So I was down in my basement exercising one day and you know what? I realized that I had some major piles of clutter! Ok, well I knew the clutter was there, and yes, I had been ignoring it for some time. So I finally decided it was time to do something about it. So, decided to utilize some scrap, and non-scrap lumber I had to throw up some quick shelves. Our seed starting supplies for growing our native flowers, fertilizers, etc were just laying around as they had nowhere to go. While at the same time, our mobile shelf that had all these various cans of paint and other items was generally disorganized.
Since our basement is unfinished we have exposed studs lining the stairs. This makes throwing up some quick and easy shelves easy, as we won’t have to drill into any concrete. And you should ALWAYS make sure your shelves are strong horizontally as well as vertically! You DO NOT want these tipping over on anyone! As that could lead to serious injury or worse.
But after spending an hour organizing my clamps, I decided I should tackle this mess. Time to organize and de-clutter!
Steps to building
The first step is to clear out everything that is where you wish to build your shelves! Then, you will have to determine how large and how many shelves you want to have. I used some old cardboard to ‘mock’ up shelves and the various heights/distances between them. It worked really well in that I bent the outside edge of the cardboard over so that you got a true idea of distances. The bent edge represents the board that would support the plywood, and you should include it in any layout you make. Not including it may give you a false impression as to how much distance you have in-between plywood shelves. This was a clever way to get an idea of what possible shelf heights could look like. I also was able to represent some existing shelves, which really allowed me to ‘play around’ and figure out how many shelves I wanted.
There were two shelves built by the previous owner that I figured I would keep. It looks like they used a couple of extra floor joists to make them. The just turned the joists on their side, and added these shelving brackets. If you knew that you wouldn’t be putting much weight on the shelves, you could just buy a sheet of ½” plywood at a big-box store and have them rip it to the width to match these kinds of brackets. That would be some nice cheap shelves! I on the other hand can fore see putting several hundred pounds on the shelves I’m building.
Prepping the material
Since the old pallet wood is in pretty rough shape, I used my hand planes to remove a bit of wood and straighten them. Using a hand plane is faster than sanding, although it takes a bit of practice. However, I can’t recommend it enough over sanding. You will save much time and not make as large of a mess as with sanding since there isn’t so much dust. Once this was complete, I headed over to the miter saw and cut the 2×2’s to length, as well as the cross braces.
What dimensions do you need?
Since most plywood comes in 4’x8’ sheets, I purchased one and had the store rip it down into three lengths, all 16” wide. So, now my shelving unit will be 8’ long, plus I still have the 6 tiered shelves that is holding all of our paint, which is nearly 4’ wide. The exposed studs along my stairs are 12’ long, which means this will fill the length perfectly, maximizing my storage capacity of the wall.
Time to go a little deeper into the layout….
So, I had mentioned that I had some ‘scrap’ wood lying around, and some non-scrap. Well, the scrap wood was a bunch of 2×2’s from old pallets my Father in law had given me, and they are in pretty rough shape. These aren’t quite 8’ long, closer to 7 1/2’. In addition to the 2×2’s, I also had several 2×4 studs that are 8’ length. Finally, I have a few 2×4 scraps ripped from the 2×2’s. I figure I can use these as the cross braces.
So, with these materials I can’t do shelves that are 8’ long, unless I taper one of the shelves….which is convenient since I wanted to do that anyway. Sometimes everything just works out, as in if I wanted to build 8’ shelves with the material I had on hand I wouldn’t be able to. I would have to shorten everything to about 7-1/2’. But, tapering the shelves near the stairs can be a great feature to add, as you will see later.
I also trimmed my front upright braces to a height just lower than the other two preexisting shelves. In this manner they won’t interfere with my access to them, as they are slightly shorter.
And the width?
Finally, since the shelves are going to be 16” wide, you should cut some cross braces longer than that. Add up the thickness of your boards the cross braces will mate to, and add 16.5”, as that will allow you to have some gap on your plywood, and allow for some slop in the wood.
Since I will be trimming my shelves at approximately a 45 degree angle, I had to make cross braces that would attach via pocket holes to my 2×4 cross brace (that attaches to the studs). So, cut your pieces accordingly.
Setting the shelf height
Based on my cardboard mock-up, and with some input from my wife, the shelves needed to be tall enough to allow for our largest plastic tote to easily slide under them. So, using that as my reference I installed my first 2×4 brace along the studs.
I could have measured the height, and just clamped it using bar or c-clamps, but since I have plenty of scrap wood lying around I thought I might get a bit creative. So, I made a couple of height gauges that I could set the 2×4 on before clamping to the studs. I cut the scrap pieces of 2×4 at the appropriate height and placed them on the floor in front of the studs. Then I can just rest the 8’ 2×4 on them, and this will ensure that it is level.
Using exposed studs to my advantage!
Attaching the 2×4 to the studs with a pair of c-clamps ensures that it won’t move whilst screwing it into the studs. And setting the height with my gauges ensures it will be level.I tried to use up old hardware on this project, using 2-1/2” drywall screws. Since these screws are fine threaded, I drill pilot holes (about ¾ the screw diameter) to ensure I can force them in. So, in order to choose what drill bit to use for your pilot hole, I just hold up a bit end to end with my screw, and choose a diameter that appears to be 75%-80% of the diameter of the screw threads. This is necessary to ensure you can drive the fine-threaded screws in, as well as reduce the chance of splitting the wood.
Reuse your height gauges!
For the other cross piece, you just need to repeat the above process. So, I sacrificed my gauges and shortened them to set the second shelf height, therefore ensuring that it is level. Then just drill and screw it to the wall. At this point, I decided to make two shelves, instead of three. I figured I could always add a 3rd shelf if needed, and that would be easier than removing a shelf later.
Since the studs that run along the stairs aren’t co-planar, aka, the outside faces of them aren’t in line. I decided to attach another 2×4 to one of the studs, allowing me to screw into that instead of the stud it is attached to. This ensures I have adequate clamping force from screws distributed along the 2×4 back braces. It is just the tension on the screws that will be holding everything together, so make sure you have enough distributed along the back. For me, I figured that 2 screws at each end and in the middle would be sufficient. but since I have plenty of scrap, I figured adding a doubler 2×4 would be a good idea since it would be opposite on of my front frame supports.
Constructing the front frame
To build the front frame, first – measure the height from the ground to the top of the 2×4 cross pieces that are attached to the studs. Then, mark lines on the front frame 2×2’s at these distances, as this will ensure your shelves are level ( assuming your lumber is somewhat straight). This is necessary since the 2×2 and 2×4 will have different dimensions, and you want the distance from the floor to the shelf to be equal. Next, lay out your cross pieces, with the top edge along the lines you just marked. Now we will do an optional step to help keep everything square and aligned before we screw it together.
Make some gauges to keep the frame square
This is an entirely optional section, but if you are working alone can really help. It does require a lot of clamps though. If you have some scrap wood available, you should check to see if it is square. I used some scrap pieces of 2×2 that had a square corner. Any piece of scrap wood that is square, and large enough will work. For my shelves, I needed six of these.
Place a gauge at the intersection of each upright and cross 2×2. Then, I used clamps to clamp a surface of the cross brace to the square gauge, and another clamp against the upright of the square gauge. Do this for each intersection, and you will ensure that all uprights and cross braces are square to one another.
Finish pre-assembling the front frame
Examine your layout one final time before screwing the boards together. Make sure that all cross braces are in the proper position based on your lines you marked, and that everything is secure with the clamps.
Now, pre-drill two pilot holes through one of the cross braces, and then follow it up with a 3.5” or 4” screw. Now, if you are using 2×4’s you could use smaller hardware. But since I had 2×2’s it was necessary to use long screws, as you generally want your screw to penetrate half-way into the mating material.
Side Cross Braces
For the cross braces that will hold the frame to the stud wall, you just need to measure your distances and cut your lumber to length. If in doubt, give it a couple more inches to ensure that it will all fit. I gave several inches more, but this was no issue since I was already dealing with scrap lumber.
For the cross braces that will attach the front frame to the 2×4 you’ve attached to the studs (back cross brace), I used pocket holes.
Set your pocket hole gauge carefully, and drill a pair of holes. You should apply some masking tape to the wood to prevent splitting later (I didn’t, and split a board……).
Final Frame Assembly
Now, if your floor is somewhat level, you can stand your front frame up on end, and it should be able to stand on its own. Stand it up and test it. If for some reason it can’t stand on its own, you should either get something for it to balance off of, or better yet have a friend help you by holding it steady.
Position the front frame the correct distance away from the backside cross braces on the studs, and double check by either laying out a tape measure or yardstick. I set my front frame 17” away from the stud wall. This distance would give me about 3/4″-1″ on each cross brace to hold my plywood. Then, I clamped one of my side cross braces to the stud I was going to attach it to and shoot one screw into it. (If your cross brace extends out from the front frame at all, don’t worry. We can trim it up later).
Set a level on it, to ensure it is level enough for your liking, and then attach another screw. A couple more screws into the front frame, and it is done. Repeat this process for all side cross braces, but if you designed like me, you will need to use pocket screws on the other side.
Angle cross braces
Now you should cut some angle cross braces to support your shelves, as you don’t want a section of plywood just hanging off thin air. What I did was take a length of 2×4 and put it across the 2×4 back brace and the side cross piece. Then, I traced a line with a pencil where I needed to cut it. I just used a hand saw to get it to the proper length. And then clamp it in place (or have a friend hold it), and attach it with a couple of screws on each end. If it doesn’t fit exactly, don’t fret – Just give it a test. I weigh over 200 lbs and it held me just fine on the completed frame.
Additional cross brace
When I was attaching the pocket hole cross brace, I split my board because I applied too much torque. So I felt I needed an additional support. To do this, I cut a notch out of a 2×2 scrap, and attached. I just used hand tools to do this, and cut the notch very carefully. If you don’t have a speed square, or combination square, I really suggest you get one. They are inexpensive and really come in handy.
Since I the back braces and front frame are made of different sized wood, I needed to measure this somewhat carefully. And, it wasn’t easy fitting myself inside the frame to attach the brace, but two screws later it was done. Then I just attached the other end. These cross braces don’t bear too much load, as they are mainly there to hold the main uprights together and keep them from spreading apart.
Attaching the plywood
Now, lay the plywood out onto the frame. Use underlayment or some other suitable nail, and pound them into the frame. For shelves this size, it should only take about 6 nails to firmly attach the plywood. Repeat this on the other shelves, and you are basically done.
One tip I can give you is use a spacer to keep the plywood centered. I placed some scrap pieces of 1×2 between the back studs and the plywood. This will help ensure the plywood is straight. But, look this over very closely before you begin, because if your lumber isn’t straight, you might run into some gaps.
Trimming the plywood for angled shelves
Now we need to trim the plywood to match our angled braces. In hindsight it would have been easier to do this before nailing the plywood to the shelves. I could have just laid out the shelves how I liked them, and scrawled a line where the plywood met the angled brace. But since I had already done this, I just trimmed up the plywood using a Japanese pull saw. This made pretty quick work of the job. Now, you just need to repeat the steps on the upper shelves.
It was also at this stage that I trimmed off the excess length from any cross braces. This was an obvious step, as you would likely catch on these walking by. I purposely left excess length on these during construction, as it really only takes about 20 seconds to trim these up with my Japanese style pull saw.
I know most everyone online & youtube use nothing but power tools. But this saw is so handy to have around. The blade is hardened, meaning that it stays sharp for a long time. And it really makes quick work of so many jobs. Much easier to deal with a neat, contained pile of sawdust from a hand saw than a circular saw that flings dust all over the place.
Shelves Complete! & other tips
Now that shelves are completed, I can finally reorganize my crap, er stuff. I moved the paint shelf over and tried to keep all paints near them. That will make various projects much easier in the future as I won’t have to search for a brushes, etc. I now also have everything necessary to organize my gardening supplies during the off-season, when I’m not using them.
You might notice that I only have two shelves, when during the cardboard mock-up I planned on having 3. I decided to only put in two shelves, as it would allow me initially to store larger items. Plus, when removing all the paints from the paint shelf I noticed that I didn’t really need anymore ‘small’ shelf space. So, based on that I decided to just put in two shelves, but opted to leave the excess upright frames, as if I ever decide to add the 3rd shelf, the structure will mostly be in place.
Turning the corner!
I’m really happy I made the angle on the far end of the shelf. It makes coming around the stairs so much nicer! Just look at this little clip and you can see why.
More lessons learned
If I could change one thing about this project, it would have been to precut the angles on all of the plywood shelves before I installed them on the frame. Mainly this was because the bottom shelf was a bit difficult to get to for trimming, and I underestimated by ‘flexibility’. But, in the end it was probably only 5 minutes of being uncomfortable.
The main thing I learned from this was – don’t throw away scrap wood! Over half of these shelves are made from wood from other projects, or from old 4×4 and 2×2 pallet boards that provided an excellent source for strong, sturdy shelves.
Overall I had a unique situation in that I was able to build directly off of the unfinished studs which provided excellent support. And these shelves will never fall down. If they hadn’t been there I would have most likely had to drill into my concrete wall. Seeing as I don’t have a hammer drill, I was very happy that I didn’t have to do this.
So that’s it! Hopefully this article helped you out or gave you some ideas for your situation. If so, that is great. We add content frequently, and if you sign up for our newsletter you will be sure to catch it all. Thank you!
Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you!
Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!