Laser Cut Shelf With a French Cleat

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About: JerseyHat is a career architectural drafter, CAD jock and lifetime hobbyist woodworker. I am one of the volunteers at our community makerspace, an analog guy learning how to apply digital tools.

My shop got a lot smaller when we moved into a little house on a river. I love the river life, but my new shop storage needed to work better.

These hanging shelves can be set up in many arrangements (slanted and level, with holes and without), move easily on French cleats and can stand alone on any flat surface. Having small parts or fasteners in cups that are angled toward you makes them easy to see into. It is made of economical 5 mm plywood(about 0.20" thick), often called lauan and sold as underlayment for floors. To make the best use of the available 4' x 8' sheets, the provided CAD files are arranged to fit 24" x 18" panels. Cut to that size, each panel costs a little less than $1.50 US. You'll get one shelving unit per panel.

This design is a method of inexpensive, flexible shop shelving. Mine are arranged in all sorts of ways. All the instructions apply to both the 4" and 6" deep shelves. We will get to the French cleat later.

Step 1: Cutting the Wood and the Getting the Files to Use

This project assumes you will cut the pieces out with a laser cutter. Most makerspaces have one (that's where I cut mine) and lots of businesses have them, too. Cutting the pieces out by hand is possible, but will be challenging. I can't recommend making these particular shelves without a laser cutter.

You can download the .dxf and .cdr files here(for use in nearly all CAD and laser table applications and .cdr files for CorelDRAW, a launching platform for many laser machines). Note that the 4" shelf file includes three shelves out of a single 24" x 18" panel. The 6" shelf set file includes only two shelves, but you can use the file to print as many shelves as you like. The 4" shelf file includes some wasted margin on all four sides. The 6" shelf file uses almost every inch of the panel, so don't skimp on the size of your plywood panel. The slots are sized for 5mm plywood. For either size shelf, stretch the slots together if you modify the length of the side panels. Modify the slot dimensions to suit if you use material of another thickness.

The shelf cup holes can be any size. My holes fit Dannon and Noosa yogurt cups, but you can adjust the diameter to fit the cups you want to use. Picnic supply places offer a range of small plastic cups. Leave enough shelf around the holes to keep it strong enough to hold your parts.

Step 2: ​Materials and Tools to Make the Shelves

A laser cutter with a minimum bed size of 24" x 18" is highly recommended (see Step 1).

  • One 24" x 18"panel of 5mm plywood per shelf set. One panel will yield three 4" wide shelves and both side panels. One panel will make a 6" shelf set but with only two shelves and both side panels.
  • Wood Glue (I prefer ordinary wood glue like Titebond; Gorilla Glue is very strong, but it expands and you need to be extra careful about clamping the parts tight to resist the expansion)
  • A small brush to apply the glue into the slots (optional, but handy); I recommend electrician's flux brushes. They are inexpensive and clean up well with water.
  • A shallow cup to hold the glue
  • Some elastic cords (or string or straps) to help hold it together while the glue dries. You might use two spring clothes pins or small woodworking spring clamps, too.
  • A damp rag to wipe off excess glue
  • Wax paper to put on top of the table to make it easy to glue and clean up (optional)

For the French Cleat

If you make your own wood French cleat (middle photo), you'll need a table saw, a drill and bit to make holes for the screws and a screwdriver

  • 1x wood (that means wood that is really 3/4" thick) or 3/4" thick plywood. Almost any wood you can put a 45 degree bevel on and cut to size will do. It just needs to be the right size and very straight.
  • Wood screws to attach it securely to the wall. More on that later.

OR...

If you use EMT (photo on the right) for a French cleat, you'll need a hack saw and a small file (to smooth the cut end. You can also cover the raw edge with a bushing.) and a screwdriver

  • 1/2" EMT (Electrical Metal Tubing, the lightest and least expensive metal tubing that usually protects electrical wiring. You can hang your shelves from it. Really.)
  • 1/2" conduit wall clips
  • Wood screws to attach the clips securely to the wall. Step 10 has more information about using EMT.

Important safety note: Do not hang these shelves from existing conduits with wires in them. Put up your own conduits. There's more about that in Step 10.

Step 3: Trial Assembly Before You Glue Is Worth the Time

These shelf units will hold together and hang on the wall cleats pretty well without being glued. But mobility is a big part of their usefulness, so I am in favor of gluing them together.

And, you will probably find an arrangement that works best for you. Try a few before you glue.

On the 4" shelving unit, all shelves are good to go in every combination of level and slanted shelves.

But the 6" shelves run a little higher on the side panels, so a slanted bottom shelf will interfere with the middle, level shelf location (refer to the photo on the right).

Stretching the 6" side panels longer will cure this, but I kept my files within the 24" x 18" limits. This is a design made to be modified, so have at it.

Step 4: ​Let's Start Putting It Together

Assembling this on a smooth, non-porous surface helps, as glue will leak though the slots during assembly and might stick to the surface beneath the parts. Putting wax paper down first helps. Most wood glues clean up easily with a damp rag, so keep one nearby.

  • Lay out the side panels (with the pointed hook at the top) and the shelves as you want them to be assembled.
  • Put about 30 ml (1 ounce) of glue in a shallow cup. Thin plywood soaks up glue fast, so keep it nearby. You can add glue more later if needed.
  • Place one shelf on the table with the underside facing up
  • Dip a bracket tab (on the small, diagonal pieces that go beneath the shelves) into the glue as shown. Scrape the extra glue off the end of the tab and press the tab into the slot, with the second tab pointed toward the end of the shelf. Do this for each shelf: one bracket at each end for the 4" shelves, two brackets at each end of a 6" shelf.
  • Add glue on all the shelf and bracket tabs and on the edge of each shelf between the tabs

Step 5: Add Glue to the First Side Panel

  • Turn the shelves over (right side up, see the photo on the left) to keep the glue from sticking the shelf to your assembly table top. The shelves will sit or lean on the braces.
  • Now add glue to the inside face of the first side panel, using the brush or a finger. Remember that as you apply the glue, the hook at the top will be at the rear of the side panel.

Step 6: Place All the Shelves in the First Side Panel

  • Make sure you have glue on all the shelf and bracket tabs and on the edges of each shelf between the tabs.
  • The slots in the side panel that go with the shelf tabs in should have glue inside the slots, too.
  • With the brackets in place, press each shelf firmly into the first side panel where you want them to go. Adjust them to fit completely into their slots. They will hold themselves in place. Don't forget the brackets.

Step 7: Glue Up the Second Side Panel and Fit It Onto the Shelf Tabs

  • Place the second side panel on the table with the inside face up. Make sure that you have the panel placed so that when it is lifted and flipped over (as in the first photo) so the hooks at the top will match the hooks on the other side panel.
  • Brush glue on the second side panel along the same lines where the shelves will go as you did for the first side panel and into the slots for the shelf tabs
  • Now your dry-fit practice really pays off! This is the messy part: take your time and place the glued-up second side panel over the exposed ends of the shelves. Start at one end of the side panel and gently fit the tabs and brackets of each shelf into the slots in the second side panel. Brute force is not necessary or helpful. Carefully work your way across each shelf and then up to the next shelf. Make sure each tab is securely into the correct slot. Don't worry about the excess glue for now.
  • Be patient. The first time you do this might feel frustrating, but it's a great feeling when the last tab is in the last slot.
  • And don't forget the brackets beneath the shelves; they go in their own slots in both the shelf and the side panel.

Step 8: Set It Upright and Give It a Squeeze

  • Once the whole assembly is fit together, hold it together by pressing in on the side panels and carefully tip it upright onto the flat, bottom edges of the side panels.
  • Check all the slots and make sure each shelf tab is fully inserted.Check the bracket tabs, too. Then give it a firm squeeze by pressing in on both size panels with your hands. It will sit up straight right away.
  • Use something with a square edge (a carpenter's square or one of the hook reinforcers), to make sure it is sitting up nice and square.
  • Before you start wiping up the excess glue, put light duty elastic cords (or string, or wood clamps or big rubber bands or... almost anything to keep it together for a short while) near the middle of the side panels or where the shelf slots are (refer to the photo above). A little pressure is all you need while the glue dries.

Step 9: Glue Clean-Up

  • Now is the time to give the intersections a quick wipe with a brush or your fingertip, forcing glue into the gaps and wiping away the excess. Clean up the excess glue with that damp rag, but don't wipe it all away. A little extra glue helps make it strong.
  • Wipe off the drips of glue running down the side panels and across the faces of the shelves. There is no point in keeping those drips. A damp rag will do. If the rag is dripping wet it is too wet.

Step 10: Add the Hanging Hook Reinforcing Pieces (Optional)

  • Last step for the shelves! These hook reinforcers will strengthen the side panel hooks where the side panels hang from the French cleat.
  • Apply a thin layer of glue to the correct face of each hanging hook reinforcer and press them into place on one or both sides of the hook. It is important to check the position of the reinforcing hooks. Feel the faces of each piece with your fingers to make sure the edges of the side panel hooks and the reinforcing hooks are flush. Any light clamp will do, even finger pressure. Just make sure the reinforcing hook doesn't move when it is held in place. I use spring clothes pins for one reinforcing hook per side panel, small woodworking spring clamps for holding two reinforcing hooks in place.
  • That is it for the shelf set! Set it aside to dry.

Step 11: Make a French Cleat (Two Options)

  • Wood French cleats have been around for a long time. Use ordinary 3/4" thick wood and cut a 45 degree bevel at the top as shown on the left. Make it as long as you want, for wherever you want to hang the shelves.
  • I use a table saw for this step, but you can make the slanted 45 degree bevel with a jointer or a hand plane, too. You can buy a French cleatand cut it to length and height, but I hate to even bring that option up.Here is how another Instructable makes them. A French cleat for these shelves must be 3/4" thick and no more than 1 3/4" high to allow the side panel hooks to fit over the cleat before resting on it. That might seem small, but they are all over my shop and work fine for this size shelf system.
  • Another option is to use 1/2" EMT (lightweight Electrical Metal Tubing)and the wall clips made to attach EMT to the walls (as in the photo on the right). You'll only need a hacksaw and a small file to smooth the cut end.
  • For those of you without access to a table saw, this option might be of interest. I prefer French cleats made from wood but either will do the job as long as the cleat is securely attached to the wall. My shop has both kinds.

Either way, do your best to drive the cleat screws into wall studs or something strong and solid. Gypsum wall board alone is not made to carry useful shelving, especially French cleats with loaded, multiple shelves hanging from them.

Important safety note: Do not hang these shelves from existing conduits with wires in them. Those conduits were not installed with added weight in mind.Put up your own conduits, leave the ends open for inspection and secure them well.

Step 12: Hang Your Shelves! Move Them Around As You Like

The finger hole at the top of each side panel makes it easy to lift the shelves off the cleat to move them around. Don't forget that these shelves will sit solidly on any table or counter.

I hope your shelves turn out well. Please let me know what modifications you make to work for you and your shop.

Good luck and best wishes,

JerseyHat

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