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Make a floating shelf

A step-by-step guide to creating a simple floating shelf


By Gareth Greathead


•  800 x 1 500mm length of
16mm MDF
• Twenty 3.5 x 40mm wood screws
• Variety of sanding paper and a sanding block
• Wood filler
• Wood glue

Project guide

Difficulty: Beginner

Estimated time: 3 hours assembly. 2 hours painting

Cost: R350


•    Cordless drill
•    Router
•    Driver bits
•    2mm drill bit
•    Straight flush bit
•    Countersunk bit
•    Large rounding over bit
•    Smaller rounding over bit
•    Roman ogee bit
•    Clamps

To better illustrate the magic behind floating shelves I set about creating and installing some of my own. At the time of writing winter was in full swing and our fireplace, located in the living room, wasn’t generating enough heat to warm the entire house. Our TV is situated in an adjoining TV room and the floating shelf would provide a platform for the TV during winter. The clean design inherent in the floating shelf system meant that a vase could be placed on the shelf during summer without it looking out of place.


Our home is contemporary but there are some classic features that add a distinctive look. You will notice the Roman-like pillars and balustrades that separate the TV room from the living room where the shelf is mounted. The plan was to grace the shelf with some sharp corners but not so sharp that bumping into it would cause haemorrhaging. The lower edge of the shelf would be finished using a large rounding over bit and the top with a classic Roman ogee bit.


Step 1: In my wisdom, instead of creating a cutting list and taking it to a wood retailer, I bought several large boards of 16mm MDF. I selected a piece that wouldn’t require vertical cuts and marked out the cutting lines using only a square and a pencil. Without a table saw, or even a circular saw for that matter, I set about cutting along the lines with a jigsaw, knowing full well my cuts were not going to be entirely accurate and it was going to take six times longer to complete the project.


On the plus side I do have a router, one of the most versatile woodworking tools available, and I knew I could make it happen. For my plan to work, at least one of the boards would have to be cut completely square and I selected the board closest to the bottom. At least one edge on this piece of board was straight because it wasn’t cut by me. The parallel fence was set up to run along this edge and the opposite side was trimmed with the router and a straight bit.  This board would act as the pattern for the other two boards that would be laminated to form one.


Step 2: The inner section with the female cut out was placed onto the accurately cut outer board and clamped in place. Pilot holes and a countersunk bit prepared the piece for gluing. Once glue was applied to one surface, the screws were driven in to clamp the pieces together. The larger component of the shelf provided a platform for my makeshift clamps to secure the smaller sections while the glue was drying. In picture 4 you can clearly see the inner layers of the floating shelf. The smaller component will be fixed to the wall with the inner male layer extending beyond the upper and lower surfaces. The larger component has a cut-out on the inner layer that slots onto the male. With this design, there will be absolutely no visible brackets once it is fitted to the mounting surface. The accuracy of the male and female cuts on the inside didn’t have to be accurate. With the inner and outer components of the larger boards laminated together, a straight flush bit was set to run along the lower surface, which acted as a template to trim the inner layer. Although this technique may be time-consuming, it ensures greater accuracy than laminating two boards of the same size together.

The uppermost boards were prepped and glue was applied and the pieces clamped together as done previously. However, this time I made another improvisation and made use of the fixed vice on my workbench.  After all the boards were laminated, two components remained: one male and one female, each consisting of three layers of 16mm MDF.


Step 3: While routing the edge on the final layer using the straight flush bit, the cap screw and bearing fell off and the bit gouged into my piece. There was no longer an edge to finish off the final piece of the puzzle. After some debate I decided to use wood filler and sanded it flat to match the surface that had not been damaged.


The laminated pieces were edge-routed using a large rounding over bit on the bottom and a Roman ogee on top. The corners were routed with a smaller rounding over bit and some of the edges were softened using sandpaper. I was astonished to discover that, once dried, the wood filler withstood the sanding and several more passes with the router.


The three screws sticking out are the only ones that will remain visible once the piece has been painted. After the base has been secured to the mounting point, these three screws were driven in, securing the male and female plugs on the shelf. The screws surrounding it are only for clamping purposes and I used the miracle wood filler to cover them up in the hope that there would be enough surface area for it to grip.


Step 4: To obtain a good finish, the painting of any item always begins with a good preparation. With MDF the first step is to sand the flat surfaces with 120-grit sandpaper. Once the surface was roughened up, the entire piece was wiped down with lacquer thinners to remove any remaining waxy residue from the MDF.


The first coat of wood primer was applied. Apply a second coat after 20 minutes and finally a third coat. The primer I used never cured hard, even after a day, and it produced a matt finish. I gave it a light sanding with fine sandpaper and applied the varnish. Although the primed surface didn’t look particularly impressive, the varnish took to it very well and produced a mirror-like finish even though it was applied with a brush.

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