Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Frugal Woodworker

Call me frugal.

In fact, one of my "go to" cookbooks is The Frugal Gourmet by Jeff Smith. Overlooking his proclivities, I have to say that his books remind me of everything good that I learned about cooking while I was growing up. Not wasting, making do with what you have - in short, it's about taking meager ingredients and turning them into something stunning.

Earlier this week, I answered a question on All-Experts about built-in bookcases. Kathy from Florida wrote to ask about various materials and how they would react (i.e. - sag) under heavy loads. Some of the materials she mentioned were plywood, melamine covered MDF, and plain MDF simply painted white.

So of course, I referred her to one of my favorite sites - the Sagulator, which will tell you how much any given material will sag, based on load, thickness and span. It's incredibly helpful, and I'd personally like to buy a beer for the person who thought up that name.

Fast forward to tonight, Andy in New Zealand wrote for a little clarification about something in my answer. I'd mentioned to Kathy that plywood or melamine covered MDF would be my choice of the materials she'd mentioned.

See, to me, woodworking is very similar to cooking. Same thing applies here.
Plywood and MDF covered melamine offer frugal solutions for making built-in bookcases. Frugal, get the tie in?

But there are two things about those materials with which you will have to contend - camouflaging the edges, and beefing up the material.

One of the best ways to "beef up" a plywood or MDF board is to edge it in solid wood. The orientation of the solid wood is important. Let me explain.

If you take a 2 x 4 and lay it down flat spanning across two sawhorses, it will flex in the middle if a load is applied. But turn it up on edge and apply a load and... no flex. See, the grain of wood is stronger in that orientation. That's why wood is turned on edge for things like ceiling or floor joists, window and door headers, and so on.
The same physics apply to beefing up a piece of plywood or melamine covered MDF to make a shelf for the bookcase.

Using simple 1 x 2 stock, turned on edge, you can drastically strengthen the wood for supporting loads. What's even better - the solid wood edging will hide the edge of your panel stock, so you won't see the plies of wood or the MDF. Sweet.

Here's a picture of a small shelf in my house, the cabinet sides are made of Cherry plywood, and the all the horizontal components are made of white melamine covered MDF. Why melamine? It's clean looking and resists staining. If you've ever had a can or bottle of something leak inside a cabinet, you'll understand why melamine is a great interior surface for cabinetry.

Here's a close-up of the edge of that shelf, with a piece of solid wood edging applied to it. When I'm building cabinets like these and I need to make a large number of shelves, I'll glue these shelves up in one long piece, with a brad or two along the way to keep the wood from slipping out of alignment.

Later, when cutting the shelves to their final length, I'll trim the brads out, so there are no nail holes showing. Call me anal, too.

On bookcases that have really long spans, or extra heavy loads, you can add this strip to the front and the back of the shelf, thus making it even less prone to sagging.
Andy in New Zealand, I hope this helps clarify things!

Oh - and back to Jeff Smith's cookbook - The Frugal Gourmet - his recipe for Shrimp with Gin is worth the price of this book alone.

I wouldn't steer you wrong.


Anonymous said...

Perfect description, thanks so much Jamie.

Andy C

Rodney said...

Makes good sense, except for the part about "the grain is stronger in that orientation"... I would think it's not the grain (after all, it could be quite different depending how the board is sawn) but that there is considerably more material to bend?