Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Boat Shelves

I enjoy building the Boat Shelves as they are easy to do and are definitely crowd pleasers for anyone that lives on a lake or that has a water themed room or home. I started out with a picture I saw and messed around with several designs before I settled on what I do now. The beauty of what I do is that I can vary it for any application that you might have. I can leave shelves out or add more. I can also vary the depth of the shelves and I have even added a "rake" to the sides based on one customer request. I also can alter the materials without changing the design and I can add or subtract details based on your tastes or needs.

I particularly enjoy the “Three Boat Look” on a stair case. I think it adds a lot of character to the room.

The following is a step by step in designing your own shelves or using my templates attached and blowing them up or sizing to your liking to build your own shelves. Of course, any of the shelves are available for purchase and you can contact me at to specify and order your very own design.

Step by Step

Overview: The design starts out with a basic outline of the size of the boat shelf that you want to build. For the "back board" or the bottom of the boat, I usually use a piece of either 1/4" or 3/8" ply wood - low grade stock. On that, I attached a piece of beaded board that you would use for making wainscoating. This is usually 1/4" thick. While I have made some shelves that only have a border lip piece on the back that is 3/4" by 3/4" for weight purposes, I only use it on the much larger, 7 foot plus height by 12 " in depth, shelves. I have found that with anything smaller it's better to have the thicker back board/bottom for stability purposes. But you can certainly go with the border piece in the smaller applications for weight reasons or material savings.

Using the template and sizing to your desired height, trace or draw out the shelf. Ideally, a "boat" has dimensions that are critical when viewing from an upright position. If it's too narrow at the base and wide in the middle, the boat will look "fat" and it won't be pleasing to the eye. However, I have made boat shelves (see the Wine Rack Boat Shelf) that are consistent from the bottom through the middle. Then, it tapers at the bow to form the boat. In general, I like the bottom to be about 25-30% narrower than the widest point of the shelf. The overall height to width ratio should fall into the 3:1 area. Therefore, a 48" boat shelf should be about 16" wide and have about a 10” base. a 72” boat should be about 24” wide with a 16” base. The widest part of the boat will fall on a perpendicular line to the length about 15% short of the half-way point when measured from the base. If you are going to make a custom design, keep this in mind.

When setting the depth of the shelves, consider the application. Knick knacks? DVD’s and CD’s? Books? Larger items? This will be critical to making sure you get the depth correct.

Gunwales, Bow Plates and Transom plates are, in my opinion, the details that “set off” the design and the area where you have the most freedom to artistically express your personal tastes. Not to mention how you finish the boat. Personally, I like a “bright” finish which is a stain coat followed by either varnish or high gloss polyurethane. The reason I like this finish is that it catches any level of light and gives the shelves brilliance and luster. I normally just paint the sides, but I have finished the shelves for customers with paint on the inside and outside, rag rolled, sides, a “crackle” finish in the outside for a rustic, antique look, and even a tung oil teak oil combo that added some depth and a low level reflection that was also pleasing to the eye.

In addition, I sometimes add brass cleats to the bow or transom to add some additional detail. You can add eyelets for ropes, etc. I even built a pair of paddles and mounted them to the sides of the boat per a customer request. Your imagination is limitless and so is the different ways of finishing this project.

Step 1. Make the back board (bottom of the boat).

If you are using the template, than drawing the lines are pretty straight forward. If you are going with your own design, do the following:

Making a Template

1. Get a piece of scrap plywood or melamine. It needs to be at least the height of the boat and at least half as wide as the width. Make sure there is one true long edge. This will be the center of the boat bottom pattern, or the “keel” line.
2. Set the height on the scrap piece on the edge that you squared up.
3. Find the midpoint.
4. Set the width from the height by dividing the height you are using by 3. Divide this number by 2.
5. Divide the height of the boat by two and subtract another 15%. Measure this distance from the bottom and mark the ½ width at a right angle to the true edge.
6. Take 10-15% off the 1/2 width for the base dimension.
7. Mark the base dimension at a right angle to the true edge.
8. Take a long, flexible piece of wood and temporarily pin it to the "bow" point.
9. Bend the wood and temporarily fasten to the mid point mark that you made earlier and make the "arc" of the side.
10. Scribe your line once you’re satisfied.
11. Cut on the line.

Now you have a template that you can lay on your back board and scribe one side of the boat and then flip it over on the center line and scribe the other and end up with two perfect sides for the boat. You can hang the template on the wall when someone asks you to build them one. I have about 7 different templates on my wall for the various sizes of boats that I make.

Step Two. Making the Back Board.

Now you can make your back board cut out. If you are using the sandwich method of two pieces of ply wood, laminate the bead board to the ply wood and let set overnight. Scribe your pattern either on the bead board or on the plywood. When your satisfied, cut using a jig saw or in the band saw and leave about 1/8” to ¼” of material. After cutting, using a power plane or a belt sander, tune to the line. Check the edge for continuity as any dips or imperfections will show up later inside where they will be noticeable.

If you are not using the sandwich method, scribe the line and cut the bead board. Tune the line and cut two pieces of ¾” by ¾” stock to length. Glue one side of the ¾” nailer and position on the edge. Using a brad nailer or clamps, secure the ¾” stock to the back of the bead board, making a lip. Don’t worry if this doesn’t follow the line perfectly. Repeat for the other side and the bottom, or transom end. Once the glue has set, flush the lip and the edge of the bead board.

Step 3. Making the Shelves

I start with the bottom shelf and it’s the trickiest one to make. I vary the thickness of the stock I use for the size boat shelf I am building. On the smaller shelves, I will use ½” stock for the shelving material as this gives the shelves a sleeker look. Once a design has reached a length of 60”, I will go to ¾” stock for the shelves.

Once you have set your shelf depth, you need to make the bottom shelf wider than the inside depth of the shelves by the thickness of the back board and the depth or thickness of the gunwales. On smaller designs, I use ½” strip stock for the gunwales and again, once it goes over 60”, I go to ¾”. So, on a 60” boat for DVD’s and CD’s, if you are using the sandwich method, add the two thicknesses of the ply wood 1/4” plus ¼” to the depth of the bottom shelf, 5 ½” plus another ¾” for the gunwales. The overall width of the bottom shelf will be 6 ¾”. I always make the width of this shelf a little proud and you can plane it down later in the gunwale finishing section.

Mount the bottom shelf at a right angle to the back board. Ideally, the cut on the back board was square to the center line when you scribed cut out lines of the back board. Check for square and mount the shelf to the edge of the back board, so that the back board will rest on the bottom shelf when the boat is stood upright.

The rest of the shelves are straight forward and can be cut to length from a piece of stock ripped to 5 ½” inches in width. The shelves are spaced evenly and the number of shelves can vary per your application. I personally like to add an extra shelf and have 6 total on the DVD and CD shelves, spaced about 7 inches apart, on center. If you are storing vhs tapes, you will want to go with 5 shelves spaced about 8.5 inches apart. If you are making a hard cover book shelf, you will of course want to increase the inside depth to 9”, and then space the shelves out at 11.5” on center.

Using a framing square, mark the shelf locations on the perpendicular to the center line on the front of the bead board. Measure the width of the shelf that you will need for each location and cut approximately 1/2” to ¾” longer than needed. I then take and place a shelf in position on edge and scribe the back board line on to the back of the shelf. This will give you the EXACT angle that you need for that shelf location. Repeat for all the shelves.

You can cut these angles two ways: I prefer to use the table saw and take my angle and cut it close to the mark. Don’t cut right on the line. Repeat for the opposite side and the rest of the shelves, adjusting the angle of your blade as you go.

When all the shelves are cut, mount them on the indicator lines and insure that they are equidistant on both sides and square to the back board. I usually stand the back board up at this point and I also use a level and make any necessary adjustments to the base shelf or the other shelves as I mount them. Don’t worry if the shelves aren’t staying “square” to the back board and look like they are sagging a little. We will correct that in step 5 when we attach the sides.

When all the shelves are mounted, you can take your power plane or belt sander and flush the shelf edges to the back board. This completes the shelf mounting step.

Step 4. Make a Bow Support

Take a piece of either 1 ½” or 1 ¾” stock, square it and cut it to length either ½” or ¾”, depending on what material you are using for the gunwales, greater than your shelf width. Hold this piece on the perpendicular at the bow on the back board. Scribe the bow “point” on the end of this square. Again, using the table saw, cut these two angles and then mount this piece flush to the bow point on the backer board. The sides will attach to this piece.

Step 5. Cut and Mount the Sides

Depending on the material you use, the sides can be either very easy or somewhat difficult to assemble. I have used several different plywoods here, but I find that ¼” birch works the best and gives you the nicest interior and exterior finish. You can use Luan, but the exterior will need some additional filling with a primer/filler paint if you want a smooth surface. I have also made the sides using strips to give the interior the look of a strip plank boat, which is also nice.

Starting with an 8 foot sheet of plywood, rip the side of the shelf so that it’s ¾” wider than the bottom shelf. So, in our case, we are going to “rough cut” two sides at 7 ½”. These do not have to be perfect cuts. Just cut them.

Insure that the bottom shelf is square to the back board. I clamp a carpenter’s square in place on the outside of the shelves with the clamp on the bottom shelf. The long side of the carpenter’s square is then resting on your work bench or saw horse. The bottom shelf should be square to the backer board at this point.

An extra set of hands here is helpful, but I have found with practice, I can do this on my own. Lay the side next to the shelves and using the GOOD side to towards the interior of the shelves, start at the bottom shelf. But first, put a coating of glue on all the exposed edges, backer boards and on the bow support. Glue will give the shelves incredible strength. Make sure your brad nailer is at the ready, also.

Hold the side up so that there is about an inch of overlap on the bottom shelf and about ¼” of overlap to the back board. Put brads in the bottom shelf and secure the side. Slowly bend the side to the shelves “form” and continue to insert brads into the sides making sure you secure them in the shelf edges as you go. Once you are through the middle of the bend, it will get easier. Continue to brad your way up the side and when you get to the bow support, put some extra brads in all along the side.

At this point, there will be an overlap at the bow. Using your jig saw, cut off the excess, but leave it proud. Finish the edge flush using either the power plane or belt sander to the opposite side of the bow support as the opposite side will overlap this edge.

Go to the other side and repeat the side mounting process. Trim the overlap at the bow and also trim the overlap at the bottom and flush sand. Leave the sides and the back of the back board edges proud for the time being. The sides should stand proud of the interior shelves by about 1” and the bottom shelf and bow support by about ¾”. Remove the clamp and square and stand the shelves up and check for square and level.

Once you are satisfied, lay the shelves back down on your bench or work table.

Step 6. Making the Gunwales.

I think this is the best part of making the shelves. Adding these details and finishing them just right really shows the craftsmanship and elegance that these boats can have.

Using better ¾” stock ( I prefer either maple or really nice pine here), rip gunwale strips ¼” to 5/16” thickness. If you want to go a little thicker and you have a jointer or plane, rip them thicker and plane to final thickness. You will need at five 8’ strips for the gunwales. Two per side plus spacers, if you choose to use them.

I have made boats with and without spacers and I think the spacers add a lot of character, but they definitely take more time. If you want to build without spacers, follow these steps.

Set the inner gunwale on edge inside the boat shelf. Bend it to the side and butt it to the bottom shelf. Using the clamps temporarily secure to the side and mark the length at the bow support. This cut doesn’t have to be exact as you will cover this up with the Bow Plate. Cut the inner gunwale to length.

Have multiple clamps available and within reach. I use the $0.99 spring clamps you can find at any home improvement store. They are cheap and easy to use. Glue the inside surfaces of both the inner and outer gunwale. Then, again, starting at the bottom, begin squeezing and sandwiching the sides between the gunwales, applying clamps as needed. I find that if I put a clamp about every 4 niches, I can control the bend and smooth out any twists in the gunwales. The inner gunwale will butt up to the front edge of the shelves. The side of the shelf will be about ¼” proud of the gunwales. That will be trimmed in the finishing step. When you get to the top, the outer gunwale will be extending past the top. Using the same technique as you used with the sides, trim the gunwale to length and flush it to the opposite side, prepping it for the opposite side gunwale.

Repeat the steps for the other side. Let the assembly sit overnight.

If you are going to use spacers, use the following steps.

On a shorter design, I find that 2” spacers look about right. On large designs, I use 3” or 4” spacers, depending on the thickness of the gunwales, which you can also vary. Use the same technique as outlined above for cutting the inner gunwale. Once that’s complete, center the spacers on each shelf and glue them to the side so that they are centered on the center of the shelf. Clamp these temporarily in place. Since your shelves are spaced identically, you can decide how many spacers you want to squeeze into the gap. Depending on the size of your spacers, you can add up to two spacers between the spacers you already have mounted. I use an eyeball technique here, but I have also measured and marked where the spacers should fall. But I find that I can balance out the spacer pretty well just using a scrap piece of wood for a gauge and setting the spacers accordingly. Glue and clamp the spacers in place.

Now, you can either let these set up for a couple of hours, or you can set the inner and outer gunwales using the same technique as described above. When you decide to go, remember to apply the glue for the inner gunwale to the spacer and NOT the gunwale. Clamp and adjust accordingly as you go. Repeat on the opposite side. If you decide to mount before the spacers have set, make sure your spacers don’t move or get out of alignment with the inner gunwale. Let the whole assembly set up.

Step 7. Finishing the Gunwales.

You are probably looking at a clamped up mess wondering how you are going to make this looked finished. And this is where it gets fun, because the finishing can go really quickly here. Remove all your clamps and using either the power plane or the belt sander, start removing the plywood side material that is standing proud. Once you grind that down, go ahead and rough sand the gunwales. Don’t be afraid to remove a little material here and round the edges a little. Boats don’t have sharp lines on the topsides and you can round and flush all the surfaces as you go. You will be amazed what this starts to look like after 10 minutes with the plane or belt sander. Once it is relatively even, get the finish router and a ¼” or 3/8” round over bit.

Using the router, round over the INSIDE of the spaces created by the spacers and the gunwales. This will give the gunwales one more dimension and a truly finished look. When you have finished all the openings, finish sand the gunwales using a 120 grit paper with a palm sander. The final product should look great.

Step 8. Making the Bow Plate and Transom Plate

Depending on how finished you want to get here, I prefer to use some nice solid wood stock and make the bow and transom plates. Find pieces that are large enough to cover what you want to cover, as little or as much as you want, and trace the bow outline and transom outlines on the stock. I usually use the same thickness stock that I used on the shelves.

After you have traced the shape, I like to mount the bow plate with an overlap and I also make an overlap on the sides of the transom plate. What you do inside with the bow plate is up to you. I usually make some nice, reversing arcs that flow to the sides giving the bow plate a little bit more character. Or, you can just go with a smooth arc across and make the cut.

I also round over with the router and finish sand before mounting. Glue and attach with brads. Do the same with the transom.

Step 9. Finishing

Sand the entire boat. This will include removing the side material on the back of the shelves and finish sanding with 120 grit paper. I use a 220 grit on any surfaces I plan to finish with polyurethane. Once you are satisfied with the sanding, I like to blow off the book cases with compressed air.

If you don’t have compressed air, use your shop vac or cheesecloth to get all the dust off of the assembly. But with all the sanding, there will be dust everywhere. Take the assembly outside and blow it off if you can. It will make finishing that much easier.

If you are staining – painting - varnishing, here is the order that I use for finishing.

1. Stain the inside of the boat and shelves. If you want to make a two tone finish, stain the gunwales and transom and bow plates.
2. Flip the boat over. Fill any brad holes or imperfections in the wood. Prime the outside of the shelves. Let this dry.
3. Paint the outside or apply whatever finish you are using. Completely finish the outside of the shelves at this point.
4. When that is finished and dry, flip the assembly back over and prep it for polyurethane.
5. Mask off the sides at the gunwales. Lightly sand any badly raised grain from the staining step.
6. Apply a coat of polyurethane. Let dry.
7. Lightly sand the first coat and using a brushing liquid or mineral spirits, clean up the sanding swarf.
8. Apply another coat of polyurethane.
9. Lightly sand and clean.
10. Apply another coat of polyurethane.
11. Your finish should be getting some depth at this point. Instead of sanding, when I feel that I am nearing a final coat, I like to take fine steel wool and rub out any imperfections, runs or bumps that are in the polyurethane. Complete that step and clean any dust using mineral spirits.
12. Apply the final coat.

Remove the masking tape. On the outside gunwale where it meets the side, there is one last step you can take to give the boat a finished look. Using white silicone caulk, place a bead in the intersection of the gunwale and the side from the bow to the transom. Take your finger and smooth it into the joint, making a nice fillet.

Step 10. Adding Hardware

I usually add bow cleats to the boat, and that is the extent of the hardware for my tastes. However, I have received requests and have added oar locks and other hardware. Again, personal taster here wins out.

And that’s it. You now have boat shelves that you will be able to enjoy for years to come.

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