Some Youtubers, including Casual Retro Gamer, use picture ledges to keep their vintage computer systems on the wall when they’re not using them. You can buy a picture ledge, but they’re easy to make, too. And if you make them, you can make them whatever length you want.
A picture ledge is a small, J-shaped shelf that mounts on the wall, normally used for displaying art without having to use a bunch of hangers. But their size works well for vintage home computers and game consoles too, allowing you to store and display them.
Making your own picture ledge
A picture ledge is an easy DIY project that requires very few tools. You can make the most common size out of lengths of 1×4 and 1×2 board, available at any home center or lumberyard. Pre-made picture ledges typically sell for $15-$20, but you can make them yourself for much less. They’re a good beginner’s woodworking project.
Most of us don’t have room to keep all of our systems set up at all times. Hanging them on the wall gets them off your desk and out of boxes while keeping them in easy reach, so you can quickly pull down a system and plug it into your monitor or TV for use.
Selecting your lumber
1×2 and 1×4 boards are commonly used in construction. Since they’re normally concealed out of sight behind drywall, they’re not made to look good, and they’re super cheap. With a bit of work, you can make them look good. For about $5, you can get enough lumber to make four 2-foot shelves. When selecting these boards, look for boards as straight as possible and with as few knotholes as possible. If you want a rustic look, plan to paint your shelves, or are willing to spend a few minutes sanding the visible surfaces, these boards provide excellent value.
You can also buy what’s known as appearance boards. These are cut more smoothly and look much nicer. They cost about twice as much as the boards sold as furring strips for construction, but the price is still reasonable. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time sanding boards, or want a more finished appearance, these are a good value.
If you want to save some money, you can use appearance boards for the visible surfaces and furring strip-grade boards for the portion the system sits on. This cuts the cost without affecting the overall look.
You can also use cull lumber. Cull lumber is distressed or damaged lumber that stores sell cheaply, typically at a 70% discount. These boards are frequently warped, twisted, have unsightly grain, knotholes, and other problems. You may not be able to use the whole board, but at 70% off, you still come out ahead most of the time.
Assembling your picture ledges
Many sites suggest using screws or nails to hold them together, but I like to just use glue. It takes a little longer, but it’s cheap and yields stronger shelves, especially if you use a good glue like Titebond.
I cut two lengths of 1×4 and a single length of 1×2, being careful to ensure they’re all exactly the same length. If you have a miter saw, it helps to stack the three boards and cut them all at once.
I recommend you sand them with about 60-grit sandpaper. This helps to knock down the grain and saw marks and give the boards a more finished appearance. Even cheap furring strips usually look pretty good after a few minutes of sanding.
Then I glue the two 1×4 pieces at a right angle using corner clamps. Corner clamps help ensure you get a nice 90-degree fit, even if the boards aren’t quite perfect. Cheap Harbor Freight corner clamps are just fine for this project. Give the glue 30 minutes to set up, then you can glue the 1×2 to one of the sides to make a J shape. You can glue the 1×2 on either side, depending on how deep you want the shelf. I like the shallower shelf better, but I’ve made both types since some systems work better with the deeper shelf.
Even with cheap tools and moderate patience, you can get professional results.
Painting and finishing your picture ledges
I painted my picture ledges a dark brown, to match the color of Commodore and Atari keyboards. There’s no color that was universally used in vintage systems, but I found dark brown to be a good compromise. You can use whatever color you like, of course.
I always apply a coat of primer before my paint. I don’t recommend relying on the primer in a paint that provides both paint and primer in one. Primer’s job is to stick and reveal imperfections, and a dedicated primer does a better job at both. You want the paint to stick to the wood, not to the computer you display on the shelf. A good primer helps make that happen. Apply a coat of primer and let it dry overnight.
Wood filler is a bit expensive, so for this purpose, I recommend using paintable caulk instead. A tube of paintable caulk costs about $2. Squirt a little caulk into any low spots you find after priming, and use a putty knife or an old gift card to level it off. If you still see high spots, hit those with some sandpaper before continuing.
Apply a coat of paint after the primer is dry. I like satin paint, as the shine is similar to that of plastic. Flat paint is a little cheaper, but I don’t like how it looks or feels. I think a glossy finish calls a little too much attention to itself, plus it accentuates any flaws in the wood.
If you use primer, one coat of paint may be enough. But more often than not, there’s still a flaw somewhere that needs some help, and I usually have a few spots that didn’t quite cover. Apply a bit more caulk to take care of any remaining low spots, then apply a thin coat to cover whatever remains.
Your shelves don’t have to be perfectly smooth to look good. Cover the major low spots, and if they have a bit of texture, they look a bit more natural. Your systems have some texture in them too.
Don’t forget to paint the underside. You can get away with a single coat, but since it’s hanging on a wall, some of the underside will be visible, so you’ll want it to match.
Staining your picture ledges
You might prefer the look of stained wood to painted wood. With stain, you have to pay a bit more attention to the wood’s appearance, since knots and thick grain don’t generally look as good. The trick with stain is to apply it, then wipe off the excess soon after. To get a darker finish, you can apply a second coat of stain, but glomming on lots of stain is not a substitute for multiple coats. Wipe the wood down with a tack cloth in between coats.
If you have low spots, apply a bit of wood putty the same color as your stain.
Once the stain is dry, wipe it down to remove any sawdust, then apply a coat or two of polyurethane to seal and protect it. I like satin, as satin is easier to take care of. For a super smooth finish, you can sand the polyurethane between coats, just make sure you wipe it down afterward.
Hanging your picture ledges
I hang my picture ledges with screws, ensuring I attach them to at least one stud. If you can only attach to one stud, consider putting two screws on that side to hold it straight. Wall anchors can hold it to the wall, but won’t support a lot of weight. Two screws will hold 80 pounds, so it’s overkill from a weight standpoint, but if that wall anchor comes loose, a single screw won’t hold it straight.
I like to attach to two studs for even weight distribution. It’s overkill, but as expensive as most vintage systems have become, I don’t want them falling off.
I don’t recommend 3M Command strips for this application. A Command strip can hold three pounds. A Commodore 64 weighs about four pounds. The shelf will weigh about 2 and a half pounds. Three strips are fine until you need to set a second system on it to get it out of the way. If I use screws, they’ll hold up to anything short of someone using them as a ladder.
Measure out where your studs are, then hold your picture ledge up against the wall, upside down and with the ledge facing the wall. Mark on the back of the ledge where the studs are. Repeat for each picture ledge you want to hang in that space. Then pre-drill holes in each picture ledge. Come back and hold the picture ledge up against the wall, with the ledge facing you this time. Drive a screw into the wall. Then use a level to ensure the shelf is sitting level, moving the shelf up and down if needed. Once it’s level, drive a screw into the other side. Repeat for each shelf.
Making your systems look good for display
Some vintage systems certainly had better industrial design than others, but they all have a certain retro appeal. And they don’t have to be in mint condition to look good. They look good as long as they’re clean and appear reasonably well cared for. Here’s how I clean vintage systems, and if it’s yellowed, here’s how to de-yellow them without chemicals. I don’t mind a bit of patina on them, but some systems take on some pretty nasty colors with age so I do try to tone them down a bit.