Project Leather Milk – Building Your Own Lighted Display Shelf

I promised one of my US suppliers, Mr Snow that I will make a display shelf for him when his goods arrived in my retail store. My initial estimate for the completion of the shelf was a week but I soon learned that my optimism will always be the root of all the planning fallacies. The shelf was eventually completed after 2 months.

As with any carpentry projects, sketching out the product is very important. It gives you a good idea on how much materials you will use and the limitations you may encounter.

My first sketch was in 3D, basically to nail the type of shelf design.

3D Sketch for Project Leather Milk
So, after a quick vote from everyone in the company, we decided to go for the right most design. It’s got a more ‘Western Bar’ look. I actually liked the left most design, but we are a democratic company. So, Western Bar it is.

Next, we take the right most design and came up with a few more iterations.

Project Leather Milk - Sketches

The sketches becomes more serious as we start considering the measurements. We don’t have a huge retail front, so every inch matters.

After about 3-4 days on the drawing board,  I moved on to the next phase- material sourcing. If you are looking for a good place to buy plywoods and wooden materials for your carpentry work, I recommend Kee Lek. It’s a bit out of town in an industrial area between the border of Balakong and Kajang, but the trip there is definitely worth it as there’s a nice variety of materials to choose from. Besides, you don’t get much choice from the hardware suppliers closer to the cities.

Project Leather Milk - Kee Lek
Project Leather Milk - Kee Lek
Just look at all the range of pre-cut woods they have… feels like Legoland.

Project Leather Milk - Kee Lek
Project Leather Milk - Kee Lek
Project Leather Milk - Kee Lek
Project Leather Milk - Kee Lek
Just be sure not to wear your dress shoes to the warehouse, because you will be walking through thick saw dust. And for just RM50, you can get Kee Lek to send your order to your doorstep. I estimate my order to be at least 150kg, so RM50 is really a bargain.

Transporting the Wood
For a little warm-up session, I made 2 coffee stools with some leftover plywoods from previous projects.

The first step after our little warm up is to cut the boards according to the measurements. Because I am not a full time carpenter, I would have to stick to my little Makita jigsaw. However, after sawing all these plywood, I am really looking forward to upgrade to a full-blown circular wood cutting machine. It should speed up the progress of cutting these plywood by 80%. Well, I am just a hobbyist for now.

For this project, I acquired a new machine- the Dongcheng Orbital Sander. This machine sets me off by about RM150, but I reckon it will save me hours of sanding. I wanted to get the Makita sander but the hardware store near me don’t carry them anymore… so I guess Dongcheng would have to do.

I used to sand manually with sandpapers wrapped in Styrofoam brick. With this new sanding machine, I could sand the plywoods in an hour. I estimate if I am using the Sytrofoam brick method, it might take me at least 4-5 hours. An important tip, when sanding with the orbital machine, always do it outdoor. I realized my folly after my entire pantry is covered with pepper-fine wood dust. I was ordered to sand outside the office from then on.

After sanding, you would still need to get rid of the wood dust with a wet cloth to remove any debris that will get in the way when you apply the wood varnish later on. I even used a vacuum cleaner to make sure it’s totally dust free.

Once the woods are dust-free, we move on to the varnishing act. I got the ‘Oakwood’ color from Nippon Wood Varnish series. Because my project uses plywood instead of real solid wood (out of budget), I have to apply 3 layers to make it look like ‘Oakwood’. Unfortunately, it was only at this phase I realized that one of the plywood surface has got some ‘blisters’. So, lesson learned, next time choose your plywoods on the spot and have them shipped exactly the ones that you’ve examined.

The varnish phase is also the most time consuming one because it takes about an hour for each coat to really dry, and you can get really high smelling the fumes from the varnish. My suggestion is that you take a break after every 30 minutes to reduce the high.

If there’s a coating machine to apply the varnish, I would seriously consider it. Paint brushing all these surfaces is literally a pain-in-the-neck-back-ass chore.

Next comes the assembly phase. I started by joining the horizontal planks with the top-most and bottom-most levels. I was thinking by doing that, I would have a rectangular frame which would be easier to work on. However, that was not the case.

If I was to do it again, I would start off with the middle most section and working my way out to the bottom-most and top-most level simultaneously. By doing so, I would be able to ensure that each individual planks will be as level as possible without having to compromise for the rigid rectangular frame. This miscalculation has indeed caused the mid-section planks to less level than I’d aimed for. But it wasn’t so bad that flat-bottomed products will start rolling from side-to-side like a boat ride.

Once the main planks are assembled, I am faced with the next critical issue- racking. This means that even with the screws securely drilled into each plank for maximum rigidness, the whole shelf as a whole will still sway left to right like a man after 6 pints of beer.


Fortunately the solution for racking do not require a degree in rocket science. You just need more woods. In this case, 2 big piece of plywoods nailed as a backboard to the rack. Not only will these plywoods stops the swaying, they will also add to the aesthetics of the shelf. So, it’s only prudent that I put additional care in preparing and treating the backboard.

Preparing the Backboard and Spoilers
Another weekend gone preparing the backboard, and a few ‘spoilers’ for the edges of the planks.

Preparing the Backboard and Spoilers
Just by nailing only half the backboard, the shelf has decided to stop alcohol for good.

Preparing the Backboard and Spoilers
Next up, we are going to power up the shelf with some electricity. After investing so much on preparing the wooden surface of the shelf, I am not going to spare any resources that will enhance the showcase effect of the products. I’ve planned from the beginning that each rack will be lighted. And so, we start off with the basic stuff- Live, Neutral and Earth wires.

Lighting up the Christmas Tree
This is how it looks with the T5 LED.

Lighting up the Christmas Tree
These are the spoilers I prepared earlier to clean up the edges of the planks.

Lighting up the Christmas Tree
Let there be light (not explosion)!

Lighting up the Christmas Tree
With all racks lighted up, the whole display shelf is beginning to come to life.

Lighting up the Christmas Tree
Now, throw in some cow hides imported from India. These 2 pieces set me back by about RM300.

Putting in the Products
Let’s try arranging some of Mr Snow’s products on the shelf.

Putting in the Products
Voila! It’s finally complete. 2 months of work, probably about 30 hours in total.

Putting in the Products
There you go, the whole process of building a display rack. Not a bad adventure. I would love to try my hands on real wood next time. Real wood would definitely add a whole lot more character to the project.

You might ask why didn’t I just buy the shelf from IKEA or furniture shop. Of course, that’s totally a possibility but my purpose here is not to safe time or money. The whole objective here is to train my grit in getting a project from start to finish. It’s akin to why people climb Mt Kinabalu. They could have just take a helicopter to the peak right? I definitely learn more from this project than if I’d just followed the Billy manual from IKEA.

There are people who just don’t like to read the manual while some must read the manual from front to back before they start. And then there are those who prefer to write their own manual.

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