Curvy Wall Shelf

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This article is from Issue 70 of Woodcraft Magazine.

A skill-building project to display treasured mementos

When I teach woodworking classes that focus on basic woodworking skills, I try to pick projects that require a variety of techniques and that develop both hand and power tool skills. Of course, it helps if the finished piece is attractive and useful, without requiring a major investment in materials. This curvy wall shelf meets these requirements nicely. Its sides and rails involve a bit of curve-cutting with a bandsaw or jigsaw, followed up by some fairing with a file and sandpaper. Cutting the joints teaches you how to efficiently and accurately rout dadoes using a shop-made guide that will be useful for lots of other projects as well. Sawing and fine-tuning the tongues is a great exercise in basic joint-fitting, and profiling the edges of the parts employs two different table-router techniques. For the final part of the lesson, you’ll learn how to rout keyhole slots to hang the unit, again using a simple shop-made jig that will prove its worth in many other projects.

I made this particular shelf from cherry, but just about any wood will work. One suggestion: Consider making a pair of these, as the work on the second one will go quickly having set up operations for the first. My guess is that you won’t have any problem finding a taker for the twin.

Fair identical twins. With the two sides joined with double-faced tape, use spokeshaves and/or half-round mill files to fair the edges, which will efficiently create identical pieces. Follow up by sanding the edges through 220 grit. Follow the same procedure with the rails.

Patterns define curved cuts and joinery layout

When milling the stock for the parts, make some extra 1⁄2"-thick scrap for tool setups. Then use the gridded patterns to make plywood or cardboard patterns to lay out the curved parts. To save time and guarantee identically shaped sides, stick your side boards together with double-faced tape, then cut the complete curved profile in both pieces at the same time with a bandsaw or jigsaw. Stay just to the waste side of the line, and save the offcuts, which will come in handy later.


Full-sized pattern available at

T-square does the trick. A T-square guide with clamping flanges makes routing the dadoes a snap. To set up the cut, simply align the notch in the jig’s crossbar with your cutlines (inset).

Sides get stopped dadoes for shelves

Mark out the dadoes on each side using a sharp pencil, and darken the end of each dado layout for good stopping-point visibility. I use a T-square router guide outfitted with clamping flanges to simplify the work. (See page 58.)

A Mighty Nice Router Light

Lighting the throat of most routers can be a challenge, but I finally found the ideal add-on for the job. The flexible gooseneck on this bright LED light (whose body attaches to the router with double-faced tape) can be directed just where you need it. It’s available through (Search “Mighty Bright 64602 LED Sewing Machine Light.”)

First tongue cut. With the dado head partially buried under a sacrificial fence, feed each shelf across the blade, sawing one face, then the other. Second tongue cut. With the blade height unchanged, and with the shelf standing on its front edge, feed each end across the blade to create a shoulder at the front of the shelf.

Saw the tongues close, then fine-tune the fit by hand

I saw the tongues using a dado head on my tablesaw. This approach is easy to set up and ensures perfectly aligned joint shoulders. The only drawback is that any inconsistency in stock thickness translates into inconsistency in tongue thickness. Therefore, it’s best to saw the tongues a hair fat, and trim them afterward for a perfect fit in their mortises. The final touch is to use a chisel to round over the front end of the tongue to match the round end of the mortise. (Don’t worry about a perfect match here.) Make sure to mark the pieces for proper orientation later.

Fine-tune the thickness. Test the fit of the joint and, if necessary, trim the tongue to achieve a snug fit in its dado. A shoulder plane is the best tool for the job, but a carefully wielded chisel will also work. Another option: fine sandpaper wrapped around a hardwood block.

Trap that rabbet. Use offcuts from the sides to set up a stop for routing the rail rabbets using a 3⁄8" rabbet bit set for a 3⁄8"-deep cut. A deep knife cut prevents exit tearout.

Lay out & rout the rail rabbets

Dry-assemble the sides to the shelves, and hold the end of each rail in its position as you knife into the side to mark out the location of the end of each rail rabbet. Now it’s time to rout rabbets in the sides to hold the two rails. To lay out the rabbets, dry-assemble sides and shelves, and hold each rail in place as you knife the layout onto the side.

Square the end. Use a chisel to pare the rabbet wall straight at the dadoes, and square at the end of the joint for a perfect fit with the rail.

Use a router table to profile the edges

The front edges of the sides and shelves (but not the rails) get rounded over with a 1⁄4"-radius round-over bit. Both operations are best done on a router table set up and equipped as shown.

Steering by hand. For ease and convenience, use a router table to shape the 1⁄4"-radius round-over on the front edges of the sides. For best control at the beginning of a cut, lever the work into the bit against a starter pin.
Bullnosing with a fence. To rout the 1⁄4"-radius bullnose on the front edges of the shelves, set up a fence tangent to the round-over bit bearing. Feed with one shelf face down, then the other.

Sand & assemble to wrap up the construction

Sand all of the parts through 220 grit. In the process, ease the curved edges of the rails, but take care not to round over any of the straight edges, including the flat sections at the ends of the curves. The clamp-up of the unit is a 2-step procedure, as shown in the photos.

Shelves first. In preparation for gluing the sides to the shelves, gather your clamps, glue, and brush. Then do a complete dry run to pre-set your clamps and rehearse your clamping procedures. After gluing up, I let any squeeze-out partially cure, then pare it away with a very sharp chisel.
Then the rails. To provide clamp access, place the assembly on risers. To allow clamping the lower rail, first clamp a couple of small blocks to the inside faces of the sides below the bottom shelf. A very thin bead of glue on all contact surfaces will do the job fine and eliminate squeeze-out.

Attend to a good hanging. After marking out crosshairs at the keyhole slot locations, clamp a simple jig to the unit to corral the router. Plunge the bit, slide the tool, then return to your starting point before retracting the bit.

Rout keyhole hanger slots, and apply a finish

All that’s left is to provide a way to hang the unit. Rather than screwing through the rails into the wall, I rout keyhole slots to accept panhead screws, making for a mar-free installation. After cutting the slots, I do a quick cleanup sanding with 220-grit paper, and then apply several coats of wiping varnish.

This simple jig is designed to corral the base of a router for cutting a 3⁄8"-long keyhole slot. The base provides a large clamping area for attaching the jig to all sorts of wall-hung units.


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