How to Build Shelves

Bookshelf on the wall
  • 2-6 hours
  • Intermediate
  • 75-300
What You'll Need
Boards for shelves
Electric Drill
Shelving brackets and/or Dowel pins
What You'll Need
Boards for shelves
Electric Drill
Shelving brackets and/or Dowel pins

Knowing how to make a storage shelf can be incredibly useful in terms of freeing up floor space in your home. The project doesn’t even have to be a large, boxy set of traditional shelves that you use to pile things on from a basement or garage; it can be as small, elegant, and tasteful as you want it to be.

Building a small, simple unit in a living room or other public space can not only provide a useful surface to display or store things, but also add a nice, decorative accent to a room that will help you keep things nice and neat.

Step 1 – Decide What Kind of Shelves Are Needed

The sky’s the limit in terms of the size and shapes your shelves can take on (so long as the size and shape adheres to basic foundation guidelines). If you have the skill and the ambition, specialized options like floating shelves could be a fun project.

However, aside from the decorative differences between shelving options, one broader wayto categorize is by fixed-position vs. adjustable units.


Just as the names suggest, a fixed-position shelf can’t be moved or adjusted. Once the unit is assembled and the shelves are in place, that’s where they’re going to stay.

Non-adjustable shelving is commonly used in closets, attics, basements, work areas, etc., where appearance and flexibility are not important. These shelves can be nailed together with support pieces to provide the structural strength required. Small cleats can provide the needed support for other types of non-adjustable shelves making them capable of supporting heavy loads.


Adjustable shelves on the other hand require more work and steps to build, but they are versatile in that an individual shelf can be removed or adjusted to transform the unit’s levels and compartments. This allows them to accommodate an array of sizes.

For example, one level compartment could be altered to display a tall house plant, while another shelf is spaced differently to accommodate small books or knick knacks.

Step 2 – Measure and Plan Your Shelves

Figure out where you want your shelves to go and measure the dimensions. This will give you a precise figure for how much wood board you will need to purchase and the sizes you will need to cut the wood to.

TIP: Get an idea ahead of time for what kind of items you’ll be putting on your shelves. If you plan to store heavy things on them, consider buying thicker stronger boards that will be up for the job.

Step 3 – Cut Your Wood

Using the specifications that your own vision dictates, use the saw to cut the wooden boards to their necessary dimensions.

Depending on how you wish to construct your unit, you will need at least four lengths of board to create your frame, other pieces if you plan on having a backing or a cover, and boards that will become each individual shelf.

WARNING: Follow proper safety procedures when using the saw. Follow any instructions that are associated with your specific saw and wear protective gear when necessary.

Step 4 – Assemble the Frame

Assemble all of the boards that will make up the unit frame and attach them end to end by drilling screws through each board.

WARNING: Wear safety googles and exercise caution when using your electric drill.

Step 5 – Nail in the Cleats

For non-adjustable shelving, plastic or metal cleats are attached to the frame to act as supports for the shelves.

Make sure that when you nail the cleats in, you’re driving the nails in at a downward angle. Structurally, this is the stronger position as nails driven into the wood at an upward angle are more likely to pull out when heavy loads are placed atop them.

TIP: Stagger your cleats about every 3 feet to offer your shelves support. If you already know that your shelving unit is going to be used to support heavy items, adjust this to 2 ½ feet or consider using larger cleats.

Step 6 – Put the Shelves in Place

Man placing shelf into joint on a shelving unit

Use a T-square to ensure your shelves are evenly spaced and situated properly. Once satisfied, drill in screws to attach your shelves.

TIP: You may also wish to drill holes into your supporting wall in certain places. Anchoring your unit to the wall in this way is a particularly smart, safe measure to take if you live in an area prone to earthquakes or if you are worried about the possibility of the unit tipping forward away from your wall and hurting someone.


These are some other techniques that are often employed in adjustable shelving. However, depending on your tastes and how you are choosing to construct your own set of shelves, they may be worth considering.


Dado cuts are another way you can set your shelves into place. For adjustable shelving, the dado cuts must be relatively deep. For permanent shelving, the cuts can be shallow. Because you may be making these housing cuts deep, you may not want them to be visible on the front facade of your shelf. Make a concealed dado cut for a neater, less conspicuous shelf joint.


Shelves can also get support from metal brackets. These brackets are inexpensive and much easier to use than most wooden supports. Special brackets that fit into drilled holes make good supports for light shelving.

Drill holes into the supporting walls of the shelf at the desired spacing intervals. Then, slip the bracket into the hole and lay the shelf on the two supporting brackets.

These brackets can be adjusted upward or downward to make room for large or small items. Although easy to handle, use these brackets only for supporting light storage loads.

You can use simple dowel pins instead of metal brackets to make adjustable shelves. Insert the dowel pins in the drilled holes. They can be inserted or removed to adjust the shelving up or down quickly and easily. Dowel pins are easy to use, but they do not support heavy loads and they tend to wear or give way under extended use. Metal shelf brackets are preferable.

A special flush-type shelf bracket is fitted into grooves for extreme neatness and flexibility. This shelving bracket provides more than sufficient structural strength for normal storage purposes. It is inexpensive, very effective and easy to use. For mounting grooved shelving brackets of this type, use a dado cut for each bracket in the supporting end of the shelf.

The regular shelf bracket and standard is perhaps the most widely used shelf support. Readily available from many sources, it is easy to install and neat in appearance. The shelf standard and bracket makes it easy to build shelves quickly and to remove them when they are no longer needed.