Things To Know About Closet Organizers

this project was a disaster from the start, and still has my blood on it, but at least it's done

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I’d never really thought much about closets, to be honest. Whether that’s because I don’t generally wear things that need to be hung up, or that even if I did I wouldn’t, isn’t important right now. What happened was that I ran across a closet organizer product and showed it to Kate. In my defense, recreating one didn’t look that hard at the time. And probably isn’t, actually, if you have the right tools and know what you’re doing. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The basic idea of a closet organizer is that most closets don’t use their space efficiently. Hangers, for example, are typically at a height to accommodate longer garments. Have mostly shirts? Too bad, it’s wasted space.

If you have a lot of closets, or if you don’t have much worth hanging up, this isn’t a particular concern. In our case, the fact that we were wasting maybe a third of the available space in our closets was less than ideal.

Most people, if they care about their closet space at all, will just buy a solution.

We had a complicating factor in our testbed, otherwise known as the second bedroom, however. The entrance to the attic happens to be in that closet’s ceiling. Which meant that a closet organizer either needed to be designed with that in mind, or be entirely removable. Neither of which described most of the commercial closet organization products, so we were doomed to a custom job whether we liked it or not.

Rather than starting from scratch, I borrowed ideas from other closet organizer systems – hanging two rows of dress shirts, one on top of another, for example. I didn’t think building one of these would be that hard, which is almost funny in retrospect. I won’t go into detail on how to build one, because anyone who’s handy can figure that out. Basically you build a narrower bookshelf with fewer shelves, then hang things off its side. No big deal, right?

Well, there are a number of things I wish I had known ahead of the project.

  1. Melamine Plywood is Heavy. Also, Sharp.
    Some people build closet organizers out of expensive hardwoods, but given the fact that we didn’t know how long it’d be in there as we are planning on remodeling, we were going with plywood from day one. Given that, we opted for melamine – a white plasticky material – coated plywood. The good news is that it looks clean, is easy to maintain and you don’t have to paint it. The bad news is that a 3/4” 4×8 sheet of melamine plywood is heavy. Heavy and unwieldy enough that if you’re working by yourself, as I usually am, it’s a pain to even get a full sheet up on to sawhorses for the initial cuts. As for the sharpness, let’s talk about clamps.

  2. You Need a Lot of Clamps

    I have a fair number of clamps, but most of them are smaller and of no use in clamping bigger projects. In total, I had three 36” clamps that I could use to build the center console which was six or so feet high and had seven shelves. Ideally, each shelf would be clamped front and back during the glue in – 14 clamps in my case. When you have three clamps total, you’re looking at two to three days minimum just to glue in the shelves with three clamps – time which I did not have. Instead I tried using my three clamps to glue up the completed console – twice. The first time, the lack of clamps holding everything in place meant that it collapsed, knocked over a sawhorse and snapped one half of the console in half (which was the cause of much later woe). The second time, it was still unstable and collapsed again. This time I couldn’t get my hand out in time and four shelves and half of the console fell on the tip of my index finger, with the sharp melamine edge slicing the nail on my right index finger in half. I was fortunate to not lose the tip of my finger entirely, though I still don’t have much feeling in it. Melamine is sharp. The third time, I bought a few more clamps and was successful. Depending on your definition of “successful.” Basically, have all the clamps.

  3. Check Your Router Bit Width

    While I initially considered using a jig to drill holes for pins to make the shelving movable, given the requirement that the shelving system be removable in case of a need to access the attic, I decided on a fixed central console for the closet organizer. To accomplish this, I decided to cut dados (“a groove cut in the face of a board, into which the edge of another board is fixed”) and glue the structure together. Given that the melamine plywood was 3/4” thick, this meant I’d need a 3/4” router bit, which I ordered from Amazon. It showed up, and I cut a few dados with no issue. Trouble was, it was actually 11/16” – a sixteenth shy of what I needed. Generally when people have issues with router bit sizes for dados, it’s that the bit is larger because the plywood is actually smaller than claimed. This was the opposite. I ended up having to drive down to Rockler to get another 3/4” router bit, and recutting the dados. Sometimes this worked. Other times, the second pass cut was slightly too big as you can see in the picture above.

  4. A Table Saw is Helpful

    The workroom in our basement is tiny, which is why I haven’t prioritized a tablesaw. For this project, that would have been much simpler. I have a homemade cutting guide that I can use, but making straight eight foot cuts into plywood with a circular saw is a pain even with a guide. Add in all of the repetitive smaller cuts you have to make for things like shelves and it’s would have been a lot easier and faster if I had a table saw. You can make it work with just a circular saw, at least to my level of dubious competence, but I don’t recommend it.

  5. Glue Goes Through Drop Cloths
    One of the few things I did correctly on this project was realize before I started that if I’d assembled the bulk of the closet organizer in my tiny basement shop, I would never be able to get it out of there. Between its small size and the fact that it’s at the end of a long narrow hall, anything large built in there stays in there. Instead, I did the glue up in our upstairs hall. Which has a nice carpet in it. A carpet that I responsibly protected with two layers of our painting dropcloth. Which wasn’t enough, as it turns out, because – surprise! – glue goes right through dropcloths. This is where I’m at with that issue. If anyone has suggestions for removing glue from a carpet that don’t involve cutting it (that’s been forbidden), I’m all ears.

The bad news is that the resulting project is charitably described as a mess. More than usual, I mean. Two of the dados were cut too wide thanks to the router bit issue, so the shelves don’t fit tightly. Two other shelves seated improperly thanks to a lack of clamps and aren’t flush, which looks weird. The good news is that, functionally speaking, none of that matters particularly. The shelves will still work fine, as will the clothing rods. Also, the closet has doors – which we took the opportunity to paint – which help conceal my shame. All of which in turn means that our closet will be much more efficient at utilizing the available space, and if you don’t look at it too closely you might not notice how poor the implementation was.

The big question now is the master bedroom closet. Was the lesson a) building this is dumb and a waste of time, just buy one or b) building the first one gives me the experience to get it right the second time around? The answer? TBD.

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I Have Squandered My Days With Plans of Many Things

All good things must come to an end, and in spite of another home improvement injury (no hospital this time), a multi-day storm without historical precedent, and the fact that I spent the majority of my time off from work working with my hands, it was a good vacation.I may have negatively impacted my ability to make fun of my parents for being the world’s worst retired people based on their inability to stop actually working, however.

As is usual, the world spun on without me. Also as is usual, things in the technology world went bonkers in ways large and small. Sooner or later, those craving stability are going to relent and pay me to never go on vacation. Though admittedly my weather-blackmail scheme shows more immediate promise.

The plan going in to my mutiple weeks off was to take the downtime and leverage the bulk of it on projects in and around the house. The good news is that I completed 13 of my vacation To Do’s. The bad news is that the original list had 28 items on it. Part of the poor completion rate was project setbacks, part of it was injury, but mostly it was the fact that a bunch of the work consisted of doing things I’d never had the opportunity to do before. Which made for a great learning experience, but terrible efficiency.

Lest all work and no play make me a dull boy, I took a day off from hurting myself for a road trip, then closed out my vacation with a week in a cottage up north with the family. And by up north, I mean within an easy driving distance. The best part about living in Maine is that I don’t have to get on a plane to visit amazing places, which is fortunate because I spend so much time on planes for work that literally the last thing I want to do in my free time is fly.

Anyway, the following is my report on what I did on my summer vacation.

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With a bunch of construction projects looming, we tested the hearing protection for my shop assistant. She wasn’t terribly enthused, but we’ll work on that.

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After watching dozens of YouTube videos to look at how other people did it and optimize my technique, I used everything from a simple prybar to a sawzall to deconstruct six or eight pallets I found in Portland on Craiglist for free.

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This yielded a fair amount of “reclaimable” wood, which is another way of saying wood with a shitload of nails in it.

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The first project with the pallet wood was building a patio table to replace the glass one that was shattered by a freak gust of wind. If you’re interested, here’s more on how to do that.

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Building the table was the first of many days spent wearing a respirator.

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Though it turns out that a shop-vac makes a reasonable dust collection system for a random orbital sander.

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For this and my follow up project, I bought a used but perfectly functional lunchbox planer off Craigslist. The seller’s story was interesting: a former master electrician, he and his wife were headed out to California to work for the National Park Service. His first post? Death Valley.

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With the wood left over from the table, I built a companion bench. This would have been a somewhat easier task, but I made the mistake of showing Kate a video of a substantially more complicated model than the one I had planned on building which she preferred.

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Thanks to a very kind brother-in-law, made my first second appearance at Fenway this season. The knuckleball giveth, but it also taketh away.

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Next up after the bench was building a closet organizer, which was going swimmingly until a saw horse collapsed and snapped one of my two center panels. This required some in project adjustments and compromises that resulted in a center portion that is, well, let’s just say mistakes were made.

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To be fair, if someone had given me a choice between being injured by one of the many power tools I used over my vacation or plywood, I would have taken the latter. That being said, it’s amazing how much damage several thick and heavy sheets of melamine coated plywood can do if they drop suddenly. If you’re not squeamish, this is my finger eight days after the initial injury.

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Taking advantage of a break in the weather, I picked a good day to take a road trip through some beautiful country.

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My destination was a place I try and visit every summer, one of the few swimming holes with a waterfall I have a shot at having to myself.

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A day after that, the whole family packed up and headed up north to one of our favorite towns in Maine. Town being a somewhat generous term in this instance.

We took up a full size station wagon and a midsize pickup truck. Both were absolutely packed. Traveling with kids is no joke.

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The view out of our cottage was not too bad.

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The view from the deck of the cottage was also better than average.

Eventually, I more or less gave up taking pictures because Kate was getting shots like this one.

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Because Poseidon hates me, the better part of the week was characterized by truly massive surf, the ancillary effects from Hermine, a truly unique storm system. The swells were big enough, in fact, that when they impacted the granite ledge the cottage sat on, you could feel it.

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When we weren’t at the beach, out on a seal watch, or walking the neighborhood, life was hard.

Exhibit A: Wednesday, we had a family outing to Oxbow.

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On Friday, we returned to Monhegan Island. Two things made this trip stand out. First, it was by far the roughest crossing I’ve ever had out to the island thanks to Hermine. I didn’t get seasick, thankfully, but it’s the first time in a long time where it seemed like a possibility.

The other first for this trip was that I’d never visited the island as a dad before.

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Importantly, we also verified that the Monhegan Brewery is a) still there and b) still delicious.

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While the weather was both colder and foggier over our week than was originally forecast – thanks again, Poseidon – it was, as ever, a great and relaxing week. We were also gifted with a very nice sunset to close out our time up in Chamberlain.

Now it’s time to get back to work, but I’m already looking forward to next year.