A New Design I Made

I’ve always liked leanable shelves, especially because when the design is right they just seem rest happily in place and thereby work so well with no more ado. That said, I wanted my own design, one to stand rock solid with no semblance of throwaway disposables and without racking everywhere. I also wanted to start designing flat pack pieces as designs of quality with built to last longevity—fully jointed without relying on trashy materials like MDF or wafer board, chip (particle) board, hollow core hardboard and such like that. So I set to and came up with my design. It took me ten minutes to sketch out my initial thoughts and an hour to develop my working drawings. Then I played around a little with the internal workings by developed extra drawings of joints, kept one from my choice possibilities of three and ended up with only one joint type. From there I made a half-sized prototype and quickly finalised my design. I left myself  the option of adding features if I wanted to. At the close of the day, with a prototype then free-standing in its own space, it was clearly the design I strove for and without compromising my objectives in every sphere.

Over the past few days we’ve filmed the latest film series as I made the poplar version. I just loved working the details into reality all the way through; both making and presenting. I think you’re going to love it too: ) Poplar is really a lovely wood especially to work with hand tools.

Because the grain has a very even density so knife cuts develop knife walls and chisel work creates the crispness I strive for. And then it planes to perfect smoothness too. I mean smooth like you have never felt wood. It can be a little hard to saw as the wood seems to have a resilience factor to it that many woods like oak and cherry and walnut don’t have, but it saws fine. Anyway, the colour too had beautiful subtleties to it.

One minute your mind tells you its maple and then another walnut. The greys blend into greens and a black streak shoots across the grain like a meteor shower and seems out of place and then in its rightful place. I have always like poplar but this wood seemed somehow different.

Usually it’s used as a secondary would. The inner gubbins of upholstered chairs and sofas, drawer sides or, in old pieces, it was used in times past as a false wood because it took stains and dyes so well and could readily replicate mahogany or even ebony. When it came to joinery it gave the exact amount of resistance I like at my chisel’s edge or to the plane. So all of my joints came together very nicely with slick, smooth cheeks and sides. Different than say oak with it’s coarse open grain or pine with its hard and soft growth rings.

I picked up my wood from Timbmet half an hour from my home and work. I was glad I did because I picked out my eight boards that were all 12″ wide, eight feet long, flat, straight, clear and had just the right amount of character and colour I knew I wanted. I thought it was fun to see the ‘Made in the USA’ marking penned on them. There is just something I love about picking up wood and I love my Picasso for loading stuff into. Using roof bars works for longer lengths but eight footers fit inside when I fold the seats flat. Combined with my eight foot trailer I can carry everything I need up to and past 12′. I do miss my truck but can’t really justify having one now, especially with the cost of petrol in Europe being four times the price of the USA. Of course it goes beyond just cost as we are learning because we need to be ever conscious of wastefulness all round, especially as science proves what we once only guessed at.

Cutting down trees to make pieces that last hundreds of years encapsulates what I believe. With care, replanting, we can ensure future sustainability for all generations. Reality is wood lasts for centuries and man-mades don’t for anything more than a decade or two because of attitudes. So my shelf unit came together with well planned and well made joinery and when it stood in its leaning stance it felt, well, right. I loved the colour and the size but what I also liked was its scalability. You can narrow it down, extend it and add a middle piece, make it quarter size for a counter top and you can also add design features such as arches, upstands for books and so on on.

After all is said, in the profiling of this piece, I began to see my design resonate with a different message. Spice racks and chimney shelving, a place to keep vinyls and audio gear, a flat screen even, and then sound systems and so on.

41 comments on “A New Design I Made

  1. Could you make some desks and furniture for your team? I observed they have cheap desks and general chaos around them. It’s not bad, we are all like this. But, they will work better in appropriate atmosphere and style, we can learn what this typical office furniture should look like. If we look at older offices work furniture is very nice, now almost all is very ugly and cheap.

    Basically an easy to made, functional and cheap furniture is needed. Desks, drawers, shelfs. It should be easy to move from one room or office to another, be durable. I think natural wood color is much better than this boring whites or blacks. Maybe it could be easy to assemble, disassemble using simple wedges instead of screws. It should look natural, solid, simple, functional, stylish.

  2. I’m always encouraged when woodworkers create modern designs. Not that I dislike traditional styles but we do have needs from our furniture that the Victorians didn’t and it’s good to show that these needs can be well met using simple techniques and quality timber.

    Design is often more successful when it is evolved by communities of crafts people rather than simply left to professional industrial designers and this is a space amateur woodwork can make its own. Growing our relevance rather than merely preserving a skills base. So lets have more ideas on how fresh furniture designs can sort out our big TVs, our laptops, our Wi-Fi gubbins and our children’s study desks and make all such things function well and look like they belong in our homes.

    • On my ToDo list is a new computer desk, with the case integral to the desk. Having a big tower occupying an entire side is needlessly frustrating, and makes new cable runs a nightmare. On top of that, access for repairs and updates is difficult, and often results in damage to the desk itself. ATX standards mean it’s relatively simple to add some mounting screws and build the computer directly into the desk.

      When you can make, you can solve your own problems, and in doing so, probably solve other people’s problems too.

      • I’m sure you’re not alone Reece. Building computer desks was the reason I got into woodwork in the first place. Our kids had the smallest most awkwardly shaped bedrooms so making custom furniture was about the only way to make the most of the space. Especially for homework. Being ignorant and untutored (pre Sellers) I used MDF to make fitted desk/TV /shelving units on my living room floor. Not the most elegant execution but I did get the shapes and layout about perfect and they’re still in use 20 years later. One day I might remake them in nicer timber (and with more practical cable management) but so far have never gotten round to it. Quite a few friends and visitors have bought into the idea of making your own after seeing how well they work. Make things people really need and they will copy you.

      • I’m thinking of building my own sit/stand desk as they are very expensive to buy. It will use counterweights for ease of raising/lowering. I was thinking of including a shelf or bracket for the tower too. Currently I use something I knocked up out of scraps of plywood. It has a shelf for the keyboard and mouse and a box to sit the monitor on to my preferred height. It is currently sitting on top of two towers in a stand-only configuration but I need to sit down occasionally!

      • With how light and cool modern displays aredoing an integrated monitor either under glass, flip or lifter would be interesting.

      • These days, I tend to put the tower case on my desk, so that everything is readily accessible, readable and pluggable. It also prevents me knocking cables out with my feet (a potentially costly mistake), and itmakes life easier for the cleaners. I like plenty of leg room under the desk – most commercial desks (for home) fail on this point.

        You might also consider ensuring there is sufficient desktop space for 2 monitors, as well as the tower – or laptop + 2nd screen monitor. Don’t forget the keyboard & mouse. Somewhere to hang headphones?

        Cable-ties help keep cables under control – don’t over do it, as things need to be moved/changed from time-to-time. Good luck 😉

    • My thoughts exactly. It’s nice to see the propagation of traditional woodworking, but using it for modern furniture takes it to the next level. People will realize even more that it’s not something from the past that we should quickly put behind us, but instead is a relevant and feasible way of woodworking that’s worth preserving.

  3. Paul
    Thanks for telling us the properties of popular, I always thought I should try and make moldings with it and now I will. I have seen it mostly used in furniture for the dust panels in chests or corner supports in chairs. We have a lot of it in the eastern portion of the states. No one seems to use it much and it comes in very wide boards. Also called tulip wood around here very clear and straight grained.

  4. Poplar is my go to wood, even if its looked down upon by the fancy lad woodworkers in the US. It can be plain when the whole board is flat sawn and has big cathedrals, but its not hard to find straight grain (if not as tight as other rift/quarter sawn hardwoods). Both the heart and sap wood colors each have their own style that can be used together with a bit of care. And periodically, even at the big box home center you can find mineralized boards with bold streaks of black and purple. I’ll always have a fondness for it as it was the wood where i learned what a sorted handplane feels like in action and how lumber feels when dressed with a sorted handplane.

    And i’m smitten with this design. I need two good sized book cases to flank a large window in a relatively small room. I fear that more traditional designs may be overpowering for the room and make it feel even smaller.

  5. I’ve heard some people say poplar is now considered just like mdf. I used it for my keepsake box and loved working with it. It cut so nice. Can’t wait till my next project with it but I’ve been experimenting with different woods. I’ll get back to it soon. 🙂

    • I don’t know how anyone could say any solid wood is like MDF. MDF is dense cardboard with no grain and no life to it at all.

  6. Very beautiful – the proportions, the beauty of a “reduced” construction and last but not least the design itself.
    Those “side parts” remind me of sails. Very elegant.

    • I am so surprised you say that because I have bought directly from Timbmet over the past two years and the wood has always been exceptionally flat, straight and well sized in that 1″ rough sawn stock has been a good 3mm over sized.

      • I’ve worked for a joinery and cabinet making firm for the last 20 years in the South East and in that time they’ve steadily bought out many of the smaller timber merchants that provided good qualityl materials. They have priced out many other firms and now are about all that is available to medium sized workshops who have to keep down costs in order to survive.
        I recently made some glazed kitchen cupboard doors from their poplar , each twisted after machining and were hence useless.
        Their market share in this part of the UK leaves very little choice for companies similar to where I work and they send us whatever is top of the pile regardless of quality.

        • If you have ever seen fresh poplar trees cut at a saw mill, you would be amazed to see it warp and twist as soon as it leaves the blade. Still it is a good wood to work with machine and hand tools, plus it holds paint and nails well, but I have found it to be fairly hygroscopic, and one has to take this into consideration when you make your design.

          • Have you found it to warp more rapidly than pine? Because that’s my baseline of experience with timber moving and it’s pretty fast to change with the air moisture.

          • I’m afraid we may disagree amongst us on this issue. My wood this time and in the past stayed dead flat with no apparent movement. It certainly does not move like pine can. I can compare it with oak, ash, cherry, walnut and most other hardwoods and say AS LONG AS it’s been dried correctly it should not be a problem! Most problems occur with ALL woods when they are left between work sessions for a week or two and over a period of time.

          • I think the problem lies in the drying time. Timber producers need to get the sawn product dried and shipped asap.
            Kiln times are kept as short as short as possible in order to cut costs. Quick drying introduces tension into the timber that gets released when it is sawn/planed in the workshop. Many companies also can’t afford stocks of timber drying slowly in their premises, it is mostly bought as jobs dictate.

  7. I am always short of bookshelf space. Your photo looks like it takes up lots of floor space. Is there a rule of thumb about where the center of gravity would wind up in distance from the wall?
    Truth be told, I always set up a rectilinear bookcase (all 90 degree corners), and then slip wedges under the front edge. When it’s not in a display area, I use those little rubber/plastic wedges th hardware store sells to stop double hung windows from rattling. It would be nice to do away with those and still have a safe, stable set of shelves.

    • I just fix a bracket to the top shelf to tie a bookshelf to a wall and it stops them moving without being visible.

      • Ikea provided little webbing straps and screws for my garage shelving to secure it to the wall. Not really necessary for my installation, which is very stable. In earthquake zones (e.g. west coast of USA) they generally recommend that you secure tall furniture, such as bookcases, to the wall.

  8. Hi Paul,
    About 20 years ago I made some bookshelves out of poplar. After being loaded with books for that long they remain straight and nice looking. Good choice for wood that works and is affordable.

    I hate to say it but I’ve given up all pretense of building anything for future generations. About 25 years ago my wife and I had a custom made entertainment system cabinet made. The builders did a wonderful job and it still looks and works like new. The problem is there isn’t a TV made that will fit in it now. We were just discussing today what we will do when our CRT TV gives up the ghost. 25 years later and it’s obsolete! My mother has a chair that was Grandma’s, solid pre-WWI Circassian walnut and in beautiful condition. My wife doesn’t want that “old thing” in the house. It just seems to be human nature. I’ve decided anything I ever make will be in the firepot long before a century goes by and to build for the enjoyment of the people here today.

    Paul thanks for everything you do, and I hope you and your staff all have a very Merry Christmas and best wishes for the new year!

    Tom Stenzel

    • 😀 A colleague recently made a similar comment about some his little carvings “might as well save time and throw it straight in the bin!”.

  9. Found it! I noticed those shelves in the background of one your videos and have been looking for more information. 🙂 They might suit a difficult corner in our home. They look great, better than a production models I came across in a Cotswold catalog.

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