Building Basic Closet Shelving

OK guys, riddle me this: How can my lovely young bride say, “I don’t have enough closet space” and then within hours proclaim, “I don’t have anything to wear”? Whether your clothes horse is a closet hog or you really don’t have much closet space, following a few simple guidelines can make a big difference in how to get the most out of the closet space you do have.

The chances are pretty good that the original rods and shelves in your closets were built with priority given to saving construction time and material. Improving your closet is all about efficient use of space. If the goal is to store as many clothes as possible (a worthy goal indeed, according to the wife of my youth), then you need to start with pencil and paper—graph paper works great—and ignore how the closet is now.

Photo courtesy of ClosetMaid


Pencil a Plan

Make a scale sketch of the closet. Measure the horizontal and vertical dimensions of each wall. In a standard non-walk-in closet this will be only the back wall. Divide up this wall space into the space that works best for your stuff.

My wife hangs up almost everything so a maximum of closet rod space is ideal for her. I need hanging space for a few collared shirts required to get on certain golf courses, otherwise my stuff wads up and stacks on shelves.

When designing closets, keep in mind that hanging clothes need 40 inches of vertical space (42 inches for taller people) with the exception of long dresses, overcoats, capes and chest waders—you know what you have.

Now you can divide up the closet however you want.

Knowing clothes closets should be at least 2 feet deep helps when planning partitions for walk-in closets. Laying out the closet clockwise, end a section of clothes rod at the right end of the first wall, then, turning 90 degrees to the right, measure 2 feet from the left wall of the next section and start with a partition. This leaves the right amount of room for clothes on the first wall to hang without interference.

A basic bedroom closet gets a cost-cutting single rod and shelf. For this basic closet, you can mark a level line on the closet walls at 68 inches and nail 1-by-4 cleats along this line. The cleat supports the shelf and provides an anchor point where rod supports can be installed to secure the closet rod. The side cleats (at the ends of the shelf) can run wall to wall in a shallow closet (2-1/2 feet or under) but they must extend a minimum of 15-1/2 inches from the back wall to support a 16-inch shelf and provide backing for the rod cups.

Only use the shorter version of the cleat if there is framing to support the cleat. Otherwise, run the cleat wall to wall.

Pay attention to the header above the door opening when deciding on the depth of the top shelf. You can substitute a 12-inch shelf to allow more room to get items between the shelf and the front wall of the closet. The side cleats for a 12-inch shelf over a closet rod need to be at least 14 inches long to provide an anchor point for the rod supports.

The same bedroom closet can have greatly improved storage area by simply adding a partition in the center and making a double rod and shelf on one half. Or, if closet length allows, you can put in two partitions about 16 inches apart and install a column of shelves in the middle, with a single rod and shelf on one side and a double rod and shelf on the other.

Keep in mind how the doors operate. If you have bypass doors, a stack of shelves in the middle may not work as well as they would with bi-fold doors, which open out of the way in the center.


Step Back

One design principle you’ll need to follow is to step back each level to get a reveal where shelves and cleats and partitions come together. The reveal does several things for you. Often shelving has a bull-nosed edge, so you have a radius where the vertical and horizontal pieces come together. By stepping back the supporting member, you can eliminate the gap where the eased edge doesn’t touch the straight line of the adjoining piece.

A reveal can also hide discrepancies in the walls by requiring less precision where components come together. Most wood framed walls have some quirks like bowed studs and some are out of square or are not plumb (true vertical). In other words, instead of trying to get all of the front edge to come out on the same plane, you simply accentuate the difference in plane so it looks planned, which, of course, it is.


One quarter inch is a good reveal at each level of the closet. For example, if your shelving material is a full 16 inches wide, keep the top shelf at that width and rip the supporting partitions to 15-3/4 inches. Cut down shelves that tie into the partitions to 15-1/2 inches wide. The ends of the supporting cleats for these 15-1/2-inch shelves should be 15-1/4 inches from the wall.

Shelves in areas where clothes will not be hanging can be supported with 1-by-2 cleats. Linen or pantry closets, as examples, can be made with 1-by-2 cleats. A clothes closet can also contain several shelves that are supported by 1-by-2 cleats as long as 1-by-4 cleats are used where you want to put a clothes rod to support hangers.


Construction Basics

We start by marking the elevation of the shelves. Occasionally you may need to think through where your layout marks are, so a shelf elevation comes out exactly in line with a window or other feature of the room. But in most cases you simply need to consider that your layout lines will be at the bottom of the shelf and the top of the cleat. Mark a level line on the wall at the elevations of your horizontal layout marks.

You can find the studs by searching with a hammer and nail below the layout line. The guys on our crew get very fast at hearing and feeling a stud with the head of a hammer and then verifying the location with a nail. We find the center of the stud by hitting the framing twice about 1 inch apart and then mark between the locations where you hit the stud. Because you are searching in an area where the cleat will cover the nail holes, you don’t have to worry about damage to the wall.

After finding one stud, we can quickly locate the remaining studs on the wall by lining up our stud location with one of the stud layout marks on the tape and scratching the wall with the end of the tape. Shorter wall sections can be marked by using a straight wood scrap and a torpedo level.

Use a level along the back wall as a straight edge when checking the shelf location for square. A straight edge that is longer than the blade of the framing square helps give a better representation of the wall line.

We mark vertical lines for partitions by marking both sides of the partition location. If the partition material is 3/4-inch thick then the vertical lines will be parallel lines at 3/4 inch apart.

Nail the back cleats into position at the layout lines. A nail angled slightly into the corner usually catches framing.

Measure along the top of the cleat to determine the shelf length at the rear wall. Then, measure, mark and cut the first shelf in a linen closet layout. After testing the first shelf in the closet you can use it as a pattern to mark the remaining shelves in the same stack.

We ripped the top shelf of our linen closet from 16 inches down to 12 inches so items can be fit between the shelf edge and the door header.

Tip the shelves into position. The painter wanted to save some time by having us build the closets packs before painting, but unpainted texture is very soft so be careful not to scrape the walls.

Note that the top shelf in a linen closet is shallower so items can clear the door header while loading and unloading the shelf.

We use an extra vertical cleat where the rod brackets go. Brackets or partitions should be about 4 feet apart to support the load of items on both the shelf and the rod. Brackets should be located on studs. A stop clamped to the miter saw table is a good way to cut multiple cleats of the same size without measuring and marking each one.

A router with a round-over bit gives a finished look to the exposed end of a cleat. Note: If you’re working with a partner, whoever does the layout writes the cleat dimensions on the wall at the cleat locations. This way the other worker can make a cut list without asking additional questions about the layout.

Use carpenters glue to give strength to cleats that are attached to partitions.

Tip shelves at an angle and keep the back edge parallel to the wall while installing.

“L” Connection

Walk-in closets often have shelves that join together at 90 degrees in the corner. In fact we often build U-shaped pantry closets with five shelves on three walls, which require 10 of these connections in a single closet.

Because the finished edge of the shelving is bull-nosed, it doesn’t connect well with another shelf butting into the leading edge. To keep a flat plane at the joint, we rip off the portion of the bull nose that lines up with the connecting shelf. This joint is reinforced with biscuits and glue to create a continuous shelf wrapping around the corner.

To make an “L” connection with bull-nosed material, measure the width of the flat part of the shelf to where the bull nose starts. Set the table saw to rip off the bull-nose portion of the shelf edge.

Cut off the bull nose just short of the width of the adjacent shelf. Be careful because the curve of the saw blade will make the cut longer on the bottom than on the top. Finish the table saw cut with a jigsaw or handsaw.

Use a biscuit jointer to cut two slots in the new edge you made with the table saw.

With the first shelf in place, overlap the adjacent shelf and trace along the edge of the first shelf to get a cut line for the second shelf.

Install biscuits in the slots and use wood glue to secure at the joint. Tip the second shelf into position with biscuit end down first. As the biscuits connection comes together, the other end of the shelf can be maneuvered into position.


Hanging Hardware

After the painting is done, it’s time to install the rods and brackets. Measure one of the rod brackets to determine the center of the rod out from the back cleat and down from the shelf. Transfer these measurements to the side cleats and attach the cup centered on this mark.

Center the brackets on the vertical cleat extensions and use a square to determine the screw hole locations. Attach the bracket with the supplied wood screws.

With the rod cups and brackets in place, measure and cut the wall-to-wall rods first. With all of the rods in place, fasten them by pre-drilling the rod through the hole in the bracket and installing the supplied wood screw.

In this walk-in closet the layout was simplified by not putting in a partition at the corner and by leaving the single rod on the left wall at the same level as the top rod on the right wall. The completed closet pack has well supported shelves and closet rods. The double rod on the right has a shelf at 40 inches and 80 inches from the floor.

OK, guys, that’s how you make more space for “nothing to wear.”


The Design

You can divide up a closet into about anything you can draw on paper, just don’t span shelves longer than about 4 feet without support between. I’m redesigning a closet that is 6 feet wide by 8 feet high. It will have a double rod and shelf on one side and a stack of shelves on the other.

You can also factor in awkwardly shaped and hard-to-store items such as snowboards and golf clubs. Measure these items and design space for them. I’m factoring in space for a guitar and case that I don’t want to store in the attic.


How Would You Scribe This?

Shelf-to-wall fits don’t have to be perfect in a painted shelving system because, as my friend Rigo says, “They can caulk it.” But when a shelf won’t go into position and needs to be trimmed, you might as well scribe it at the same time to improve the fit.

To close narrow gaps you can use a pencil with the shaft held against the wall, which makes the pencil a gauge that marks the difference between the edge of the pencil and the point of the lead that touches the surface to be marked.

A power planer makes short work of trimming the shelf back to the line. Caution: This cut exposes the blades of the planer so if you are not comfortable handling the planer like this, use a circular saw, grinder or sander.


Shelves Before Paint

If your shelving project is in new construction or an addition, you can install the shelving after texture but before painting the walls. With the shelves in, all of the wood components can be spackled, caulked and painted right along with the walls.


What You’ll Need

• 1×2 MDF (or other paintable material)

• 1×4 MDF

• 16” shelving

• Circular saw

• Biscuit joiner

• Router

• Nail gun

• Squares

• Levels



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