DIY Shelf Installation: Helpful Tips To Make Your First Project Easier

There’s nothing like a mama with her power tools. If you haven’t yet discovered the thrill of holding that cordless screwdriver in your hands, or of looking with pride at the finished result of your handiwork, trust me – it’s liberating to know that you can take care of yourself in this regard.

I first became a homeowner as a single gal, back before the Great Recession. Having been priced out of the renter’s market, I bought a fixer-upper condo in the suburbs, whose mortgage payments were less than my skyrocketing rent in the city. If I wanted something to make my home more livable, I had to do it myself: my father was dead, the rest of my family was over a thousand miles away, I wasn’t dating anyone, and I didn’t have the spare cash to hire a handyman even if I’d wanted to.

But as I soon discovered, my late father lived on in me. He wasn’t a born handyman by any means, but he was the son of a carpenter, and he always had a certain bent for patching together solutions to basic problems with what he had on hand. Maybe not the most elegant solutions, but perfectly functional solutions nonetheless.

And as I also soon learned, there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of figuring out how to do something for yourself. If you’re a newbie at installing shelving, this how-to guide will walk you through your first project, from gathering your tools to attaching your shelf to the wall.

First, here’s what you’ll need as you prepare for the project:

  • If you’re truly a newcomer to DIY projects around the house, I recommend getting a basic how-to book for reference. The Home Depot’s Home Improvement 1-2-3 is a great place to start; I got my copy as a gift years ago, and I still use it when I’m trying to figure out something I’ve never tried.
  • Before you start, make sure you’ve got the tools you need to get the job done. A few basic must-haves will make your life easier – namely,

If you’re installing a longer shelf, a roll of heavy-duty masking tape (which you can find in the painting section of home improvement stores) can also be useful.

  • You’ll also need some sort of portable container for storing these tools, if only to keep them handy while you’re working. I keep my stud finder, pencils and erasers, and my collection of screws and anchors in a basket. When not in use, my supplies live in our second-floor linen closet, which happens to be in our kids’ bathroom. I hang the basket from the underside of a shelf near the top of the closet, far from their grasp.
  • If you’ve had your cordless drill for awhile, make sure that the battery is freshly charged. If the battery doesn’t hold a charge as well as it used to, consider replacing it. Any battery store can hook you up, but you’ll probably find what you need for much less online; just search for “replacement battery” plus the name of your type of drill.

Once you’ve got the tools you’ll need, here’s how to plan your project:

  • First, measure the space where you want to put the shelf, and figure out what materials you’ll need. As you’re measuring, keep in mind things like whether there are any doors near where you want to put the shelf, and make sure they can still open and close freely. Use a piece of paper to sketch out what you want and track measurements and materials lists.
  • If you’re installing a wall of shelves in a small space (like a closet), don’t just measure how wide the space is at the top or at the bottom; measure it at every height where you intend to place a shelf. Unless your house is new construction, you’ll probably find that it’s settled over time, so the closet may be wider at the top and narrower at the bottom. Even a quarter-inch difference from top to bottom is enough to ensure that one or more of your shelves won’t fit, if you have them all cut the same size.
    • This is also a good time to locate the studs in the wall (hence the stud-finder), and start thinking about how you’re going to support the weight of the shelf. A shelf for books or other heavy items will need to support a lot of weight without pulling out of the wall. If you don’t have a lot of conveniently-located studs on the wall into which you can install the support brackets, you’ll need to use strong drywall anchors when installing your brackets, or some other system (like adjustable shelves that rest on movable clips attached to shelving track, with the track installed directly into the studs) to support the weight. If you decide to use adjustable track shelving, you’ll need to factor in the depth of the shelf hardware when figuring out how wide and deep your shelves should be.
    • Once you’ve measured your space and know what size shelving you need, it’s time to go shopping. You can find lengths of shelving in assorted finishes, widths, and lengths at your local home-improvement store; they will often cut to size for you, if you aren’t in a position to do this yourself at home. If you’re looking for, say, four 22-inch-by-12-inch shelves, buying one piece of 8-foot shelving and cutting it to size will probably be less expensive than buying four 24-inch shelves. If one store doesn’t have the length or width you want, try another one. (Getting all the pieces I needed when I redesigned my own walk-in closet meant spreading out my purchases among three different stores!)
    • If you live near a Habitat for Humanity ReStore or other store for repurposed building materials, you may be able to score a deal on used shelving and related supplies at a fraction of the price you’d pay for new. Or perhaps you have a relative or friend whose old barn is well-stocked with random boards, and who’d love to put some of their stash to good use. If your recycled shelving will need refinishing before you can install it, be sure to plan for that in your time budget: strip/stain/paint one weekend, install the next.
  • You’ll also need a supply of L-shaped brackets in sizes that will match your shelving width, and a few boxes of screws in sizes that will fit the bracket holes. #6 or #8 screws are good places to start; get 1½-inch-long wood screws for installing into the studs, and ½” screws for securing the top edge of the brackets into the bottom side of the shelves. Make sure your screw heads are large enough that they won’t go right through the holes on your L-brackets, but not so big that the screws themselves won’t fit through the holes.
  • If there’s any chance you’ll need to put brackets in places that don’t have studs, you’ll also need drywall anchors. Our local home-improvement stores sell both 50-lb and 30-lb varieties; I prefer the “self-drilling” 50-lb. wall anchors, even if the shelf won’t be holding anything heavy, because they’re less likely to break during installation than the 30-lb. size.
  • When hanging our home office shelves and cabinet, I used plenty of L-brackets to support the weight.

    How many L-brackets will you need? I always play it safe by using as many brackets as possible: one on each wall stud, plus one on the edge of whatever end of the shelf touches another wall. (This is another place where you might need those anchors.) Even if you don’t plan to put much weight on the shelf at first, think about it: your needs for the shelf may change over time, and it’s much easier to install a few extra supports at the start, than it is to go back later and try to repair the damage caused when a poorly-supported shelf starts to pull away from the wall.  (Trust me on this one.)

Once you’ve got your shelving cut to size, your drill battery charged, and your hardware purchased, it’s time to put up that shelf:

  • If you haven’t already done so, use a pencil to mark where the shelf will go. If you’re installing a high shelf, think about putting one edge up against a corner or resting the back edge over a doorway, if possible. Use your level-ruler to draw a horizontal line marking where the bottom edge of the shelf will go; then draw vertical lines along the studs, extending down from the horizontal shelf line at least as far as the bottom edge of your L-brackets.
  • Before you attach anything to the wall or shelf, you’ll need to drill small pilot holes. Find the drill bit that’s just smaller than the size of the screw you’ll be using, and put it into your drill. Hold up your first bracket to the wall, so its flat top edge is lined up with your horizontal shelf line on the wall. Then, either use a pencil to draw dots inside the bracket’s holes on the wall, or hold the bracket very still while you drill the pilot holes one at a time (I like to start with the bottom one, and then put the screw partway in that hole to help steady the bracket while I drill the other two pilot holes). Do this one bracket at a time: drill pilot holes, attach to wall with screws, then move on to the next.
  • My prime times for shelf-hanging often materialize when there are no other grownup hands around to help. I usually solve this problem by putting up one L-bracket on the wall first (say, on the wall stud at the far left end of my shelf area) and then installing one L-bracket on the underside of the opposite end of the shelf. That way, when I lift the shelf into place, I can rest one end on the already-installed wall bracket, while I attach the bracket that’s already on the other end of the shelf to the wall. Next, I secure the bottom of the wall-bracket end of the shelf to the top edge of the already-installed-on-the-wall bracket.
  • When you’re actually putting the three screws into a given bracket, don’t tighten them all the way until you’ve got them all in. Even if you had the steadiest hand when you were marking where to drill the pilot holes to place your first L-bracket on the wall – and even if your hand was equally steady when you actually drilled those pilot holes – you may find that one or more of them is a tiny bit off. Getting each screw started, and then mostly tightened (rather than completely tightening one screw before you start installing the second one), will help you compensate for these situations.
  • If you start with one bracket on the wall and one on the shelf, then once you’ve got that first shelf-bottom bracket secured to the wall and you’ve attached that first wall-bracket to the other end of the shelf bottom, it’s much easier to install the other brackets to the wall BEFORE attaching the top bracket edges to the shelf’s underside. You might find it helpful to use masking tape to hold the brackets up against the shelf and/or wall while you’re marking where to put the pilot holes, and/or drilling them.
  • If you’re up high and your kiddos aren’t yet old enough to hold them for you, masking tape can also hold a few screws to the wall, so you don’t have to keep climbing up and down on your step stool to get more out of your box.  (A work shirt with a pocket also works well for this, if you prefer.)

If your first shelf install doesn’t go perfectly for whatever reason, don’t sweat it. With practice, you’ll get better at it, and discover your own tricks to make things easier the next time. Good luck, and happy shelf installation!


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  1. Pingback: Need More Storage Space? Try Looking Up - Super Mom Hacks

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