Build a Textured Wall Shelf
Photos by Rob Brown; Illustration by James Provost
This is as much a functional shelf in an entranceway, holding keys and mail, purses and wallets, as it is a piece of art for people to enjoy. Depending on the situation, the texture of this wall shelf will be something the owners and guests quickly enjoy in passing, or slowly, in a more focused way. As an added benefit, the undulating surfaces come alive in the right light.
Wood selection is important
I had a large plank of 8/4 African mahogany on hand, so I used it for this project, but there are many other woods that accept texture very well. If you’re not sure what will work nicely, I suggest grabbing a small piece of the species in question and do some texturing on it. You will have your answer quite quickly.
Break out all the material and glue up the top. You may also have to glue up the support bracket. Dress the top and back rail to finished size, but keep the support bracket oversize for now. Draw the curved shape on the end of the top, as well as the location for the back rail. I placed the back rail and the dished out area on the centerline of the circular end.
The main joint
With the top standing on edge, cut the notch in the top on the table saw using a crosscut sled. The notch should be about 1/8" inside the three surfaces of the back rail. Next, cut the three shallow notches on the back rail, where it will meet the top. These notches can also be cut on the table saw. A shoulder plane will smooth the cut surfaces and fine-tune the joint. Before fitting the joint perfectly, sand the upper and lower surfaces of the top. Sanding afterwards would thin the top slightly, causing the joint to loosen. You could also use the joint that Sam Maloof made famous on his gorgeous chairs.
Cut notches – with a cross-cut sled on a tablesaw, Brown makes shallow notches on the two sides and front of the back rail. The piece will then fit nicely with the large notch in the top. Fine tune this joint with a shoulder plane.
Cut the curved end on the bandsaw, then smooth it with a belt sander. You could also use a circle cutting jig and router that was attached to the underside of the top to create the half circle if you weren’t confident in cutting a smooth circle on the bandsaw.
Carve the dished area
To help me remove much of the material to form the dished area, and to help guide me while removing material, I drilled a series of ¾” diameter holes in the dished area. The deepest hole was right at the centre of the area, with the shallower holes towards the outside edge.
Holes for Guidance – In order to quickly remove some of the waste, holes were drilled in the dished area of the top. The depth of the holes also guides Brown as he’s using the gouges to remove the material.
From here, it was all carving gouges. I started with a #5 x 30mm to remove most of the material, then moved to a #3 x 25mm to smooth the area.
Smooth Bowl – Once the dished area has been shaped evenly with a wide gouge, it’s time to start adding the textured pattern to the area. Notice the large notch at the upper right corner. It will accept the back rail.
I worked towards the centre point the entire time, and made sure to avoid splitting the wood. At that point the basic shape was complete. Rather than carve groove directly towards the centre of the dished out area, I wanted a slight spiral effect. I cut out a simple paper template with a slight curve on it and traced the curve onto the recesses area to help guide my carving. I turned to a #9 x 10mm to add the small curved grooves. I began at the outer rim and circled he entire area, then moved in towards the center area and finished the carving. Take the time to create a smooth transition between the grooves.
Carved Arcs – In order to keep the pattern fairly uniform, Brown uses a simple curved paper template to add arcs with a pencil before he starts carving the final surface. These lines can be seen at lower, right.
Simple Dimples, Strong Effect – A perimeter of 3mm dimples are then added. This ring adds texture and visually completes the dished area.
To finish off the dished area, I added a series of 3mm diameter dimples just outside my layout line with a punch and hammer. A nail set would also work nicely. This approach not only added a bit of texture, it also visually completed the area.
I found the most difficult part of this task was carving with the grain. This was especially true near the center of the dished area. The fibres tended to want to lift up and run into the wood, causing large splits. Working across the grain was much easier, as the chip produced was inherently weak. Remove waste from the underside.
Draw lines on the front and left edges of the top as well as the underside of the top, to guide you while removing the waste on the underside of the top. I started with an angle grinder and a power carving disk, then moved to a jack plane to bring the top down to size. What tools you choose will be a personal choice depending on what you have available.
The textured edge
Cut the left end at a 15º angle. Small V-grooves will be added on all edges of the top, also at a 15º angle. With your sliding T-bevel set to 15º, mark some lines on the edge so you have something to guide you. You’re not looking for perfection as you carve, but a bit of consistency goes a long way. The grooves don’t need to be deep. When the edge is completely textured add short corresponding grooves in the top, again at 15º.
Texture the Edge – A V-gouge is used to add straight grooves to the edge of the top and the adjoining top surface. Notice the lines on the top, guiding Brown as he works.
These grooves should align nicely with the grooves on the edge of the top. Guidelines for the angle and for the length of groove make the finished job tidier. Make sure you take your time, especially near the end. A bit of impatience will forever stick out like a sore thumb.
More texture on the top
After laying out the location of the textured area on the main portion of the top, grab your sharp #5 x 30mm gouge. Something on the slightly flatter side would also work just fine.
Light Passes – After layout lines have been added to the top surface a #5 x 30mm gouge is used to add texture to the entire area. No flat areas were left between the many passes.
Consistency, in terms of depth and area of each cut, is something to be considered. You’re not looking for perfection, but a bit of consistency is nice. I started on the back edge and proceeded to cover the entire area with cuts, always cutting across the grain. The resulting surface was completely carved; no flats were left between each cut. A dimpled border was once again added around this freshly textured area.
Texture down under
The angled portion underneath the top was next to be textured. With the top clamped to my workbench (be sure not to damage any texture on the top surface), I added hundreds of fairly deep but narrow grooves to the surface with a #11 x 15mm gouge. It took some time, but the resulting surface was similar to that of heavily figured curly maple, but with added advantage of having wonderful texture. This area will not be seen very often, but it will be easy to run a hand across the area as someone walks past the shelf, enjoying the feel of the textured wood.
Heavy Passes – After most of the material is removed with other tools, the underside of the top receives hundreds of deep, narrow grooves from a #11 x 15mm gouge. Such a satisfying process!
The circular bracket
Machine the bracket so the top and back edge meet squarely. The round section of this bracket was the same diameter as the dished area on the main surface of the top. The area around the circular section of the bracket would step down 3/16" to flat surfaces. After laying out the shape of the bracket I used a 1’ diameter forstner bit to create the small round areas at the front and bottom of the bracket. The curved section was cut on a bandsaw, and faired with the two small drilled sections with some hand tools. To create the recessed flat sections, I used a selection of hand tools – mainly a handsaw, a chisel and a shoulder plane – then sanded the surface smooth. I then added a layout line and a circular row of dimples just inside the circumference of the circle on the bracket. This process was done on both sides of the bracket.
Shape the Bracket – Once the bracket is squared up at one corner, it’s drilled with a 1" diameter bit to create the two small curves at either end. It’s then cut to final shape with a bandsaw.
A simple glued joint would strongly fasten the bracket and the back rail, but dowels were needed to strengthen the end grain joint between the bracket and the top. First, I drilled a series of dowel holes in the top of the bracket. Then, with the back rail clamped in place I used dowel centers to transfer the location of the holes to the underside of the top. To do this properly, I pressed the bracket against the back rail and slid the bracket with dowel centers towards the top. The dowel centers left marks where they touched the underside of the top. A sharp brad-point bit is essential for drilling accurate holes.
Glue the bracket to the top
After a dry run, I added glue to the inside of the dowel holes and the dowels themselves, and brought the bracket and top together with a long-reach clamp. Because I was going to finish the back rail and the top differently, I left the back rail unglued for now.
Add Dowels – The joint between the bracket and the back rail will be glued, but the end grain on the top of the bracket means this joint requires some additional strengthening. Dowels are drilled in the top of the bracket, and then dowel centers are used to transfer the hole locations to the underside of the top.
The 20" long hanging cleat was then machined and glued to the underside of the top. It should be flush with the rear edge of the top and about 1/4" away from the back rail. Most stud walls are built on 16" centers, so this will be long enough to allow the user to attach it to two studs. Screws will go through this cleat into the wall, to support the wall shelf when it’s complete.
Cut the back rail to length and add the curved details to both the top and bottom ends. It’s also time to add the narrow groves just above the joint on the back rail with a small gouge. Mark 1" above the joint and 1" below the start of the upper curved detail on the front of the back rail. Add the cross-grain grooves between these two lines. Then add 1/2" long grooves on each side of the back rail. These short grooves should mate with the grooves on the front of the rail.
Initial Glue-Up – The bracket is glued to the underside of the top with long-reach clamps. The back rail is left unglued until the milk paint finish is added to it.
Prepare for the finishes
Add some masking tape to the back rail on two areas; where it will be glued to the bracket, and where it will join with the top. If finish gets on these surfaces, the glued joint will be weak after final assembly. Also tape off the bracket where it meets with the underside of the top.
Finish #1: Oil/Varnish Mixture
To finish the mahogany top, I opted for an oil/varnish mixture that Ted Brown detailed in our Apr/May 2011 issue. Rather than use a cloth to wipe it on, use a brush to apply the finish. As the cloth is dragged over the wood, small pieces of lint from the cloth would get hooked by the grain of the wood. The surface is covered in texture, after all. After an application with a brush, dab the remaining wet finish off the surface and leave it to dry. After three coats, I allowed the finish to cure for about a week before rubbing the flat surfaces with 0000 steel wool and wax.
Finish #2: Milk Paint
Three coats of milk paint were applied to the back rail and bracket. I chose the colour ‘Champlain’ from Homestead House Paint Co. in Toronto (homesteadhouse.ca). I lightly sanded between coats. Once the third coat was dry, I lightly sanded the surface and sanded through the paint near the edges and textured areas to show the natural mahogany. The last step was to wipe on their 100 percent natural hemp oil to seal the milk paint and add a smooth feel to the surface. This was the first time I used milk paint. It’s a very nice product. It was easy to use and leaves a very nice surface with a great feel to it.
Milk Paint – After adding the grooves and finishing the back rail with milk paint, a light pass with 220 grit sandpaper removes some of the finish to create a worn look.
Once everything was dry, I glued the back rail to the main assembly. The last step was to add a carved signature and use my branding iron to burn a few details into this new piece.
I had a lot of fun making this wall shelf. The basic construction was enjoyable, but the texture aspect was a blast! Adding this much texture to a piece of furniture was a first for me. I’m already looking forward to next time. The sky is the limit when it comes to how or where to add texture to wood, and what tools can be used to achieve a certain effect. I’m interested in seeing some examples of how you all interpret ‘texture’, and the work you do with it. Send me some images of your work.
Final Assembly – With all the parts finished, they can be assembled. When clamping finished parts, use padded cauls to eliminate damage. Also, be sure the cauls don’t have any small dried glue bits on them, as they will be pressed into the finished surface, leaving a dent.