Media Cabinet

A few months ago we decided it was time to upgrade our home theater. We had been living with our huge Sony 50" LCD rear projection TV for too long.

I mean, just look at how deep this thing is. Modern televisions are paper thin and hang on the wall.

So 2005

Aside from the TV, our audio system was due for an upgrade as well. We only had 3.1 audio. No surround sound. We had an old Denon receiver which predates HDMI. I found creative ways to route all the audio signals through the receiver while routing video directly to the TV. This meant that switching inputs was a two-remote process. Frankly, the entire setup was embarrassing.

So we made one big Amazon order that included a new TV, a new receiver, new surround speakers, a new antenna (we ditched cable TV over a year ago), and all the cables and wires I would need to hook them all up.

I spent one heroic weekend crawling around in our attic with a tool box in tow. I cut holes in the ceiling for the new in-ceiling surround speakers (I realize ceiling speakers aren't the ideal position, but it's the only thing that would work in our room). I cut holes in the wall to route all the wires for our new wall-mounted TV. I mounted our new, big antenna in the attic. We hooked everything up and turned it on and it sounded and looked fantastic.

There was just one problem. Since the old TV stand doubled as our media cabinet, all of our A/V equipment was now sitting on the floor and there was a horrendous rat's nest of wires behind it.

We went shopping for a new media cabinet, and I had the same experience I have when I shop for just about anything. Most everything I saw was terrible. The few that were decent had some issues that meant none of them was just right. Naturally I decided the only possible answer was to build one myself.

One of the styles that I thought looked pretty cool was this reclaimed timber slat sideboard by Restoration Hardware. I decided to design my own using a similar style. I wanted room for our specific equipment and some extra room for storing things like DVDs (although I avoid buying DVDs at all costs). I also wanted some compartments that would be open in the front for our speakers, so the sound wouldn't be muffled. This is what I came up with.

After figuring out exactly how much wood I'd need, we drove up to OK Lumber in San Carlos. They were super helpful in giving me advice about types of wood and even about finishing and building techniques. After taking a few different boards home and testing different stains and dye mixtures, we settled on the winning formula. We placed a large order for 1" x 4" poplar and they delivered it to our house. We got out the cut list and Sophia and I cut all the wood the same day it was delivered.

Pregnancy doesn't slow her down

As a sanity check, I stacked all the wood up in the garage as it would be assembled for the finished product. The one finished board on the front was my final test board I had made a week or two earlier after I had settled on a finishing process that would produce good results and a dye mixture we liked.

After that, the long, arduous process of finishing this massive quantity of wood could commence.

The first goal was to sand the wood thoroughly. I started with 80 grit paper on the end grains and any other particularly rough spots. Then I went over all six sides of all the boards with 220 grit and then again with 320 grit. This resulted in buttery smooth boards. The wood really felt fantastic.

One of the first things we noticed in our testing was that poplar doesn't take stain very well. Due to the softness of the wood and its inconsistent density, the color ends up extremely blotchy. After extensive research through the annals of YouTube, I decided to order some of Charles Neil's pre-color conditioner. As you'll see later, the stuff works miracles. As Charles himself suggests, I applied two coats of the pre-color conditioner to all six sides of all the boards. The conditioner raises the grain and causes the boards to be pretty rough again, so I did one more pass with 320 grit sandpaper over all the boards.

Now it was finally time for the stain. We wanted a muted gray-blue color that was translucent enough to show the wood's natural color and grain. After testing a bunch of mixtures, I settled on a 100:20:3 ratio of reducer, sea blue, and black. I used Behlen reducer and dyes. I just did one coat of stain. As you can see, I took over the entire garage for this project and I repurposed Sophia's new storage shelves as drying racks.

Here are some of the stained boards. As I was staining them, occasionally I realized that I had missed one side of some of the boards while applying the pre-color conditioner. Can you tell which boards here don't have it? What a difference!

Thank you, Charles Neil!

The final step in the finishing process was to apply some satin top coat. The top coat really made the wood glow. It brought out a lot of the more beautiful features of the grain. The effect got stronger with each coat. I did three coats of top coat and buffed the wood with 600 grit paper between coats.

I was tempted to go for a fourth coat, but, for those of you counting at home, I had now made 12 passes over the massive stack of boards in my garage. Needless to say, I was more than ready to assemble the cabinet and be done with the project at this point.

I decided to do the assembly in our living room so I wouldn't have to try to move this massive beast far when it was complete. I moved all the wood into the house and stacked it next to the wall. I borrowed Sophia's grandpa's nail gun and started nailing the boards together.

As I stacked the boards up and nailed on each successive layer, I used a little level to make sure everything was plumb.

The front of the cabinet features double doors that rotate around dowels.

Max helped out during the assembly

I added supports along the back side of the doors so that the door boards would all rotate in unison and maintain their proper spacing from one another.

Attaching the top boards, which stand up on end, was probably the most challenging part. I made a little jig out of some scrap wood in my garage that acted as a guide for the nail gun.

After over two months of work, it was finally done! I quickly disassembled all of our A/V equipment, hooked it back up, and stuffed it into the new cabinet. Sophia added some decorative touches to the top.

This was a long, difficult project. It felt great to complete it, and I'm extremely pleased with the result. I think it gave me a small taste of what it would be like to build an airplane in my garage, something I want to do when Max is old enough to help me.

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