wet the leather and form it into almost any shape – and it will keep the shape afterwards. By fastening the straps at the back of the shelf and make them very tight, the round batten would be bent over time – not very nice. So contact cement is is!

I used masking around the area where the straps will lie underneath and on the edges of the shelf, then applied contact cement to both the shelf and the straps. I let the glue cure until it stopped being sticky and mounted the straps using a clamp to make the bond solid.

I cut the straps to size and applied some leather dye to touch up the color where I cut or trimmed them.

The contact cement is more than adequate to hold the leather straps in place, but I wanted a backup – and something was needed to faux “secure” the ends. Time to bring out my very small lathe. A bit of scrap made a nice blank for turning a couple of knobs.

I then punched holes in the leather and drilled holes for the pegs. A bit of glue, tapitap with the hammer and a quick wipe with Osmo top oil. The knobs are pure decoration, but will prevent failure of the adhesion over time. Should the contact cement fail all together, the knobs will keep the straps in place. They are pure end grain and does not stand up to abuse, but the pegs are long grain and should hold the leather just fine in the event of a glue failure.

All done.

All in all a fun little project where I’ve tried a few things for the first time. It has been fun working with Merbau, and over time I expect the color to change to a more reddish-brown – as seen on the image of the plank. This would make the leather straps blend in even more.

I also understand why Osmo is all the hype, although I think a lot of people look at it as the answer to every application. Ask a question about which varnish you people recommends in a Facebook group, and you are bound to get at least two people answering “OSMO TOP OIL!!!”. Which is a hard wax oil, not a varnish…………

“DID NOT READ” and the ability to speak is not signs of intelligence!

Update 22.12.21: This article was released in march 2021. Nine months later, the color has changed a bit. I took this picture when I applied some leather conditioner to the strops recently:

The slight orange tint has gone away and the wood has darkened a bit – but not as much behind the leather strop. Interesting! Over time, the color change will be much more dramatic.

I believe in being honest, so let me be perfectly clear: this is NOT my own design entirely. The inspiration came from the “Wood wall” shelf made by Andersen furniture. I found an image of it on Pinterest (uncredited) and used the image as an inspiration. I did not try to copy it, just make a shelf that looked similar to it. I believe my interpretation is different enough not to mistake it for the Andersen product. I did not learn about Andersen Furniture until after I had started making the shelf.

In my opinion, it is completely fine to use a product as inspiration, as long as the original is mentioned. Making an exact replica / copy, on the other hand, is not okay as long as the product is still available. My reasoning is that there’s only so many ways you can make a box. Most laptops or cell phones look almost identical to all the other models, often the logo is the only way to distinguish one from another. And so it needs to be, or the world will eventually grind to a halt.

I’ll just say my shelf is HEAVILY influenced by Danish furniture design… 🙂

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