Display Shelf with Epoxy Inlay


A high-tech version of an antique design 

This small wall shelf is a bit of an anachronism. The original design comes from colonial times when small shelves like this were used to hold candles. Today, it functions as a display for turnings or other three-dimensional keepsakes. While I built this one with parts cut on my CNC router, you can easily follow the dimensions given to cut things on the band saw. The epoxy inlay on the back piece is a bit trickier. Without access to a CNC machine, your best bet might be to create an inlay based on the methods presented in Michael Kehs’s inlay story from our April/May 2020 issue. 

Prep the parts and run the files

For my display shelf, I used quartersawn white oak with Alumilite epoxy resin for the inlay. The cutting files (see onlineEXTRAS below) are set up to cut the shelf and the back from the same 10 × 25" blank and the two sides from a second 6 × 15" piece. These sizes allow a safe, 1 × 1" area at each corner for hold-downs. Mill the stock to 9/16" thick. Mount the larger piece on your router bed and zero a 3/8" straight (or spiral upcut) bit in the center. Run the Outsides Cutouts tool path. Without moving the blank, switch to a 1/16" straight bit and reset the Z axis in order to zero the bit on the surface of the blank. Run the Bird Inlay toolpath. Switch to a 3/32" straight bit, re-zero the Z axis and run the Outside Circle Inlay toolpath. I find running each of the inlay toolpaths twice makes for a cleaner cut. The second passes help clean out any residual fuzzies. Mount the smaller blank to your router bed, switch back to the 3/8" bit, rezero in the center, and run the Side Cutout toolpath. Then bandsaw the parts free from the waste. 

Order of Work

  • Download CNC files
  • Cut out parts
  • Cut inlay recesses
  • Shape edges
  • Pour and scrape epoxy
  • Sand, assemble, and finish

Pour and scrape the epoxy

Sand the front surface of the back through 120 grit and apply two coats of spray shellac to seal it. The shellac helps keep excess epoxy from soaking into the surrounding pores and is scraped away later. The epoxy for the inlay comes as a two-part liquid (resin and hardener) into which you can add colorants. First, measure out the two parts according to the directions on the packaging. The bird inlay won’t require a lot. I use Dixie cups for mixing. Pour enough of each liquid into its own cup to reach the top of the bottom seam—about 1/8" deep. Then pour the hardener (it flows better) into the resin and mix thoroughly before adding in the color. A little bit of the color goes a long way, so add it a little at a time. Once the epoxy is ready, pour it into the grooves as shown. After the epoxy cures, scrape and sand it flush.

Squeeze and pour. For my birds, I wanted to approximate the iridescent greenish-blue of tree swallow feathers. So I added both blue and green metallic powder to the mix along with a drop of black. I scooped the powders with the end of a dry stir stick, adding a pinch of each color about half the size of my little finger nail. Stir the colors in before squeezing the cup to form a pouring spout. 

Scrape away the excess. No matter how carefully I pour, the epoxy always seems to puddle. Fortunately, the excess is readily removed with a card scraper after allowing the epoxy to harden overnight. Once it is level with the wood, sand through 400 grit.

Assemble and finish

Bevel both edges of the back and the rear edge of each side to 105° at the jointer. Be sure to make a left and a right side. Shape the top edges of the back and the front edges of the sides and shelf with a 3/16" roundover bit in your router table. Also rout two keyhole slots in the back for hanging. (See page 22 for one approach.) Counterbore the underside of the shelf and the rear surface of the back (as shown) for 3/8" plugs. Clamp the shelf to the back and drill 3/32" pilot holes in the three rearmost counterbores. Enlarge those holes in the shelf with an 11/64" bit to make them clearance holes. Screw the shelf in place. Clamp the sides, then drill and screw them to the shelf. With the clamps still in place, drill angled pilot holes into the sides as shown. Again, enlarge the holes in the back before screwing the back to the sides. Glue plugs in the holes and sand all the outside surfaces flush. Finish as desired. I used wiping varnish. 

Drill straight counterbores. While the screws will go in at an angle, the counterbores for the plugs are drilled perpendicular to the surface. Position a fence to help keep the holes in line. 
Drill slanted holes. With the sides clamped in place, drill three pilot holes through the back into each. Rest the assembly on a spacer block to keep the back level. Adjust a tee-bevel to help with drilling at the appropriate angle. 
Back to blog Back to issue