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Fixed-Shelf Unit Building Basics

Add beauty and usability to your wall space with homemade shelving units. Here’s a step-by-step guide to lead you through a project. 

Courtesy of Better Homes and Gardens®

Add functional wall shelving with this project. And you’ll not only add a pretty focal point, you’ll also have a wonderful conversational piece when you explain to visitors that you didn’t buy it, you made it.

Any shelving system project emphasizes the importance of careful measurement. Many of the components are of varying sizes. Middle shelves usually are slightly shorter than the bottom and top pieces. Be sure to measure and then check your measurements … and then measure one more time.

Here's how to build a shelf unit.


1. Cut the outside pieces

For each outside piece, cut a miter on one end. Be sure the saw is set accurately to a 45-degree bevel; test with scrap pieces to be sure. Use a tablesaw or a radial-arm saw, or hold a speed square firmly against a factory edge as you cut with a circular saw. Measure from outside to outside -- from the tip of one cut to the tip of the next.

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2. Cut the dadoes

Set the two vertical outside pieces side by side and mark them for the dadoes. Set the depth of your saw blade so it cuts one-third of the way through the board. Make a series of cuts (see Making a Half-Lap or Dado Joint, Related Projects). Clean the dadoes out by prying remaining wood out with a chisel, then smoothing the bottom with the chisel held bevel side down.

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3. Measure for the shelves

Temporarily fasten the box together by drilling pilot holes and partially driving (tacking) finishing nails at each corner. Or, use a strap clamp (see Gluing and Clamping, Related Projects). Check the box for square. Measure from the inside of each dado to inside of the corresponding dado to determine the length of each shelf. Cut the shelves to length.

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4. Assemble the pieces

Disassemble the box. Apply glue and drive in the nails that hold one side piece to the top and bottom pieces. Carefully position these fastened pieces so the side piece is lying on a flat surface. Dry-fit the shelves into the dadoes and set the remaining side piece in place. Disassemble and make any needed adjustments. Apply glue, check for square, and nail.

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5. Add the back

Cut a piece of 1/4-inch plywood or 1/8-inch hardboard for the back. It should be 1/4 inch smaller than outside dimensions of the unit, so the backing edge is set back 1/8 inch. Use the back as a check to see that the unit is square. Leaving a 1/8-inch gap on all edges, fasten with 4-penny box nails every 4 inches. Fasten back to inner shelves as well as the perimeter.

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Choose between adjustable and fixed shelving

When building a shelf system using adjustable standards and clips and a central vertical support, the adjustable shelves must be a smaller width than the outside pieces. For a cleaner look, set the metal standards in grooves.

To make pin-type adjustable shelves, precisely lay out the locations of the holes on the side pieces by clamping the sides together before marking. Use a sharp bit (hollow-point bits work well) that will not chip the surface of the wood as you bore the holes. If a pin-type adjustable shelf unit is taller than 4 to 5 feet, it should have one or more fixed shelves to keep the side pieces from bowing out. You can add an angle bracket or wooden cleat to which you can attach the fixed shelf.

The simplest unit has shelves screwed in place without dadoes. Such a unit is quite strong, as long as you use three or more screws at each joint and the screws are fastened firmly. Also, use pilot holes so the wood doesn't split. Countersink the screw heads, and fill the holes with putty or plugs (see Drilling, Related Projects). If you use trim head screws, the holes will not be much larger than those for finishing nails. To make such shelves even stronger, add cleats.

Dadoed shelves are stronger and present a clean, finished look because there is no hardware to hide. (See Steps 1-5 for how to build this unit.)

A cleat-supported shelf is simple to build and ideal for utility areas. Use 1x2s for the cleats. Cut the front edge of the cleat at a 45-degree angle so it's not as noticeable. Secure the cleat with countersunk screws.

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