Tripp Gregson of Liberty, N.C., is a self-proclaimed pack rat who has collected items from the many careers he has pursued over the years. Here he explains how to make a display case using a recycled traffic sign as the backboard. The piece is designed to hang on the wall and hold small objects for display or hang alone as a decorative piece.
Materials and Tools:
3/4" white-pine lumber, 5" to 6" wide (or other type of lightweight wood) 150", plus a little extra for waste
1/4" plywood (recycled paneling, or Luan plywood)
street sign (30" x 30" sign used for project)
flat semigloss (or matte) acrylic paint
Bright Red acrylic paint (flat, semigloss or glossy, since it will be topcoated)
Bright Mustard Yellow acrylic paint (flat, semigloss or glossy)
White acrylic paint (flat, semigloss or glossy)
Liquid Hide Glue (easier to use than granules)
shellac or lacquer
screws, 1/2" pan-head or drywall type
- Pick out your sign. Scrapyards are sometimes good sources for these if they allow public access.
- Measure the sign. The case is dependent on the size of the sign. For this project, the sign is 30"x 30". It doesn't matter if the sign overlaps the case slightly on the outside edges, as it is hidden by the face frame. The more sign that contacts the case, the easier it is to hit the mark with the screws.
- Gather materials based on the size of the sign and the number of shelves you want it to have. Plywood is OK if it is clean and reasonably knot free, but white pine is best (usually sold for ceilings; the tongue and groove can be removed). The wood will be 1/2" to 3/4" thick after final planing.
- If the piece has center shelves, it is best if these are solid wood, as plywood would need to be banded.
- To prepare the rough wood, joint an edge and rip to width. (Most large cases have widths from 4" to 5", and the small ones are 3" to 4". Face plane the planks if necessary, and sand any rough spots or edges of the front of the middle shelves.
- Paint the planks black with a roller and allow to dry.
Assembling the Case
- Have four pieces precut. Evaluate each piece to determine which is the inside and outside. (The good side faces inward toward the box, and if there's an edge which is questionable, face it toward the face frame because it will probably be hidden — especially if it's a half-knot broken out and is faced toward the face frame on the outside of the case.)
- Mark the 45-degree angles on the pieces at the ends to indicate inside/outside and to make sure the crosscutting gets done correctly. Set the chop saw to bevel-cut 45 degrees across the board with the miter angle set to zero. Cut each board at one end with this 45-degree cut.
- Measure from the outer tip of the miter the distance of the sign dimension to be matched for the piece in question, and mark a line on the face of the plank. Bevel-cut to 45 degrees at other end, making sure that the mitered edges face in the same direction. Both 45-degree cuts will face upward.
- Glue each corner and secure (shoot nails into the corner from the side). Repeat this process until all four corners are glued and fastened. Let dry.
- Drill 9/32" holes in the sign from the face side (the screws will cover the burrs from the back side — no need to deburr) about two per side, and extras in any places where the sign tends to bow away from the case.
- Lay the case on its face and place the sign onto the back of the case, face down.
- Square the edges of the sign with the edges of the case. Predrill pilot holes if using plywood, and put two screws into one of the sides. Move to the side 90 degrees away and align the case to the sign and put two screws into that side. This will align the case with the sign, which should be square. Run in the remaining screws.
- Lay the piece on its back with the sign facing upward.
- Measure the distance from side to side to side of the case, and note if there is a bend or bow to the wood on the sides. Use this measurement for the length of the shelves.
- Cut the shelves 90 degrees on the chop saw.
- Test fit the shelves. Note that it might be easiest to use a pipe clamp in "spreader" mode to slightly bow the sides out so the shelves can be inserted.
- Align the shelves with the wording on the sign and square the shelves with the sides.
- Use blue tape to mark the shelf positions and a short square (like the engineering square) to square the shelf to the front of the case so it will be flat and not angled toward the back or the front.
- Apply a conservative bead of glue on each end of the shelf. Drop the shelf into the case, being careful to go straight down in the spot you want to place the shelf, so that if any glue transfers to the side, it will be in the correct place.
- Recheck the alignment and then let pressure off of the spreader. Put 3" x 1.25" nails into each end of the shelf, then repeat for other shelf.
- Retouch any black paint areas as necessary.
The face frame is easiest to construct from 1/4" plywood (either Luan grade or recycled plywood paneling).
The procedure for making the jig is as follows:
- Lay out the shape and size of the sign (the case is the same size) on graph paper.
- If shape adjustments are necessary, scan the graph-paper drawing into the computer and adjust the shape by using the transformation function of Photoshop. Use in conjunction with the lasso tool to select the section you want to modify. Stretch and bend the shape until it's the way you like it.
- Print out the new shape and extrapolate the new measurements of the face frame by looking at the graph lines in the photo that haven't been distorted by the transform tool. It may also be helpful to look at the original drawing and scale dimensions. This extrapolation may be a bit inaccurate due to stretching of the graph lines near the stretched face frame part, but generally it's close enough.
- Transfer the scaled pattern to a piece of plywood (1/4" works OK, but 3/8" is better for patterns). Use the inner edge of the face frame as a reference point, select a large enough piece of plywood, and build up the pattern by referencing distances off of the scaled (extrapolated) drawing, then connecting the dots. The curves will have to be smoothed, but the curve drawing aids will help do that. The pattern won't be exact, but neither was the extrapolated version. Look at the pattern to see if it's pleasing in full scale, and adjust as necessary.
- Cut out the pattern pieces very carefully with a band saw or jigsaw, staying right on or just outside the line.
- Clean up the pattern pieces with files, sandpaper and/or a spokeshave, paying special attention to smooth curves and places where one face frame piece meets the other. Places where they join are easiest as right angles, but that's not imperative.
- Once the pattern pieces are smooth and fit to each other well, and test fit to the case well, they are ready to use.
Here's how to make the face frame:
- Using the jigs made for the face frame, use the pattern-tracing bit on the router table to replicate the jig pattern.
- Trace the outline of the pattern of the jig onto the face frame wood. Be careful with this step — if the wood for the final piece has a good side and a bad side and/or the jig is directional (which it almost always is), then attach the jig to the correct side of the face material so that when it's cut out it will be directionally correct. It is easiest to work with the face wood facing up and the jig oriented in the manner it will be when seen, but if you want to avoid filling holes left by attachment of the jig to the piece, you can flip the jig over to its backside, and attach it to the backside of the face frame.
- Cut near the line with a jigsaw or band saw. The closer you cut to the line, the easier the next step will be.
- Reattach the jig to the face frame wood and cut the shape using the pattern tracing bit on the router table, being careful around sharp curves.
Steps for sanding and priming the face frame:
- Lightly sand the rough edges off of the face frame, but don't worry about getting all the fuzzy parts off. The primer will cover and solidify, making them easy to clean up after the next step.
- Coat the face frame (front and edges only) with flat white. Or, if you are doing a two-step finish such as a crackle, then prime with the color that is seen in the crackle. For example, use the wood-tone paint as primer on the yellow and black and black-and-white checkerboard portions of the right-lane piece.
- Lightly sand the edges to remove any remaining fuzz or roughness.
Steps for the face frame finishes:
- If the finish is a two-step such as crackle, go ahead and apply the crackle base and let dry.
- If it is a painted step, paint the base coat and let dry.
- After drying, apply any patterns in pencil, using paint-pattern jigs for alignment.
- Paint the patterns, applying light colors before dark colors, then let dry.
- Apply any antiquing or shadowing. Let dry.
- Top-coat the pieces by spraying or brushing shellac or lacquer onto the face frame pieces. Let dry.
(face frame to case)
- Trial fit to face frame, using blue tape to attach and make any alignment markers. Check carefully the alignment where the face frame pieces meet.
- Glue the first piece to the case.
- The pieces can be held tight with blue tape or clamped with clamps until the glue dries. For a stronger face frame to case bond, apply finishing nails, and touch up with paint and shellac.
- Let the glue dry.
- Hang the piece using the holes that are used to mount the sign.