Sunday, July 18, 2021

Shelving a project

This week I finally finished a project that should have taken maybe a few hours. Instead, it took more than a week, for various reasons. The important thing, though, is that I’m happy with the results—and that I did it myself.

A few months ago, I had a Solatube skylight installed in the kitchen, something I talked about at the time. I said in that post that “poor light in the kitchen was the thing I disliked the most”, so my first solution had been to hang some mirrors horizontally on the back wall of the kitchen. I hoped it would reflect light from the stacker doors across the room, but it didn’t really help. I think that was because the mirrors pointed at the wall next to a stacker door, so there wasn’t really much light to reflect.

The space where I hung them was a big white, blank space and needed something there. I didn’t want to put artwork there, and I absolutely loathe, to the very core of my being, those big fancy word signs, the sort that say “EAT” or “Love” or whatever. I’ve never seen one I thought was tolerable, let alone one I actually liked. In decor, as with so much else, Arthur’s Law applies: To each their own.

However, my very first idea was actually to put in some floating shelves, maybe made of reclaimed timber. The next idea was those mirrors. Nigel and I got them for our house on Auckland’s North Shore (it was my idea, I might add…), and we hung them vertically at the end of a hallway to make it brighter and seem longer. I had to add new picture wire and holders on the back to hang them horizontally, and for quite awhile I was happy with them, even if they didn’t reflect the light as I’d hoped.

Still, light—or the lack of it—is what kept me from being completely satisfied with the mirrors. I thought about having wall-hung (upper) cabinets installed, which would add storage as well as give me the chance to have under-cabinet lights. I decided against it because I was afraid it would make the kitchen even darker than it already was, and because one day I’ll probably upgrade the kitchen, anyway, so it would be a pretty big expense that would be wasted.

I was then back to shelves. I again thought about floating shelves, but I have no real experience with them, so I ruled them out. By that time, I was absolutely determined to do the shelves myself—it became really important to me.

I researched options for shelving brackets and shelves, and I planned on putting in three at roughly where the tops of each mirror was. This idea had several problems. First, I wanted timber shelves that I’d lightly stain, but timber shelves of that length—1.8 metres—were around $75 each (today, roughly US$53). MDF shelves, which I’d prime and paint (and I already have both) were about $15 each (US$10). So, three timber shelves would be around $225, while the MDF ones would be $45. I’d also need the wall brackets for either option on top of that, say, maybe another $100-150, and the stain and polyurethane for the timber shelves, probably another $150-200. It was all adding up.

However, it wasn’t cost that changed my thinking, it was aesthetics.

It turned out that the studs in that area weren’t evenly spaced/centred in the wall space. That meant that it would look like I hung some brackets in the wrong place—and that would’ve driven me nuts (I know myself quite well, you see).

I learned this because I used a new, fancy stud finder I bought for the project (because the simpler one that Nigel and I bought many, many years ago just wasn’t working right any more). Because I did that, I realised what I should have known all along: The power distribution for the house—the circuit breakers and all the connections for the solar electricity—were also in that wall. That meant I couldn’t drill willy-nilly to use wall anchors in the plasterboard.

While researching options on a home centre’s website, a “suggested product” was a wall-hung shelving system, the sort I’ve installed in wardrobes in the last two houses Nigel and I shared, and that I also plan to install here. So, I’m very familiar—and experienced—with the systems. I realised that this was the perfect option for me.

The systems have a bar that hangs on the wall at the top, and this is anchored in the studs and also with wall anchors for the plasterboard. Vertical brackets hang on that strip, and are also anchored either by screwing them into studs, or by using wall anchors. The spacing between those vertical brackets is set—roughly 60cm—so they would be evenly spaced—and as long as I centred the whole system in space, there’d be no aesthetic weirdness annoying me every time I looked at the shelves.

The plan was set, so a week ago Friday I headed out to the home centre to get the parts I needed.

The shelves are available in kits for wardrobes, but those use wire shelves, and I wanted solid shelves (which also use a different type of shelf support bracket). So, I bought the horizontal bar, and the four vertical brackets I’d need, then gathered the shelf supports, too. I got them all in white (they’re also available in black) because I wanted it to reflect light.

Then, the shelves: I looked at the wood-look ones and thought they might look nice, so I got four 900cm shelves that were the depth I wanted (25cm), but they only had five in stock, so I got two 900cm long shelves that were 30cm deep, plus brackets for them. I also looked at under-cabinet lights, but didn’t buy any.

I took everything home and put it near the kitchen so I could start in the morning. It didn’t work out that way.

Saturday morning I woke up, but didn’t feel like working on the project. Something was bothering me: The wood-look shelves seemed a little too brown compared to the actual wood furniture I had in the room. I thought about it, but decided to just go with it, anyway—though not that day. I worked on other stuff, instead.

Sunday morning presented another problem.

I got up and headed toward the toilet, as one does. As soon as I walked back into my bedroom to lead the dogs out for their morning treat, it suddenly hit me: “Those shelves will never work,” I said to myself. The problem was that I got the shelves 900 long, each one half the span of the space. However, the spaces between the vertical strips—and so, the shelf supports—were 600 apart. If I used the 900 wide shelves, there would have been no support in the middle.

So, I gathered up the shelves and headed back to the home centre to return them. They didn’t have enough of the wood-look in the correct sizes (which had to be either nine 600 wide shelves, or else three of them and three 1200 long, the option I chose—and in white). I also picked up some under-cabinet lights I’d looked at on the previous Friday.

I didn’t have enough time to work on the shelves that afternoon, because I was going out for an early family dinner. Instead, I installed one of my security cameras so it was looking down on my car.

Early Monday afternoon, I finally began. I cleared the bench under the shelves, removed the mirrors, and then hung the horizontal bar at the top, putting screws into the studs as well as into wall anchors. That took a lot out of me, partly because it was working above my head, and also because I was kneeling on the benchtop. I hung the vertical supports, but didn’t attach them to the wall because of yet another problem: The screws I had weren’t long enough.

The next day, Tuesday, I went back to the home centre and got the screws I needed, and then worked on attaching the vertical supports using wall anchors—with the correct length screws. It required a lot of effort, and was often at awkward angles. I had to stop and rest a few times. When I was done, I put in the shelf supports and then put the shelves on them. I tried several arrangements, but I just didn’t like any of them. I decided I needed four shelves, not three.

The next day, Wednesday, I had lunch with with some of the family, and on the way home I went back to the home centre again. I got one 600cm white shelf and the last of the shelf supports for that size shelf. I also got a different under-cabinet light system.

As it happens, I already had a 1200 cm white shelf, and it’s already been on this blog: I used it to try out a monitor support on my desk back in March this year. As I said in a footnote to a post the following week, “I'll use that shelf elsewhere, so it won't go to waste.” And now I have.

The lights were a little odder. The first ones I bought were battery operated (good) LED lights, but they have clear plastic, which means the bulbs are reflected in the shiny bench-top below. I decided to get a more expensive LED system that runs off a power adapter because it had a translucent white plastic cover, and because they’re very flat—they can’t really be seen from the side (the rejected lights will be good for wardrobes).

The next day I did some staging of the shelves because one of my sisters-in-law was bringing my mother-in-law around for lunch, and I wanted them to get a better idea what it’d look like when they were all done (I still needed to attach some special clips where the 600 and 1200 shelves met, so they could both sit on the same shelf support without slipping).

Today I attached those clips, and the under-cabinet lights, and the shelving system is now done—except for the top shelf. The home centre was sold out of the white shelf supports for the 250 deep shelves, so right now I’m using the longer shelf supports I originally got for the 300 deep shelves.

This project probably evolved more than any other that I’ve done at this house, and I didn’t try to rush it (not the least because I didn’t want to accidentally hit the electric wires running through that wall). In the end, I got what I wanted, and so far other people seem to like it.

The shelves will mainly be decorative—displaying things I do sometimes use, but that were either chucked in a cupboard somewhere or taking up space on the bench-top. I plan on putting my full espresso machine on the bench because the capsules used in the Nespresso machine make me uncomfortable: While they’re technically recyclable, in all practicality, they’re not, plus they also don’t make a large enough cup of coffee for me unless I use two capsules.

In this process, especially after clearing off the bench-top so I could work on the shelves, I realised that it’s the widest section of bench-top in the kitchen. There’s another part, on the peninsula, that’s deeper, but sometimes I need more space to do stuff with things next to each other. If I keep that bench-top as empty as practical, it’ll be easy for me to clear stuff away when I need the workspace.

There was one more aspect to this project, something that in many ways was the actual driver of the whole thing: As I said earlier in this post, I was absolutely determined to do this myself, and that became really important to me. That’s related to what I was talking about a post back in March: ”To err is human, the choice is mine”. I chose not to tell anyone what I was up to until it was already in process, and even then I was vague. I knew some folks might try to talk me out of it, or urge me to hire someone, but after running into so many obstacles trying to do other projects on my own, I simply had to do this project. Besides, I’d done basically the same thing so many times by then that I had complete confidence in my abilities.

In the end, this project may have been a bit more fraught than I anticipated, but I’m happy with the results, and especially that I did it myself. Now it’s time to pick another project I can do myself.

In the photo: The top shot is the before, with the mirrors in place. The middle is when I was wrapping up, and the bottom one is how I partially staged them on Thursday.


Roger Owen Green said...

I've said it before, but anything that frustrating I would have hired someone, probably AFTER the wall hangings came crashing down because I didn't use a stud finder.

BTW, I find the term "stud finder"" very funny.

Arthur Schenck said...

For most of the years we were together, I always joked with Nigel about "stud finder" using what was really a "dad joke". We had a lot of recurring jokes like that, actually.

Because I've done shelves like that before, I didn't find the installation itself difficult, and going slowly and carefully kept me from making any big mistakes. However, the mistakes I made—like picking the wrong size shelves—did slow me down. They were mainly a function of not being able to focus correctly due to brain fog.