Page last updated on 9/16/2004 18:15



The need to provide our own shade at the Renaissance faires and other outdoor venues for the Roaring Dragon Press compelled me to look into vendor booth construction. Like pavilion design in the Society for Creative Anachronism, the field is rampant with creative solutions. Something that could be transported in the same load with the press was desireable. The design which I found most interesting is a low-cost market booth which originated in Eugene, Oregon. It features simple wood construction, lack of stakes or ropes, freedom from bolting things together, and quick set-up. The concept is based on attaching a flattish brace to each end of a strut (2x2, in this case). These braces can accept a second strut at right angles to the first.

The braced struts are always horizontal to allow gravity to hold things in place. Being relatively flat avoids the problem of storing bulky, three-dimensional braces. Building the brace onto one strut solves the basic bracing problem. Since the hole in the brace for the second strut goes all the way through, more than one braced strut can be slid down onto the uprights. Connecting at the corners is elegantly solved by offsetting a second braced strut above another braced strut at right angles upon a single vertical upright.


What's a budding wizard to do with all his stuff but to build storage? I like shelving because it is sparing of materials, has a small footprint, and allows high visibility. I prefer wood because it looks, feels, and sounds softer and quieter than metal, still has plenty of strength, and can be more easily customized than metal. I must usually eschew plywood, though, because of the fumes given off by their laminating adhesives, and similarly the pressed-wood products for this and the fact they are weaker and prone to permanent deformation under weight. In order to minimize costs and materials, solid backs and sides are usually out, leaving only supports and bracing.

My choice for the shelves themselves is 1x12 inch knotty pine (clear pine is nice, but way expensive.) At a good store, one can choose pieces that have a minimum of flaws. Check for warping by sighting down the length on each edge. Try to avoid too much of the darker heart of the tree, keeping to the yellower pine, as this is softer and weaker. I've had such boards split in two merely from being dropped hard on concrete. Watch for sappy patches, too.

For the supports, if you don't mind the extra work and high cost, 1-1/2 fir rounds are nice. (There are two large standard sizes in some weird fraction, one about 1-1/4 inch and one about 1-1/2 inch.) This is large enough diameter to act as cross-bracing, though the shelves will vibrate a bit when struck.

One must have some idea what to build, of course. I needed lots of shelving, floor-to-ceiling. I never lived in a space where I felt I had enough room. (Creative individuals who read and do fairs and conventions will doubtless start to perk up their ears at this point.) When you can make your own storage units, give some thought to the total three-dimensional space in the room. Will big shelves be overwhelming, or is this a hobby /sewing /library /craft type of room? My South Lab (named from a reference in one of my stories), which you can see a little of on my main page, is such a room. When contemplating covering the whole room, it's a bit overwhelming, but it's a lot of storage space.

My first effort was an embarrassing disaster. After a year, I had a work of art equivalent to an 8x10-foot drawing, and no shelves. I learned the following don'ts: (1) Don't choose fancy tools unnecessarily, (2) don't choose poor quality tools that won't do the job in a timely fashion, (3) don't get distracted by the tools (the ooh-ah factor), (4) don't choose a complex, custom design where it's not warranted, (5) don't make one big drawing when several small drawings is more efficient. When I realized I wasn't getting my hobby room shelves done, I dumped the whole thing, changed my tactics, and was moving things onto my shelf-filled room in two weeks.

The approach I settled on forever after, in three different incarnations of the South Lab, was modular shelving units. Whatever I did, I wanted the processing and cost of the wood to be minimal. The first of the modular concepts is that of the workstation, some standard width that works for (almost) every section of wall in the room. I use three-foot-wide modules, whenever possible. The second modular concept is standardizing heights. If you make your tabletops 28 inches, 3 x 28 = 84 inches, which is a good height for an over-the-door shelf. This led me to my first standard module. The rounds are held on top and bottom with #8x2" screws, and at the middle shelf with double-ended quarter-inch screws with the shelf sandwiched firmly between. This design has built-in bracing due to the large diameter of the rounds. Note none of these drawings are to scale.

The unit on the right has two shelf-depths of knee room when you're tucked up to your work table. The standard modules on the left (two more) are simply stacked on the back half of the worktable modules on the right, three tall, to make door height. The middle one I designed with the shelf quite high so there would be more tabletop work space, a 5-1/2 inch shelf over a 21-inch shelf (+3 3/4-inch shelf boards = 28 inches.) I lashed the entire room together at each pole with heavy cotton string. The whole thing had the resiliency of ship's rigging when complete. The final step to hold the window-and-door-separated sections together was long shelf boards all the way around the room on top, above the doors and windows, and screwed down onto the shelves. Most of my work is now done with #6x1-1/4 inch "wood bullet" style screws (my favorite wood screw because it has deep, wide-apart, sharp threads which really bite into the wood.) This design was sturdy enough to hold up the house during an earthquake, I'll wager, but it was wasteful of materials and space. It's doesn't provide much side-to-side wiggle room for your legs either. While there is a fair bit of storage space, I was less than thrilled with the access to it. Aesthetically, I didn't like the wood floor covering up the rug under the work tables.

The choice of shelf height should be determined by what you'll be putting on them. I've found two equal shelves (13.25-inch spaces) is good for large books and file boxes. Three equal shelves (8.25-inch spaces) will work for pocket-books. Four equal shelves if you really have to jam a lot of loose items onto shelves or you have a bunch of those polycarbonate bins (with the molded slots for dividers.)

The second generation of the South Lab used a variation on this theme where the rounds were cut halfway through with slots to accommodate the shelves. Also, I wanted to keep the shelves edge-to-edge, so I notched the corners of the shelves to set the rounds in from the edges. When notching the rounds, be sure to cut with the grain so that a hammer and chisel can easily split the half-moon of wood out of the notch after sawing. Try and make the notch a close fit, as it will affect the quality of the bracing. Additionally, I turned the back pair of rounds 90 to the front pair to give the cross-bracing a little help. Of course, you could just as easily use 2x2 clear fir instead of the rounds. Put a #6 screw straight into the notched area of the pole to anchor it to the shelf. The notch pattern I use in all my cut shelves, even the third generation ones, is shown below with the tall, third generation shelf units.

The third (and current) generation of shelves required I save even more money. The rounds were out since they cost over a dollar per foot. Instead, I used 1x2 inch clear fir, which runs about half the price. It's strong, well-sanded (usually), and quite free of defects (though check for occassional warps.) I still make the shelf cuts shown above; I just don't notch the supports. The shelf notches are filled by the 1x2's (3/4 by 1-1/2 inch finished size.) I use boatloads of #6x1-1/4-inch wood screws (the "wood bullet" variety.) The screws are pilot-drilled and screwed into the sides of the shelves, through the face of the 1x2's. To save material, but still maintain some rigidity, I chose to make full 84-inch-high, 36-inch-wide workstation "modules". I eliminated all the doubling-up of shelves thereby, and dropped the use of a shelf against the floor. Also to help rigidity, I used 1x2 braces. The basic unit is shown below. Note it has only three fixed shelves, located at table-height, mid-range, and above-the-door-height. I should have faced it the other way for ease of attaching the cross-braces (hidden by view, they mirror the side braces), but I opted for 3/4 inch front framing for openness (for a total of 12 braces.)

I built eleven such units for the current South Lab (two on either side of a wide window had to be 29-, instead of 36-inches long.) For extra shelves between the three primary ones at 28-inch intervals, I attached 3/8-inch-thick squares of wood on all four supports just under where I wanted the shelf. Several inches of shelf spacing are recommended with this technique to ensure headroom for shelf installation and removal; in practice, I wouldn't have more than four shelves (three added) in one 28-inch primary section, and I had interferences with the bracing to contend with. Under the work-table in the lower 28-inch section, I put one shelf in place for storage halfway down at 14 inches from the floor. The rug itself I try to keep free as it looks and cleans more easily that way. The first permanent shelf (at 28-inches from the floor) becomes the normal worktable height. Initially, I leave the middle-third space mostly free for worktable use, except for a seven-inch shelf at the top of this middle shelf area (28 + 28 - 7 is distance from floor to top of this extra shelf.) The top third I aportion to whatever the space needs; one module is split vertically to house an analytical balance. Most have two or four shelves.

Recently, I made a further refinement on the shelf supports. If the shelf needn't support too much weight (say forty pounds), I have taken to drilling holes through the support legs, placing 1-1/2 inch lengths of hardwood dowelling into these holes, and using this as shelf support. Although it is not quite as sturdy, it is cleaner and allows for more flexible shelf placement (rather like the many similar products on the market.) The three primary shelves remain permanent.

For a workstation table extension, I use a standard notched shelf and make a pair of removable extension pieces (C, D, and E) for each end of the shelf as shown in the lettered drawing below (the left is shown; the right extension piece is a mirror image.) Referring to the lettered drawing, K is the permanent workstation shelf braced with H and I. J is the extra shelf on the table extension. Block A is mounted below the shelf about 1-1/2 inches to provide primary support for the shelf extension. Block B is mounted on the underside of the permanent shelf K about 3/4 inch away from the front-to-back line of the support legs to prevent skewing of the extension piece. I place the extension where it will be and anchor Blocks A and B accordingly. This ensures a snug fit for the extensions. The extensions are slid under worktable at each end to bump against inside of rear support leg. Placing the shelf into this extension cradle will keep the extensions from skewing inwards at the front. Note how the two attached blocks set into the shelf notches at each corner. Once shelf is dropped onto extensions, the structure is fairly stable (occassionally, an extension will start to back out a little, or my knee will dislodge the shelf.) It's a nice arrangement because the shelf and extensions can be removed in moments to make extra space in the room. There may be no extension at all, of course, if the shelf is dedicated to books, for example. I have two such units, but I need a lot of worktable space.

Another set of shelves dovetailed nicely in the South Lab for my F&SF pocketbooks. The ceiling is about three inches over the eight-foot standard, so, by judicious use of space, I was able to get four accessible rows of pocketbooks all the way around the room (two high by two deep) by building twelve shelf units as shown below. To achieve headroom requirements, I had to lose the top cover, use half-inch plywood for the two shelves, and make them slightly different heights. Even so, it was a close fit.

As you can see, the pair of rear shelves (6-inches deep, nominally) are attached to the back half of the 1x12 center piece with screws and/or glue, and the front pair are hinged to swing forward revealing rear shelves. Each side extends only 18-inches, but it may still overbalance when open (I brace against the ceiling.) Note that you will either have to allow an inch between units or build the front pairs slightly shorter to accommodate swinging them open. Also, in the corners of the room, one set may overlap the other only so far as to allow you to open the foremost shelf of one so you can then open the one next to it. These units sit upon the continuous shelf that runs all the way around the room bracing my tall shelf units.