Fretwork Shelf in 700 Easy Cuts




Introduction: Fretwork Shelf in 700 Easy Cuts

Have you ever desired a good challenge, something that would challenge your skills and your patience? This was my attempt at really driving my skills to a new level with my scroll saw. A moderately cheap project that will provide hours of hobby work.

Overall the concept of fretwork is creating very elaborate decorative pieces out of wood using a fretsaw, or in my case a scroll saw. It is a lot of work but you can take great pride in the results.

Overall this project cost me around $20 and around 30 hours to complete (over the course of a few weeks). Running between 650-700 inside cuts (this is where you take off the blade, thread it through a pre-drilled hole and reattach the blade to cut an inside hole) this is definitely one project that will challenge your skills. However, with a bit of patience and some motivation it turns out beautiful!

Step 1: Materials

This is a list of the materials and tools needed for the project. Unfortunately the dimensions of the lumber depend on how big the pattern was printed, so I will refrain from mentioning exact sizes, instead you can measure it from the pattern and the size you printed it as.


- 3/4" x 6" x 4' boards of 2 species hardwood with contrasting colors (I used mahogany and hard maple for my shelf. In retrospect, I wish I would have went maple and walnut for more contrast, the mahogany color didn't "pop" out as much as I had hoped)

-Wood glue (Titebond III is my glue of choice)

- Can of spray lacquer


Scroll Saw w/ both skiptooth blades and sprial cut blades (May substitute a large fretsaw if your a sucker for more punishment, or you really just feel of the cuts, which is why I love my hand planes)


Printer (or a local business that can print large format)

Painters Tape

Spray glue

Any type of saw to rough cut the boards

Thickness Planer (hand or power) if you need to modify the thickness of the boards

Drill press (although a hand drill will do if your careful)

Step 2: Pattern Creation

The pattern can be found at It is a free pattern and the site has other projects as well.

Once you load of the copy of the pattern, you want to print it across multiple pages via whatever program you have available on your PC. You can google directions on how this is accomplished based on whatever program you have. I didn't follow the exact size of the shelf on the pattern because I wanted a custom sized shelf, but you could and follow the sizes exactly if you wish.

Once you have the page printed across those pages, trim off any non-pattern borders and tape the entire sheet together, overlapping where its needed and then cutting out the individual pieces, leaving roughly 1/2" or more around each piece. You will notice you only have 1 side bracket piece, that's fine as we will stack it and cut both at the same time.

Once everything is cut out and you have a paper copy of the parts, I highly recommend coloring in the inside cut holes with a pencil so you don't accidentally drill into the board as you start to get more confident at the drill press.

Step 3: Pre-cut Prepwork

Now that the pattern can dictate the exact size of the work we need to cut the boards to plane the boards down to the correct thickness. The thickness should be the same as the tab holes in your pattern.

Using a caliper simply measure these and write down that thickness. This way, provided you follow the pattern, your shelves and side supports will be exactly the right thickness to slide into the slots during assembly.

Once you have the thickness, you can use your planer to reduce the thickness of the boards to fit. However, with a 3/4" board and a 1/4" needed thickness (this was my situation), avoid the loss of wood and resaw (cut the board in half straight through the 3/4" side to make 2 boards roughly 3/8" or so. I did this with a bandsaw, but you could use a handsaw if needed).

Once you have your boards at the correct thickness, move onto rough fitting your pattern to each piece. You will need to edge glue the boards to create the desired size for each piece. I had to create a 21" wide board to accommodate the shelf back, so I combined 4x 6" wide boards and cut the length to fit the shelf pattern (27"). I used some plywood, 2x4s, clamps, and a set of weights to really pull it together while it dried. You will also notice wax paper is used around the board so that it contains the squeeze out. I also had to glue up the shelves, but not side shelf supports.

Once the board dimensions match the pattern, sand it down using 120-220 grit sandpaper to ensure it is as finished as you want it. After you cut, its not easy to touch up anything due to the fragile nature of some of the cuts.

Next you will use painter's tape and cover both sides of the board (helps prevent tear out and lubricates the blade). Then using your spray glue, you will glue the pattern onto the painter's tape and let it dry.

Once you have both side shelf support boards covered with tape, in addition to gluing on the pattern to one, you also need to glue the two boards together so that you can cut them at the same time. It also ensures they are identical.

Lastly, for the final prep piece you need to drill out every inside cut with a pilot hole using any size drill bit that fits in that small hole, but large enough so your scroll saw blades can be threaded through. This might take a while as you have around 600-700 holes to drill (This is where coloring in the pattern is going to help). One issue I had was the center holes I couldn't use a drill press because i couldn't reach the center of the back board, so I had to switch to a hand held drill. (I dislike this because I have often broken the bits as the very small bits are a bit more fragile.)

Step 4: Starting the Cuts

Safety First!

**Ensure you have the proper safety gear and know how to use your tools before proceeding**

With the amount of time you will spend at this step, ensure you use hearing protection and breathing protection as I spent around 28 hours sitting at the scroll saw.

Moving on...

Now you just need to cut in the each hole, saving the outside border until last. This helps with stability when turning each piece.

If this is your first time scroll sawing, ensure you check out some of the tutorials on youtube, and do some practice work first. I would practice with both standard blades and spiral blades, and feel confident you can follow the lines relatively well. You do not need to go fast, in my own self disclosure, I kept mine down to the slowest speed for most of the project since each cut only takes around 30-60 seconds even on slow speed and you maintain the best accuracy on slow. Scroll sawing isn't difficult, but it does need some patience and some minor tutorials to do it properly. I learned off Youtube videos and am not a pro by far with the scroll saw.

You will use standard skip tooth blades for the smaller boards and the spiral for those larger boards. Why you ask? Well the back board is abnormally large, 27" wide in some places and my scroll saw has a 20" throat so I can't turn the wood to cut around curves. With the spiral blade you can simply slide the whole piece in the direction of the cut, as the spiral blade will cut in every direction.

Now you will need to stop the saw, disconnect the blade, thread it through each pilot hole, reattach the blade, and ensure the tension is correct every time you change out holes. Take your time with each cut as you don't want to accidentally cut out a key piece of the shelf simply because you hurried. Additionally, if you do make mistakes (and you will...) try to make it symmetrical, so go make the same mistake on the other side as well. This way no one will ever know.

Tips: Go slow, take your time, stop when drowsy, don't worry about breaking blade (especially spirals), and use that hearing protection.

Step 5: Test Fit the Parts

Once all the parts are cut, remove the painters tape and test fit them. If they are way to tight, go back and slightly expand the troublesome areas. once it all fits together nice and snug you are good to go. This might take some time though. Remember you no longer have the pattern to go off of, so use a pencil to mark the areas that need to be shaved down just a hair.

Once it all fits together nice and snug, keep that patience going as you now need to grab that 220 grit sand paper and remove any burs that remain on the back of the boards, there will always be some and now there are LOTS of edges to get to.

Finally clean off the dust with an air compressor and a damp rag so that you can get to the end of the mission.

Step 6: Final Glue Up and Finishing

With all the pieces fitting together, simply glue the shelf together, remembering the correct order. Don't glue the shelves in first or your side pieces will not be able to go in and you will be in a bad mood for a long long time.

Also, while they are drying, double check squareness, primarily the shelves to the back board let it dry up and clean up any glue squeeze out.

For finishing fretwork I simply use spray lacquer. You can get it fairly cheep and it covers all the holes in the workpiece. Simply spray it onto the completed work piece from multiple angles so that it gets in the holes, and give it around 3 coats, letting it dry between coats. This will help produce some really nice looking gloss to it and protect it.

Alternatively if you have a large enough container you could submerge it in boiled linseed oil, but you will have to wipe it all down and in every hole. However, it would create a very lovely color for the wood.

Step 7: Conclusion

Overall the shelf was a great project and brings a lot of style to wherever it ends up. The shelves are sturdy even though they have a lot of fretwork on them as well, but they are for decorative pieces, and not heavy items, such as books.

Overall the project took about 28 direct hours in front of the scroll saw and many more in prep and finishing. A relatively low cost, high labor project that is a conversation piece for years to come.

I hope you enjoyed the project and would love to see someone else take upon the challenge as well. Fretwork is a great hobby and truly produces some great results.

Full Spectrum Laser Contest 2016

Participated in the
Full Spectrum Laser Contest 2016

Be the First to Share


    • Puzzles Speed Challenge

      Puzzles Speed Challenge
    • CNC Contest 2020

      CNC Contest 2020
    • Secret Compartment Challenge

      Secret Compartment Challenge

    6 Discussions


    3 years ago

    After I posted asking if you had a instructable I took a chance and checked through Instructables to see if you had made it! Viola! I found it! TY!!!


    4 years ago

    Wow. Bravo! Super-impressive work.


    4 years ago

    Wow this had to require a lot of your time and effort. Thats great dedication, friend


    Reply 4 years ago

    Dedication to the art of it. Funny part is, I didn't even plan a place to hang it (almost have it away as a gift because I couldn't find a great spot for it). My wife convinced me otherwise... Next time I hope my dedication is used more for a purpose. Thank you for the kind words


    4 years ago

    I admire your patience and craftsmanship! Great job!


    Reply 4 years ago

    Thank you