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Display Cases

October - December 2010
As yet another woodworking project, I decided to make myself a wooden display case for my HO locomotives and rolling stock. For years I have kept my cars closed up in one of those flat cardboard boxes with foam lining. This is an OK solution but I always have to take out and put away the box whenever I want to get out the trains. Plus being without a real layout nobody can actually ever really see the cars I have.
Undoubtedly you have seen many of these cases, made of everything from Cherry, Maple, Oak and Pine. I decided to make mine out of Maple.  I particularly like how the grain looks and also it's a very hard wood and easily makes a nice looking display case. Plus I haven't done much work with Maple so I thought this would be a nice opportunity to try it out.
The main inspiration I got was from a gentleman over at ToyTrains1. He has an extremely helpful photo essay posted about how he builds his own train display cases. Give it a look. It is very well written and very detailed. Plenty of pictures and a whole lot of explanation is provided. Although I didn't use all his ideas (as I needed to adapt some of my own and also scaled it to HO) he certainly offered enough explanation for me to clearly understand the process. So a big thanks goes out to ToyTrains1.
I also gained inspiration for my display cases from various vendors on the web. Looking at images of the products they were selling gave me an idea of how large it should be, how many shelves, spacing, etc. I ultimately took my cues by using the NMRA guidelines on car clearances (as if they were being passed through tunnels) to come up with my final dimensions.
The display case shown above is my first attempt. I figured I only needed one display case to hold all my current trains. I can always make more as needed, although there is something to be said for being able to run a bunch of these at once. Overall dimensions are roughly 48" wide, 24" tall and 3-1/2" deep. It contains 5 shelves each 2-1/8" wide with HO scale grooves cut along the length in the center to hold cars in place. Along with the bottom piece this gives me six(6) 48" wide shelves to store cars on. Surprisingly this just barely fit my current collection.
The basic pieces required are itemized below:
(2) 48" L x 3-1/2" W x 3/4" T Maple Boards (top/bottom)
(2) 24" L x 3-1/2" W x 3/4" T Maple Boards (sides)
(5) 46-1/2" L x 2-1/8" W x 1/2" T Maple Boards (shelves)
(1) 47-1/2" W x 23-1/2" H 1/4" T Maple Plywood Sheet (back)
The construction of the case itself was done using miter joints fixed with #20 biscuits. In hind site, a big mistake. Especially when the shop I used doesn't have the best tools and getting those mitres right on all 4 corners is always tough anyway. So if I do another one I will try another type of joinery for sure. But in the end it worked out, but it took a lot of futz'n to get it right. The shelves were also affixed to the side using biscuits. Since I chose to make the shelves 1/2" thick and they were only 2-1/8" wide this didn't leave much room for the regular biscuit sizes (even the #0 biscuit was just slightly too large). Instead I used a mini-biscuit cutter using size-R3 biscuits. This turned out to be a great solution given I was already committed to 1/2" stock being biscuited to the sides. Again, like the choice of biscuited miters for the case, I would choose another method. It was particularly difficult to get all 5 shelves to align properly and stay put during glue up. With some work I was able to get this to work, but it was too difficult for what I was trying to accomplish. Some sort of dado and tenon would probably have been a better choice.

Google Sketchup
In some of my designs I do I try to use Google Sketchup whenever possible. It was probably overkill for this project but I wanted to get familiar again with the tool and try something new. I found it helps to visualize the overall plan for a project and how it will eventually be put together before actually cutting any wood. I don't detail every single cut using Sketchup but getting the overall dimensions in there helps to plan how much wood will be needed and overall how it will get assembled. The photo on the left shows the overall view. At the bottom of this page you can find links to download the Sketchup Files yourself if you want to play with it or modify it. Sketchup is a free tool provided by Google and I highly recommend giving it a try.

Microsoft Visio - Cut Stories
When it came down to planning the table saw cuts of the various pieces I thought it would be helpful to come up with something I call a "Cut Story". The idea is similar to a "Story Stick" used by people to lay out patterns. In this case I was going to cut all my dadoes using the table saw. Basically the idea was to move the rip fence along a series of dimensions computed based on the kerf of the saw blade and how wide I wanted the dadoes to be. Doing this in Google Sketchup is beyond my abilities, but I found Microsoft Visio to be an ideal tool. It allows you to draw using real dimensions which was incredibly handy when planning out how to step through each cut with the table saw and rip fence.
I used Microsoft Visio to plan out the dado cut details in the display case top, bottom and shelves. This diagram helps to plan where to place the rip fence when cutting the dadoes. The dimensions are stacked along the edge to represent where the rip fence should be placed using a 1/8" saw blade. This diagram makes it very easy to set up your saw and just step down each of the called out cuts. In the bottom diagram there are a total of 10 passes with the table saw. Some cuts have different depths. But this "cut story" as I call it helps make the top and bottom pieces perfectly aligned with each other.
If you follow this plan just be sure to cut the top grooves a good 1/4" or more deeper so that the front glass can be lifted into the display case and stay in place. You can find the Visio files for these at the bottom of the page. Feel free to download them and use or modify them as you wish.
Below is the "Cut Story" for the shelves. Notice the grooves for the wheel flanges is very shallow. You barely need to cut into the surface at all. An eighth of an inch for the flange width is a bit wide for HO cars, but it didn't seem to be a problem. Plus it was much easier to just use the table saw blade than anything else I could come up with. Finally I added a 1/4" round over to the facing shelf edge. I think this helped give the display case an overall finished look.
 I considered adding some casing or trim molding to the finished case, but after looking at the assembled case I didn't really think I needed it. It looked nice and simple enough with the outside flat edges.
To finish the display case I once again used my all-time favorite finish...Danish Oil. A few coats of Danish Oil and it looks great.
Here is a short list of what I liked and didn't like about my first attempt.
What I liked:
  • Maple. I like this wood a lot and it proved to be a very nice, durable and sturdy wood to use for this case. Oak probably would work just as nice.
  • Size. Perfect for the trains I have.
  • Appearance. I think it ended up looking great on my wall and being able to see my trains all the time is a huge bonus.

What I didn't like:

  • Maple. Yeah I know, but because it is so hard and dense it was very heavy. Overall the case is very heavy and hard to work with because of it. But once it's done you don't need to move it so in the end I guess that is OK.
  • Joinery. I really didn't care for the mitred edges and biscuit joints. The mitre joints were very hard to cut evenly and equally all around. Keeping them square was really hard. Also the biscuits were hard to work with and assembly required a bit of jockeying around the case to get it right. Glue up was a huge pain. The joints kept slipping while clamping and just really didn't work out well.
  • Shelves. I didn't really find the R3 biscuits for the shelves very easy to do. Aligning the biscuit cutter just right and then trying to keep those biscuits in the case during glue up was a night mare. Everything just moved around way too much for my liking. If I am going to make any more of these I need to find another way.

More Display Cases...
After the mild-success of the first display case, I decided to make another. This time however I re-purposed the case idea to contain my collection of Vintage Star Wars action figures. Again I had the same motivation. Until now they have been stored away in a box where nobody can see them. I decided that if I just made the shelves a bit taller and the display case slightly larger I could use the same ideas and design for another purpose. So that's what I decided to do. The result was a pretty nice display case. I also decided to get a little creative with the background for this case. I was thinking of going again with a wooden background, but thought it might be neat if I made it look like a Galaxy in the background. I like how the outer space background looks.
Overall dimensions are roughly 48" wide, 26" tall and 3-1/2" deep. Again this is very similar to the previous case, just a little taller (you can see the overall dimensions on the left). It also contains 4 shelves each 2-1/8" wide with a 1/4" round-over. Along with the bottom piece this gives me five(5) 48" wide shelves to store toys on. As you can see this case is a bit taller than the previous one. This is to accommodate the 4-1/2" spaced shelves required to hold the nominal 3-3/4" figure height. Since 5 shelves would make this case unwieldy high, I decided to keep it at 4 shelves which should be more than adequate for my collection. 
This time again I wanted to work with a new wood. I was going to make another Maple piece but our shop class didn't have any Maple stock. So I decided on Mahogany. I had never worked with it before so I thought I'd give it a shot. I also wanted to experiment with different joinery techniques also so I decided to try a locked mitre joint for the case and a tenon for the shelves. I describe some of that below.
The basic pieces required are itemized below:
(2) 48" L x 3-1/2" W x 3/4" T Mahogany Boards (top/bottom)
(2) 26" L x 3-1/2" W x 3/4" T Mahogany Boards (sides)
(4) 46-1/2" L x 2-1/8" W x 1/2" T Mahogany Boards (shelves)
(1) 47-1/2" W x 25-1/2" H 1/4" T Hardboard Sheet (back)
I started the case construction much like the previous one. First was to cut the sides, top and bottom to length. As I mentioned I was interested in a new joinery technique rather than using the biscuit technique which I really did not care for in the last attempt. I think the case is just simply too large for biscuits since it moves around on you way too much during glue up. So I decided to use a locked miter joint. Fortunately Rockler Woodworking had a sale running on a 45-degree lock miter router bit (Rockler #22627) for about $30, so I gave it a try. A lock miter bit is a pretty honking big bit. Kind of intimidating if you ask me, so I researched quite a bit on the web about very ways to use this bit. As many sites will tell you it is NOT any easy bit to set up. You need to set your router fence depth and bit height pretty much dead-on to get the joint right. Don't underestimate this step or try to rush it. It will take some time but the results are worth it. I have to admit it was a lot of work for simply 4 corners to join, as you can see from the photo above I didn't get it right on, but it was close. If I were to make a bunch of these at once it would certainly be easier to accept the lengthy setup time. The result however was very satisfying. The joint profile it created was very tight and made the case frame very easy to assemble and handle. The two pieces went together very nicely and held together by themselves quite well. I had a bit of trouble at the end of the cut with splintering (Mahogany is a very splintery wood), but a little wood putty and all was well.
I think to some extent a lock miter joint is not well suited to being cut on long pieces like these. One of the things you need to think about is that one of the cuts you make will be with the piece standing straight up, so choose the shorter end for this cut. The other will be fed along with your miter gauge on the router table. It is very important to have a strong support of the workpiece which is a little tricky with long narrow pieces like this, but it can be done. I highly recommend reviewing the post from www.woodshopdemos.com regarding setting up lock miters and using a homemade jig. It contains excellent advice.
With the top, bottom and side joinery cut, it was time to think about the shelves. Once again I didn't like using the biscuits as I did in the previous case. They were hard to align and glue up. So I thought of a better way. I decided to use a mortise and tenon type joint. The mortise would be cut with my router table and tenon cut on the table saw.
For the mortise I used a 1/4" straight bit, about 1/2" deep to cut 4 grooves down each of the sides. Since they needed to be level across the case length I cut each groove from each side right after another (e.g. cut the left groove, the the same height right groove). This way even if my fence and stop blocks were off they would be off the same amount and would result in parallel shelves. I used my router table with a stop block set to the right position and after both sides were cut, simply moved the piece down to the next cut location. It was a little tricky cutting these grooves face down on a router table, but by extending the lines I marked to the edge I was able to align the cuts pretty accurately.
The shelves themselves had a 1/4" tenon cut at each ends. I used the table saw to simply make a cut about 1/8" deep and 1/2" in from the edge. Once that was cut along the 3 edges I trimmed the rest of the remaining wood (3/8") using multiple passes over the table saw. The result was a 1/4" tenon on each side which protruded about 1/2".
Later I dry assembled the case frame together and then test fitted the shelves to length. In every case they were a bit too long so a file and some elbow grease fixed that issue pretty quickly.
I was really happy with the joinery and assembly of the case at this point. It fit tight and didn't move around on me at all. Very easy to work with. At this point I decided to stain the wood a dark color using Minwax Provinical #211 stain. The color went on very nicely and the Mahogany soaked up the stain quite well. I then finish coated the boards with Minwax Polycryclic. Sanding in between with 320 grit sandpaper I applied about 3 coats of finish. I particularly like this finish because it doesn't smell and is very easy clean-up since it is water based.
Once the pieces were stained and finished I assembled the pieces by gluing the case frame and all 4 shelves at the same time. As I said, since the joinery was so tight it was very easy to do. After letting the case dry it was time for the background.
I used 1/4" hardboard (some call it Masonite, the brown stuff at Home Depot, etc.) for the backing. I used this cheap board because I at first planned on simply painting the background flat black. However I though this might be a little boring so I decided what I really wanted was some kind of star scape or outer-space background. I knew I couldn't make this look good if I did it by hand. If I speckled white spots everywhere, it would just look like speckled white spots. What I really needed was a poster or something. Unfortunately any posters I found which would be suitable were either not large enough ( it needed to be at least 26" x 48") or were way too expensive. With enough searching I finally found exactly what I was looking for at an on-line store called www.zazzle.com. It has tons of posters with all kinds of designs. I choose the Andromeda Galaxy Poster because it came in the right size, looked great and was the right price at about $20. I used spray adhesive on the hardboard and applied the poster to it smoothing it out all around. Once dry I trimmed up the edges to size.
Once I put the poster clad, hardboard back onto the case I knew I made a good choice. I think it ended up looking really cool in my opinion. It almost looks like I have a window into space in my basement!
After mounting it to the wall I put all my action figures in the case so they could be shown off. I still need to arrange them a bit better but at least now I have an opportunity to see them and show them off.
One final item was that although the shelf width was 2-1/8" (adequate space for the figures) they had the tendency to "fall off" when putting them in. I though it might be nice to purchase some kind of "stands" to use with the figures to give them a wider base so they didn't keep falling out. I found another online store called Collecting Warehouse which sells of all things Action Figure Stands which fit Vintage Star Wars figures. Perfect! I snatched up 100 for about $30. Now there are no more falling figures.

Kevin Fodor,
Nov 12, 2010, 4:43 AM
Kevin Fodor,
Dec 16, 2010, 7:31 PM
Kevin Fodor,
Nov 12, 2010, 4:43 AM
Kevin Fodor,
Nov 12, 2010, 4:44 AM
Kevin Fodor,
Nov 12, 2010, 4:44 AM