How to Build Utility Shelves
Amp up storage in a garage, large closet, or basement with utility shelves. This tutorial provides step-by-step instructions for building a storage-savvy unit.
The basic design of this utility shelving unit is adaptable enough that it can be used almost anywhere. Add as many shelves as you want between the bottom and the top; just shorten the shelf supports for more shelves or lengthen them for taller spaces to store large items. You can also easily change this unit's structural dimensions to make it deeper, longer, or taller.
The unit uses softwood plywood and pine construction—materials readily available at home centers and lumberyards. Its only finish is a coat of marine spar varnish to make cleaning it easier. You could also paint the piece in enamel for use elsewhere in the house.
Expect to spend about four hours on this project. Before you begin, prepare a work area and brush up on your sawing and measuring skills.
What You Need
- Wood (see Cut List)
- Tape measure
- Carpenter's square
- Power saw
- Electric drill/driver
- Countersink bit
- Drill bits
Before You Begin: Buying Wood
Project plans normally include a bill of materials that lists the amount and sizes of all the wood parts needed. Think of this as the start of your shopping list. Rewrite it, listing the number of 1x4s, 2x4s, and other material you'll need before you go to the lumberyard or home center.
And when you get there, select the wood carefully. Set aside boards with obvious cosmetic defects and noticeable warp. Reject boards with even slight cupping or twisting. Check by placing boards on the floor to see if they lie flat. Bring a crayon to mark the ones you're keeping.
Step 1: Cut Stiles
Crosscut standard 2x4 material to 72 inches long to obtain the four stile parts (A) for the basic unit. Crosscut 1x4 material to 72 inches in length for the four stile parts (B).
Editor's Tip: Power miter saws, often called chop saws in the building trade, are accurate tools that simplify crosscutting and cutting at angles. They cut quickly, but users sometimes try to rush the cut by forcing the blade into the wood, or chopping, which is dangerous. Let the blade cut the wood at its own pace. Use one hand to pull on the saw with just enough force to lower it; keep the other hand away from the blade, firmly holding the board in place against the fence.
Step 2: Glue Together A and B
Evenly apply glue to one edge of each 2x4 part A. Position one 1x4 part B on each part A with all ends and edges flush, then clamp and let glue dry. Clean off excess glue.
Editor's Tip: Use a small foam or stiff-bristle brush to spread glue on narrow surfaces, such as the edge of a 2x4. Either squeeze ribbons of glue directly from the bottle or dip the brush into a small container of glue.
Step 3: Drill Holes and Drive Screws
Measure 2 inches in from each end of 1x4 (B) in stile assemblies. Drill five evenly spaced, countersunk holes for #8x1-1/2-inch flathead wood screws. Drive the screws, then sand the edges.
Step 4: Make Base Rails
Crosscut 2x4 material to 36 inches in length to make two base rails (C). Break the rail edges with sandpaper.
Step 5: Make Side Rails
Using a stop block to ensure identical length, crosscut 1x2 material to length for front and back rails (E). Repeat for eight side rails (F).
Editor's Tip: When you have several parts to crosscut to the same length, clamp a stop block to your crosscutting jig or worktable at the desired length. Butt each board up to the stop block to make the cut.
Step 6: Make Shelf Decks
Clamp a straightedge as a guide and crosscut two 36-inch-long pieces of plywood 48 inches wide. Cut two pieces 20 inches wide from each to make the four 20x36-inch shelf decks (D).
Step 7: Form Shelf Frames
Form a 20x36-inch base frame for each shelf by gluing and clamping two 1x2 front/back rails (E) to the ends of two 1x2 side rails (F).
Step 8: Secure Shelf Frames
Secure each shelf base-frame assembly by drilling holes in the front/back rails and driving #8x1-1/2-inch flathead wood screws into each corner of the base frame.
Step 9: Glue and Square
Apply glue to the top of each shelf base frame (E/F). Position a 20x36-inch deck (D) on the top of the shelf base frame. Check for square. Realign as needed, then clamp.
Step 10: Secure Deck Top and Base Frame
Mark and drill evenly spaced countersunk holes for #8x1-1/2-inch flathead wood screws through the deck top into the base frame. Drive the screws to secure assemblies.
Step 11: Join Base Rail to Stile
Join one end of a base rail (C) to one stile assembly (A/B) with a clamp. With a carpenter's framing square, check the assembly. Drill countersunk holes for two #8x1-1/2-inch flathead wood screws in the face of the stile and fasten with screws.
Step 12: Add More Stiles
Add a second stile to the base rail/stile assembly and repeat Step 11. Repeat the steps to attach the two remaining stiles and the remaining base rail. Be sure to check for square at each rail/stile joint with a carpenter's framing square.
Step 13: Connect Assemblies
Position the bottom shelf on one rail/stile assembly. Drill countersunk holes for #8x1-1/2-inch flathead wood screws in the rail/stile through to the shelf. Then drive screws into the shelf and rail/stile assembly. Add the second rail/stile assembly and fasten to the shelf.
Step 14: Position Top Shelf
With the unit lying on the floor, position the top shelf in place between the stiles, as shown in the drawing. Drill countersunk holes in the stiles; fasten with #8x1-1/2-inch flathead wood screws.
Step 15: Install Middle Shelf
Cut 1x4 material for the 12 support spacers (G). To install a middle shelf, stand the unit and clamp a support spacer to the inside of each stile. Fasten it with #8x1-1/4-inch flathead wood screws in counterbored holes.
Step 16: Add More Shelves
Slide a shelf into place on top of the support spacers. Add other shelves by repeating Step 15. You can change the height of the middle shelves by shortening or lengthening the support spacers.
Step 17: Level Shelving Unit
If the unit sits on an uneven floor, tap in shims under the stiles to level it. Check progress with a level.
Step 18: Cut a Spacer
Cut a spacer if there's a gap between the back of the top shelf and the wall. Screw through the shelf rail and the spacer, into the wall.
Step 19: Sand the Surface
It may not be fine furniture, but you still want this shelving unit to feel smooth. Sand the surfaces with 120-grit abrasive, then follow with 180-grit. Soften all sharp edges too.
Step 20: Add a Finish
This storage unit may go into a garage or basement, which are often damp places. An exterior finish such as spar varnish will protect it from moisture as well as help you keep it clean. Finish all sides.
Bonus: How to Check for Square
To avoid the aggravation and wasted time of having to adjust work that's out of square, check for square every step of the way.
Use a carpenter's square to check the ends of boards for square before and after cutting. Use a try square to check the corners of a miter joint and the ends of smaller boards, as well as for squaring a table saw blade to the table or a portable circular saw blade to the saw plate.
Diagonal measuring is one way to check for square on a four-sided assembly, such as a face frame or bookcase. Use a tape measure to find the length diagonally from one corner to another. Then measure diagonally between the other two corners. If both measurements are exactly the same, the assembly is square.