Why build my own shelves?

It's more cost-effective to build your own shelves than it is to buy pre-packaged shelves. By building my own, I can customize them for the space I have, and size them to fit the things that I intend to store on them. Finally, while I realize that there are some nice, sturdy pre-packaged shelving units out there, I have grown to really dislike (hate hate hate) ready-to-assemble (RTA) furniture. It's generally not sturdy, quality stuff. I've had some bad experiences. I'm sure that if you pay enough, you can buy a good quality storage shelving unit, but I'm on a budget. While these aren't dirt cheap, they are inexpensive for the square-footage of shelf space. Besides, it makes for a good father-daughter project.

First, get yourself a lot of wood

The following list built me a 8' long, 6' high, 2' deep shelving unit. It can be made taller, shorter, longer, shorter, etc. easily by adapting the plans and list of supplies as needed, but you'll have to figure that out.

Tools and supplies needed:

A whole car full of wood
That's a lot of wood.

Total cost for the wood and screws was $60.99 + tax.

I found some nice-looking screws with a Torx drive head, and a unique thread-cutting tip; they came with their own driver bit, so I could use my drill to put them in. I wasn't looking forward to hand-screwing 200 screws, so that's a good thing. The Torx drive also will not strip out or "cam" out of the screw head like a Phillips drive will. A square drive would also work very well, and is common in deck screws.

I went to Lowes for my wood. They cut my 1/2" OSB down to 2'x4' sections, and my 12' 2x4's down to 6' long. Everything fit into the '93 Bonneville without so much as an open window.

Be slightly picky with your wood. Twisted, warped, or bent wood is a nightmare to square up and align. Don't expect perfection, but at least thin out the worst of it.

Cut some of that wood

While the lumberyard made a few of the cuts for me, I still had to make a few cuts myself at home. I had to cut the 2x3's into 4' long lengths, and the 8' long 2x4's into 21" lengths. The 12' long 2x4's were already reduced to 6', and the OSB was already cut into 2'x4' shelves. Not too bad at all. My hand saw, used carefully, was more than adequate for the job. If I had to cut the OSB myself, I would have probably considered picking up a cheap circular saw.

Pencil-in some shelf-heights

I had previously decided and sketched how I was going to space out the shelves. This plan gives me four shelves for each 4' section. Some people like a shelf right above the floor, to keep their things off of the floor. My basement is dry enough that I would rather have the extra shelf higher, instead. This effectively gives me five levels of storage, rather than four.

I figured out that the shelves will be around 3" thick. I also wanted the top shelf to be right at the top of the 6' uprights, to take advantage of the 10" or so between there and the ceiling, and leave more room below. To make room for the most diversely-sized stuff, I decided to space the two 4' sections differently. The first one has spacings of (from the bottom up) 19", 19", 11", 11". The next section has spacings of 19", 15", 15", 11". Each of those measurements is actual usable space between shelves, and does not include the shelf thickness. Your ideal spacing may vary, but this is what I felt would work best with the items I had to store.

With that figured out, I had to measure and mark the 6' long 2x4's for where to install the 21" 2x4 shelf end-supports. I messed this up for a few pencil-marks, before realizing that I had to reduce my measurements by one inch, since the end-supports were 2x4, not 2x3.

Build a ladder

One finished standard, propped up against the wall.
The first one done.
All three finished standards.
All three of them.

Now that I had everything marked in pencil, I made sure everything was squared up (using that handy framing square), and screwed the 21" 2x4's in place. I made sure to space them in 1-1/2" from each side, to leave room for the front and rear shelf supports. I used two screws on each side, placed somewhat diagonally to reduce the chance of splitting the upright and increase overall rigidity of the frame. I tried to predict where the screws through the front and rear supports would end up, and leave space for them. The design of my screws allowed them to be placed reasonably close to the edge of the boards, without splitting. It's best to check often that things are still square. Measure twice, screw once; or something like that.

A closeup shows one of the overlapping joints, with two screws.
Two screws, like this.

The middle section has end-supports on both sides. I just did one side first, flipped it over, and did the other side. No big deal.

Connect ladders with more wood

Then it was time to add the front and rear supports, the 4' 2x3's. This seems simple, but it was a challenge to hold things tightly together, while keeping things squared, while driving a screw. I came up with a reasonably good system:

  1. Set two of the assembled standards up on their sides, spaced 4' apart, and squared up.
  2. Assemble the 2x3's to one side, only. The second standard is there mainly to hold up the other end, and to assist in keeping things lined up and square.
  3. Carefully stand up that partially assembled section, and set it up against a wall somewhere. It won't be used for now.
  4. Repeat with the remaining two standards, only this time, actually attach it to both sides. Stand it up, flip it over, and do the other side, too. This completed section should now be completely boxed in, only lacking the shelves themselves.
  5. Stand the completed 4' section up, and make sure it's straight and square.
  6. Slide in the sections of plywood or OSB, and secure them with some of the shorter screws. I used two screws front and rear, and one on each side. If necessary, hold the frame square while you screw the shelves in place, and this will keep it square. Be sure to check square at top and bottom.
  7. Take the partially-assembled section that you created earlier, and set it up in place against the side of the completed 4' section. Line up the 2x3's, and screw things in place.
  8. Add the remaining 2x3's to the other side, and screw them in place.
  9. Finally, add the plywood or OSB, same as before.
The first assembled section is set aside for later use.
Assembly #1, for later use.
The completed frame is sturdy, and just needs shelves to be finished.
Assembly #2, ready for shelves.

Almost done

Just when you thought you were done, there may be some final work needed. Push and pull on it a bit. Is it sturdy, or does it sway like Ted Kennedy at a dinner party? You may need to add some diagonal bracing to the standards, or to the back side (depending on which way it wants to sway). You can also tie it in directly to a floor joist above, if you're near to an open ceiling. Mine turned out reasonably solid and sturdy. I don't think I will need to brace it, but I'll see how it feels while fully loaded.


The shelves are now ready for use.
That'll hold some stuff.

The shelves turned out about as I expected them to. They really are nearly overbuilt. The 2x3 front and rear supports are quite strong enough for anything I plan to store on them. The 1/2" OSB that I used may actually be overkill; there is no flex to the shelves. Using 7/16" OSB would probably have been sufficient. If the design has a weak point, it might be that the shelves are only held up with eight screws, four at each side. If I were to do it again, and if I was feeling paranoid at the time, I might cut the side shelf supports to a full 2', and then just notch them to fit the 2x3 front and rear rails. This would provide area for yet another screw, and give the rails some extra support from the bottom. I have climbed onto the shelves though, and feel confident in their strength as they are. For reference, I weigh around 145 Lb. I don't expect to have any more than that on any one shelf.

Feel free to email me if you have any questions or comments about this project.