Pencil-Post Bookshelf

Sharpen basic turning skills as you turn 2×4s into No. 2s.

Design by Andy Rae

Overall dimensions: 391⁄4"w × 123⁄8"d × 51"h

For those who think that pencil post furniture is too “period,” here’s a literal reinterpretation that fits perfectly in a child’s playroom or bedroom.

Knowing how quickly kids outgrow furniture, designer Andy Rae created this bookshelf to be fun, easy to build, and inexpensive. You’ll find the bulk of the materials at your home center: the posts are laminated 2×4s; the erasers are turned from a 4×4 cedar fence post; and the ferrules are 21⁄2" thick-walled PVC conduit. (I used Baltic birch for the shelves, but you can save money by substituting hardwood plywood.) The connector nuts and cross dowels not only lock the shelves to the posts but also make it easy to disassemble the pieces and transport them to the grandkid’s house.

Depending on your clamp collection, assembling the pencil posts may take a few glue-up sessions, but after that, the shelving unit can be finished in a weekend. Despite its simplicity, there are a few interesting twists and turns. You’ll learn how to lay out a hexagon; practice turning cones, cylinders, and tenons; and discover a few tricks for negotiating long columns with a short-bed lathe.

(Note: Bright colors add a nice dose of whimsy, but painting the posts yellow or black–or leaving them bare–provide options that may work better with your home’s decor.)

Use a threaded rod to trowel glue evenly across the face of the post, ensuring a good, clean glue-up.
As you rip and flip the hexagonal post, make sure that the glue line stays in contact with the rip fence.

Make the Legs

1 Select six 96"-long 2×4s to make the posts (A): one for each leg, one to test your setups, and an extra in case you make a mistake. (Note: Avoid loose knots and waney edges. The best 2×4s are sometimes sold as “select” or “prime” stock.)

2 Cut each 2×4 into two equal lengths and arrange them side by side for the best-looking grain. Mark the ends to ensure that each half stays properly paired with its mate.

3 Using a jointer, flatten the inside faces and edges of each matching pair. Next, apply glue to the inside face of one half, attach a small clamp across the edges to help align the halves, and then apply clamping pressure across the faces (Photo A). To ensure a seamless joint, space the clamps 6-8" apart. Glue up all six pairs, and let the assembled post blanks dry.

4 Referring to Figure 2, Step 1, rip the post blanks to 3" wide. (You may need to rip a little material from the jointed edge to remove the remaining rounded corners.) Next, refer to Step 2 and lay out a hexagon on the end of your test piece, and mill all the blanks to the proper thickness.

5 Rip the first face, as shown in Step 3. Now flip the blank end for end, and rip the adjacent edge; (When you flip the stock for your second cut, the layout lines will be facing you.)

6 Rotate the blank 180° so that the cut edge rests against the fence, and rip the remaining two edges (Photo B). Double-check your cuts against your layout lines; if no adjustments are needed, cut the remaining legs. Finally, crosscut the posts (A) to length. (Note: Save your scrap. You’ll use the rippings to prevent tear-out when dadoing the posts and a hexagonal offcut to make the dowelling jig.)

7 Finish the pencil posts (A). To add color but reveal some grain, I used BioShield Stain/Finish, a nontoxic, one-part stain and finish. An acrylic paint would create a more classic No. 2 pencil look, or you could finish the shafts with a clear finish. Whatever you choose, it’s important that you finish the posts now in order to achieve the scalloped end when you “sharpen” the tip.

8 Chuck a 1⁄2" straight bit into your table-mounted router, and set the fence for a 1⁄2"-wide rabbet. Next, wrap the top end of a post (A) with painter’s tape to protect the finish, and slide it into a 12"-long piece of 3" PVC. Guiding the pipe against a block of wood (or miter fence), feed the post into the bit, and then slowly turn the post/pipe clockwise, as shown in Photo C. Gradually raise the bit until the tenon fits inside the 21⁄2" thick-walled conduit. Repeat with the remaining posts.

9 Build the dado sled shown in Figure 3. Next, set up your dado cutter to the width of your shelf material, and adjust the cutter for a 1"-deep dado. Tape a strip of wood (left over from ripping the hexagonal post) to the back face of the pencil to control tear-out, and cut the dadoes, as shown in Figure 1 Leg Detail and Photo D.

10 At the drill press, drill counterbores and through holes for the connector bolts through the posts (A), where shown in Figure 1 Leg Detail.

Sliding the hexagonal post into a PVC pipe allows you to rout a round tenon. Painter’s tape protects the finish and packs the post in the pipe.
Use a sled with stops to ensure that the shelf dadoes line up. Cut the corresponding dadoes in each leg before readjusting the stop.
Using calipers to check your progress, turn the eraser blank and tenon to match the conduit’s outside and inside diameters.
Use the corner of the square-edged carbide cutter to create the V-grooves, then use the flat edge to reduce the diameter between the coves.

Turn the pencil parts

1 From 4×4 cedar stock, create three turning blanks for the erasers (B), each approximately 3 × 3 × 8". Next, cut four 41⁄2"-long pieces of 21⁄2"-diameter thick-walled conduit for the ferrules (C).

2 Using a tablesaw, chamfer about 1⁄2" from the corners of the eraser blanks to facilitate turning, and then mount the blank between your headstock and tail centers. Set the lathe to slow speed (around 1,500 rpm), and use a carbide cutter or roughing gouge to rough out a cylinder. Next, reposition the rest closer to the blank, and adjust the speed to around 1,800 rpm. Using a light touch, turn the cylinder to match the outside diameter of the conduit (approximately 27⁄8").

3 Using a parting tool or square-edged carbide cutter, turn a 11⁄8"-long tenon in the center of the cylinder, as shown in Photo E. 

(Note: To obtain a snug-fitting tenon, use calipers rather than relying on dimensions.) Measuring up from the tenon’s shoulders, cut the erasers (B) to the sizes listed in the Cut List using a saw or parting tool, and then cut through the tenon to separate the pair. Repeat the procedure with the remaining two blanks. Cut the final blank in half but do not trim the ends; you’ll use these pieces as  jam chucks to turn the ferrules (C).

4 Using the jam chucks made in Step 3, mount the conduit. Leaving the speed at 1,800 rpm, lightly run a round carbide cutter against the conduit to smooth and true the cylinder. Now, locate the ferrule V-grooves, where shown in Figure 1 Leg Detail, and cut the grooves as shown in Photo F. Next, turn the center section. Complete the remaining ferrules (C), and then put the erasers (B) and ferrules aside for now. (Note: This is a good time to spray-finish the ferrules.)

5 With a mitersaw or tablesaw and crosscut sled, equipped with your best crosscut blade, trim 7" from the bottom end of each post (A). Mount one of the pieces into your lathe with the intended tip against the tailstock. Now, adjust the speed to 1,500 rpm. Staying 1" away from the headstock end, lightly rough out a cylinder. Stop the lathe to inspect the scalloped edge.

6 Using a parting tool or square edged carbide cutter, establish the tip’s final dimension, as shown in Figure 1 Leg Detail. Now, working downhill from right to left, “sharpen the pencil.” Finally, establish a “lead tip” line about 11⁄4" in from the tailstock end, as shown in Photo G. Repeat with the remaining pencil tips.

7 Using a post offcut, make a doweling jig, as shown in Figure 4.  Now, using the jig, drill 3⁄4 × 1" holes in each pencil post end (Photo H). Reassemble the tips to the posts using glue and 3⁄4"-diameter × 2"-long dowels (D).

8 Touch up the pencils’ finish where needed. Finally, dip the pencil tips into Plasti-dip to create a nonslip tip, as shown in Photo I.

Make the shelves and attach the legs

1 From 3⁄4" Baltic birch plywood, cut four shelves (E) to the sizes in the Cut List.

2 Sand the faces, knock off any sharp edges, and then finish the shelves with 2-3 coats of water-based polyurethane.

3 With a helper, fit the shelves (E) into the posts (A). Using the pre-drilled holes as guides, drill 1⁄4 × 31⁄4"-deep holes into the ends of the shelves.

4 Remove the shelves, and drill 11mm holes through the face of each shelf for the cross dowels, where shown in Figure 5.

5 Insert the cross dowels into the shelves, and then attach the posts to the shelves with connector bolts.

6 Attach the erasers (C) to the ferrules (B) and the ferrules to the posts (A). (To join the wood to the PVC, I used Nexabond, but epoxy would also work). Consider leaving one ferrule unglued since kids appreciate a secret hiding spot for small treasures.  

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