Make Some Mantelpiece Shelves

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This article is from Issue 69 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Start with more than you need. It’s useful (and fun) to have a wide range of moldings on hand when building mantelpiece shelves. Make sure you have an ample supply of the profiles you intend to use, because creating mitered returns eats up a lot of material.

Combine stock and shop-made molding to create display shelves fit for all kinds of curios

It might be the New England Yankee in me that can’t stand to see wall space that hasn’t been put to good use, whether it’s in the kitchen, bathroom, hallway, or bedroom. Mantelpiece shelves dispel such discomfort and provide a double dose of beauty in the bargain. You get to display cherished objects on a shelf that has its own beauty in the form of contours and shadow lines.

The mantelpiece moniker comes from the ornate molding treatments that have traditionally framed fireplaces. But you don’t need a hearth to create an attractive display shelf. Home furnishing catalogs sell factory-made versions of these shelves, but they’re not nearly as nice as woodworkers can make them – despite their high prices. The techniques shown here will take you through the design and construction process, enabling you to create your own masterpiece from premilled stock and shop-made moldings.

Choose your size & style.

The design of a mantelpiece shelf is only limited by your creativity with molding profiles and the wall space you have available.

Designing your shelf: Concentrate on the cross section

Though the combination of profiles may change, mantelpiece shelves share common anatomical details. Your design is certain to include a ledger strip (for installing the shelf), backer boards, mitered molding, and a top.

The right angle. A good way to experiment with different shelf designs is to cut 1⁄4"-thick sections of different molding profiles and arrange them against the legs of a framing square. One leg of the square represents the wall where the back of the shelf will fit. The other leg represents the top of the shelf. Backer boards play an important supporting role. The ledger strip is required for installing your shelf: Screw it to the wall, fit the shelf over the ledger, then secure it with two trim-head screws driven through the shelf top and into the ledger. (NOTE: The cross section design shown here was used to build the top shelf shown on the facing page.)

Cutting mitered returns: Position your molding upside down and backwards

Mitered returns give a mantelpiece shelf its distinctive look. To create them, you have to think like a trim carpenter who’s installing crown molding in a room. Positioning your molding “upside-down-and-backwards” in the mitersaw provides the proper orientation for cutting the outside miters used to make mantelpiece shelves. The mitersaw’s vertical fence represents the wall. The table surface represents the ceiling or (for mantelpiece shelves) the shelf top or horizontal contact surface. It’s smart to attach an auxiliary fence and table surface to the mitersaw for this work. To cut crown molding, also attach a stop strip to the auxiliary table to keep the molding positioned at the right spring angle for cutting. The cuts made in the stop strip facilitate easy and exact registration with layout marks made on your molding.

Customized for crown molding. Attach an auxiliary fence and table to your miter saw for accurate cuts in crown molding. The saw’s vertical fence represents the wall, so the molding is cut upside down. The “spring angle” for crown molding is correct when the narrow flats along the edges of the profile sit flat against the fence and table. By attaching a stop strip to the auxiliary table, you can maintain the correct spring angle when cutting mitered returns.

Careful handling required. Always add the mitered return after installing the longer molding piece. To cut a mitered return, make the miter cut first, then the square cut. To avoid damaging the return, you can lay it flat on the saw table to make the square cut.

Assembling a shelf: You’ll need glue, air nailers, and clamps

The basic sequence for assembling a mantelpiece shelf is always the same: Complete the ornate underside of the project first, then attach the top. Instant CA glue can be used, but my preference is Titebond II.

It’s easy to spread with a finger and clean up with a damp rag. With either adhesive, it’s important to seal the end grain of all miters with an initial coating of glue before making a second application that actually does the bonding work.

Pin & pinch. The pin nailer is especially helpful when attaching delicate mitered returns. Spring-type miter clamps are also good to have on hand. Their sharp tips pull mating parts tight till the glue sets. Both fastening aids leave marks that are nearly invisible.

Build off the backer. Backer pieces provide a gluing and nailing substrate, while also keeping each molding course straight. It’s best to complete one course of molding at a time, always attaching the largest and longest molding piece first.

Special features to add

Make up some bullnose molding. This rounded detail makes an attractive edge on the shelf top. A bullnose router bit sized for 3⁄4"-thick stock will enable you to create this edge treatment on the router table.

Add a plate groove. To display plates on your shelf, rout a 1⁄4"-wide groove between 1" and 11⁄2" from the back edge of the shelf top.


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