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designing and building with wood channels my creativity and challenges my mind.
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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ikea Expedit Clone - From Reclaimed Heart Pine

My girlfriend and love of my life (xoxo MyMy :-) has been in need of shelving. And she was getting tired of waiting for my cabinetry skills to improve beyond bookshelves. So when she pointed to the Ikea Expedit shelf and said "We need this for our daughter's toys...NOW" - I figured it was time to leave the world of bookshelves and tables and make a proper case.

Luckily, I didn't end up trying to make a real cabinet, carcase and all.  Instead, I decided to build a clone of the Ikea piece.  With a couple of tweaks, of course.

For my version of Expedit, I chose reclaimed heart pine, from a 200-year-old brewery in Virginia.  Really, the wood chose me.  It came to me as a gift, and the bearer was really excited about it.  It came as tongue-and-groove boards, ready to be used as flooring.  And flooring it should have become!  Instead, I plunged into gluing up the panels for my Expedit clone, with no time to waste getting MyMy her shelving, and no money to spend on a different species of wood.

The value of drawings and planned construction sequences:

My first step in making the panels for my Expedit clone was to draw the whole thing out, orthagonally, on a 30"x48" sheet of vellum.  For the first time, I not only included a cut list, but a rough cut and final cut list, and a numbered construction sequence.  I found that writing down all of the steps, and leaving plenty of space between lines for in-between steps I may think of later, was a big help throughout the process.  It was especially useful when I didn't have time to work on the project for days at a stretch, then had to jump back in for an hour here and there.

My sequence has headings like "cutting panel boards to length" and "Lay out mortise lines", and instructions like "Rough cut boards for the: sides - six (6) 58" lengths; Shelves - Fifteen (15) 32" lengths; Dividers - Twelve (12) 13" lengths."

The same rough-cut measurements are also in my rough cut list, which I jot down on a piece of paper to take to my chop saw for when I do the cuts.

Reclaimed Pine is Bad for Blades, Biscuit Joinery

While I like the look of southern yellow pine, and this particular lot of lumber was indeed fine, dense, old wood from huge trees, I didn't like working with it at all.  First of all, the level of sap and/or extractives in the wood was over the top.  Way, WAY above what you'd find in freshly-dried, new southern yellow pine.  While I didn't joint the tongue-and-groove boards to make my panels (why waste those nice pre-made joints?), I did have to joint some panel edges, and then cross-cut the panels square & to length on my table saw.  I also made the huge mistake of running some of the smaller panels, which had warped slightly for some reason, through my thickness planer, before I noticed the severe buildup of sappy pine dust on the rollers, and the rapidly growing number of long scribe lines in the emerging panels.

Once I noticed the damage to the planer blades and the gummy rollers, I checked the jointer I'd just run a few panel edges over.  My joiner was scribing lines in the wood as well.  Damn you, old, hard sap!

There is still a patch of gum on the throat plate of my table saw from cross-cutting the panels.  Inside the saw is covered in yellow gum-dust that no vacuum can remove.  Same thing with the impeller blades inside my dust extractor.

Moreover, having chosen to join the whole case with Festool's Domino system, I noticed that after routing the mortises, the wood would expand into the mortise, making each one too narrow to fit the Domino biscuits.

Reclaimed heart pine?  Never again.  Except maybe for flooring.  What was I doing again?

Expedit Counts as More than a Bookshelf - Because of the Shelf Dividers

At this point in my woodworking career, I had built two bookshelves and a coffee table (which was itself a rescue of a mis-cut pair of angled bookshelf side panels).  Both tables and bookshelves are easy beginner pieces for the same reason:  many of the measurements and spacing of joints is arbitrary.  In the case of a bookshelf, you can put the shelves anywhere, as long as they're the same height on each side.  With a table, the top connects to a groove running around the inside of the apron with lightning-bolt-shaped clips.  As long as you get the distance from the underside of the tabletop to the groove in the apron correct, the apron and tabletop don't require any particular correspondence in size or shape.

But the Expedit clone was different.  It presented a special challenge and took me one step closer to the holy grail: a real carcase-and-panel cabinet with doors and drawers.  It was a small step, but because Expedit uses dividers to split each shelf into two side-by-side rectangles, the distance between the shelves has to be exact.  In Expedit's case, that distance is exactly 12 inches.  Another wrinkle created by shelf dividers (and in part by my choice of joinery method) appears during the glue-up: the whole piece needs to be loosely assembled while shackled in clamps, then slowly drawn together all at once.

This piece was also by far my largest, and had me scrambling to make clamping cauls that I could apply by myself.  I ended up using a rubber mallet to "clamp" the joints at the center of the case.  At least I have a bunch of good cauls now.  It also showed up the many shortcomings of my most recent attempt at a workbench. I got some plans for a classic joiner’s workbench, which is my next project.

Using Biscuits instead of Dadoes

I joined the shelves to the sides, and the dividers to the shelves, with Festool Domino biscuits. In retrospect, this was a bad choice. First of all, dadoes would have been far easier to repeat from one panel to the next: just set the saw fence and rip –em all. With the biscuit joiner, I was working off of lines.


All in all, I am happy with the outcome of my Expedit clone. The pine does look beautiful, though with so many boards containing the pith of the tree (I didn’t know this was a bad thing until it was way too late), I wonder how long it will last before it begins to split along the growth rings, as it splits if you try and drive a nail, or even into it sink a screw into a pre-bored hole. This 200 year-old wood is at once hard, sticky, and brittle. Ugh.

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