I wrote this post in the honor and spirit of Get Woodworking Week 2016. It describes what a French cleat wall system is and why it makes an ideal project for the beginning woodworker. I also describe the (few) supplies you need to build one, how to make and set up a jig to rip boards at an angle using only a hand saw, and why imperfection is perfect for the beginning woodworker.
What’s a French Cleat Wall System?
A French cleat (or simply “cleated”) wall system is not as fancy as it sounds. You can see a nice looking one here. It is a set of boards mounted horizontally on a wall. One, long side of each mounted board is cut at an angle, usually 30 or 45 degrees. Tool holders — saw tills, cabinets, and so on — have a corresponding, 30 or 45-degree hanger attached to their backs, enabling even heavy objects to hook onto and securely hang on the horizontal boards.
A French cleat system provides excellent tool storage for small shop spaces (like my barely-one-car garage) because it uses the walls. I don’t have room for a tool chest, nor do I want to lift a heavy one. I don’t require power tool storage as I work with hand tools, which I want to be able to see and have within easy reach.
A French cleat wall system can be easily completed with a beginner’s tool kit. You don’t even need a bench. (But, if you do wish to buy a well-made, solid, affordable, and portable one, I strongly recommend the Bench Horse from Blum Tool Co.)
You will need the following tools and supplies:
- One hand saw, ideally a rip saw that cuts parallel to the wood grain
- Don’t buy a Made in China saw from a big-box store if you can help it. Instead, for not much more money, buy a high-quality, top-notch condition saw — like an old Disston — from Michael Merlo. You can view some of his listings on eBay and his eBay seller name is azmica90405. I have purchased three saws from Michael, who is a master at saw rehab and sharpening. A good saw will last a life time.
- A hammer
- Two clamps (parallel, pipe, or F-style)
- Wood screws (for attaching your horizontal cleat boards to your wall frame)
- A drill
- Ruler and/or measuring tape
- A protractor or similar tool to measure an angle
- Inexpensive pine boards or scrap wood, long enough to fit the area of wall you’ve measured.
- Two inch by two inch (2″x2″) furring board
- These will be attached to your wall vertically, to create a frame upon which your horizontal boards will be mounted.
- Something to serve as an improvised sawyer’s bench (a footstool or stepstool, a trash can, a stable box flipped over — something on which you can exert downward weight and force and to which you can clamp things).
- A little bit of sandpaper (no need to agonize over grit, as you’ll only use it to give your cleats a lite sanding)
- Mineral oil (to wipe off the dust)
- Linseed oil (optional, as a preserving finish).
If you can, borrow what you don’t own. And, since you may have purchased clamps and a hand saw, the first things you can make and hang on the wall are a simple clamp rack and a saw till. You can use leftover pine for these.
How To Rip Boards on an Angle with a Hand Saw
You do not need a table saw in order to rip boards at a 30 or 45-degree angle. You do need a simple jig, a decent rip saw, something stable to saw on, and a little bit of time.
The jig sets the entire piece of wood at an angle so you can saw straight, and still get the angled cleat as a result. Tada! This makes for excellent hand sawing practice.
Each piece of the jig is made of three short (less than 12-inch) scraps nailed together. Two of the pieces are set at a 30-degree angle and nailed together. Then, these two pieces are nailed to a third board, which is clamped to the sawyer’s bench (note the 90-degree angle between the vertical board of the jig, and the horizontal board clamped to the sawyer’s bench).
Note: Ripping a six-inch wide board in half (as shown in the photo above) cuts a 30-degree angle on one side of each of two, three-inch wide boards. If you use a wider board, you can create two cleats for the price (sawing effort) of one, by making one trip down the middle of one board with the hand saw. This creates multiple cleats faster than does buying thinner pieces of wood and shaving 30 degrees off of one edge at a time.
I ripped six, six-inch-wide boards, for example, which created 12 three-inch-wide boards, each of which has a 30-degree angle along one (long) side.
I lightly sanded each board with whatever sandpaper scrap I grabbed. I never fail to be amazed at the extent to which a light sanding with even a fine-grit sandpaper improves even the cheapest, low-grade pine.
After sanding, I rubbed off the dust with a bit of mineral oil on a t-shirt rag, and then put two coats of linseed oil on the boards. They look so much better for it.
Finally, I mounted the cleated boards onto the 2″x2″ frame I’d nailed to the wall earlier. The blue pieces of painter’s tape mark nails I needed to avoid when screwing the cleated boards onto the frame. (I left the blue tape on in the photo to make the photo itself less perfect.)
It’s OK to make mistakes. You can see a lot of mine in plain view in this photo. The boards (cleats) are not perfect. You can see where pieces cracked and split off of some of the boards. (That’s OK, I don’t need to hang anything in those exact spots. It would hit the wall frame anyway.) You can see that the boards I started with were not all of equal width: Some were 5″ wide and others were more like 6 1/2″ wide. This means some ripped boards are 3″ wide and some are 3.25″, but it’s fine for what it needs to do. A perfect looking, magazine style shop is often less functional, not more.
The important thing is to get woodworking, to get your tools out, organized, visible, and handy, in a space where you can and will use them. This set-up will lend itself to my dropping in downstairs, picking up a tool within view, and getting right to it.
Perfectionism is a blocker and the handiwork of procrastination. Stop it!
A Perfectly Imperfect Beginner Project
In attempting to organize my tiny shop, I accidentally found the French cleat wall system and a simple hand-saw jig to be ideal beginner projects. They require far fewer tools than most other beginner projects, require neither a bench nor a high degree of precision, work well for anyone who wants to economize on space, and teach key skills: hand sawing and jig creation and use. Even better, the end result is a useful system even if executed imperfectly.
New woodworkers are often told to build either a work bench or tool chest for a first project. This makes sense: a woodworker needs these things. But they require too many tools and supplies for someone to get started quickly, including the bane of the beginner woodworker’s existence: truly flat wood.
Off-the-shelf wood (like the pine boards I used here) is not truly flat. Flat wood is wood that has been through a thickness planer, a pricey power tool that beginning woodworkers usually do not own or have access to. Some hardware and big-box stores plane wood on request, though I’ve found more and and more stores less and less willing to do so. A thickness planer is a big investment for a new hobby.
This flat wood conundrum leads some woodworkers to believe they should get started by flattening rough stock or uneven boards by hand, with a plane. More than one beginning woodworker has presented this to me as if it were requisite suffering, an apprentice-style rite of passage that all new woodworkers must experience.
Hand planing is an important and worthwhile skill to develop, but flattening rough stock is not necessarily very fun or rewarding for a beginner. Worse, it smacks of a need for perfection when some beginners need to get comfortable with imperfection in order to stop paralysis and start working.
You don’t need perfectly flat boards to build a functional, French cleat wall system. Heck, your walls probably aren’t truly flat, anyway.