Canadian Woodworking

Shelves: lots of surprises

Blog by Rob Brown
Cleats and Grooves

In a column from a little over a month ago I mentioned how the bathroom reno was 99% complete and I just had a few simple tasks to check off my list.

In Carvings and Curvy Doors I wrote: “A toilet paper holder needs hanging, a couple of towel hooks have to be installed and I have to make and install three small inset shelves. Last on the list, the mirror frame is ready to go as soon as I have the mirror back from the glass supplier.”

A few weeks later (Care to snap toggle?) I wrote a column about how difficult the towel hooks were to install. In it, I also mentioned how I’d get to the final two items (toilet paper holder and three inset shelves) sorted right away. After wrestling with the towel hooks for a few days I didn’t have the energy to work on the bathroom for a few weeks. I eventually got to it and started with the three simple inset shelves. I chose some walnut which had some nice sapwood on its front edge, as I always like the contrast of walnut sapwood and heartwood. The grain and colour match of all three shelves looked good, if I do say so myself.

The plan was to make and attach small hardwood cleats to the inner sides of the opening, cut a groove in either end of the shelves and slide the shelves in place. The lower shelf would just rest on the bottom of the opening. This wasn’t rocket science.

Cleats and Grooves

I was going to secure each shelf with a couple of finishing nails, but the shelves seemed to want to stay in place without them. Makes them easier to remove and clean.

Cleats and Grooves

It was all going smoothly, until….

I broke out the material and the sapwood / heartwood combo looked really great. It was the highlight of this little project. I then cut grooves in both ends of the shelves and sanded them smooth to prepare for a finish. As I was admiring the sapwood / heartwood pattern on the shelves once again, I realized I had cut the grooves incorrectly. Rather than have the two grooves protrude out the back of the shelves, they protruded out the front of the shelves. The new fronts didn’t match each other very well. This is what happens when a job is “easy” and I rush through it.

Very frustrated that I had lost the main feature of these shelves, I quickly broke out new shelves from some of the material with the sapwood, but the new shelves didn’t have the same strong effect as the first set. I had to move on, though. Only I would know the first set was much nicer.

I eventually installed the cleats, fit and finished the shelves and installed them. They work nicely and although they look fine, I’ll always see them as lacking something. The toilet paper holder will eventually get screwed to the wall. I sure hope a stud is in the right place. For now, the lip of the shower enclosure holds a roll of toilet paper just fine.

How many?

Completely unrelated to the above story about shelves gone wrong, I recently installed a pair of utilitarian shelving cabinets in the basement hallway. Just two banks with five shelves each. The build was straightforward. The install went fine. The tasks of making, sizing, finishing and hanging four 6′ tall oak doors went well, too.

I can hear you all now. “What gives, Rob? I thought you always ran into problems?” Well, I didn’t mention the simplest parts of all: the 10 shelves. I cut them to size, brought them home and went to install them. I even had the foresight to get 1/4″ diameter shelf pins, as I usually use 5mm pins, but this time I used my new Kreg Shelf Pin jig. It worked well, though it didn’t come with a bit or adapter for 5mm holes. No worries, as I have a hardware store minutes away. I did the math; 2 cabinets x 5 shelves per cabinet x 4 pins per shelf equals 40 pins.

They came in bags of either eight or 100, so the choice was easy. I’d eventually use the extra 60 pins, and if I didn’t, I could just add them to my wonderfully soothing collection of hardware. If you read last week’s column (“Tools Equal Potential and New Artists”) you’d understand what I’m talking about.

I installed the pins in one of the cabinets and went to install the shelves, but they were too long. I guess the installation process forced the cabinets slightly out of square, or flexed a gable a bit. Whatever the case, I loaded up the 10 shelves and headed to the shop to cut them down. Easy, peasy and 10 minutes later I was back in the car with my shelves, heading home.

Second try

After bringing them all inside, and down a flight of stairs, I tried one. Still too small. Back to the shop, another 10 minutes of cutting, and I brought these well-travelled shelves back home for the third time. This time they fit. It was still a friction fit surprisingly, but they fit. Five down, five to go.

At this point I took a peek at my collection of what should have been 80 shelf pins and realized it looked like it was about half the size of what the entire package of 100 shelf pins looked like. I checked the label on the bag again and it did indeed say 100. I proceeded to install what turned out to be 17 more pins until I ran out. Three short. I redid the math about five times before deciding that I didn’t make a mistake. It was cold comfort, as I was still short three measly shelf pins and the job still wasn’t done.

I then noticed the bag the pins came in was taped closed on its backside. It was a nice job with some packing tape. Obviously, someone else needed… what?… 63 shelf pins, so that’s all they took before they returned the package.

I didn’t have the energy to get back in the car and head over to the hardware store at that point. And besides, my gas tank was empty, and gas just went up earlier that morning. I eventually got back to the hardware store and bought one of those eight-packs after all. Thankfully, I didn’t need to shell out for another 100 pins.

Two Cleats Per Shelf

It’s a simple approach; install the cleats and slide the shelves into place.

Two Cleats Per Shelf

Finished Bathroom Shelves

You wouldn’t know it, but the first set of shelves I made looked a lot nicer. Until I messed them up, that is.

Finished Bathroom Shelves

How Many Are Actually There?

If you look closely you can see where somebody taped shut the bag of shelf pins after removing about 63 of them. Next time I’ll look more carefully when I’m buying big bags of hardware.

How many are there
Last modified: November 16, 2022

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches


  1. Hey Rob I totally agree. Craftsmen are their number one worst critic. We know there is a slight imperfection so our eyes go to it. The normal person would not even notice. Great job

  2. If you hadn’t fessed up nobody would have noticed. As makers, we expect a perfect outcome and are too hard on ourselves when we hit a “DOH”!
    Nice work Rob!!

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