Vernacular shelving

Who invented the table?

Who was the first person to make a chair that looked like a chair?

Think about the first person who made a box. Did they have any inkling of how virtually all furniture in the future would be based on their design?

The idea of a thing like a chair, which exists in some form in every culture in the world, having been invented seems strange, because tables and chairs and boxes and shelves and stools didn’t have a singular inventor – they were simultaneously developed by many different people all over the world, and then traveled, infecting others with their designs. And until very recently, most furniture was made by the end user, or at least by someone in their family or village.

Most furniture that has existed in the world was utilitarian in form – they built a chair because they needed a chair – not because they needed something to put in the corner to balance the plant stand in the other corner. And it was made by the end user because until very recently in human history purchased furniture was the province of the very wealthy. Most furniture was made quickly and in a utilitarian manner because the person building it was one bad harvest away from death by starvation.

Utilitarian furniture made by the end user is called “vernacular” furniture by people who study such things. And you need not think it strange that most people could build their own furniture – until a generation or two ago, nearly every house had at least one person in it capable of making a full sit-down supper each night. These are just skills we lost.

But like cooking, they are skills we can reclaim.

I am renovating our 70-year-old unretouched pantry/laundry room right now, which is the first part of the larger kitchen renovation I am planning for this summer. And we needed some new pantry shelves for canned goods. They don’t have to be Instagram-able. They need to hold up cans of food. They need to be painted, in order to protect the shelves and make them easier to clean. They need to be strong.

I need vernacular shelves.

Yesterday afternoon I knocked them out – 60 inches long, 42 inches high, to go under a window in the laundry room. I made them from 1×8 Southern Yellow Pine, the wood of Southern vernacular furniture for generations of my people, acquired from Home Depot. Southern Yellow Pine is stronger than Maple when it has fully dried, and it has a pronounced grain pattern that some people love.

The shelves are spaced 9.5 inches apart, so two normal tin cans will fit on each shelf, stacked on top of each other, and they are 7.25 inches wide, so two cans will fit front to back as well. The top shelf is five inches under the window sill, so the top shelf has room for only one can in height. I used some 3/4inch quarter round as cleats to hold the shelves in place, which were then glued and screwed in place.

Tomorrow I will caulk and paint them so they can cure over the weekend and I can load them up next week.

Literally the only tools it took to make this was a saw, a speed square, a pencil, and a drill/driver, some 2 inch screws and wood glue (These are all simple tools you should probably have as part of a basic DIY kit.). It took an hour to build. It will theoretically hold 266 standard cans of food in a space previously unused, taking up less than 3.5 square feet, and the total cost, not counting paint, even in these inflationary times was less than the cost of a single Billy Bookcase from Ikea, and it will last the rest of my life.

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