How to Build Sturdy Basement Shelves

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If you’re thinking about learning a handy skill, making bookshelves as one of the most practical and satisfying to tackle. Every man has a desire to make some furniture that will be used in his home day after day. And bookshelves are a great introduction to this craft.

I recently undertook a project to build cheap, sturdy bookshelves that would not fall over, and decided to write-up the results. I am not an expert; don’t sue me if yours do fall over. 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.)

These instructions show you how to make a 5-shelf set, 8 feet wide and 2 feet deep.

Tools:

  • 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.

Materials:

  • Elmer’s glue
  • 3" wood screws
  • 3/4" wire nails. These are for connecting the plywood shelves to their 1×2 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 1×2′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 1×2, it doesn’t matter much. Wood

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 ("Dealing With Warp" below).

  • (6) 8′ 2×3′s. These are the vertical supports.
  • (10) 8′ 2×2′s. These are the front and back supports for the five shelves …and 3 more 8′ 2×2′s, to make two approximately 2′ connectors between front and back, one at each end.
  • (8) 8′ 1×2′s. I put 6 2′ 1×2′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 2×2′s were actually 1 1/2" thick, say, and the 1×2′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 1×2 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 2×3′s at the end are whole, the ones in the middle are sawed into smaller lengths that rest on the horizontal 2×2′s. I didn’t want to weaken the horizontal 2×2′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 2×2′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 2×2′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 2×3′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 2×3 straight to where the horizontal 2×2 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.)

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