Organization 101: Building Basic Wood Shelves

As it turns out having ten closets in your house isn’t even remotely helpful in keeping your life in order if nine of them don’t have shelving. Apparently the floor of a closet can only hold so much stuff before it starts spilling out into the rest of your life encouraging you to rip off a toenail when walking around the house at night. The joke is on you though, closets, because 1.) I installed a few lights last week to help illuminate the obstacle course of junk that I live in, and 2.) That junk piled outside your non-existent doors? Those are tools that I can build stuff with. Like shelves to foil your evil toe-stubbing plan.

Possibly I’ve spent a little to much time in this house talking to the walls. However, don’t let that undermine the importance of having some good shelving in your closets. Which can be cost effective if you build them yourself. Here’s how I added a semblance of organization to my life yesterday.

What I Used

There were three parts of this project for me, all requiring different types of tools. I always buy wood in bulk and cut it at home but  you could also have shelves and ledgers cut in your local Big Box.

Prepping the Closets

  • Ultra White Eggshell Paint
  • Brushes, rollers, paint trays and a bottle of wine to make picking white paint out of my hair at night more interesting

Cutting Shelves

  • Tape measure
  • Miter saw (capable of cutting through 12″ board)
  • Sander (or sand paper) with 100 grit pads

Installing Shelves

  • Tape measure
  • Level
  • Finish nailer


  • Cheap 1×2 pine furring strips (any 1×2 will do) in 8′ lengths
  • 1×12 pine shelving in 8′ lengths

 What I Did

Step 1 – Planning


The basic set-up for these wood shelves is three “ledgers” for the shelf to sit on, and then the shelf itself. There were a few things to consider before going crazy with the saw.

  1.  How deep did I want the shelves? The closet I’m using as an example has been designated for cleaning supplies and utility junk, which meant I only wanted the shelves to take up half the depth of the closet so that brooms, vacuums, and other equipment can still be stored there.
  2. Where were the studs located? If I wanted 12″ deep shelves, I still needed to be able to nail the ledgers to studs on the side, and since studs are typically 12″ apart, would the spacing work? (It did, but barely.)
  3. What should be the spacing between shelves? I settled on 24″ at the bottom (large enough for buckets or small waste baskets) and 13″ between shelves (large enough for most cleaning supplies). I chose not to put any shelves higher than the door of the closet, since there’s no chance in hell I can reach them anyway.

After I new what I wanted, I planned out my materials list.  For five 12″ shelves, 31″ long, I used three 1x2x8′ furring strips and two 1x12x8″ lengths of pine shelving.


Step 2 – Fun With Saws
Have I mentioned today how much I love the smell of sawdust? This is my favorite part.


I used the sliding-arm miter saw to cut 5 back ledgers (30-7/8″ long), 10 side ledgers (11″ long) and 5 shelves (31″ long). Here are the pieces.


Step 3 – Sanding

(Side note: For some reason when I typed “sanding” I actually spelled “sangria” which was probably some kind of vacation freudian slip. But still….Don’t Drink and DIY.)

I didn’t switch the blade on the saw for fine cuts which means I had a little extra sanding work to do, but luckily the sander did that work for me. God I love power tools.


I planned to paint the ledgers the same color as the closet so they would blend in with the background and eventually stain the shelves. Which means everything got some quality time with 100 grit sandpaper.

Step 4 – Prepping the Closet

Technically you could do this before you cut your shelves, but I almost always do the power tool related activities first and then go back and do the rest because I have to. I was working on both closets simultaneously so they both got a coat of ultra-white paint. I might have painted them the same color as the walls, but as you can see… still in the unfinished drywall stages there. So white it is.


That’s basically what the floor looks like all of the time too (for example you may notice some chalkboard paint from a project I completed weeks ago, still in the middle of the walkway). So I wasn’t entirely joking about the toe-stubbing thing.

After inhaling paint fumes in very small spaces for the better part of the morning, it was time to get started with the install.


(Actually, I painted those ledgers with first, then it was time for the install.)

Step 5 – Installing the Ledgers

Here are the tools I used for installation:


(Side note: That cordless nailer has been getting around, has it not? You may also have seen it when I was building mirror frames or the pottery barn inspired pinboard.)

Since there isn’t a whole lot of flooring or baseboard in the house I can usually use the drywall screw placement to help me determine exactly where the studs are. You can also look for nails in baseboard or shoe molding to give you a hint.


Then I measured the height for the first shelf (taking into account the height of eventual flooring since I’m working on subfloor) and used a level to strike a line across the back of the wall.


Then the back ledger went in, nailed with two finish nails on each stud.


I cut it just short of the length of the wall for easy fitting, and those gaps will be covered by the side ledgers.

And speaking of…


It’s all pretty easy if you don’t mind working in small spaces and have done your math right. Which, when I tested out the first shelf, I realized I had not.




It looks suspiciously like I didn’t account for the width of the back ledger when cutting the sides, although I’m pretty sure I did because the length I had written down for those short pieces was 11″ and the shelves are 12″. I think this was more of a “forgot what I was doing in the time it took me to walk thirty feet out to the garage and then repeated the mistake nine more times” kind of thing. It happens. NBD, as the kids say these days.

I pried the offending ledgers off…


Don’t stress, it’s nothing a little touch-up paint won’t fix.

Then I re-cut the side ledgers using this little trick…


Since all ten needed to be the same length, I just clamped a piece of scrap to the miter saw which meant I didn’t have to measure and mark each piece. It took about 45 seconds to recut them and only because I was going slow to avoid any splintering.

Hey, look at that. Problem solved.


I had a nice chuckle at my own expense for that one, and I really believe that’s the kind of attitude you need to have when DIYing. Sometimes I make mistakes, and I just feel grateful I’ve got the tools to fix them.

Step 6 – Rinse, Repeat, Install shelves

It’s the same story for the rest of the shelves, which is why I highly recommend testing out the first shelf to make sure everything is working before nailing eleven more boards to the walls. Or go ahead and live dangerously.

I just let the wood shelves rest on the ledgers. They’ll be easy to remove for cleaning or future staining.


See how the white ledgers basically disappear?

Step 7 – Touch Up

I took everything out of the closet and touched up any dings to the walls and covered the nail holes in the ledgers. I like to use a Q-tip dipped in paint to fill in finish holes.


Step 8 – Organize

Hey look! Stuff now exists in this house somewhere other than on the floor.


I mean, also on the floor. But it’s still a big improvement.

Next up in the shelving adventure is some easy wire shelving for the bathroom closet, and some fancier (possibly adjustable) shelving for the pantry.

17 Responses

  1. Any plans for one of those bars that grab broom & mop handles to keep them from falling all over the place?

    I wish I had a closet dedicated to cleaning supplies – my mop & broom are hanging on the wall in the garage, my upright vacuum is in the coat closet, my canister vacuum is wedged into the bottom of the linen closet and buckets & most supplies are under the kitchen sink. Not sure why storage is almost nonexistant in newer FL homes.

    1. I would think in newer homes they’d have more storage (the architect who drew up the plans for this addition was insistent!)… also, the hooks for brooms are a great idea!

      1. There you go thinking again.

        Our house is about 25 years old – it was a spec house that we bought before it was finished (so we were able to influence some of the finishes). The coat closet is 24″ wide and so shallow that hangers don’t fit except at an angle.

        My mother-in-law has a house about 10 or 15 years old and the closets are even smaller in her house. I don’t think she even has a coat closet.

        It does help with keeping down my pack-rat tendencies but that is the only good thing about minimal closets.

  2. Just to add to your post,

    I prefer to screw the ledgers to the wall,that way if there are no studs to fix to,you can use cavitiy fixings.A handy tip if your making longer shelves is to screw(or nail)another piece of the ledger material to the front of the shelf,this will give extra strength to it & also give a more solid appearance

  3. Are you putting doors on all of the closets? It looks like some of the closets are extremely narrow.
    If so, where are you getting the custom doors?

  4. Just found your site….love it!!! Bought a fixer-upper a year ago; we’ve been dealing with a steep learning curve ever since. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I appreciate reading stuff from other DIYer’s, especially those liveing in the space. Thanks!

  5. Nice! Very interested in the adjustable shelves that are coming. I was thinking about buying the metal runners that screw into the wall from the Rubbermaid set but building my own shelves that attach to them with pine boards. I want wood adjustable shelving but haven’t been able to find it.

  6. Thanks for the tutorial! I am curious if you think this method would work for longer shelves? I have a closet that is 61 inches wide and I would like to install shelves like these but don’t know if they would warp at that width. I’d also like to use melamine but I’ve heard it is not as strong as pine boards.

  7. Love this site, first time reader. I don’t have a saw so I’ll measure, measure measure (and take into account the width of the back ledger!) and have the wood cut at the big box.
    Only thing I might do differently is to vary the height between the shelves (a couple inches taken here and given there). So frustrating when something almost fits.

  8. Wish you’d shown us more of your planning notes! What material did you use for the deeper kitchen shelves?

  9. Excellent post! Your instructions are clear and concise. Your step – by – step photos really make the difference. Great job, thanks.

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