Testing my skills with some new custom-built furniture

“Furniture” is probably too strong of a word for what I spent the last week building: a custom radiator box combined with bookshelves for the guest room. This is the first of two posts; read part two here.

This isn’t anything like a fancy chair or a dresser or a chest or any other kind of proper “furniture” that you’d go out and buy in a store — it’s just a utilitarian piece of storage to serve the multiple purposes of covering the radiator with something attractive, making good use of the typically wasted space above the radiator, and creating some much-needed bookshelves so that we can finally unpack the numerous boxes of books in the basement up into the house and help clear the way for the impending basement renovation.

While there are radiator covers aplenty out there, we were unlikely to find a piece of furniture that would exactly fit our radiator and also have the type of shelves that we wanted. I’ve already built one radiator cover for the nursery, and in the time we’d spend driving all over the world looking for the piece to fit here, I just figured that I could probably build something passable and attractive.

My first attempt at building a radiator cover for the nursery earlier in 2012.

The basic design was similar to the nursery radiator box on the bottom as one piece, and then a simple box shelf to be placed on top and dressed up with some trim and crown moulding. But in the end, it would all look integrated as one solid piece.

I made the radiator box just a little deeper than necessary (about 13 inches) out of sanded plywood, and then made the sides of the shelves out of clear pine 1×12’s, so the shelves taper back from the radiator box, which hopefully helps it all feel a little less imposing in the room.

The biggest challenge for me with making anything like this is that I don’t own a table saw (or even a fancy rig like this great Rip Cut from Kreg), so I have to get creative with trying to make long straight cuts.

I built this straight edge rig to help out. It fits the circular saw perfectly — you run the circular saw along the top straight edge and the blade runs right against the lower straight edge (the saw trimmed that edge off in a straight line when I made it.) With the jig saw — which I used for 90 percent of this project — I made two pieces of wood (white piece laying on the table) that shows the exact offset for the width of the jig saw. I set those down against each end of the line and then clamp down the straight edge accordingly. Then I just run the jig saw against the lower straight edge.

home made straight edge

This worked pretty well, though the cuts certainly aren’t nearly as laser-straight as they’d be with a table saw.

To get the openings cut out of each face piece, I draw the square for the cutout and then drill on the inside of each corner with a 1/2″ bit, being careful not to drill anywhere over the line. That would leave a corner rounded out and it’s easy to square out a rounded-in corner with a jig saw. The 1/2″ holes are big enough to stick a jig blade into and then start cutting from the inside. All three face edges of the box have holes for the screening to let that cozy radiated heat out.

For the feet, I did them just like I did the first box — no moulding, just a gentle curve about four inches in from the corner that goes about 3 inches up and then across in a straight line. An easy way to get a nice curve traced down that you can replicate on the other legs is to use the bottom of a can of some kind. I used the bottom of the big can of wood putty, which was the perfect shape.

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We opted not to do some sort of skirt moulding around the feet to keep this as slim and simple as possible. We do the feet in this way because the opening at the bottom helps it feel a little smaller and lighter than it would if it just touched the floor all the way across the face of the box. Along with leaving space above it and not hitting the ceiling, it’s just another simple design choice to help make small spaces feel as big as possible.

One thing that made this version much better than my previous attempt was the new Kreg pocket hole jig that I got for Christmas from my momma a few weeks ago.

I had been eager to test it out and this was the perfect opportunity. Unlike my last attempt, the radiator box part of this project has zero visible screw holes anywhere on it — not even countersunk/bored and filled screw holes. All of the screws are on the inside via pocket holes with the aid of dowels in places.

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The Kreg jig is super easy to use and the results are fantastic. The only visible pocket holes this whole thing will have are four on the bottom outsides of the shelves to join it together with the radiator box. I couldn’t think of a better way to join them together. I couldn’t join the pieces out of sight in the back since it’ll be up against the wall when I put them together, and I couldn’t do it from inside the radiator box because the screens will already have to be in place when I put it all together.

But these four pocket holes on the outside will get filled and sanded, and since it’s all going to be painted, they’ll barely be noticeable.

I put cove moulding around the inside of the screen openings — a departure from the last box where I used quarter-round moulding. It’s not painted yet and the screens aren’t in place, but I already like the looks of this much more than the quarter-round.

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You’ll notice that there’s no “top” on the radiator box. That’s because the top will actually be the bottom of the shelves, so it’ll just sit on top of this box and slide right into holes for the dowels that you might barely be able to see protruding from the top of the radiator box. And then the rough facing edge of that bottom will be covered up with some nice shingle trim that will help separate the halves visually and look like a ledge. After filling all of the nail holes and priming, the radiator box is good to go. The screens are cut and ready for install as soon as all the painting is done.

That’s about it for the first half of this project. I’ll share the story of the shelf half and show the finished product tomorrow.

This is the first of two posts; read part two here.

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