Introduction: Scrap Credenza

About: Furniture hacker. Author of Guerilla Furniture Design, out now. Find me on Twitter and Instagram @objectguerilla.
Recently, a beautiful pair of cabinets came into my life -- battered, beaten, but with noble bones.  A careless string of miserable individuals had heaped abuse upon them under the sickly fluorescent light of some back office.  Yet they stood, faithfully storing files, holding up lamps and coffee makers, enduring the indignities of scratched paint and scotch-tape repairs.  After thirty-five years of service, they were dropped on the curb, left in the Chicago cold, winter wind rattling a few last papers around their feet.  A gentle soul scooped them into his truck and brought them to our warehouse for resuscitation.  

According to the certificate inside, these two Steelcase credenzas were manufactured in 1977, with chromed bases, a stamped steel body, and fake-woodgrain laminate top.  Built like tanks, and painted a similar color, they were made to last.  However, the outdated colors, broken doors, and damaged tops relegated them to the dump.  So, with a little scrap wood, a little love, and three days of work, I brought them into the 21st century with a scrappy remodel, honoring their past and preparing them for the future.  The old tops were replaced with laminated old-growth pine.  The former sliding panels -- half missing, the remainder bent and broken -- were stripped out and replaced with new, hinged doors made from offcuts we had around the shop.  Now these low-slung office beauties can enjoy another thirty years of work, dressed up and sexy.  

While I used a variety of heavy-duty shop equipment on this project, it can easily be done with simpler tools.  The basic idea, repurposing a dead cabinet, is a quick and easy way to make use of alley treasures and abundant scrap wood of all kinds.  

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You will need these materials:

An old cabinet
A pile of scrap wood -- offcuts, pallet wood, old flooring, old molding, etc.
Some dimensional lumber for laminating new tops
Wood glue
Polyurethane or finish of your choice

You will need these tools:

Table saw
Thickness planer
Chop saw
Hand planer
Orbital sander
Brad nailer
Circular saw
Air compressor
Tape measure
Assorted drill and screw bits
Assorted clamps

Step 1: Strip and Refinish

The first step is the simplest: tear off the old top, rip out the old doors, pull up the old door-slide strip, and clean the cabinets with a damp cloth.  Buzz down the sides with 100 grit sandpaper (wear a mask!) either by hand or with an orbital sander.  Wipe up all the dust with a damp cloth.  Tape off the legs, and re-paint the body with metal enamel paint.  I went over the old seventies avocado green with a flat matte black, but paint it any color you like.  A glossy white would look nice, or a color to match the room it will go in.  While that paint is drying (it may take up to 24 hours), move on to making the new tops.  

Step 2: Tabletoppin'

As I said in the introduction, I used some pretty heavy-duty shop tools to put this project together, but you could easily do it with much simpler tools if you don't have access to a table saw, a thickness planer, etc.  For the table top portion of the process, you can refer to these other projects of mine, the Scrap Table and the Two-Tone Table, for alternate DIY wood lamination techniques.  

I started with some old-growth pine -- hundred-year-old boards pulled from some demolished houses on the South Side of Chicago.  Go over the wood very carefully for any buried metal and pull out nails and screws.  Run it through the thickness planer to get it to a consistent depth -- in this case, 1-3/8".  Take both edges off with the table saw.  A jointer may be necessary to truly square the boards, but a quick-and-dirty method is to just run the boards through the table saw, alternating sides, taking a blade off each time.  

Account for your projected overhang as you resaw the boards.  I ran a 3/4" overhang all the way around.  Given the dimensions of the credenza, the top came out to two 2" x 10"s and a 2" x 4", arranged in a wide-thin-wide pattern.  Get the width right, but leave the length running extra, and cut the ends off later.

Once planed and square, liberally spread wood glue on the edges, align the boards, and clamp up.  Leave overnight.  

Use a hand plane to knock down the surface to a rough flat, then a progression of 80, 100, and 120-grit sandpapers to smooth everything out.  

Use a circular saw to trim each end.  Clamp down a straight edge to act as a temporary fence and keep the saw from walking away on you.  

If desired, use a router to put a round over or a chamfer on the edge.  Use sandpaper and a block to smooth and flatten the chamfers.

Apply the finish of your choice.  I used wipe-on polyurethane because the pine was kind of soft, and the poly soaks in and hardens up the wood somewhat.  Normally, I prefer a non-toxic tung or boiled linseed oil, hand-rubbed up to a nice luster and finished with a coat of paste wax.  

Step 3: Doors!

The doors are made out of shop scrap and old oak shelving.  The oak was cut into strips to make the frames, and the shop scrap was chopped to even lengths to make the surface.  Simple lap joints and brad nails hold everything together.

Begin with some sort of hardwood -- oak, ash, maple, etc.  Old flooring would be a good source, as would certain pallets.  Alternately, poplar, frequently used in old door frames, is a good candidate.  It is softer, but cuts and squares beautifully.  Your source material should be somewhere around 3/4" thick.

Use the table saw to cut your stock into 1-1/4" strips.  Set up a stop on the chop saw and cut the strips to length for the door frames.  Every cabinet is different.  You can size your doors various ways -- measuring the old doors, should you have them, is the easiest way.  However, in my case, I was switching from sliding doors to swinging doors, which meant the old panels were irrelevant.  So, I sized my frames 1/4" smaller than the opening all the way around, meaning the door frame was 1/2" shorter in each dimension that the opening.  

Set up a dado blade on the table saw so that it comes halfway through the thickness of your stock.  Make a simple cross cut jig with a miter gauge and two blocks of wood, clamping on a stop that prevents your notch from going too far.  If you don't have a dado blade, you can make lap joints with a single blade a more passes; lots of passes with a chop saw with a depth gauge; using a handsaw and a chisel; or on a router table.  

Once your joints are cut, lap the pieces with some wood glue, check square, and pop together with a brad nailer.  Again, if you don't have a brad nailer, put them together with small screws, hand-tacked brads, or an electric stapler.  

The stock I used already had finish on it, so I buzzed with 100 grit sandpaper so glue and new finish would stick to the surface.  Also, sanding eased the edges, took burn marks form the saw off, and got everything nice and flush.

For the door panels, set a stop up on the chop saw so that every piece you cut is the exact same length.  Feed shop scraps into it.  I used pallet wood; wood from wine crates; crown and base molding; off-cuts from the table saw; hardwood flooring; and some poplar door frame scraps.  This is a great way to use up old stock that's been laying around the shop.  If you don't have access to a shop or deep scrap pile, poke around alleys, dumpsters, and construction sites for any kind of scrap wood.  Since the strips are so small -- 17" long in this case -- it is easy to make use of throwaway pieces from dumpsters and elsewhere.

Take your strips and align with the corners of one end of one frame, lay down some glue, and tack into place.  Do the same with the other end and work towards the middle.  I did a mixture of random gaps; if you want no gaps, or consistent gaps, take the time to measure out how the pieces go together, dry-fitting and numbering them first.  

Once together, put a coat of polyurethane over everything, back and front.

Step 4: Assembly

The last step is the simplest and the hardest.  In theory, it's very easy -- just screw the top on through the old holes in the frame.  In practice, it's tricky to get everything aligned, so a few clamps and a handy friend are nice to have around.

Once your top finish is dry, and the cabinet paint is dry, put the top on the cabinet and run a tape all the way around until it is centered. Clamp it down, using blocks or cardboard to keep the surface from being marred by the jaws of the clamps.  From underneath, pre-drill and screw the top in.

As for the doors, pop some hinges on -- simple overlay hinges available from any hardware store for a couple bucks.  If your old cabinet had a door already, salvage those hinges with a little 3-in-1 oil and new screws.  Mount the hinges to the frame, carefully aligning the doors for a consistent gap all the way around.  Again, a friend is handy here.  More expensive hinge sets will allow you to adjust the doors after you've screwed them into place, but cheaper ones, like I used here, are more of a one-shot deal.  

Once the doors are in, use a magnetic closure to keep 'em shut.

I didn't add handles, as the irregularities of the wood provide plenty of opportunities to open and shut the doors.

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