Introduction: Multi-Species &Textured Gesso Shelves (No Visible Hardware)

About: Programmer, woodworker, problem solver, problem maker.

These shelves

  • Have no visible hardware or fasteners from any angle
  • Are held together without screws or glue (yet are strong and secure)
  • Can be easily swapped out based on future design preferences.
  • Demonstrate the use of Black Gesso to create texture.

The Story & Design Considerations

We wanted bookshelves in our living room, and we had some unused space behind a door. After a few months and a dozen designs, this is what came of it with the following consideration in mind:

  1. Open shelving. The books should be part of the room, rather than apart from it.
  2. Subtle curves help blend the unit with the room
  3. Structural elements must be part of design.
  4. No visible fasteners.
  5. Variety of wood species. Our house has solid oak doors, oak trim, oak cabinets, oak oak oak oak.. It’s nice, but it’s just a lot of oak, oakay? We'd like to start incorporating various wood species around our home. We're officially launching that effort by bringing 5 species of wood together to say “See? Look how well everyone gets along. Even the Hickory and Cherry are playing nice.”
  6. Hardest wood on bottom shelf because it's kid-height and will therefore take a beating (from the kids).
  7. Naturally supportive joinery.



Notable supplies

  1. Black Gesso (bought from Hobby Lobby)
  2. Heavy Duty Keyhole Hangers
  3. Longer Screws (#8 x 1.5") for the keyhole hangers
  4. Varathane Water-Based Polyurethane (to topcoat the Gesso)


Note: these are affiliate links, but they do not influence my recommendations, Read about my stance here:

Step 1: Find Stud Centers, Mark Them, & Measure Distance Between

This may be heavy, so mark your studs centers, as they'll be a critical part of your design.

Write down the distance between stud centers. You'll use this when cutting your shelf notches and installing the shelves!

Step 2: Prepare the Shelves for Thickness (no Joinery Yet)

Before moving ahead, you need to know the thickness of your shelves.

If they're still rough, plane them down to their final thickness. I glued hardwood together as panels to use up some scrap. Then planed them. However you do whatever you do, be sure you bring your shelves to their final thickness before moving on.

*Dear Trolls: I realize I mentioned no glue earlier, but gluing scrap for panels in this case is only a matter of wanting to use scrap. Whether scraps are glued, or a proper size board is used to avoid the glue-up does not matter for the sake of this shelf design.

Step 3: Mill the Support Columns & Add Joinery

Mill the Columns

  • Columns should be thick (at least 1.5") since you'll be cutting dadoes in 3 sides of them.
  • Columns should extend far enough into the shelf material. I'd recommend about halfway. Example: If the shelf stands out 9" from the wall, the columnss/supports should overlap the shelves by about 4-4.5". There's not much science driving my advice on this note; primarily feelings.

I used 8/4 Poplar stock since I covered it up with Gesso anyway.

Cut your columns to thickness, width, and length, but DO NOT CUT THE CURVES YET!

Cut the Column Joinery

For each shelf location, cut a dado on 3 sides (left, front, right) of each support beam.

I don't recommend the method I used in the pictures (dado blade, clamps, and crosscut fence). The risk is that the board could snag and go all wonky on the blade. I reduced that risk by modifying the table saw & extension to reduce snag potential, but ultimately I still don't think it's safe enough to recommend.

Instead, I'd recommend using a large crosscut sled or a router.

Depth of dadoes should be about 3/8" on the sides, and 1" on the front.

Measure the thickness of your shelves, and size your dadoes for a snug fit.

Step 4: Route Recesses for Keyhole Hardware

This is probably the most important step of the entire project.

Getting the alignment right in this step will massively help you mount the shelf to the wall!

This may sound intimidating, but just get a good measuring tape, combination square, follow along, and you'll be fine.

Thinking Ahead - Screws in the Wall (a future step!)

To mount this thing (later!), you'll be putting screws in the wall to match up with the keyhole hardware.

Wouldn't it be blazingly simple if the keyhole hardware was mounted at exact increments? Maybe every 12"?


Punch Centers, then Pre-Drill

(note: drill all holes in the exact center of the support beams.)


  1. Center-punch a hole exactly 6" down from the top of the beam/column.
  2. Center-punch additional holes at exactly 12" increments for the remaining keyholes.

Repeat steps 1 & 2 for the second beam/support/column.


  1. Align the keyhole hardware with top hole around your top
  2. Center-punch the bottom holes


Drill pilot holes deep enough for the screws you'll use.

Route (or drill & chisel) the Recesses

You don't have to be too exact here since you properly aligned your pilot holes. You did properly align your pilot holes at careful 12" increments, right?

Draw an outline around the keyholes, then decide how you'll create the recess.

  • Drill/chisel
  • Router w/ a jig
  • Free-hand w/ a plunge router (<- my personal preference)

If you don't feel safe routing this free-hand, don't do it. However, with a small plunge router, the depth stopper set correctly, and taking it slow, this is a pretty safe freehand cut.

Prior to routing, I clamped the columns together to ease alignment and have a bigger surface area for the router base to ride on. (see picture)

Attach The Keyholes

With the recesses drilled/cut so that no part of the keyhole extends beyond the wood, it's time to screw them in place.


Step 5: Notch the Shelves


Mark Centers

Using the width between stud centers you found earlier, mark each shelf. Remember: you want to mark the CENTER of each cut you'll be making (not the distance between cuts).

Mark Area to Cut

Back at the support column, take measurements of the wood that's left where the shelf will slide around. Use that to draw your notches.

I drilled a hole and used the bandaw to finish the cut.

Step 6: Flat Floor Dry Fit

To avoid scraping up your wall, find a concrete spot and assemble the shelves to make sure all fits well. In this pic, my shelves are standing up. I just forgot to take a pic when the shelves were flat on the concrete.

Step 7: Cut Subtle Curves (if Desired)

I'm not going to be very thorough about how to cut curves, as it's beside the point of this Instructable. But..

The point is:If you want to cut curves, now is the time to do them. Cutting them earlier in the process will cause other steps to be more difficult.

But here's how I cut them:

First, I failed on the spokeshave (expected), Then, I created a MDF template and used a router to cut the curves. I prefer very subtle curves - see the pictures. I cut curves on the fronts of the support columns and shelves.

Step 8: Chamfer, Scrape, and Sand

Chamfer, Roundover or ...?

If you want to do something fancy with the edges, choose the router bit that fits your style. Personally, I'm a chamfer kinda guy.

Sand or Scrape

There's definitely risk of removing too much material here and making your parts too loose, so don't overdo it. But chances are, you'll have some tool marks on your shelves & columns that you'll need to tidy up. Now's the time.

Remember: if the parts fit *kinda barely* loose after this, that's OK because the finish will tighten things right back up again. Use your judgement about how aggressive you need to be around the joinery areas, based on how the dry fit went.


Step 9: Finish the Shelves

I don't know what you like...

For me, the finish was about trying out various water-borne finishes. You might as well just do something simple like an easy Wipe-On Poly (cheap at Walmart/HD/Lowes) or EnduroVar (Amazon or Rockler) and be done with it.

...but here's what I did:

Pre-Finish: Before applying the water-borne finish, I applied two coats of 1lb cut dewaxed shellac. This prevented the grain from raising when applying the water-borne Poly.

Two topcoats used:

  1. Varathane Water-Borne Poly for Maple &Hickory because it's supposed to remain clear over time.
  2. General Finishes Enduro-Var Water-Borne Poly for Walnut, Sassafras, & Cherry because it gives a nice subtle bit of warmth.

Step 10: Technique: Use Gesso to Create Texture

Since the shelves represented 5 different species of wood, I wanted the columns black or white...something familiar and constant so our brains have a basis for interpreting the various colors represented by the various species of wood. Black it is.

Black Gesso, I Love You So

(or any gesso for that matter) is one of my favorite finishing helpers, yet I've only seen one other woodworker use it. I have much more to say about gesso than there's room for on this web page, but here are the basics:

  • Water-based
  • Fast-drying!
  • More of a paste than a liquid (great at sticking in pores or the edges of plywood)
  • Easily sandable without gumming up sandpaper.
  • Fast-drying.
  • Easily sandable without gumming up sandpaper.
  • It dries fast, and is easily sandable.
  • It's a primer, so nearly anything sticks to it

Because it's a bit of a paste, it doesn't self-level. Therefore, if you add brush strokes, those strokes will dry that way. So that's what I did.

Adding Texture

Using a bristly paint brush, I brushed medium-but-not-overly-thick waves onto the surface (see pictures up close).

Adding a Top-Coat

The finish of gesso is matte. Since the texture of the waves scatters light, I wanted a glossy, durable finish that would bring a little attention to the texture as daylight pours in the window to the right.

For a topcoat, I simply applied a water-based Polyurethane (specifically, this Varathane). It goes on light-blue, but dries clear.

Step 11: Mount the Shelf to the Wall

Remember how earlier you center-punched the supports accurately? reliable increments of 12"? Now it's time to put them to the test.

Find your wall

Once found, draw these lines (in pencil! lightly!):

  1. Vertical (and plumb) line down the center of the left stud.
  2. Vertical (and plumb) line down the center of the right stud.

Those lines should both be the same distance apart the whole way down. If not, correct it. And, they should be the same distance apart as the center of your keyholes are apart with the shelf put together. (if you're off 1mm somewhere it's probably not a huge deal - the screws can flex a tiny bit.)

Mark for Screws

It's probably best to do this in order if you're feeling queasy about this.

  1. Center-punch the top-left screw location.
  2. Draw a level line from the first punch to the right line.
  3. Center-punch the top-right where the lines meet.

Now, you have your top keyhole screw locations. Don't add screws yet.

Mark the rest of your keyhole screw locations on the wall. You used proper increments, right? Using the ongoing example of 12" increments, here's a reliable way to centerpunch the remaining holes:

  1. Have a friend hold a measuring tape where the 12" mark aligns with the top centerpunch.
  2. You center-punch at each 12" increment after that.
  3. (Stop when enough keyholes have been accounted for, or you run into the floor - whichever comes first.

The bottom two centerpunches. should be level, or at least within 1mm.

Screw in the Screws

Find proper screws for this. You want them to be strong and long enough to hold the shelves up, without hitting any wires or plumbing.

I used 2" decking screws (see sketch above for how I determined that). Consider what's lurking behind your drywall. Maybe if you have a monster back there you might want to use some extra long screws in some unthinkable abundance.

Mount the Columns

You'll need to tweak the screw protrusion a few times to get it right, but you'll know when you get that soft click of the column keyholes locking in place.

It's the same satisfying feeling of snapping two Lego bricks together.

Install Shelves

If they're snug, great! But there's a pretty good chance they won't fit, which I'd argue is the right way to err.

Pre-finish, they fit, right? Then, the good news is that you don't have to scrape away any wood; only the finish. And likely, just the columns.

The joinery contributes to safe scraping-away-of-finish without being noticeable. Start with the columns. Scrape off some of the finish that got in the groove area.

In the end, you'll have a snug-fitting shelf that you can wiggle out if you want, but will not fall out on its own.


Step 12: Put Stuff on It

So, there it is. A sturdy shelf system with no visible hardware that can be disassembled with no tools.

Species swapping:

Suppose in the future you want to change to a different species, just pull out a shelf - there's your template.

4 Years (and counting)

I made this shelf 4 years ago, and it has had zero problems. No getting loose. No shelves accidentally being pulled out. No shelves warping even on the 3/4" Sassafras I was super concerned about. I think the main success factors were:

  1. Dadoes being cut precisely so the shelves are held snug
  2. Black columns extending about halfway into the shelves. ...if only 1/3 of the way, I think the leverage would have worked the shelves loose bit-by-bit over time.

It has had a considerable amount of weight on it and the lower shelf has taken a considerable beating from the kids (though, that shelf is intentionally Hickory.)


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It's time to hide all that work you just did. Load it with some nice, decorative books or something.

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