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Last Post of the Year – build a shelving unit already!

Posted by joeabbott on December 31, 2011

Well, it hasn’t been the explosion of blogging that I thought I’d be practicing! I have a lot of good books to talk about, my “blog this” entries are burgeoning, and the holiday activities, time-off, and gifts have all left me with plenty of material to prate on about. And yet … nothing. Or the thing that’s just to the right of nothing.

But, I’m not only good with that, I’m really good with that.

Suzy and I fill most of our empty time with something. Places to go, people to see, stuff to do. And since October-ish, there’s been plenty of that. So much that I feel a bit worn down. So, over the last couple of weeks I’ve woken up, ate a bit, read the paper, played some games, got onto the computer for who knows what reason, and just floated through the holiday. It hasn’t been that empty as we’ve attended concerts, hosted a family gathering, dealt with my car’s problems, dealt with cat problems (all’s well now), and cleaned, shopped, and generally attended to life.

But, adding “one more thing” hasn’t been in the cards. I can tell the tide is changing, however.

Just yesterday I was feeling miserable in the AM (I’d taken the train into Seattle the prior day, went to our large public library, was outraged to find that we have both a “Seattle Library” system and a “King County Library” system … yes, Seattle is in King County, and wasn’t able to check out a book without getting another library card) and figured it was something I picked up on my walkabout and association with the unwashed masses. But, today, the skies had cleared enough to stop raining and show some blue so what did I do? Well, go to the nearby Home Depot and get some lumber for a project!

imageThe remodel on the house had completed and left us with a loft in the garage: storage space. But, it was a blank canvas. So, I picked up three sheets of plywood and plan to build some simple shelves to hold our holiday decorations and any manner of other things.

I built something very similar to this for the main garage and it’s worked out beautifully. So well, in fact, that we’re now storing too much stuff there and I’m really looking forward to using the space in the loft for storing some of this stuff.

To build the shelves to the right you need a couple things: saw, glue, maybe a router and some nails. It’s a bit more complex than an IKEA project but it’ll be rock solid. To save you some of the sawing part, you could have the place you buy your lumber from rip the panels for you.

Lumber: three sheets of 4’x8’x1/2” plywood.

In the shelves I built previously, I used 3/4” plywood and it worked great. But, the shelves ended up costing a pretty penny. On sale, I got OSB 1/2” plywood for under $7.50 a panel … that’s under $25 for the entire shelving unit. Now that’s getting close to IKEA prices!

But, as I noted, it won’t be quite as easy as the “build it with only a hex key/wrench” IKEA projects.

After getting the panels ripped in half (now 24” wide by 96” long), you’ll have six of these skinnier panels. Cut two of them in half length-wise. This will leave you with

  • Four panels at 24”x96” – called “long panels”
  • Four panels at 24”x48” – called “short panels”

Measurements are rough.

Take two of the long panels and position them side-by-side on the long edges. You can now take a router with a 1/2” straight bit (preferably one with a collar) and route 1/4” deep dados on the ends and at 31 7/8” from the ends. On edge, it will look like this:


These are your top and bottom panels. By positioning them side-by-side on the long edges before you route the grooves, you’ll ensure that your slots for the vertical dividers are aligned perfectly and you won’t end up with dividers that are at an angle. I will also note that, if you don’t hit “31 7/8” “ exactly, that’s just fine. I only used that measurement to try to get the spacing as close to perfect thirds as I could. Go with 32” if you want … it’ll mean your center bay is roughly a quarter inch narrower than the other two but that’s fine.

Now do the same for the end parts!

Take two of the short panels and position them side-by-side on the long edges. Using your router set at 1/4” deep, cut two dados at 15 3/4” from each end. NOTE: you do not want to cut dados on the ends of these panels. It should look like the below (I’ve rotated it purely to fit better in this blog entry):


These are you left and right outside panels.

The interior shelves are where things get tricky, but only marginally.

imageThe vertical dividers are going to look like the picture to the right when you’re done. The “15 3/4” “ isn’t a coincidence … it should be the exact same dimension as you cut into the short panels you used for the sides. The exact dimension. By keeping both the dados you cut in the short panels and the slots you’ll make in the vertical dividers the same, you’ll keep everything nice and straight.

The tricky part here is “how do you cut these?

If you have a table saw you can cut a stopped slot; you can use your router to cut through, too (but that’s a lot of wood to remove). There’s no right answer but by using a jig to find the right place to cut the slots, you should be able to do this without too much concern for being exact.

[Update: use a jigsaw to cut the slots]

So, for the vertical dividers, take the remaining two short panels and cut slots in as shown on the right.

The shelves (the horizontal dividers) are going to be cut very similarly to the vertical dividers but the dimension for the slot will “look off”. It’s not.

[Update: First, cut down the horizontal dividers (shelves) by 1/2” to give an overall dimension of 24”x95 1/2”. This accommodates for the fact that the shelves will nest inside the outside panels.]

The picture below shows the slots to be cut at 31 5/8” from the ends. This is very specific. Above I noted you didn’t really have to cut the dados in the top/bottom panels at exactly “31 7/8” “ … you could use “32” “ or something, Well, to be clear, whatever spacing you used for the top panels, back off a quarter inch for the spacing of the slots in the shelves.

By doing this, you’ll ensure that, once you nest the shelves into the dados in the sides panels, the slots will line up with the dados in the top/bottom panels.

So, for the shelves, take the two remaining panels (they will be long panels) and cut slots in as shown below:


As I mentioned above, this can get tricky unless you are really good at 3D spatial puzzles, or just slow down and mentally construct the model of the shelving unit we’re building.

OK, once you have all of these parts built, you’ll be ready to assemble!

Mate the slots from the vertical dividers and the shelves. You’ll have the interior of your shelving unit ready! The, using a liberal amount of glue and a nail or two, nest the ends of the shelves into the dados you cut into the outside panels. Finally, do the same for the top and bottom: nest the vertical divider and panel ends into the dados you cut into the top/bottom panels using a goodly amount of glue and a nail or two.

Once that sets up, you’re done! I should note that having a bunch of clamps, assembling this on “riser blocks” (a simple 2×4 to hold it off the ground is fine), and being patient will all play to your favor and the ease with which this comes (and stays!) together! While this isn’t a trivial project, it’s absolutely geared for the beginner and about as easy as they come. Just think through the cuts and don’t hurry. In the end you’ll have a nice, sturdy set of shelves for the garage. Or the storage loft in the garage!

Thanks for reading and have a happy New Year!


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