Building Shelves in Your Closets

Once your kids have left home, or you have upgraded to a house that has more closet space, you can maximize your storage options by rethinking what kinds of storage space you need. Closets are easy to redesign to optimize storage. How many of us need space to store boxes of things like holiday decorations, extra platters, small kitchen appliances, and so on? I know I certainly did. I converted several closets designed to hang clothes in, to closets with shelves cut to fit, and installed by me, in many of the smaller closets in my house.

Tools and materials needed:

  • 1. A jig saw. If you don’t own one, or know what this is, ask your hardware guy, and read the directions before using.
  • 2. Number two pine boards. I used mostly 12″ by 1″ by 8′ to 10′ boards, depending on the dimensions of the closet width. These are for the shelves. Pine is easy to work with, looks nice, smells nice, and in a year, you can paint them whatever colors you want. You need to wait a year until the wood is completely dry for painting or staining.
  • 3. Hickory or birch boards, 1′ by 2″ in 8′ to 10’lengths. These are for the back and side supports for the shelves. Hickory is stronger, and works better for support boards.
  • 4. A level, one that will fit inside the closet, side to side. Mine is just about 30 inches long.
  • 5. A torpedo level. Ask at your hardware store, if you don’t know what this is. I use it when working in spaces where the longer level does not fit.
  • 6. A builder’s measuring tape.
  • 7. A number 2 pencil, nicely sharpened.
  • 8. A box of drywall screws, about 2″ long, but not shorter than that.
  • 9. A combination drill/screwdriver, either with rechargeable batteries (recommended) or corded.
  • 10. Drill bits that are slightly smaller than the diameter of the screws being used. Ask the hardware store guy for help.
  • 11. Sheets of medium sandpaper for hand sanding, or a sanding mouse, or both.
  • 12. A ruler (a yardstick works great) and a builder’s square.

How to figure shelf heights:

You can eyeball this, but it is better if you plan for what is going to be on the shelves. Get the boxed or unboxed items you want to store in that closet, and measure them from top to bottom. Always remember when putting in multiple shelves that you will need to account for the inch (in actuality the ¾” because the dimensions of wood are always smaller than their convenient lumberyard sizes) the shelf will take up. A 2″ X 4″ piece of lumber is really 1 and about ¾,” for example. So if your tallest item is ten inches high, your shelf needs to be at least 12 inches high from wherever you will want that shelf. Mark where the self will go, and measure up from that. If you have your 12 inches, you are good to go. You need a little room for your fingers to get between the shelf and the item, hence, the extra inch. Use your regular level across the back of the closet, to make sure you have the shelf spot marked on the level all the way across. That’s one of the reasons to have your pencil handy.

How to figure shelf widths:

This is trickier. Pretty much no closet is going to have 90 degree square corners. Most are not going to have the same dimensions side to side, either, once you start cutting shelves. My recommendation is to measure the width for each shelf after marking where you want it to go. Your closet width may vary from the bottom of the closet shelf to the top shelf by an inch or even more. Mark where you want the shelf to go, and then measure for each spaced shelf. If not, some shelves will be too long, but some — and this is worse — will end up being too short. That’s wasted lumber and with the cost of nice pine boards, you don’t want to do this too often. I measure from side to side at the back and at the front, too.

Measure twice, cut once. This is the builder’s motto to keep in mind. I would begin with ONE shelf, mark where you want it to go, and write down the dimensions for the width for that exact spot in the closet. Then with your builders tape, pencil and square, mark the cut spot all the way across the board. I used a jig saw instead of a skill saw because it cuts cleaner, does not tend to leave jagged edges, and is easier to use, and for some reason it feels more safe to me. Cut outside because this will make a mess, or in your garage.

Great. You have your board cut. If you want your shelf to be deeper – all of mine are two 12″ boards deep, or about 22 and ½ inches deep, figuring the lumberyard measurements – cut a second board to go in front of the first.

Now you need to cut your side and back supports. That’s the 1 X 2″ hickory. Cut one piece for each side, 22 and ½” long. Cut the back support, as long as the boards you cut for the shelves, less 1 and ½,” to fit into the space where the side supports are at the back of the closet. So, if the shelf is 36 inches long, cut the back support 1 and 5/8 inches shorter, and then you know it will fit.

At a table outside or in the garage, where you have been cutting, use your drill to pre-drill the holes in the 2″ sides of these hickory support boards. To keep from cutting into your table, use two scrap pieces of board underneath your piece of hickory. Move these boards to be out of the way each time you pre-drill a hole. Pre-drilling will keep your wood from splitting when you force in the screw. If you skip this step, you will regret it, and may need more lumber. Pre-drill at least 4 to 6 holes in this side piece, making sure each hole is centered across the 2″ side of the board, not the ¾” inch side. Don’t put any screw holes within a couple of inches of the ends of this board, and make sure to put one right at the 11 and ½ inch mark for the side supports. I usually put screw holes about every six inches. Drill all the way through the board.

Using your level, and your screwdriver, screw the center hole in the side wall of your closet, where you marked where you wanted the shelf. Making sure you have the shelf support level, keep the level on the support board, and put the rest of the screws through the predrilled holes and into the drywall. Then do the same for the support on the other side of the closet. Finally, set in your back support, which if you measured and cut correctly, should exactly fit between the side supports. Once your back and side supports are in, slide the first board for the shelf into place, but not both. This first shelf is the one you want all the way to the back. If the ends are rough, use your sandpaper to smooth them before sliding into place.

Once your board is in place, use your drill bit close to the walls of the closet, down into the shelf board, and pre-drill into the hickory boards underneath. You will want to pre-drill holes within one inch of the ends of the support boards at the back, but less than half an inch from the wall to make sure your screws will not only catch the shelf board, but also the support beneath it. Space your screw holes about every five to seven inches or so along the back. When you have pre-drilled, then screw in your drywall screws to hold your shelf down to the supports.

The front shelf needs to be pre-drilled with the side supports, so slide it in place, and once pre-drilled, screw it down through the holes you just made. One of the reasons I choose pine in the sizes I did is because they are sturdy enough to not need the horizontal support for the second shelf. I have used this on three and four foot shelves loaded with heavy items, with no sagging boards as a result. Depending on how many shelves you have decided to put in, you will need to repeat this whole process of measuring, pre-drilling, and screwing your shelves into your closet over and over until you are done.

Caution: Begin with the lowest shelf first, and work your way up. If you do the top shelf first, you can work yourself right out of having the space to work in for pre-drilling and screwing your shelves into place. It is substantial work, but as a woman, I found it very rewarding to be able to do this myself. I have shelves in five different closets and in two sets of built-in bathroom cabinets that I made in this same way. They helped customize my storage space and maximize the potential of these closets and cabinets.

Enjoy your newly remodeled storage closets. Enjoy the organization you are able to have and the maximized potential of each closet.

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