Video Backdrop

Will Browar playing the drums

Will Browar

November 6, 2022

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we brought home our laptops and did what we had to do to create makeshift offices around our houses. For a while I spent some time at the dining room table, until eventually cleaning out enough desk space for a computer setup in our spare, first-floor bedroom.

Before we started working from home, we used this space as a craft room. A pair of tables against the wall provided me with a place to set up a monitor and keyboard. While not the most ergonomic setup, it did the job for what we thought would be a very temporary working situation.

As part of my job, we had regular Microsoft Teams and Zoom meetings, so I had spent a good amount of time on camera. One thing that bothered me was that the room behind me looked very busy (this was before Teams had perfected the art of the live blurry background). I wanted to find a way to simplify things, but in a temporary way where we can move things out of the way when it wasn't needed.

I ordered a shoji screen (a Japanese-style room divider) on Wayfair and set my webcam up in a way that I liked. For a time, this setup worked fine, but eventually I started a new job that was fully remote, giving me a push to set up a permanent office space.

In doing so, I got a new desk that I placed in the middle of the room—giving me a view towards the window. Behind me was a blank, white wall, so I decided to move the shoji screen against the wall, as both a place to store it, and to also bring back the video backdrop.
The room divider fit just fine, but when my desk was raised into a standing position, you could see about two feet of the wall above it.

I want to stress that this ...
is the least important ...
problem ...
ever.

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But still, I wanted to fix the gap, as now the room divider that was supposed to remove webcam background distractions became a distraction to me.

Maybe a more practical reason to change things was that vacuuming the office meant hitting the shoji screen, and I also wanted to avoid any unnecessary wear and tear.

Design

Anyway, I needed to get the room divider up off the floor in a way that was sturdy and out of the way. I thought of hanging it, putting it on a shelf, or just propping it up on a couple of legs. This was the kind of thing where I had no pressure to work on it, so I’d come back to thinking about this problem as it popped into my head. At one point, I thought about how our slatted coffee table was assembled and that became the inspiration for where this project would go.

I needed a way to hold up the shoji screen, so I thought I’d start with the idea of a really tall, slatted shelf that was mounted on the wall. In essence, it would be made up of slats and some sort of mounting brackets.

I had already built a different shelf for the room using some solid poplar, so I decided to stick with the same wood to match. I bought enough to create 1-inch slats that would be spaced about .4-inch apart.

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For the mounting brackets my plan was to pick up some pine or some other, cheaper wood, but I found some leftover 3/4-inch plywood that I thought would have no problem serving as a structural base. I figured for about 70-inches wide, I would be fine with 6-8 plywood brackets. If I were using metal, I could get away with 3.

I didn't want to have to deal with finding the wooden studs in our walls and then basing the placement of the brackets on them. I also wanted it to be easy to take the shelf down if I needed to. Using French cleats seemed like the obvious solution. I also happened to have enough plywood to make the cleat and the brackets out of one piece of scrap.

Cutting the Slats

Making the slats seemed pretty straightforward. I took two boards to the table saw and ripped them down into 1-inch pieces.

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This gave me about 16 slats to work with. I planned for 15, so I had one extra on hand.

I purposely cut the boards lengthwise first. This let me inspect the ends and line them up before cutting them down to the correct length. I don't know that this added much to the process, as I expected there to be rough starts or tear out, but I didn’t run into any issues with my cuts.

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The Part You Don’t See

I planned the depth of the brackets based on how much room I had between the wall and the other furniture in the room. I also wanted to make sure there was enough material to provide enough support for the slats, as well as enough material to hold everything up on the French cleat.

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I cut the plywood boards down to the right length, and ripped them to the right depth. I then held them together with a series of clamps and used a dado blade to cut out some room for the shoji screen shelf. I then used the dado to do the bulk of the cutout needed for the French cleat.

I swapped out the tables saw blade and rotated it to about 45° to the left. I grabbed the longer portion of scrap plywood and cut out the cleat. I then brought the blade down to where I thought it should be to cut out the angled portion.

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Unfortunately, I left the blade a little too tall and was off by about half an inch. I wound up getting the correct cut, but it came out sloppier than I had hoped. I was a little concerned with the structural integrity of the brackets and my thought was that I should go ahead and redo them, but I decided that if I could get things lined up right and felt that they fit well on the cleat I would leave them as-is.

I used a cutoff from the cleat to check it out and things lined up just as I had hoped. I decided to keep going with them.

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To hold the slats into place, I wanted to use the dado to cut grooves into the brackets. I did a couple of tests to see how deep the grooves should be and to dial in on the width and the spacing.

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Once I had that figured out I marked up the first bracket and clamped them all back together into one solid block.

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For the most part, cutting the grooves went smoothly. I used one of the slats to check things as I went. A couple of times I moved the fence on my table saw to slice off a millimeter, but the initial measurements all seemed pretty close.

Tear out happened on the end piece but I made extra brackets so it could be sacrificed if needed.

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Testing out a few slats really started to let me see what the end result would look like.

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The Part You Do See

One little detail that came to mind as I was working on this is that I didn't want the brackets or the French cleat to stand out when you looked at it. The wall this was going on was just plain white, so I thought that if I could paint the cleat and the sides of the brackets white they wouldn't be all that noticeable.

The front of the brackets were pretty noticeable when you looked head-on, so I wanted to paint those, but I also wanted to leave the raw wood surface to glue the slats on. Cutting the grooves in one big block gave me the idea to run painter’s tape along the length of the groove, then cut between each bracket to make it so the tape could only be found in the surface of the grooves.

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This took a long time to do, but it was a matter of working slow and steady to get it right.

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With all of the tape in place, I took the brackets out to the garage to paint them with some spray paint. Again, I was using some leftover cans of white spray paint and primer, so I did enough coats to get the front of the brackets where I wanted them to be, and painted the sides and the cleats with what I had left in the cans.

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You know those videos on social media where the caption is "Satisfying" and it’s a video of someone pressure washing a sidewalk? This wasn’t exactly as satisfying as that, but it was pretty cool to remove the little pieces of tape to find that my plan all worked out just as I had hoped.

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Mounting Troubles

So I had done all the work to make the slats and brackets and the only major thing left was to assemble everything.

I had thought about how I was going to attach the slats to the brackets and I felt although glue may hold up fine, I’d like to either screw or nail them into place to give this piece more support as I was mounting it or carrying it around.

I didn't want to show screw holes or nails on the front, so I thought about using my brad nailer to drive a nail through the back of the bracket and into the slat. If I had lined things up right, I could use glue and then have about a half inch of nail helping to provide support to all the slats.

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The issue with this approach arose when I tried shooting a nail through a test piece. Being that this plywood was made up of five layers of alternating material, I realized that driving a brad nail through the sides of the compacted layers was unpredictable and required much more PSI than it would have if I were driving the nail through a solid piece of poplar.

If I had thought about this before, I would have certainly done more tests and would have started with a different approach. So I thought about alternatives.

At first I thought about drilling a hole into the back of the brackets and then lining up the brad nailer to fire into the gap. Not only did this not prove to be effective, but it also led to more inconsistency.

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I took a look at how my coffee table was mounted and I noticed they used screws to hold the pieces on. Ultimately I think this would have been the best approach to take, but I landed on using glue on all of the brackets, along with brad nails into the front of the slats that were connected to the outer two brackets.

I decided to settle on this approach because both ends of this shelf are hidden behind other things in the room. Since this project is all for me, I can live with that.

The next step was to dial in the PSI for the air pressure needed to drive the brad nails in while being flush to the slats. My test piece got quite a workout throughout this project.

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I went through the process of squaring off the brackets and attaching them to the slats. This all went pretty smoothly as I worked out the spacing and double-checked things against the cleat.

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I had to get a little creative during assembly, though. I had to move everything out of my wood shop and up onto our exercise mat to give me enough room to assemble everything. Since I had them handy, I used some ~50 pound weights to help secure the glue onto the slats.

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I moved things back into the wood shop to give the slats a coat of wipe-on polyurethane. This was the same finish I used on the existing shelf and I was happy to see the final color of the wood match up pretty well.

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While that was drying I measured and leveled off the French cleat. I used some extra brackets to help double-check my work and to make sure the cleat was in the right place to hold up the shoji screen. After that I secured it to the studs in the wall.

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I lowered the backdrop shelf onto the cleat and moved everything into place. Things just fit perfectly. I left about half an inch at the top of the shoji screen to give it a little room to move (or if the house decides to settle). I also had lucked out that the depth worked well with a nearby utility cart. Even the spacing of the brackets was right on in that it gave me access to the one outlet on that wall.

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The one thing that wound up as a happy accident is that I had an LED light strip along the floor and I had considered it to be a low priority. If I had to remove it because it no longer fit then I would do that and find another use for it.

What I found is that not only did propping this shelf of the floor give me more room to tuck the light strip underneath, but it also have this really cool effect where the light would taper off between the gaps of each slat.

This wound up being a superfluous cherry on top of an already unnecessary project.

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This project was more an exercise in trying to figure out how to make this work than it was about its reason for creating it. I’m happy with the end result and it makes me happy to know that I can figure out and execute something like this—learnings and errors included.

Almost as happy as I am to know that my backdrop on Teams is no longer out of place 🍱