Canadian Woodworking
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21 tips for designing closets

Author: Rob Brown
Photos: Rob Brown (Lead photo by Dreamstime)
Published: February 2024
closet design
closet design

Designing a closet storage system can be a daunting process. If your closet is small, you’ll want to make the best use of the limited space. If you have lots of space, you’ll still want to plan it out properly to avoid a disorganized mess once it’s complete.

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Know Your Sheet Goods
Different sheet goods each have a different set of pros you can leverage when building large storage organization systems. They also all have cons that you can avoid. Learn their pros and cons so you can build the best project possible.

Know Your Sheet Goods

Cover the Edges
The edges of sheet goods are typically undesirable to look at and don’t offer much durability. Adding iron-on tape is one option to cover the edges, but adding solid wood will provide you with a high degree of protection for a high-traffic area.

Cover the Edges

Panels Are Perfect
Working with panels is almost always easier than dealing with large, fully assembled cabinets. Having said that, each project is different, so you have to make the decision for yourself. Often, a mix of smaller cabinets and larger panels will be the best approach.

Panels Are Perfect

Shallow Dadoes
Brown prefers dadoes and rabbets that are only about 1/8" deep, as they will provide ample location assistance during installation, yet don’t weaken the panel very much at all.

Shallow Dadoes

Cleats and L-Brackets
Shop-made wooden cleats and store-bought L-brackets make installation much easier. If you’re careful about where you locate them, they’re usually not visible.

Cleats and L-Brackets

Collect the Hardware
Having hardware on hand at the start of the project will make the whole process smoother and easier. Slides need certain clearances, shelf pins require holes of precise diameters and many types of hinges need exacting clearances. Realizing you made a mistake late in the game is an awful feeling.

Collect the Hardware

Check for Square
Before you even begin the project, check the floor-to-wall and wall-to-wall joints for square. Either shaping the panels to roughly fit or machining a rabbet in their edges so you can scribe them more easily will help make installation easier and the final product more attractive.

Check for Square

Too Tight for Doors
Some closets are too small to have doors or drawers incorporated into them, as they protrude into the area where the user stands and monopolize the space. Nearby cabinets may even physically interfere with doors and drawers in some instances. (Photo by Dreamstime)

Too Tight for Doors

Tell the Story
A simple story stick, made from a long length of plywood or solid wood, will allow you to work out some of the more critical dimensions, then have those dimensions on hand to refer to during the build. A bit of extra work up front will make the project flow nicely.

Tell the Story

To-Scale Design
Gables, shelves, work surfaces, clothes rods and many other details can be laid out directly on the floor and walls with masking tape. It’s a good way to review design details with future users who are having trouble visualizing the design on paper. The dimensions and details can be easily changed by moving masking tape at this stage.

To-Scale Design

Making Mouldings
Store-bought moulding is a simple approach, though if you need a different size or style, shop-made moulding is the best approach. Often small pieces of trim, which are easy to machine on a table saw and router table, can be pieced together to create larger, more complex mouldings.

Making Mouldings

Jigs and Patterns are Safer
This shop-made shelf pin hole jig can assist with ensuring all the shelf pin holes are drilled correctly. Repeatable tasks are often made simpler with jigs.

Jigs and Patterns are Safer

Light It Up
Lights can play an important role in closet organization systems and how well they work by illuminating the contents of drawers, shelves and nooks. With the strip lighting options available today, there’s a solution out there for you. (Photo by Dreamstime)

Light It Up

1. Keep It Simple

A complex, busy design can overpower small or large closets with extra visual clutter, making spending time in your closet overwhelming. A complex approach will also make the project overly difficult to machine and install. Simple is usually better. Keep function as the main focus and you’ll thank yourself later.

2. Use the Proper Materials

Most people think sheet goods fall short of solid wood in just about every category when building anything for the home, but this isn’t the case. Sheet goods are available in many forms, thicknesses and finished surfaces, and can easily be cut to just about any dimension with basic tools. While it’s true that 4′ × 8′ sheets can be hard to transport, not to mention handling and cutting them once they’re in your shop, there are ways around those challenges. Choose the right type of sheet good for your project and you’ll see large advantages in many areas of both the build and the finished project.

I’m not saying solid wood should never be a part of a closet orga­nization system. Using it for some (or even all) of the trim is a great approach, and using solid wood for door frames also has huge posi­tives. Solid wood edging can provide great durability to what would otherwise be a weak edge of a sheet good. The bottom line is that you should know the pros and cons of the materials available so you can purchase the right products, use them to your advantage and end up with the best finished project possible.

3. Panels, Not Cabinets

Working with large cabinets is rarely easy. Whether it’s assembling them, handling them in your shop, transporting them to your home, bringing them up a set of stairs to the closet or fitting them into the closet opening, there’s always a challenge around each corner. In order to sim­plify machining, transporting and installing, build a closet storage system from panels rather than cabinets. On top of all these consid­erations, cabinets generally require more material than panels.
The only time I build with cabinets is when they’re relatively small. Creating a 12″ wide by 4′ high cabinet won’t give you too many problems and it may even make the task of installing the system easier.

4. Know When Accuracy’s Needed

When work­ing in a large closet, some dimensions will be relatively flexible, while others will be critical. Drawer widths need to be machined accurately or the drawers won’t work. Trim should line up closely to look good. Having said that, many other parts don’t need to be machined to tight tolerances, as other parts can be referenced off them and then cut to size. Every part is different, and knowing when accuracy is needed and when it isn’t will save you time and energy.

5. Select Joinery Wisely

A hand-cut dovetail or mortise and tenon joint can look great as part of a jewelry box or a display cabinet, but these types of complex joints aren’t needed in a clos­est organization system. They only make machining and assembly more stressful and difficult than necessary. Rabbets, dadoes and grooves to house mating pieces of sheet stock are usually all that’s needed to create a small glue surface on a workpiece or to add some location assistance for assembly. Save the complex joints for your next furniture project.

When determining how deep to machine joints like rabbets and dadoes, I almost always keep them quite shallow. A 1/8″ deep rabbet will offer enough of a physical rebate to locate and accept a mating panel, while it will also keep the panel the rabbet is machined into as strong as possible. For example, a 1/2″ deep rab­bet joint only leaves about 1/4″ (actually less, as most 3/4″ thick panels are closer to 11/16″ thick) on the panel, making it very weak.

6. L-Brackets and Cleats Are Your Friends

Cost effective, strong, fast, reversible: What’s not to like? Well, they are more visible than other types of joints and certainly not as beauti­ful. To keep these pieces of metal hardware out of view, place them on the underside of lower fixed shelves and on the upper side of upper fixed shelves. This approach will work to keep the panels secured to the walls without the hardware being visible. The main downside to this is driving a screw into the upper face of a panel, then loading that panel with weight, will cause much of that weight to be supported by one screw, rather than the L-bracket.

Another approach is to determine the location of an L-bracket on the floor, for example, and secure half of the L-bracket underneath the gable / divider and then screw the panel to the upper half of the L-bracket for a more invisible look. If you really wanted to cre­ate an invisible joint, you could potentially screw a slim hardwood cleat or metal bracket to the floor, then machine a groove in the end of a panel that would fit over the bracket or cleat and position the panel.

Solid wood cleats also work well for many joints and have the advantage of being paintable or stainable to match the rest of the workpieces.

7. Having Hardware Helps

Buy the hardware you’re going to use on the project first, though know you can also make some changes down the road, if needed. This is especially true if you’re using baskets to store items on shelves, as you’ll need to know the dimensions of the baskets to leave a proper gap between shelves. Also, shelf pins should be on hand to know what diameter of hole to bore for them.

8 Include Four Types of Storage

Shelves, hanging rods, drawers and fixed work surfaces are the four main types of storage features that can be used in a closet organization system. Including a mix of all these storage types is a safe starting point, but everyone has their own preferences for what type of storage they want. Some may want lots of drawers, while others prefer shelves.

Doors can be added to reduce visual clutter, though do so care­fully as doors need clearances to work properly, and in small areas like closets this might be problematic.

9. All Squared Up?

Before starting to break out material, check for square between mating walls and between wall-to-floor joints. You might need to make adjustments to work with a joint that’s too far off square. Building a wall scribe that will be positioned at the end of a group of panels, and can be trimmed to the correct angle, might have to be added into the design. Having adjustable feet could be the difference between a well-fitting install and large gaps. It’s also possible to scribe the panels themselves to fit into a floor-to-wall joint. It’s easiest to know what you’re up against in the early stages of a project, rather than get surprised later.

10. Not All Joints Need to Be Flush

We all like per­fectly flush joints, but they’re hard to accomplish when assembling large panels. Rather than leave a joint that’s meant to be flush yet isn’t, choosing to leave a joint that’s staggered by at least 1/8″ will often give you a cleaner look. An offset of 1/32″ looks like a mis­take, but an offset of 1/4″ often looks like it’s on purpose.

Including a reveal or setback hides imperfections and gives you a bit of flexibility during the installation process. These offset joints can be between mating panels, between trim and panels, or between pieces of trim that are butting up against each other. There are even times when leaving the joints staggered by 3/8″ or more is the best approach, as this could allow you enough flexibility to work with floors that are out of level, walls that aren’t plumb and cumulative small errors that occur when assembling the parts.

Even solid wood headers being glued to panels can have their edges eased or chamfered before the headers gets glued to the panel, as there will likely be a hairline crack that becomes visible down the road. The lightly chamfered edge will camouflage that crack.

11. Maintain Flexibility

Adjustable shelves will allow you flexibility with the items you’re trying to store, especially if you’re using baskets or larger plastic storage containers on the shelves. It might be a good idea to stay away from smaller drawers and drawers with a very dedicated function, as once needs change they may become useless.

To keep the overall design flexible, consider not gluing some or all of the panels together so they can be more easily adjusted and re-machined if your storage needs change down the road.

12. Do You Have Room?

Doors and drawers need room to move. The last thing you want is to be forced to back up against another cabinet every time you open your sock drawer. Consider how tight the space is and how easy it will be to open and use the drawers and doors before settling on a design.

Other tight spots in a closet organization system include inside corners. It might be best to leave drawers and doors away from cor­ners and go with open shelves or hanging rods.

13. Draw It Out

Even the simplest designs can benefit from a to-scale drawing, from both an aesthetic and functional point of view. You don’t necessarily need to draw every detail, but getting a good overall view of the project before you start will pay off later.

Story sticks might also be helpful during the build phase, espe­cially for larger, more complex projects.

Applying masking tape on the ground can help you “see” the design in real life. If you’re still having trouble visualizing the size and scope of the project, grab a few larger pieces of plywood off­cuts from the shop and place them where some of the gables might go. Another approach is to use large pieces of cardboard to stand in for the panels. They’ll give you a sense of size without being hard to machine or carry.

14. Buy or Make Trim?

There are pros and cons to each approach; sometimes it’s a mix of the two that will work best. Store-bought trim is easy and quick. There are times when it can be the economically smart choice, too. Shop-made trim excels when you need custom trim for either a unique look or a specific dimension.

Router tables come in very handy when making custom trim. Piecing multiple sections of simple trim together, in order to make more complex trim, is almost always the best approach.

15. Use Jigs for Accuracy

There are some operations that require lots of repetition and accuracy. Drilling the backs of doors for European hinges, drilling doors and drawer fronts for handles, or boring shelf pin holes in gables or dividers are all risky without a good plan. Jigs, whether shop-made or store-bought, are great for maintaining accuracy and avoiding mistakes.

16. Consider the Future

Going with a princess theme for a four-year-old’s closet might be fun for now, but could give you problems in the near future unless you plan carefully. Trends go out of style quickly and people change as they grow. A bold colour can be painted over, but a structural element is harder to modify in the future.

17. Basements May Be Wet

If you’re installing a closet organization system in a basement, use materials and a design that can tolerate potential water damage. It might be a good idea to keep all of the panels and parts at least a few inches off the ground. When it comes to selecting materials, solid wood will stand up to a small amount of water much better than particleboard or MDF, but that will likely only benefit you up to a point. If your basement fills with 12″ of water, things get ugly quickly.

Even designing a basement storage system that gives you room to store larger plastic waterproof bins on the floor, then starting the shelving or drawers above them, will give you insurance against water damage.

18. High or Low?

As a general rule, plan on storing sel­domly used items as high as possible, commonly used items in the middle and medium-use items at the bottom. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, but having regularly used items at chest level is a good starting point.

19. Finish First

It’s not impossible to apply paint, stain or a topcoat to a unit after it has been installed, but it’s not the easiest approach. Consider finishing the panels before installation – even priming and painting one coat, then using caulk on an installed project before adding one more coat of paint, will save a lot of time and energy. Stain / clear coating beforehand will also save energy, though you have to be careful about chipping or scratching the panels during installation. It could be beneficial to fit many of the main / larger panels to the closet, then apply a finish to them, before installing them for good.

20. Add Some Lighting

Improving the lighting in the space is something that should be considered right from the start. Closets can be dark, and only very rarely have a natural light source, yet these are the areas where we spend time making deci­sions about what to wear.

Improving the main light source is one approach, but definitely consider not using a single light, as that will create shadows and dark areas in many of the shelving areas and drawers. This is espe­cially true once you stand directly in front of the shelf or drawer you need to see into. Having a lighting system that includes a few lights spread around the area will allow you to see everything that’s stored.

Consider task lighting, especially if there’s some sort of main worksurface, like a make-up area. Anywhere there will be a mirror, you’ll need good lighting, though it’s important to add lighting in other areas, too.

21. Lighter and Brighter

Going light with the paint / stain colour will likely be better, as the lights in most closets are not great and natural light is greatly reduced. Light colours best reflect light around the room and give a sense that the area is larger than it is. If you do want to go with a black walnut organi­zation system, be sure to add ample lighting to the area.


Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

1 comment

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  2. For those needing longer shelves in their closet, I suggest that they look at what I call “the cheap rough pine pile” at the lumber store. The particle board laminated shelving and even the plywood shelving tends to sag unless supported more often than I like on longer shelves. The 1962 vintage, 5 ft long solid wood shelves in my house have little to no sag in them. A lot of the time, my solution to shelves in closets has been the cheap rough pine. Pick through the pile to minimize large knots. Run top and bottom through the planer, table saw for the edges and you end up with a 3/4 inch thick board that can be used for a shelf. I generally paint these and with water based paint, I add a light coat of water based polyurethane as a final finish to make them more durable.

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