Canadian Woodworking

Floating Shelf

Author: Tom Fidgen
Photos: Tom Fidgen
Published: December January 2010

This modern shelf is highlighted by the classic look of hand-cut dovetails, which produces a look that is both traditional and contemporary.


This hanging shelf and drawer will provide you with ample opportunity to practice your dovetailing skills. If it has been some time since you last cut dovetails, begin by cutting several practice ones before embarking on this project. Need a bit of a refresher? Then see (“Hand Cut Dovetails”, Feb/Mar ‘09, Issue #58). Of course, not everyone is comfortable cutting dovetails by hand, so you could choose to use a router and dovetail jig.

Prepare the Stock

I used 5/4 mahogany for all the shelf pieces (A, B, C), milling them down to 7/8″. This thickness will make fitting the through dovetails a little more work, but will benefit the custom-made hang­ing cleats on the rear of the uprights. At this time I also mill the drawer parts; the drawer front and back (D) and sides (E) all finished at 5/8″. This is a bit thicker than most of the drawers I build, but the thicker stock is needed to house a dado for the drawer runners. For the drawer bottom (F) I use poplar, milled down to ¼”, while the drawer runners are 3/8″ rose­wood. You don’t have to use these same woods, feel free to select stock that suits the decor of the room in which you’ll be hanging the shelf.

Cut the Joinery

Once you have the pieces milled to the desired thicknesses, lay out and cut the dovetails for the main carcase. I scribe the material thickness on each piece and then lay out the dovetails. I think most wood­workers have their own favourite methods of dovetail layouts; my method uses two sets of dividers.

After you have the dovetails cut out, mark the inside of the drawer box to cut out the dado for the drawer runners (G). You can mill the dados on the table saw with a dado blade or on a router table. In my woodworking I like to use as many hand tool techniques as possible, so if you enjoy cutting the dovetails by hand then you might want to cut the dados with a back saw and a router plane.

Dovetails – Hand-cut dovetails add a classic feel to a contemporary design.

Shelf Glue-up

When you have the drawer runner dados cut, dry fit the pieces and prepare for the glue-up. I like to use a smoothing plane to lightly plane the parts to remove any milling marks before gluing up. It’s a lot easier to get into the corners now than when the shelf is together. Using a hand plane not only means no sawdust in the air, but it gives the wood a smooth, glossy look and feel that is time-consuming to achieve with sandpaper. When doing glue-ups I try to break them into sub­assemblies. I find this makes the process a little slower but usually ends up with better glue joints. I glue up the outside vertical piece with the long main shelf horizontal piece as well as the drawer box vertical. Separately I glue up the drawer box top and the final outside vertical. Once the glue has set I finish up by fas­tening these two sub-assemblies together.

Traditional drawer bottom
Traditional drawer bottom – The solid wood bottom panel is held in place with a screw that goes into an elongated hole to allow for wood movement.

Make the Drawer

I used a traditional method of drawer-making for this piece. Begin by milling the stock, making sure it’s smooth and flat. I shoot all of the edges on a shoot­ing board to assure everything is square (see “Shop Jig: Shooting Board”, Oct/ Nov ‘07, Issue #50). Before I do anything else I cut a shallow groove with a small plough plane on the inside bottom of the drawer sides. This eliminates any room for error when laying out the dovetails and shows me exactly where the drawer bottom will be. After cutting the groove I take a marking gauge and scribe, on the ends of each piece, the thicknesses of their mating pieces. On the inside scribed edges I like to cut an extremely shallow rabbet using a skew angle block plane; this will leave a tiny shoulder that will help a great deal when lining up the drawer side to the front when tracing the tails on the drawer front. The next step is to take the drawer sides and lay out the dado for the drawer runners. Again, instead of taking a pencil and drawing in some lines, I actually take a shallow cut with a hand plane to show me where the runners will go.

I like to use half blind dovetails in the drawer front and through dovetails in the back. Once the dovetails are laid out, go ahead and cut the pieces. When all of the pieces have been cut and cleaned up I take the two drawer sides and the drawer front, and finish cutting out the groove for the bottom using a plough plane. The back of the drawer gets cut narrower so the drawer bottom can slide into the groove from under it.

I use solid wood for the drawer bot­toms. If you choose solid over ply, make sure you run the grain side-to-side so any expansion in this piece will move front to back. After the drawer is assembled to this point, I mill a 3/16″ groove into the bottom of the drawer sides, front and back, and then rout a matching rabbet on the drawer bottom.

The drawer glue-up is straight forward. The important thing here is to ensure that the corners are square so that the drawer will fit into the housing smartly. After the glue has set, I finish cutting the dado in the drawer sides that the runner will go into. I used a piece of rosewood for its strength in this application. The runners are pressure-fit only; if done right no glue is necessary. Since these runners actually double as drawer pulls I simply shape the ends into a pleasing profile. That com­pletes the drawer; do a test fit and then apply some finish to the piece. I used a hand rubbed oil and varnish mixture that really brings out the shimmer in the flame birch drawer front.

Double duty – The drawer runners not only keep the drawer on track, but they act as pulls as well. Shaping a pleasing shape on the pull end will add a subtle detail to the project.

Custom Hanging Cleats

One of the special things about this shelf is the way it looks as if it’s sus­pended when mounted on a wall. There is no visible hardware. To accomplish this I made some custom hanging cleats in the two outside vertical pieces. Begin by cutting some extremely hard wood or brass to size. Next drill out a smaller hole in the top on your drill press, and then follow with a larger hole just below the smaller one. Take a small file or saw and connect the two holes, making a keyhole effect. I like to drill and coun­tersink for screws now as well. Next, take the two cleats and lay them onto the actual shelf. Mark around them with a sharp knife. Follow this by cut­ting out a shallow mortise so the cleats won’t be proud of the finished back when installed. This is the perfect job for a small router plane. Test fit as you go, being careful not to cut out too much. Now drill two larger holes on the shelf back, underneath the cleats, being careful not to interfere with the area the countersunk screws will go. Once drilled, clean up the area, and then glue and clamp the cleats in place. When dry, install the screws. This shelf is at home in a kitchen setting, an entertainment room or just by the front door to hold keys or sunglasses.

Custom hangers
Custom hangers – These hidden, shop-made hangers will provide a strong and hidden fastening point for wall hanging.

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