Mounting Shelves and Pictures on Walls

Since moving into our new house last year, I have hung dozens of pictures and shelves. Okay, maybe not dozens, but very likely a dozen. Every time, the challenges are the same: what is the best location, where are the studs, and is it level?

While not immediately obvious, we always do reach a consensus of where best to hang the shelf or picture.

I am also fortunate to have a trusting family that doesn’t second-guess my ability to mount things level. However, I have certainly hung more than one where my “helper” is peering over my shoulder at the level and reminding me that it’s slightly slanted.

“Thanks, but why don’t you try levelling this a round clock?”

Not only is this not helpful, but it actually makes the process more aggravating. Sometimes I want to use the level in a very different way from which it was intended.

Besides that, I find playing “find the stud” is irritating enough (I’m pretty sure that whoever framed my house was an M.C. Escher fan). Instead of a stud finder, I need a pair of X-ray goggles. Or a treasure map.

While I’m still saving up for X-ray goggles and searching for that map, I have found a solution to make finding level easier, and I recently got to try it mounting one of my #WSBO wall shelves. Check it out: the First Guess Gravity Gauge.

The Maker, the Buyer, and the User

As a creator (in my case, of designs, artwork, furniture and writing primarily), it is necessary to understand to whom one is accountable.

The maker doesn’t want it, the buyer doesn’t use it, and the user doesn’t know they’re using it. What is the object?

This classic riddle illustrates the difference between three types of people: makers, buyers, and users.

If you are a professional, the number one person you must satisfy is the buyer. It is their needs that you are responsible for fulfilling. Whether they have hired you, your company or your boss’ company is irrelevant. If you are unable to provide a product or service that is of value to them, you will likely find yourself out of work rather quickly.

If you create for yourself, you are the maker, the buyer and the user. You are accountable to yourself. What you do and what you make needs to satisfy your own needs before anybody else’s.

This means that you don’t have to, and should not, do things in a way that is not aligned with your way of working. This doesn’t mean that you should not try new things or listen to other people, rather you should not do things just because somebody thinks you ought to – especially if they are not invested in your work.

When you free yourself from the expectations of the world, I trust that you will find the creative process easier, more enjoyable, and more rewarding.

Be bold. Challenge yourself. Learn.

Designing a Wall Shelf – Mounting Options

For a wall shelf, the best place to start is at the beginning – the wall.

How will the shelf be mounted to the wall?

Perhaps the biggest challenge in designing a successful wall shelf is attaching it to the wall strongly enough to support it and whatever it supports. The method of attachment will in part dictate the design of the shelf. Consider these methods of attachment when designing your shelf.

Angle Brackets and Screws

Probably the simplest attachment method involves store-bought metal brackets and screws to attach the shelf to the wall. This method is simple and effective, but hardly  elegant. To improve the look, use fancier metal brackets or make your own corbels from wood, metal, or another material. Screws can be visible or hidden. If you want to anchor the brackets into studs, you will have to consider that in your design and mount them accordingly.

If your shelf has a structural back, you can screw directly through it into the wall. It’s typically not very discreet, but with the right design and right choice of fastener it can look very good. In this case, as soon as books are loaded on the shelf, the back plate and screws are hidden.



A special keyhole-shaped slot that is wider at the bottom and narrower at the top captures a screw head to hang an object. The keyhole mount is mortised into the back of the piece and not visible from the front or edges. Cut keyhole slots with a special router bit, or buy metal keyhole brackets that attach with screws. These require a degree of precision to install, and may dictate where the shelf hangs on the wall if you need to hit a stud.


French Cleat

A versatile and strong method of hanging something, a French cleat is usually invisible once the shelf is installed. A wide cleat provides a good chance of being able to hang it where you want and secure it to at least one stud. Comprised of a pair of matching strips with mating chamfers on the edges (usually 45 degrees), one is mounted to the wall and the other to the back of the shelf. You can hide it in a recess in the back of the shelf to make it invisible. The cleat allows simple drop on/lift off installation.


Variations of this exist, including the narrow cleats I use on my tusk tenon wall shelves, and low-profile manufactured metal cleats.


Slide-On Floating Shelf Systems

This style of mount consists of one part that fastens directly to the wall, and the shelf slides right over it for installation. Shop-made versions typically involve a strip of wood or wooden frame screwed to studs, and a hollow shelf that slips on and covers it completely. Like a wide French cleat, a wide mount makes it easy to fasten to the wall wherever you like.


Metal hardware exists too, which typically requires two or more deep holes cut into the back edge of the shelf. These holes can be drilled, or routed in if the shelf is laminated. If the hardware must be mounted to a stud, this style of hardware makes it more difficult to mount it exactly where you want.

Need More Ideas?

If you need some more ideas, try wandering the aisles of your local hardware or home decor store. You can also check out my Wall Shelf Build-Off Pinterest board, and remember to register for the #WSBO!

Understanding Material and Joint Strength

Guaranteed Success Can Be Bad

Being scared of failing can steer us towards taking extra precautions to better the odds of success. It makes perfect sense, but it’s a shame because when things are over-designed and over-built, we often do not have the opportunity to observe the actual strengths of the components involved.

Ash Chair Prototype

Understand the Materials, Techniques, and Tools You Use

Forget cosmetic appearance – the real beauty comes from the strength within. The true beauty of ash, despite its strong grain lines, is its strength and flexibility. These physical properties allow components made from it to be shaped more aggressively. Likewise, fine-grained hardwoods allow us to cut finer details, including joinery and carvings. For these reasons, it is important that the maker have a good understanding of materials when matching them to the design.

Cribbage Table 1

I made a series of stopped cuts in the stretcher of “Beware of Step 27”, then wedged the sections apart and drove them into mortises in the legs.

Learn By Doing

As with most things, you can learn about things including the physical properties of materials, and strengths of different joints from books. It’s an excellent place to start, but a terrible place to finish. Books and pictures do not adequately convey the strength of a certain material or joint. Descriptions such as “good load strength and medium hardness”, or “an excellent joint for a drawer” do not actually tell you how it will fare in the real world. Videos are slightly better, but are still a poor replacement for hand-on experience.

Seek Failure and Learn

The best way to learn is to experiment yourself. Seek failure. Here’s a simple exercise I use to learn the strength of the materials I use. A project always yields some offcuts. Instead of cutting over-length offcuts to fit in the firewood box, I first try to break them.

Small pieces, I may try to fold with just my upper body strength, larger ones I may try to break over my knee. But for most offcuts, I set one end on the ground and the other on a block of wood, then stomp on it. It is impressive how strong wood is. Quite often, the wood will kink or bend before it fails.

Apply Your Knowledge to Your Designs

We can apply our knowledge of the materials and joints we use to the things we build. Remember that in most projects, the piece of wood taking load, whether it be a table top, chair stretcher, or drawer bottom is wider if not thicker too, and is hopefully not the subject of somebody stomping on it, trying to break it.

I think that this exercise will build your confidence in material strength, and possibly get you thinking about using materials in more daring ways.

Responsibility of the End User: Reflections on Skeletal Ash Chair

The Skeletal Chair at my desk is my favourite seat in the house.

skeletal-chair-21st-century-writing-deskI designed and built this chair three years ago and it has been in regular use ever since. It is comfortable and ergonomic, allowing me to lean side to side or forward, or pivot and turn on the front leg. It is lightweight and can be easily carried with just a single hand. I do most of my writing in this seat, as well as manage paperwork, socialize, and eat the occasional meal.

I like the aesthetics of the design, but have concerns about the strength. I’ve had to repair it four times so far, and that has highlighted the areas that need to be built stronger so that it lasts.

A well-made product should be durable, but the question is, how durable? Is it good enough for an item to endure regular use, or should it also tolerate occasional, or regular abuse such as standing on chairs, lifting furniture by their tops, or being toppled? If a chair intended for adult use cannot support an adult of any size, is that okay? Where is the line between the responsibility of the maker and the user?

If durability was the only concern, we would all be sitting on blocks of concrete. Obviously there are other important factors that lead to a successful design, and each must be carefully weighed in importance, and a good compromise established.

See the evolution of this design, starting with Prototype #1, Prototype #2Prototype #3, and Prototype #4.

Limitations: Are they Restrictions that Block or Focus?

If you had access to all the greatest woods in infinite supply, what would you make?

Questions like this are difficult because there really are no boundaries – anything is possible, so you must consider everything.

It is much easier to be productive with limitations that restrict what is possible. Instead of looking at the entire inventory at the lumberyard and wondering what to build, start with a single interesting (or not interesting) piece, and build around it.

Next time you are at a roadblock, pick a particular problem and find a solution. If you’re not sure what the problem is, create one. Sometimes, when I’m in the middle of building something and get stuck, I will just make a spontaneous cut and then continue to work it into the design – either by enhancing it or removing it with another cut.

This TED Talk by Tim Harford, and his story about the jazz pianist resonated with me. You can find a list of other TED Talks that I’ve enjoyed here.

What is there to be Afraid of About Failure?

Well, for starters, I’m not sure what failure really is. I’m always experimenting and learning and, to me, what others may perceive as failure is really just an indication that something can be improved. I am always looking for ways to improve things, and constantly analyzing things for weaknesses.

Developing a solid design on paper (or in CAD) is exceedingly difficult, and perhaps impossible. For that reason, many designers, after they have put together a workable idea, create a 3D prototype that they can interact with, test it, and understand ways to make it better.

In almost all cases, there will be a desire to change something. Maybe it doesn’t look or feel right, or maybe it doesn’t operate as it should. These are not failures, but merely a part of the process.

This same mentality can be applied to the work that we woodworkers do. If I make a three legged stool, I might realize, when I test it, that the legs are too close together so it is easier to tip over than I might like. This isn’t a failure – it’s just a step in the design process. Next time I make something similar, whether it be the next day or next decade, I will take into consideration what I learned from the previous versions of the design and make adjustments.

I guess what I am saying is that creating good products requires patience. Developing a good design requires caring and often requires numerous versions, each a little more refined than the last. Quality workmanship takes an investment in time. And it takes time to fully understand a design – the best way I know is to use it in everyday life just as you normally would.

The Relentless Push to Fail

One thing that really helped me learn and develop my woodworking skills was having an abundance of materials. Having an adequate supply on hand meant that it wasn’t so valuable that I felt the need to be especially careful using it. This allowed me to experiment and take chances with less to lose.

Failure, or more precisely, his relentless push to fail, is the single most defining thing about Chris’ work.

Working with live edge slabs further improved my abilities. This material presented unique design opportunities and challenged my mind, as often there were no straight edges or reference surfaces on which to rely. The knowledge and experience gained here helped me conquer my future designs with complex curves, twists and angles (although a few designs still elude successful completion). I came up with many of these designs as a challenge to see if I could really make them a reality (many I did, some I did not).

A fine woodworker makes what he believes in. He makes what he sees in his mind's eye. Jonathan L. Fairbanks

I recall that at one point, I actually believed that everything had already been done. Now I know that is not true. Never one to simply follow what’s already been done, I am always looking for ways to do things differently.

A lot of my work is inspired by the thought: “I wonder if it would be possible to…” or “I wonder what would happen if…”

Venturing down paths unknown can be difficult, both technically and mentally. You don’t have the reassuring thought that “it’s already been done before, so I can do this too”. To realize new ideas takes a great deal of belief in yourself. It is definitely helpful to have time and materials to invest in the process. Having a good assortment of tools, visualization skills, and a healthy imagination is helpful too.

Faith is not being sure where you are going but going anyway. Frederich BuechnerAlthough I feel that being able to do something well is important, knowing that you can carry on after something has gone sideways is even more valuable. This confidence, this faith that you can succeed is key in being comfortable taking chances.

Techniques are a starting place, and I do believe that in a sense, technique sets you free. Tom Loeser

The slides in this post were used in my PechaKucha presentation.

Throw Conventional Wisdom Out the Window

I am almost through a book called Rethinking Sitting, which discusses different ergonomic design styles of chairs. The author, a commercial designer of chairs, has developed many different models which are quite distinct from the typical form that you or I would recognize as a chair. Of course, he feels that his chairs have distinct ergonomic advantages over typical chairs.

This quote is from the book, and I think that it applies to designers of all fields.

One of the most common limitations in product development is conventional wisdom.
– Peter Opsvik, from his book, Rethinking Sitting


Simpler Edge Joints

Quite often, I need a wider board than what I have available. Usually, that means gluing up two or more boards edge to edge.

Since, in this situation, I am usually making a highly visible part such as a table top or cabinet side, I am very careful to match not only the grain pattern of the neighbouring boards, but the exact colour shading as well.

The surface of this box is comprised of between 8 and 20 strips edge-glued together. I honestly don’t remember how many strips were used, and they were assembled in such a way that the seams aren’t distinguishable.

It’s a very time consuming process, as I need to flip, rotate, slide and shuffle the boards every possible way to get the best match possible. In some cases, I need to trim boards narrower or taper them to get a better match.

Jigsaw Puzzle Table1

With two boards, it’s not too slow of a process (there are only 16 different ways to match them if you don’t count sliding), but each additional board adds more combinations.

Once I have the boards arranged best, I draw a cabinetmaker’s triangle across them to clearly indicate the optimum alignment. Then I joint the edges, testing the fit as I go, until I have a light-tight joint ready for glue-up.

While I haven’t actually timed these processes, it seems as if I spend more time preparing the joint as I do arranging boards. This means that putting together a 5-piece table top can take upwards of 3 hours.

Some woodworkers simply accept that fine work takes time, and are content to keep doing things the same way. I, on the other hand, am always looking for better and more efficient ways to get work done. It came to me that, with the right tools, I could drastically reduce the amount of time required to prepare edges for gluing.

This video walks you through my thought process, the tools and techniques I use, and why they work. Duration: 8:02