A Unique French Cleat Wall

Part of me feels like this article should start with something catchy, to engage you in my story. Another part of me thinks there should be an explanation of what a french cleat is. That part won, so here goes. A french cleat is simply a method to hang something, usually on a wall. Imagine you nailed a small piece of wood to a wall. Then you get a framed picture, or better yet, maybe a heavy sign. Maybe there is a small recess in the back, so you can sort of rest the frame on the piece of wood you nailed to the wall. Nifty – but what keeps it there? It might just slide right off if the edge is tilted a little, or if someone bumps the sign a bit. That would be bad. To keep the sign from falling off, say you added an angled cut to the top of the piece of wood. The tall pointy part would be on the “room” side of the wood, and the “bottom” of the angle meets the wall. Now add a similar piece of wood on the sign, and make the angle go the other way. The tall pointy bit is away from the picture, and pointed down, and the other end of the angle meets the back of the picture. When you rest one angle on the other, gravity holds them in place. It can’t fall forward as the angles hold it in place. At any time, you can simply lift the sign off the cleat by raising it up – and then you could hang something else on it. That’s a french cleat. Most are cut at a 45 degree angle, so for example a 5″ board could be cut in 2 with a 45 degree angle cut lengthwise, and you end up with a cleat for the wall, and a cleat for the object you wish to hang. Maybe a picture would be helpful.

A close up look at a french cleat

What is great about a french cleat is the versatility. The cleat can be securely mounted to a wall, or some studs, and you can hang pretty heavy things from it. You can also rearrange everything with no tools. Kind of like slatwall in a retail setting. You just lift the item off the cleat and put it back in a different spot. These are especially handy in a woodshop (and lots of other places) as your needs and tools change over time. One common way to manage this is to have a series of cleats on a wall, one above the other, with a regular spacing. On a previous post I mentioned falling down the rabbit hole of dust collector cart videos on you tube. That’s just scratching the surface when compared to the number of french cleat videos. My oh my.

So now that you know the basics of what I am trying to do, let me take a moment to explain the added challenges for my space. I had a clear area to the left of my table saw that would be convenient for storing tools needed for cutting, marking and assembly. Due to some ductwork, it had a low ceiling height (well, lower than the already low ceiling in my basement). In this alcove area was the furnace/air handler for the HVAC in my house, and next to that was the hot water heater. Putting a wall here meant blocking access to them, which was a key problem. My solution was to put this wall on wheels, though not entirely. I also needed to be sure there was plenty of airflow to the furnace and water heater, so I opted to leave a foot or so of open space at the bottom, and to leave one end open and not close off the alcove.

If you are facing the wall, the left hand side is connected to a wall with heavy duty hinges. This gave me a pivot point, and some rigidity on one side. My plan was to mount the cleats on a 4×8 sheet of plywood, on its side, so 4′ high and 8′ left to right. That gave me the open space at the bottom for airflow, but still a good sized panel for tools and such. To make the best use of the space, I decided to make it in 2 panels. The one on the left was 3 feet wide, the one on the right is 5 feet wide. This way I could have one section that was only 5 feet that pivots out on wheels to allow the HVAC to be serviced regularly, but the 3 foot section in front of the water heater only has to move once in a hopefully blue moon when that needs to be serviced. That allows for the larger section to be opened without having to move one of my tool chests as it butts up to the smaller panel.

Basic layout set, I made two frames out of 2×3 spruce studs. Basically rectangles with legs, and then I screwed down a sheet of plywood to each frame. One piece for the larger section, one for the smaller section. I created a little plywood base on the legs, and screwed on locking casters at the bottom. I added the hinges to the small section and mounted it to the wall. Then added more hinges and connected the larger panel. This was trickier as the free end kept wanting to lean over, but with some extra clamps and an impact driver, and I got the hinges mounted. Now I had a surface to put them on, but no actual french cleats. Time to make those.

I had the plywood to cut the cleats – already in 3′ and 5′ lengths, thanks to the panel saw at the big box store. Full sheets are too much trouble to carry down to my basement. I quickly settled on 5″ strips that I would then split in two, with the 45 degree cut to make the matching cleats. I had watched more you tube videos on this subject than the recommended daily allowance, but I had momentum after making the “wall” part. I roughly moved the saw fence in place and then started cranking the blade over for the 45 degree angle, and then my world turned on its head. I lined up the board, but it did not look right. I walked around the saw. Still didn’t look right. The way it was set up, the piece that was being cut off would be trapped between the blade and the fence, and was likely to shoot out at me. I didn’t like the look of this cut, but why was it wrong? Back to youtube and then it hit me. Apparently there is a rule of youtube that I was not aware of. If you make woodworking videos, you need a left tilt blade. Alas, my saw is a right tilt blade. Who knew? Without getting technical, I needed to use the other side of the fence, and the other side of the table to make the cuts. Never done that before, didn’t even have a proper surface on that side of the fence, as there were still bolt heads sticking out of it for some reason. Apparently, that side had never been used. Go figure.

Rustled up some more plywood scraps and made myself a better surface for the fence and attached it to the never-used side. Now I could hold the wood against the fence with the square edge, and the angled piece that got cut off was on the open, and free side. This was better. Plus I could stand in a better spot as I fed the boards through. I set up a stand to catch the boards on the outfeed side, and now it seemed like an acceptable way to make the cuts – and so I did. I ripped a bunch of them, more than I needed for the wall. I also followed a tip from Chris at A Glimpse Inside (https://www.youtube.com/c/AGlimpseInside), and ran each piece back through the table saw to clip the very pointy edge back just a bit. Rather than a point that would be sharp and probably lead to splinters, sawing off 1/16″ or so gives you a slightly flat top that is easier on the hands, and if you have any sawdust in the cleats on the wall, it won’t get in the way. You can see this cut if you look closely at the close up cleat picture in this project.

Next up was the easy part. Attaching the cleats to the wall. I used wood glue and screws, figuring I was not going to be rearranging the cleats on this wall. I made a spacer with some scrap pine and pretty soon, it was a french cleat wall. Now I needed to put something on it. First up was a holiday splurge at the big box store. A proper, cordless, circular saw that was crying out for a new home in the shop. Using scrap plywood I quickly assembled a flat base, with a groove cut out where the blade goes, and then some triangular support pieces to hold it up. Attached all of that to a backer of plywood, and attached the cleat – being extra careful to orient it the correct way and lo and behold, it was a tool, on a cleat wall.

The first tool on the new cleat wall

Next up was a place to keep the double battery charger that came with the saw – with added space underneath for more batteries. As I was putting that on the wall, I discovered a USB port on the Makita charger. I quick added a dowel to the side, and now I have a place to store my bluetooth hearing protection while they charge. Thanks Blake at Weber Woodshop (https://youtu.be/prXJacpL7fc) for the suggestion on what to get. After that I moved on to making “a house for my sandpaper”. These are like the mail cubbies of old, only to store different grits of 5″ hook and loop sandpaper for my random orbital sander. Not long after that, I added holders for my 23ga pin nailer, and my 18ga brad nailer. Simple and basic, but they do the job. Not nearly as fancy as some that I have seen, carefully shaped to follow each curve and undulation of the tool. Yes, I am talking about you, Drew at Fisher’s Shop (https://www.youtube.com/c/FishersShop/videos). The most recent addition to the wall is a place for my new random orbital sander. Mine died, and the replacement now lives on the wall next to the sandpaper house(s).

The wall in its current state – with some plywood leaned up against it at the bottom. Need a better place for that.

There was one last challenge to all of this that I thought I should mention. The right hand end of the wall has nothing to steady it. Sure it is attached to the wall 8 feet away (and two hinges), and it rests on a wheel on the floor – but it wobbles, quite a bit. I wanted it to be more “solid”, but it had to be simple to move if the HVAC needed service. My idea was to make a collar, or a sleeve, that would hold it in place. I mounted a section of 2×4 on top of the wall where I had a little room between the ducting. Then I mounted a vertical 2×4 to the ceiling with a cross brace to hold it in place.

The sleeve in the up position, to allow the wall to be opened

Then I made a collar of 1x scraps of FJ pine, and waxed the inside. I slipped it over the 2×4 from the ceiling and raised it up. Then I moved the wall under the 2×4 so it lined up with the little stub I had attached, and then slid the collar down around it to rest on top of the wall. The little wooden dowel holds it in place in the up position (so I don’t misplace the collar, or have it fall on my head) or in the down position so it doesn’t move. I also keep a spare set of hearing protection hanging from it.

In the locked position to hold the wall in place

With the collar in place it is surprisingly sturdy and hardly wobbles at all. I am very pleased with how that came out. One added challenge is my floor is wildly uneven so opening and closing it is not quite as smooth as I would like, but adding an “off road” suspension to this project seemed like overkill. Since it was installed, I have moved the items around several times, and have had the HVAC repaired as well. I even hung the scoreboards on the wall for a time, to keep them out of the way while I worked on the programming part (they now have cleats of their own in a different part of my basement, awaiting their return to the school for next season). Everything has worked out as hoped, and I have room for more tools to go on the wall.

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