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Anatomy of a solution

Posted by joeabbott on February 27, 2014

When I went to clean up the garage after what either appears to have been an unexplainable and very localized tsunami, or perhaps I had been too busy with other projects to clean up after myself, I found I needed some ORDER. In the garage I have a couple of old IKEA-style bookshelves that are handy but they’re no longer holding their share of the load. They are short and brown and broken in some way (what other reason would there be to have them in the garage?) and only barely functional. When I went to move them a few days ago, items dropped from them as if rats escaping a doomed ship and I ended up just tossing the fallen cans and tools to my workbench.

So it was that when I considered ORDERING things, the squat brown shelves were eyed with contempt. Time to replace them.

The average chap might assess the current solution weaknesses, whack together a few replacements from a garage full of lumber, and get on to cleaning up. Is that my way? I say, “no”. And so this is a story of how I went about cleaning up my garage.


In my post This and that, I shared a picture of the area I call my “shop” … I’ll admit it: it looks like a hoarders paradise. But all of that stuff contributes to me keeping the house running and me happily puttering about the garage. Here’s a close-up of the top of my bench:


This was just part of the mess … from the This and that picture, you can see there are no shortage of things to pile stuff on, and I’m taking advantage of every bit of that space. So, where did I start my planning? Breaking down the options, of course.

Where o’ where


When I’d moved the tool chest, I’d created a small void in the corner and that gave me a chance to envy the exposed wall space. Any wall space is at a premium in my little shop and having a new place to hang tools or other gear was very compelling. So I decided that I should start using the tool chest a bit more and pull it out of the corner.

The chest is on wheels, so that shouldn’t be a problem. And while it’s currently stocked with autobody implements, I could make some other storage chest for the items I won’t be using, and turn the chest’s many drawers into something I’d regularly access.

So at that point I thought, I’d best look at corner shelving units and see what they do that I’d like to copy.

Web search

My web search was simple and short, and yielded little in the way of ideas. The phrase I searched on was garage corner shelves shelving, and the best idea that surfaced was a couple L-shaped units. That actually looked promising.

I didn’t say “those” … as the items in the search pane … were promising; I said “that” … meaning the idea to use a corner L-shape. Idea stored.

And, other than that … nada.

Walking away from this exercise I had the vague idea of building an L-shaped unit … but I wasn’t really any closer to exactly how I’d go about that.

Filling the space

If you have watched me work, the below sort of sketch is no stranger to you: I wrap my head around spatial problems best by mapping them out.

The below picture is an overhead view of the corner of the garage. A few of the dimensions I captured: 43” from the wall to the workbench; the workbench is 34.5” deep; the distance from the floor to the top of the concrete ledge is 40”; that concrete ledge is 3.75” wide; and on and on.

I added other sketches and dimensions as I work with this: the upper right hand corner of the page captures the layout of the stairs and the lower middle and right areas contain dimensions for the rolling tool cabinet.


What I do next is turn that hodge podge into a SketchUp model … this formalizes the layout and lets me confidently plan for actual sizes.

The model to the right shows my rendering of the corner: the red pile is the rolling tool cabinet and the brown block is my workbench. Now I could start to plan my shelf!

Sketching up the space

Sinking into this virtual space, I visualize my solution. I started by imagining the top of the cabinet at the top of the ledge … but I didn’t like the idea of having the top space “split” between the wooden shelf top and the concrete ledge, so I had the top overlap the edge.

I then tried to use all the space possible, which meant visualizing the rolling cabinet as close to the stairs as I felt I could get away with … about 4’. I’d then fill any additional wall space with another short shelf section … the “L” shape. This gave me a top-down view that looked like this:


imageBefore cutting any lumber, I went into the garage and placed the tool cabinet about where the model showed it to be. And, interestingly, 4’ doesn’t feel quiet as roomy when you have a hulking tool cabinet sitting right there. I left it in place and, when Suzy got home she asked, “is this where the chest is going to stay?” On getting an affirmative answer from me, she fixed me with a look, said no more, and I went upstairs and started re-thinking the layout.

The shelves

At this point, I went with a simple layout for the shelves filling the 40” from ground to top: give me three shelves at ~12” deep (I was planning on using 3/4” panels for the shelves), give me a tiny “toe” to pull the bottom shelf off the ground, space them somewhat regularly but give the top one more room if I can.


imageimageAnd now I made a bit of a mistake. I just started drawing support structure without really thinking through how it would be loaded.

I supported up the bottom with 2×4 members so that the shelf was 1.5” up. I then made the same sort of supports for the top: if I planned to use the shelf as any sort of work surface, I wanted it sturdy. Then, to support the other shelves, I imagined nesting the shelf in grooves routed in 2x4s. Everything appeared to be solidly supported.

The picture to the right shows where I was ending up. Ummmm … OK.

I wasn’t loving the design … sure I could build it and, yes, it would be sturdy, but it lacked anything like elegance or cosmetic appeal. But I kept going.

The “legs” would run from ground to the bottom of the shelf and that would finish it. I liked this as it gave me legs exactly 40”. Yes, I could cut the legs any length, but something in me just likes round numbers!


So, without a lot of additional thought, I calculated the lumber requirements and drove to the hardware store for some materials.


P1060158I opted to get decent plywood for the top and shelves.

P1060165I built some shelves in my garage when we first moved in and, as I didn’t have a lot of experience with any sort of building, I bought cabinet-grade plywood and spent a small fortune. Well, here we are today and those shelves look as good now as when I built them. And they get regular use. Our chicken coop, on the other hand, was build largely from whatever materials I had available and now, three years later, some of the doors are warping. They’ve been that way for a while, but the point is: use good materials for things you want to look nice and last a while.

Here’s a small tour of the building of the shelves:

   P1060164   P1060161     

I have the cutting of the plywood in the upper left; the setting up my dado blade (I had thought about using a router but I didn’t have a router bit the same size as the plywood); I have the finished support legs, and then the dry-fit of the parts (upper right).

At this point I was loving my design: it was coming together just like the model, it was looking stout, and the plywood shelves fit perfectly in the grooves: snug without being too tight. Time to start putting it together!



In picture 1) I’m sticking some screws into the side members to lock the side assemblies together. If I had a pocket screw kit this would have been the perfect use for it. I didn’t stress over the strength of the screw attachment, as I planned on gluing the shelves in and that’s where a lot of strength would come from.

In picture 2) I have the side assemblies screwed together, the top is locked into the supports, and I’m ready to attach the shelves.

In picture 3) you’ll notice a hammer on the ground … yup, not to proud to admit to giving a few loving taps to ensure the right alignment. Picture 4) shows it ready for clamps and in 5) I’m clamping it up.

Finished goods


Terrible picture (left), I know, but this is what I have. I haven’t moved everything into the shelves yet, so my workbench is still a bit of a mess. However, you can see that it’s reasonably a perfect fit … just like the model!

I really like that it’s like that. I can, with confidence, draw something up, building it, and it’ll work like I expect. Nice!

I also like that it is working well … I now have more stuff moved onto it and it’s holding everything the other shelf did and more.

What I don’t like is how the top is attached to the legs. I feel I really blew it. While this will hold a lot of load, I really should have run the support structure for the top from one edge to the other and had the legs attach below that structure. Like this:


See how the front support member under the top shelf goes from one end to the other and is supported by the legs? I could stand on a table top like this and not be worried about breaking anything. As I built the shelf, I’d be much less confident standing on it. Good thing it’s a shelf and not a dance platform!


So, what have I learned? I learned that I have a structured way of thinking that is comfortable with shooting from the hip. I’ve learned that I like to plan things and have the execution go to plan. I like building stuff. I am willing to be critical, I will learn from my mistakes, and I will dive in for more later. Hopefully I will learn and not make the same mistakes again, but fortunately I don’t get too hung up, either.

So that’s how I go about solving a problem: map it out, get my hands around the design, knock something together, and then stand back and look it over.

Thanks for looking in and if you have any suggestions on stuff you think might help, please suggest something! I love learning new stuff and realize I have a long way to go. We’ll catch up with you later!


One Response to “Anatomy of a solution”

  1. Momma said

    Bravo, Joe! Momma

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