Canadian Woodworking
Advertisement


Install built-in closet shelving

Author: Craig Kosonen
Photos: Craig Kosonen
Published: February 2024
post-thumbnail

Maximize your closet space by outfitting it with custom built-in shelving.

Advertisement


  • DIFFICULTY
    3/5
  • LENGTH/TIME
    3/5
  • COST
    4/5

This closet shelving project is easy and quick to construct, and is assembled using plywood held together with cleats, screws and brad nails. A face frame hides the cleats, adds strength and gives it a seamless custom look.

Every closet is different, and the contents people need to store also varies, so taking time to plan the design is time well spent. A mix of different storage methods is often the best approach, but every situation is dif­ferent. Make it your own.

A Rough Idea
Having a rough sketch on hand of what you want while you take measurements is helpful.

A Rough Idea

A Finished Plan
The rough sketch was refined based on measurements Kosonen had taken and drawn to scale to become his finished plan.

A Finished Plan

Break Down Your Plywood
A track saw and Styrofoam insulation make quick work of cutting the plywood to size.

Break Down Your Plywood

Check the Closet for Square
Use the shelf component itself as a visual aid to tell you exactly how out much you need to trim for a tight fit.

Check the Closet for Square

More Accurate Than Measuring
Use the large vertical partition to mark the height that cleats will be installed.

More Accurate Than Measuring

Pre-Painting
It’s much easier and quicker to paint or finish everything before assembly.

Pre-Painting

Helping Hands
A few strategically placed clamps make securing the large pieces easier. Stops will also go a long way to assisting you with positioning mating workpieces while you work alone, or even with an additional set of hands.

Helping Hands


Level Each Shelf
With one cleat installed, Kosonen uses the shelf and a level to mark the location on the opposite side.

Level Each Shelf

Functional, But Not Pretty
While the shelves may be functional at this point, the face frame provides a finished look.

Functional, But Not Pretty

A Simple Alignment Jig
An F-clamp and a piece of scrap provide alignment for the face frame components.

A Simple Alignment Jig

Trim the Baseboard to Fit
Having the baseboard butt up to your shelves gives a finished look.

Trim the Baseboard to Fit

Close Up Any Gaps
A bit of paintable caulking hides any small gaps.

Close Up Any Gaps

Design

Start by measuring your closet. Be sure to capture both the interior dimensions as well as the opening size.
Next, come up with a rough idea of the shelving unit you want. My wife and I wanted to dedicate half of the closet to hanging clothes and the other half to shelv­ing. We already had existing baskets to go on the shelves, so I measured those to get an idea of the space needed between some of the shelves.

Once you have a rough design and some measurements on hand, draw the closet to scale on a large piece of grid paper. If you don’t like making scale drawings, you can also mark the dimensions full size on the wall of the closet (or use CAD modelling software).

I wanted to raise the height of the clothes rod and shelf, however if I raised the shelf, I would have needed to reduce the depth of the shelf due to the interference of the closet door header. The same thing could come into play at the sides. This is why it’s important to measure the closet’s opening as well as its interior dimensions.

Using the height of the existing shelf as a starting point on my scale drawing, I worked downwards, creating shelf heights that would work with the baskets I intended to use. Keep in mind there is a 2″ wide face frame on the shelves when drawing things out. After a few attempts, I came up with a plan with a pleasing arrangement.

Materials & painting

Good shelving can be made with 3/4″ paint-grade plywood. I used a paint-grade maple veneer ply, which takes paint very nicely, but other wood species also work well. The cleats and face frame can be any hardwood that takes paint well. I used cherry because I had some left over from another project.

Once you have your materials, cut your components to size. A track saw makes quick and accurate work of breaking the plywood down to size. A sacrificial piece of 3/4″ Styrofoam insulation underneath the workpiece supports your work on both sides and allows you to cut through without damaging your blade. Cut the face frame material to width at this time, but leave the length a few inches long as it will be fitted once the shelf is assembled. The cleats get cut to finished size at this stage.

Using your shelf components, check the closet for square. Hold up the shelf piece where it meets the closet wall corners and measure how far out it may be at the front or back. This taper cut is easy work with the track saw. Make sure the taper is oppo­site what was measured, a gap at the front means material removed from the back and vice versa. This can be done using a carpen­ter’s square but having the actual shelf piece is a good visual aid. Another approach could be to use a compass or marking tool to mark a cut line directly onto the work­piece while it’s held in place.

If the length of the slightly oversized component is too long to fit into the opening, use a shorter piece of scrap the same width to mark the angle, then transfer that line to the workpiece and cut it. You could even use cheap 1/8″ thick board for this or cardboard.

Painting into corners is frustrating, so pre-paint all the plywood and cleats before assembly. The face frame pieces get primed at this stage, but save the painting for after assembly as there will be nail holes to be filled and painted anyway. Now is also a good time to paint your closet wall as your brand-new shelves might look out of place if the rest of the closet doesn’t match. Remove the baseboard on the rear wall prior to painting, as this will get trimmed to butt up to the new shelving. On the topic of paints, make sure to get a paint recom­mended for cabinets and shelves, I’ve made the mistake of using latex wall paint on shelving in the past and anything heavy has a tendency to stick to it.

Case Assembly

Once the paint has dried it’s time for assembly. Generally speaking, start with the case, then install the face frame. Start with the larger, more structural, components and work your way to the smaller ones. Use the components themselves instead of measur­ing wherever possible.

Use the large vertical piece to mark the height of the lower full-length shelf. Install the cleats for the shelf, making sure they’re level and the screws go into studs. Installing the large vertical partition can be an exer­cise in frustration and make you wish you had more hands. Employ several clamps to help with this portion. First, a large hand-screw at the base of the partition will allow it to stand on its own.

Second, pull the large shelf out from the wall a few inches, then clamp a board across it for the vertical to butt up against (with another clamp). This allows you to pre-drill and screw the ver­tical partition to the shelf. Then remove the clamps and slide the whole assembly into place. The horizontal shelf then gets secured to the cleats with a few brad nails. The top shelf and partition follow the same sequence. This is a bit easier because the partition is much smaller.

With the major components in place, it’s time to focus on the smaller shelves. Start from the bottom and work your way up. First, mark the height of the shelf on the ver­tical partition, then level and install a cleat there. Using the shelf and a level, mark the height on the wall. Install the next cleat level to the line. The back-wall cleat gets lined up with the side wall cleats and installed. Note that the back cleat is optional, depending on the span of your shelves. The shelf then gets secured to the cleats with a few brad nails. Before you secure the first one, make sure the vertical partition is level, as the attach­ment of the shelves will anchor it in place. Work your way up and do all the shelves in this sequence.

Face Frame

The shelf may be functional at this point, but the exposed plywood and cleats don’t give it the clean, finished look we’re after; that’s where the face frame comes in. Tackle this in the same manner as the case assembly, starting with the major com­ponents. First install the face on the large horizontal shelves, then the verticals. The face frames are held on with a bead of glue and some brad nails. Use a couple pieces of scrap wood and some F-clamps to align the face frame with the shelves and vertical par­titions. Measure and cut each piece to size to ensure a tight fit.

Final Touches

Now it’s time for the finishing touches. Cut the back wall baseboard to fit around the vertical partition and re-install it into place and fill the nail holes. You can also use some trim caulking on the corner seams to close any gaps. I don’t fill any screw holes because the face frame hides almost all the cleats, the shelf contents also help hide the cleats and the screws for the vertical parti­tions are high enough they don’t normally get seen. You could opt to fill them, or even use a screwhead cover, if you wanted. Put the final coats of paint on the face frame and over any filled nail holes. Once the paint has dried, it’s time to install the closet rods. It may be tempting to use your new shelving right away, but make sure the paint has had a few days to fully cure before reset­tling your closet.

Craig’s favourite projects are furniture and boxes, especially if they involve veneer work. Although he’s not too picky, anything that gets him into the woodshop keeps him happy.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Advertisement


More Home Improvement projects to consider
Username: Password:
Clicky