Hang a mantel shelf without visible fasteners
A recent article in THISisCarpentry—“Craftsman Style Mantel and Bookcases,” by Brian Cinski Jr.—referenced the book “Building Fireplace Mantels,” by Mario Rodriguez. Brian used this book to replicate a stunning Charles Rennie Mackintosh mantel and bookcase. I was intrigued, and ordered a copy of the book. Inside, I found many great tips, as well as a plethora of techniques I had never imagined. One in particular amazed me: the “sliding dovetail cleat.”
On page 71, the sliding dovetail cleat is shown as a way to hang decorative, non-supportive corbels on a mantel shelf, without the use of visible fasteners. The moment I saw this, I had a “Why didn’t I think of that?!” moment.
The joint is extremely simple to make. I’m sure it’s been around forever and is used in many applications, but since I’m primarily a finish carpenter, I don’t get to see many shop “woodworking tricks.” But that’s starting to change, now that I’m more open to learning and seeking out new techniques.
It’s also just a matter of trying out a new technique when the opportunity arises. It might be easier and faster to just throw in a nail or screw and be done with it, but there are many advantages to reinforcing your work, especially when it comes to long-term durability.
One thing I’ve learned first-hand, and strongly believe, is that if you always go for what’s easiest, you will never progress past a certain point. This is especially true with finish carpentry. It’s not enough just to read about new techniques—you need to find ways to incorporate them into your work. The more you have in your skill set, the more you’ll have to offer when bidding on a job, or when confronted with a tough situation.
And, besides, it’s just fun using tools!
To set up, you’ll need a dovetail bit, and some extra stock to make the cleat. For my project, I used a 1-in. dovetail bit, but you can use a smaller bit and make the slot any size you want. I like the larger bits, though, because they allow you to get it in one pass or setup.
You will want to use a router table for safety and ease. Set your desired depth. I set mine for 3/4 in. deep, so I could make my cleat out of some 1x stock later.
After you get the bit set up on the router table, it helps to calibrate your fence scale to the bit, so that “0” is center of the bit. If you don’t have a scale, you can manually set your bit to the right settings. Make a practice pass just to be sure.
My corbels were cedar, so I was able to make my dovetail slot in one pass at full depth. You may have to make minor adjustments, depending on your corbel material. For hardwoods or other applications, you may need to use a straight cutter that’s the same size as the narrow side or shank of the dovetailing bit—make a few passes to get your slot to depth. Then come in with the dove tail bit at full depth to cut the tapered sides of the slot.
After making the cuts, do not change the depth of your router setting, since we’re not yet done with the router. Slide the fence to “0” (this is where having an adjustable fence is really handy).
Now you’re perfectly in-line with your bit to run some stock through to cut the tapered sides of the cleat. You can manually set this if you want or need to—just run some test pieces and fine-tune your settings until it cuts a perfect “taper to nothing.”
Rip down some 3/4-in. stock on the table saw to exactly the width of the wide end of the dovetail cut. If you need to widen your dovetail slot (for even more holding power), measure the top of the taper and rip your stock to this measurement. Because I used a 1-in. bit for my slot, I ripped some 1x stock exactly 1 in. wide.
|Now run the cleat stock through your router table on each side. If you’re set up properly, the dovetailing bit will make a cut that tapers out to nothing. This is what you want.|
|Now you can test the fit and make any adjustments needed.|
|Mark and cut your cleats to length. They should fit snugly!|
|Find the center of where your corbels will go, and mount the cleat to your shelf with some screws. Be aware of which side is up when mounting the cleats. I put mine upside down the first time.|
Now your corbels can slide right up to the mantel shelf, nice and snug.
Glue is optional, unless you want them to be permanent. For some applications it could be handy to have them removable.
Hey look! No unsightly face screws up into the mantel shelf, just my decorative (fake) bolts. I wonder where else I can use this trick!…