A quick how-to guide to building the three most common types of shelves: track, bracket, and built-in

How to build storage shelves

There are three basic ways to build storage shelves. You can install track shelving; you can support the shelf with shelf brackets; or you can create a built-in shelf. Follow me, and I’ll run through each of these methods.

Track shelving is flexible and economical. All you need is at least two lengths of shelving track, at least two matching shelf brackets, a board cut to the length of your desired shelf, some screws, and a wall. Because track shelving comes in many weights, you can choose a type of shelving to suit the weight of the objects you plan to store on the shelves. Judge their weight carefully! Always add at least 15 pounds to your estimate, ideally more. It’s better to over build than to under build; a 100-pound shelf holding 15 pounds of knickknacks is not going to walk off the job in disgust, but a 50-pound shelf holding 100 pounds of books is going to collapse, loudly and with much breakage, probably taking out the shelf beneath it as it goes. Read the manufacturers’ weight guidelines for each type of track shelving before you buy anything.

Putting up track shelving is simplicity itself:

  1. Use a stud finder to locate the studs in the wall. They will be 16″ apart, with extra studs around doorways and windows and at the edges of a room.
  2. Mark the places on the stud where you want the top of the tracks to go. This should be at least four inches above where you want the top shelf to be, in order to give your shelving system flexibility. Use a spirit level to make sure that the marks for all of the tracks are even.
  3. Screw each track to the wall, using a spirit level to ensure that the track is perfectly vertical.
  4. Place the brackets in the tracks, and then lay the shelves across the brackets.

Voila! One set of sturdy and easily adjustable shelves, yours to enjoy for many years to come.

“But track shelving is so… unaesthetic,” you say. “I want something more attractive.” Ah, yes. Track shelving does have an industrial feel, doesn’t it? It’s not important if you’ll be filling the shelves and hiding the tracks, but if you want shelves to display knickknacks, you may want to use shelf brackets instead.

Shelf brackets come in hundreds of styles to suit every taste and budget. They can be minimalist, baroque, Victorian, country–any decorating style you can imagine. Their prices range from a few dollars per bracket for the simplest, to $6-$10 for more ornamental or heavy-duty brackets, to $15 and up for the very fanciest. If you want to fill whole wall with shelves, shelf brackets are not the most economical choice to make, but if you want to put up only one or two shelves, they’re indispensable.

Putting up shelf brackets is even simpler than installing track shelving:

  1. Use a stud finder to locate the studs.
  2. Mark the places on the stud where you want the tops of the brackets to go. This should be the place where you want the top of the shelf to be, minus the thickness of the shelf. Use a spirit level to make sure that the marks for all of the tracks are even.
  3. Screw each bracket into the wall. You probably won’t need a spirit level to ensure that the brackets are vertical.
  4. Place the shelf across the brackets. Since decorative brackets often don’t have a knob on the end to keep the shelf in place, you may need to screw the shelf to the brackets if you plan to put heavy objects on the shelf.

The final method of building storage shelves is to rest the shelves on wooden rails fixed directly to the walls. Because this method needs three walls–one back wall and two side walls–it’s ideal for closets and nooks. (In fact, your closet shelf is probably built like this.) Creating built-in shelves takes a little more time and effort than the other two methods, but it’s the sturdiest method by far.

To create built-in shelves:

  1. Measure the sides and back of the space you plan to build in and calculate the length of the railing boards you’ll need. Remember that the railings to go in first–either the back railing or both side railings–will span the entire wall, while the railings to go in second will span the wall minus the width of the first railings. For example, if you’re installing 1″-thick railings in a closet 18″ deep and 36″ wide, the back railing will be 36″ long and the side railings will each be 17″ long; OR the side railings will each be 18″ long and the back railing will be 34″ long.

The side railings must span at least two studs, so if you’re building in a closet, it’s best to extend them all the way across the wall, even if you don’t plan to use a shelf that is equally deep.

  1. Measure and cut the railings. If you plan to stain them, now is the time to do it. If you want to paint them, you can do it now and touch up the hammer and screwdriver damage later, or simply wait until the shelves are done.
  2. Install the railings, using a spirit level to ensure that they are level. The best way is to glue the railings to the wall with carpenter’s glue first–this leaves you plenty of time to make sure the railings are straight before you start putting holes in the wall. When the glue is dry (or when the friend who’s holding up the railings for you tells you to let ‘er rip), screw or nail the railings to the studs.
  3. Measure and cut the shelves themselves. Sand them, then stain or paint them. When they’re dry, lay them across the railings, making sure that the back edge of each shelf rests firmly on the back railing.

And you’re done! You can nail or screw the shelves to the railings if you want to make doubly sure that they stay in place, but I’ve never had a problem with shelves moving about.

Whichever building method you choose, if you work carefully and choose materials of the right weight, the final result will be a strong and attractive set of shelves that will serve you for many years to come. Happy building!

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