How To Build Shelves

Have you ever wondered how to build shelves?  Have you ever wanted to customize a useless closet to make it useful.  Me too!  That is how this project started.  We have had a coat/hat closet at the top of the stairs in our home for fourteen years.  What it’s true function has been for those fourteen years is unknown to many.  But I know it has been the place to shove things that are in the way or you want to hide when company is coming.  Until a few days ago, we really had no idea what had gone missing in this scary closet.

Why Now?

Well, we have been doing a lot of gardening this year and decided we wanted to try our hand at canning.  About a week ago, we purchased a pressure canner for canning tomatoes, squash and beans. It also doubles as a boiling-water canner for preserving fruits, jams, jellies, pickles, and salsa.  Laura and I suddenly realized, canning takes up a lot of counter space.  We really needed somewhere to store all this equipment and canning supplies.  We are also going to need somewhere to store all the canned foods after processing them.  

I had been planning to put up some shelves in the laundry room downstairs, but now that didn’t seem to be the best idea.  Having to lug all of the canning supplies and the pressure canner up the stairs every time we had a small harvest would get old fast!

1. The Useless Closet

After exploring options, I landed on the useless closet in the hall way across from the kitchen.  I felt this would provided the best accessibility and would make a useless closet useful again.  I already had some ideas for shelves in my head, but since I didn’t know exactly where I would be putting them, I now needed a plan. YouTube has become one of my favorite places to learn new things so I watched a few videos on how to build shelves. It wasn’t long before I had determined what I wanted to do.

Waterlogged Tomatoes

Waterlogged Tomatoes


mildewing Squash

Mildewing Squash

2. The Rain….

Man…The Rain!  I can’t seem to get anything done in the garden or yard this summer because it is always raining.  In fact, I am a little concerned we will have nothing to can because my tomato plants are waterlogged and my squash plants are growing mold and mildew on their leaves.  I didn’t have any trouble keeping my plants alive last year during the worst drought this area has seen in twenty years, but this year I am fighting to save them from the rain!  Oh, and the weeds seem to be doing just fine in my garden this year!

So, I had a useless closet that needed shelves and had the information on how to build the shelves and the time to build them on this wet, wet Independence Day Holiday.  Let’s get to it!

Clear the Useless Closet

Cleared Closet 1

Cleared Closet 1

The first step in this project was to find the walls and floor in this coat/hat/junk/useless closet.  I found two large storage tubs (courtesy of Laura, who has been emptying here fabrics onto shelves downstairs) which worked great for grouping the junk together and keeping it movable.  I threw away many items we had no reason to be keeping in the first place. The two tubs held everything else from the closet.

Cleared Closet 2

Cleared Closet 2

After cleaning the walls a bit and sweeping the floor, I was ready to get to the good part.

If are planning to build shelves in your useless closet here are some of the tools and items you will need:

  • level
  • measuring tape, yard stick, ruler or all of the above
  • pencil
  • drill or rechargeable screwdriver (doing this manually would take forever, but it could be done)
  • some sort of saw
  • a couple of boxed of 2 inch screws
  • wood (size and type to fit your project) – I used Poplar because I liked the color and grain of the wood.

Take Good Measurements

This is where good shelving starts.  If you don’t get good measurements, all you will get is frustration!

I knew up front I wanted 7.75 inch wide shelves.  This is the perfect size to place one quart sized jar in front of another.  I have found shelves that are too deep allows things to get lost and forgotten.  I also already knew, I wanted exactly 11 inches between my shelves.  This allowed for two quart jars to be stacked with almost no wasted space.

Every house is different, but in our case, I have to over do the measurements to make sure everything comes out right.  I learned in a wallpapering project, the last owners didn’t worry too much about straight lines when they remodeled a room.  So I take a new measurement at least every 12 inches all the way up the wall to make sure I get the right length at every level.

Lines on Wall

Lines on Wall

I started with measuring the distance from the floor I wanted my first shelf brace located(note – I used a 2 inch wide board for my braces so my shelves will be 2 inches higher than this measurement).  I took this measurement all the way around the closet on all three walls.  Next, I drew a line from one mark to the next using my level to ensure this line is perfect.  If you mess this up, you mess the whole project up!! (At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if your walls are straight and level, but your shelves have to be!)

Now We See If I Know How To Build Shelves

First Shelf Brace

First Shelf Brace

The next step is to measure the width back wall and cut one of my braces to fit. Why just one?  Because I don’t trust the measurements and I want this done exactly right!  I cut the first board and screw it into place while holding the level on top just to be sure.  Your screws need to be long enough to get through the board, the sheet-rock and a good distance into the stud.  I used 2 inch screws to make sure they would not pull out when the shelves get loaded.  I followed this step for each shelf local all the way to where I want my top shelf to be.

back Shelf Braces

back Shelf Braces

Next I lined up and attached braces on both sides of the closet and on the small lip just inside the door.  Making sure these are perfectly aligned with the back wall braces and level is extremely important.

Finally, Our first Shelf

Finally, we are going to start see the rewards of all of this prep work we’ve been doing.  It is time to measure the first board to be placed on the back wall.  There are many different tool you can use for cutting the boards, you can even have Lowe’s to do it for you.  How ever you do your cutting, just make sure you have the right length to cover the majority if not all of the space between the walls.

After placing the first shelf, bring out the handy dandy level again to make sure we it is perfectly balanced.  Although, not required, screwed the shelf down with three or four screws to make it even more stable.  (It isn’t really required because the two side shelves will keep this one in place, but I wanted my shelves to be super solid).

back shelves completed

back shelves completed

At this point, it probably doesn’t matter it you place all of the back shelves or do one layer at a time placing the side shelves as you go.  I chose to do all of the back shelves first so I was only having to think about one measurement at a time while cutting my boards.

Adding The Side Shelves

Measure from the front edge of the back shelve to the front wall.  This is how long you want to cut the shelf boards trying to keep it as snug as possible.  In my closet, the shelves protruded several inches beyond the door opening so I cut the corner off at a 45 degree angle and sanded the edges to avoid possible injury.

Earlier, I said it wasn’t required to screw down the back shelves.  Well, that isn’t the case with the side shelves.  These shelves will need all the extra support we can give them.

mending braces

mending braces

I actually placed the top shelves first and worked my way down, completed one level at a time.  A mending brace must be added to these shelves where the back shelf and the side shelf comes together.  This, in my opinion is just easier to do without the next level down in the way.  One mending brace per shelf would probably do the job, but I wanted my shelves to be strong so I added two per shelf.

Finished Closet Shelving

Finished Closet Shelving

Do I know How to Build Shelves?

You might disagree, I suppose, but I believe my shelves will stand up to whatever abuse the Crew throws at them and Laura is overjoyed with all the storage now available in what was once a useless closet.

I did end up adding a few finishing touches to the closet, as well.  I installed another large shelf above the old shelf in the top of the closet and I purchased a full length wall or door mounted steel adjustable shelving.  Lucky for me, it fits perfectly in the space I created by cutting the corners off of the side shelves and provided lot of extra space for storing kitchen items.

Your Thoughts

What do you think?  Before this project, I didn’t know how to build shelves.  Guess you could say I had on the job training.  Is there a better way to make use of wasted closet space? Did this post give you ideas of how to build shelves in that useless closet?  We would love to hear your thoughts and about you DIY projects.  Comment below.

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