How to built sturdy basement shelves

At Brett's suggestion, I'm writing this up: how to make cheap, sturdy basement shelves you can be sure won't fall over. I am not an expert; don't sue me if yours do. But I'm not worried about mine. (I did take the precaution of putting very heavy stuff on the bottom shelf. Nothing will save a top-heavy structure from falling over -- nothing but an L-bracket, anyway, and I don't think I need one.)

This is a 5-shelf set, 8 feet wide and 2 feet deep.


  • hammer
  • power drill, with bits and a Phillips'-head attachment
  • Skil saw
  • chalk line
  • jigsaw (maybe; see below)
  • sawhorses, work table, or both
  • safety equipment: ear protectors, goggles, etc.


  • Elmer's glue
  • 3" wood screws
  • 3/4" wire nails. These are for connecting the plywood shelves to their 1x2 supports. Heavier nails would split the board, and lighter ones wouldn't connect firmly. I erred too far on the lighter side, and they don't hold well -- but since the weight is on them, it's not a big issue
  • 4-penny, 1 1/2" nails (I think)
  • 8-penny (2 1/2") nails

Note that the nail and screw sizes aren't set -- I used what I had, mostly. I used 3/4" wire nails for attaching 1x2's to plywood, because the bigger ones split the boards. (AoM member David Hawkins suggested smaller ones, and also banging the point of the nail on something hard to blunt it, to reduce this.) 3/4" was maybe a little too small, because they don't hold firmly. Still, since the weight pushes the plywood onto the 1x2, it doesn't matter much.


I used the cheapest wood they had:

  • 4 4'x4' plywood, 1/4" thick. That's 1 per 2' shelf. I made two of the shelves only 1' deep, so together they took only 1 4'x4' piece between them.
I tried to get unwarped pieces, but that isn't easy. As it turned out, much of it was very warped. It doesn't matter if you handle it right (below).
  • 6 8' 2x3's. These are the vertical supports.
  • 10 8' 2x2's. These are the front and back supports for the five shelves
  • ...and 3 more 8' 2x2's, to make two approximately 2' connectors between front and back, one at each end.
  • 8 8' 1x2's. I put 6 2' 1x2's under each shelf (even the ones only 1' deep) as supports. That makes 30 2' pieces, or 60', so that's 6 8' pieces (64"). Better get 2 more to make the diagonals that give the frame rigidity.

...and you will go back to the hardware store. It's a fact of life! If they take things back no questions asked, like Lowe's, it's no problem if you buy too much.

Be sure and measure everything yourself rather than assuming my measurements will work.
(Especially if you're in a metric world --!) I found that my 2x2's were actually 1 1/2" thick, say, and the 1x2's were 3/4" thick, but I don't know if this is guaranteed. (When you start cutting, very little is!)

Planning the shelves

How many do you want, and how tall? I wanted to be sure they'd fit in the door, in case I ever wanted to move them; so they had to be under 82". I had some plastic baskets and boxes to fit in that were 18". So I decided on 5 shelves: 18", 17", 12", 10", and whatever clearance was left for the top shelf. The diagram I drew is below.

Since each shelf is 1" thick (1/4" plywood, plus a 1x2 layer underneath that was 3/4" thick), the heights inside the frame need to be 1" more than the height you want in the shelves.

Note that although the 2x3's at the end are whole, the ones in the middle are sawed into smaller lengths that rest on the horizontal 2x2's. I didn't want to weaken the horizontal 2x2's by cutting them, and this method should still supply vertical support in the middle.

If I'd had a table saw, I would have cut gaps in the vertical supports so the horizontal supports could rest inside them (see the picture on the right); but I didn't, so I cut things as shown above.

Dealing with warp

You can't expect wood this thickness not to be warped. So I dealt with warped supports as follows:

  • I identified the warp by looking along the length of the board. It may be twisted (one end is rotated relative to the other) or it may be bowed (the middle isn't in a straight line with the ends).
  • The more twisted 2x2's I cut into the small lengths to connect front and back frames. Shorter boards don't have enough length to be as warped.
  • The most bowed I put on the bottom, with the bow facing up, so that the weight on the shelf could force it flat. I figured that the most weight would go on the bottom shelves, so the most warped 2x2's went on the bottom.

Similarly, when I built the plywood shelves, I made sure the bow was facing up (if not, I'd have some silly looking shelves), and tried to put the worst ones on the bottom.

My 2x3's weren't noticeably warped, but if they had been, I'd have used the worst for the middle support, which is cut into shorter lengths.

Building the front and back frames

I sawed the lengths that you saw in the diagram above. I did find that the shelves tended to be just a little higher than I expected (I probably should have noted that you can't fit boards perfectly together), so the top shelf was a little under its desired 9"; but that was OK by me. If not, I could have cut the middle supports a little shorter.

To connect the horizontal supports to the vertical end supports, I used 3" wood screws. (Nails were not sufficient: banging one board in loosened the one I'd just done -- and these are the joints that must be strong!) I drilled a hole in the 2x3 straight to where the horizontal 2x2 was going; did this for each joint. Then I put a little Elmer's glue in the joint and put in the screw using a power drill with a Phillips'-head attachment.

To connect the middle supports, I used nails. The top and bottom supports I put in first -- 2 nails per joint, because if it's only 1, the support can spin on an axis of its 2 nails! For middle joints, half the time the only option was to put the nails in at an angle, as below. Every joint gets glued. (I glued every joint I made in the entire frame, for strength.)


Each shelf is actually two halves: the left and the right half. To make it, I just sawed the 4'x4' plywood right down the middle. To make the 1' deep shelves, I sawed one of the resulting 2'x4' pieces lengthwise.
To cut it straight, I used a chalk line.

Here's a diagram of a 2'-wide half-shelf, as seen from the bottom. I'm showing the right half: the holes cut for the exterior 2x3 supports are on the exterior end (since this is upside down, that's on the left), and the holes for the middle supports are on the interior end. Since the left and right shelves share a gap
for the middle supports, that gap only needs to be half as wide. The left half-shelf is a mirror image of this one.

The 1x2 supports are one in the middle and one at each end. They don't need to be flush with the end, but should be close.

Here's a 1'-deep shelf:

The top shelves are just like the other 2' shelves, except that I didn't have to cut out a place for the vertical supports.

Bracing everything
There have to be diagonals on each plane, to prevent the rectangle from becoming a parallelogram and folding!

Here's my front (as seen from the back, so you can see how the diagonal fits onto the horizontal support) and then my back (as seen from the front). The diagonals are not of a particular length; I eyeballed them. They're about 6"-10".

Where possible without causing anything to stick out of the frame, I left the diagonal's end flat and nailed it onto the surface it was to connect to. But often I needed to cut at 45 degrees, as shown. I eyeballed it.

All joints are glued and then nailed with approx 1 1/2" nails.

Here's the back. It seemed a little stronger to put the diagonals on the very bottom.

This did lead to a complication, though: the bottom shelves no longer fit into their places! The diagonal was in the way. Also, putting it in place required an even bigger hole than was needed just for the diagonal to fit through. I used a jigsaw to cut the hole as shown. (Remember, this is the right half
of the shelf -- the left half would be a mirror image.) The cut needed to be at least 1 1/2"
deep (for the 2x2) + 3/4" deep (for the diagonal 1x2) = 2 1/4"; so I made it 2 1/2" deep. (No need to make the shelves fit tight.)

If I hadn't had a jigsaw, I could have just cut 2 1/2" off the back
with the Skil saw:

Putting the frames together

When the frames felt sturdy (and they did), I screwed them together with wood screws and 2x2s at each end. Each 2x2 was at the same level as the horizontal 2x2 shelf supports, and was 2' minus two times the longer width of a 2x3 = 19" long.

These also were braced by 2 pairs of diagonals, near the top and the bottom, done as before, on the sides.

Finally, the frame got a pair of diagonals flat under the bottom shelf, and another pair under one of the upper shelves, to brace it in the one remaining direction.

Putting it all together

Finally, I moved the frame into place, and set the shelves onto their supports, going bottom to top. They are not nailed on. I don't think they're going anywhere.

What I'd do differently

It's a little wobbly front to back. I probably should have put more diagonal bracing in that direction. I still may.

...and I don't want to suggest that it all went as smoothly as I presented it. I omitted the false starts to
prevent confusion.

What you can do for me

If you're inexperienced, and I didn't explain something, let me know.

If you're experienced, and there's something else I should have done, especially for stability, please add a comment!

Views: 1101

Tags: carpentry, shelves


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Comment by Jon Broholm on January 10, 2010 at 9:27pm
Great looking shelves. Another way of putting things together, that is very stable, is to use Simpson ties, which are available at most hardware stores. They keep everything pretty square and level, and you don't need to include diagonals. I have built quite a few sets of shelves, and workbenches, and designed them similar to this:
All the best,
Comment by Brett McKay on June 24, 2009 at 12:12am

This is brilliant! You have definitely done a service to all men on the community by posting this up. Thanks for taking the time to write it!

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