My good friend Alex makes some really beautiful woven goods. When she travels around to craft fairs and shows, she needs to have a one-of-a-kind display in her booth. The problem is, shelves and custom settings are bulky and not easily transportable; we’re going to make some collapsible shelves so she can display her awesome products in a unique way. 

  1. What Does She Need?
  2. Weld Up Some Frames
  3. Make Some Shelf Supports
  4. Cut Some Walnut Shelves
  5. 3d Print Some Connectors

1. What Does She Need?

Just like any product you may make for a client, you need to start with a problem statement from the customer. In her case, Alex needed a unique and eye-catching way to display her woven goods; scarves, table runners, blankets. She needed a combination of flat surfaces and hanging rods so that customers can properly see her work. Most importantly, she needed this shelving setup to be collapsible and transportable. Because she is constantly at craft fairs, she needed to be able to pack up the display in her car, set it up, and break it down all on her own.

We decided on a simplistic and industrial look to the shelves. Alex also didn’t want the horizontal bracing or support cables on the back of most minimalistic shelving units. She thought this would take away from her hanging products and make the space seem too cluttered.

With all of these ideas and constraints in hand, I made a 3d model of my initial concept. After a few small iterations, we got to work making a shelving unit that would be made of two sets of steel side frames with some brackets spaced evenly. These brackets could hold shelves or hanging rods in a number of configurations. The two units could also be used independently or stacked on top of each other using some 3d printed connectors.

2. Weld Up Some Frames

I chose to use some 3/4″ steel square tubing for the shelf frames welded together with some simple butt joints. The welds were cleaned up and the whole frame was sanded down in preparation for finishing. Alex wanted the steel tubing to be black, and I figured that spray paint would eventually rub off, so I used some chemical blackening solution. This is a brush-on liquid that reacts with the steel and turns it black. I’ve seen a lot of makers have success with this method, but mine turned out rusty-looking and inconsistent. Overall, Alex was happy with the industrial look, but it was far from the blackened finish I was expecting.

3. Make Some Shelf Supports

In order to hold the different combination of shelving ideas, Josh and I came up with a universal mounting bracket. This U-shaped steel bracket would be welded to the frames and hold the ends of the shelves or the hanging rods. Small problem is, I couldn’t find a 3/4″ steel bracket…so, surprise-surprise, I made some.

These brackets began with some left-over 3/4″ steel tubing from the frames. I drilled some evenly-spaced holes straight through and used my metal cutting bandsaw to trim off one edge. The square pipe became a long piece of steel C-channel. I then cut this length of channel into smaller pieces and welded them onto the display frames. The hole is for a bolt that will go through the bracket and the shelves to lock the whole unit together. This lateral strength will replace the need for horizontal bracing.

4. Cut Some Walnut Shelves

Because this display unit is meant to be modular and change with Alex’s needs, I am making a combination of flat shelves and rounded hanging rods. She loved the look of walnut and steel, so Josh and I milled up some lumber and got to work. If you are interested in our milling and squaring process, check out the Bits video we made on the subject!

I used biscuits to align the walnut boards and glued them together. While those were drying, I cut some thinner pieces and passed the edges through a round-over bit on my router. This created a sturdy hanging rod with nice gentle sides.

To get the shelves to fit inside the custom brackets, I used my dado stack to add some rabbets to both ends. I also drilled some slightly over-sized holes that would align with the bracket holes. This uniform method will allow Alex to mix and match shelf pieces as she needed. I applied some polyurethane for protection, and the shelves were done.

5. 3D Print Some Connectors

Because she wanted the display unit to be modular, I need to find a way for the two shelves to either stand on their own, or stack together. To help with this problem, I modeled a simple set of connector pegs and feet which would plug into the steel tubing. This was really simple to do by measuring the outside and inside thicknesses of the tubing and modeling some simple squares to match. For the feet, I extruded the interior measurement up about 3/4″ and left the exterior measurement to act as a flat foot. For the connector, I did the same thing but extruded the interior shape up and down to create a longer peg with a foot in the middle.

Having a 3d printers really helps with little problems that arise when wood- or metal-working. I never know what small issues will arise, but having a basic understanding of 3d modeling and the ability to print those solutions quickly has been a real treat. I couldn’t easily purchase those pieces from a supplier, but in about 2 hours, I could have them fresh off the printer.

She Likes It!

The shelves came together perfectly! The simple yet sturdy design met all of her expectations, and it was the perfect way to display her amazing products. She disassembled the unit and fit it into the trunk of her car easily. This project was fun to make, but I am really happy that I could solve a problem for a good friend. So whether you’re making a commissioned piece for a client or a piece of furniture for a friend, make sure you listen to their needs and ensure they fully approve of your final design.