Introduction: Warbirds Wood & Aluminum Bar
My commander decided to stand up a heritage room in our office and I volunteered to build the bar. Heritage rooms are an interesting artifact from the golden age of flying squadrons and hold all sorts of memorabilia. I've long been inspired by furniture pieces constructed from reclaimed aircraft parts, although these tend to be hard to come by and built for a unique type of client (i.e. really really expensive).
Rather than opine about what is affordable, I decided to make my own from scratch. This design recreates the look of an airplane fuselage using nothing more than aluminum roof flashing stretched over a wooden frame for a modest cost and a high payoff at the end. If you're looking to outfit your own themed bar/mancave, read on.
The bar was built with a poplar frame with mahogany faces, 1/4" tongue and groove flooring for the top, and faux-grained panels for the sides. A standard woodshop outfit is required, although I'd recommend having tin snips to trim the flashing and an 18-ga floor stapler to attach the tops. I had originally planned to make the casing from dark walnut with a lighter reclaimed top, but it ended up being cost-prohibitive so I switched up and used the red mahogany with dark faux-grained panels and even darker flooring for the top.
Step 1: Design & Framing
As with most of my designs, this one began in MS Publisher, where I created a set of scaled patterns for the curved front face as well as the end caps which will have a look to mimic the interior frames. I had a budget of six feet to work with, although this design can be scaled in any direction as long as you plan on splits in the plywood top for sizes above eight feet in length.
The four attached Publisher files include:
-the full design of the back of the bar, including the doors and design for the end caps
-the rib for the aluminum front
-the full-size end cap
-1/2 the end cap for the pattern, if you decide to attach them together in pairs
The bar top sits at 42" in height, which is standard, and has clipped corners which overhang one end of the cabinet.
Begin by cutting and assembling the L-shaped frames which will support the rest of the structure from poplar or another inexpensive, straight-grained wood. These I assembled with Festool Dominoes although biscuits or pocket holes would be equally effective. Once all four were dry I clipped the corners out with the bandsaw and added 1x2" stretchers in the corners which made the unit free-standing. To prevent the unit from collapsing, I also added supports to the front at a 45-degree angle, attaching them to the front with screws.
From there, the cabinet is pretty open so you can add brackets for the interior shelves. These can be adjustable tracks, but I chose to use 1x1 off-cuts of poplar spaced at the bottom and midpoint of the cabinet. Measure these twice and take care that they're installed straight as you don't want your shelves to rock after installation.
At this point I broke into the stash of mahogany and built a face frame for the back of the cabinet. Again I used Dominoes for the assembly and I took care to account for an additional 1.25" overhang on each side where the end caps would be installed. Once the layout was confirmed, I attached the interior uprights to the top and bottom, then added the ends to each side.
After the rear frame was dry, I attached it to the frame with pocket holes, making sure to keep the interior frame as square as possible.
Step 2: Aluminum Flashing
This is a contentious part of the build and there aren't many pictures of the progress. I'll explain...
Start with cutting out the patterns for the curved supports and attaching them to something solid; I used 1/4" plywood. I then traced them onto a 1x8 poplar board and cut out a set of 4, re-gluing the ends of the arc to the facing side to get the last piece I needed. You'll also need to add the notches for the stretchers. Most of this I cut with the bandsaw, following up with a chisel to ensure every piece fit snug.
Attach the curved supports to the front of the cabinet with pocket holes, then mount the stretchers with glue and a single countersunk screw from the front.
Here's where the fun begins. You'll need to use 20" wide sheets of the flashing to create the fuselage. It will be glued down with Liquid Nails and tacked with small sheet metal screws. It must overhang on all sides so that you can hide all of the sharp edges.
Begin by making a straight edge from a strip of plywood and mark out 2.5" intervals to place your screws. Sit the frame sideways on some sawhorses and cut the flashing roughly to length. With everything laid out, coat the stretchers with adhesive and drop the aluminum in place, taking care not to slide it around. Keeping the aluminum tight and avoiding ripples, start driving the screws. I suggest using a screw guide so the bit doesn't slip and puncture the metal.
Leave the center stretcher without screws, adding the second sheet of flashing above it and screwing them together. After fighting the glue-drying clock and driving about 200 screws, take a break and let everything dry.
Once it's all secure, trim the metal back so you have a 1" overhang on each end and make a relief cut every 1 inch. Bend these tabs down and staple them to hide the sharp edges. The top and bottom are easier; just bend them back about 45 degrees so they are hidden by the molding.
Step 3: End Caps
The end caps began in similar fashion as patterns, which I mirrored top-to-bottom. Using your assembled frame as a guide, cut the front arcs and clamp them in place. Follow that by placing each individual piece so that it follows the curvature in front (a disc sander here is handy) and the assembled frame on the back. The vertical parts I ran through the planer to suggest that they were secondary supports for the load-bearing frame.
Attach all parts to the frame, then glue together as you wish; again I used Dominoes.
To continue the aircraft frame look, use a shallow drill bit to bore indentations which resemble holes to reduce weight. These will be painted black later on.
The centers will be filled with faux-grained plywood. Add a rabbet along the interior edge and trim the plywood to fit. More on staining later, but I glued these in place and supported them with brad nails.
Step 4: Building the Bar Tops From Flooring
I've used t&g flooring as a bar top before to good effect. I had a spare box from the house on hand, so I made good use of it for the bar.
Trim the plywood to the correct size and adjust the placement. Use some 2" strips of mahogany to make a face molding to wrap the frame, adding both heavy round-over profiles on the outside and a deep rabbet on the inside to make the top more rigid. Work your way around the top, cutting each piece to fit on the miter saw before gluing them down.
After the fit is correct, attach the top to the cabinet. This was a 3-step process using long ledger screws. First, drill pilot holes through the top and into the frame. Second, use a forstner bit to sink the screw's cap. Third, drive them in place. Mine came with a special non-slipping spider drive bit, which seemed to work well and I didn't experience any slipping.
The lower bar top is built in the same way, only you'll need to add some notches to account for the supports in the front.
The flooring is a simple task if you've ever done it for real. Attach the first row with liquid nails and staples at the front, then tap each successive row in place with a small hammer before securing. Continue across the surface, trimming the ends to fit and gluing the final row in place (since there is no room for the nailer).
Step 5: Additional Casing
Getting there, but we've got some weird protrusions to deal with.
The front of the cabinet requires some molding to cover the bottom of the fuselage and protect everything from kicks and scrapes. Mill a piece of mahogany to sit inside the end caps and add a notch to account for the metal.
On the ends, make a similar profile, rabbet the top so it sits outside the end caps and use miters to wrap it around the front corners. Round this over, again to prevent damage.
On the inside, we need to cover up the frame. Add some stops to the insides of the frames, then make some panels to fit each space. As before, I faux-grained each plywood panel. Once glued down, add some thin mahogany to the supports to conceal the poplar and repeat this for the area surrounding the lower bar top.
Step 6: Doors
These were fairly standard panel doors which were sized to fit the openings in the rear frame. Account for about 1" of overhang and cut them to size, adding faux-grained panels before gluing each one up. Ensure the thickness is uniform and run the edges through a router to add a profile. Sand and stain, then add the hardware in preparation for assembly.
Step 7: Finishing and Painting
I had initially planned for a dark walnut cabinet, but due to the mahogany being more readably available, I went with the red/black scheme, using Red Chestnut stain with a very dark accent on the panels.
For the aluminum, I made a full-size pattern of a subdued USAF Roundel, the star pattern designed for quick identification in flight. This I cut out and attached with temporary spray adhesive before spray painting. It took two coats plus some touch-up work, but I was far happier than with previous attempts (hand painting wasn't good enough). I also made a bomb pattern for the number of completed missions and gave it the name, "Milestone Charlie." Obviously naming it after a pin-up girl wouldn't fly, so we went with an inside joke. If you don't know what 'Milestone C' is, consider yourself lucky.
Along the top of the fuselage is some olive drab camouflage to reduce visibility while on the ground. This was masked out by hand and spray-painted with a few coats of flat paint.
You also have the option to distress the metal as a whole. Since I wanted the reclaimed look, I used some more of the Dark Roast wiping stain, added a tiny bit to some sponges, and dabbed it into the corners to resemble rust.
To finish the project off, the molding is burned with the poem from the opening of Aer Vis, a USAF-tribute song.
With the painting complete, it's time to celebrate! Time for a shot of Jeremiah Weed, every fighter pilot's libation of choice.
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