Bow-front Wall Shelf

A shallow display for small treasures

My wife and I enjoy collecting small treasures—carvings, figurines, and tiny potted succulents to name a few. But they tend to get lost on large shelves or atop furniture. So I decided to design a wall shelf to display these items that included a good amount of shallow shelf space. And, while I didn’t want the shelf to overwhelm the items upon it, I wanted to include some subtle detailing to give the piece a touch of personality of its own. 

Stacking three long but narrow open shelves on a pair of wall-mounted uprights accomplished the first goal. The shelves aren’t so deep that small items get lost on them, and the entire piece is shallow enough that it doesn’t intrude into the room. This grid-like arrangement also creates “framed” spaces for showcasing our collection.

The front bows, pierced by decorative brass rods, add depth and decoration. They also contribute to the sense of enclosure and the feeling that your displayed items are protected against the errant bumps from passers-by. The thin strips make a design statement, but are narrow enough not to obscure treasures on display. I made my shelf from gray elm, but feel free to use your favored wood species.

Notched shelves with bows and brass

Shelves slide into uprights via half-lap joints reinforced by screws driven from the rear. Thinly planed parts with notched ends bend to slip into slots in the uprights, trapping them in their bowed shape. A drilling guide ensures proper spacing and orientation where the decorative brass rods pierce through.

Order of Work

  • Notch the shelf parts
  • Make the bow drilling jig
  • Cut and drill the bows
  • Cut the bow notches
  • Finish and assemble

Cut the half-laps

Mill the shelf and uprights to size. Adjust a dado blade in your table saw to precisely match the thickness of your pieces and set the height to half the width of the uprights. Gang similar parts together when cutting so the notches align. Later, you’ll drive screws through the joints from behind to hold them together.

A drilling guide ensures accuracy

The bow drilling guide accurately spaces the brass rod holes and orients them at the proper angle to intersect the flexed bows. I made my guide from 6/4 poplar, but a length of 2-by construction stock would work as well. Plane the guide stock to match the width of the bows, then lay out the curve with a fairing stick. Mark the drilling locations on the face and edge of the board, then use a bandsaw to cut along the curve.

Fair is fair. After laying out the ends and apex of the curve, use a fairing stick made from thin, straight-grained stock or hardboard to draw the curve. A looped string and a toggle attached to both ends of the stick maintains the curve, leaving your hands free for positioning and penciling.

Cut the curve. Cut the curve at the bandsaw, making one smooth, continuous pass.

Drill the rod holes and notch the bow

Saw or plane the bow stock to width and thickness, leaving the pieces a few inches oversized in length for now. Sandwich a bow in the guide and drill as shown. While at the drill press, bore two 5/16" diameter holes 1" deep into the front edge of each shelf to accept the brass rods. Mark for the length of the bows. Then lay out and cut the notches at the end of each. 

Drill the bows. With the first bow blank clamped in place, drill into the guide’s edge and through the bow. Use these same holes when drilling the second bow

Mark the ends. Before unclamping the bow stock, strike a reference line on the back of each end where it exits the drilling guide

Lay out the notches. Lay out 1⁄2"-long, 3⁄4"-wide notches 1" past the reference lines you made. These notches will mate with slots in the uprights.

Chop it off. Trim the bows to length and cut the sides of the notches at the bandsaw. Then square off the end of each notch with a chisel, holding the pieces in place with a block that serves as a fence.

Assemble and finish

On each end of the uprights, mark the length and width of the slots that will accept the bows. On the back of each upright, rout a keyhole slot a few inches from the top to use when hanging the unit. Then, with the shelves and uprights dry-fit together, drill a pilot hole, clearance hole, and counterbore for a #8 × 2" screw at each joint. Finish all the parts before screwing the shelves to the uprights and gently springing the bows into place. Cut the brass rod sections to length so that 3/4" protrudes in front of the bow. Chamfer, sand, and lacquer (see Buyers Guide, p. 62) the rod sections before installing. Mine press fit into place, but a dab of epoxy in the shelf holes will secure a loose rod.

Back to front. Center and clamp the convex part of the drilling guide along the length of an upright. Then use a straightedge to extend an inch-long line onto the upright, tangential to the curve of the drilling guide. Hold the bow stock in place and trace along it to mark the slot’s width.

Slit the slot. Cut the slot on the uprights at the bandsaw, nibbling away the waste. The notches at the bow’s ends will hide the joints and keep the bow in place laterally.

Spring the bows. After finishing all parts and assembling the shelves, gently spring the bows into place. Then insert the brass rods through the bows into the shelves.

Back to blog Back to issue