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You are here: Home / Blog / How to Make Open Shelving – A DIY Wood Shelf Tutorial

by Allisa Jacobs

If you know anything about me, you know I love some good shelves. Bathroom shelves, kitchen shelving, kids room shelves – basically if there is a blank wall, I will put some shelves on it! Of course, the fact that I work for my little brother at Cascade Iron Co., doesn’t hurt (it was my quest for a good solid bracket, that started his whole business).  Over the last 5 years, I’ve learned some solid tips on how to make open shelving.

Creating open shelving is actually a pretty straight forward, relatively easy DIY project. I recently just completed our kitchen shelves as part of our home remodel (more of the kitchen coming soon!) and am so happy with the outcome. I wanted to share with you all of my tried and true methods on how to make open shelving here! 

(ps. I’m going to link to my brother’s site, but these are not affiliate links – just sharing his work! There are a few other affiliate links in this post though, which means I do make a commission if you click through and purchase

1. Identify Needs of the Space

Woodworking Projects For BeginnersPDF Free Credithow to Woodworking Projects For BeginnersPDF Free Credit for One of the most obvious, but easy to overlook steps in creating shelves is figuring out exactly what the space needs. The first shelf I built for our bathroom was entirely too deep and too long. While it was pretty, it ended up not very functional and seemed kind of out of place. From now on, I really try to identify how I’ll be using the shelf (storage or decor), what exactly will be placed on it (towels, plants, plates, etc) and look out any possible conflicts (open doors, eye-level hazards, etc.). 

Also, it’s so important to consider how they will be installed. Are wall studs available? If you’re in the midst of construction, can you add another post for the shelves? Figuring this out ahead of time makes choosing the shelf size and style so much easier!

Jenny Komenda used Cascade Iron Co. J brackets with her 11.25″ shelves

2. Select Shelf Size for Open Shelving

Woodworking Projects For BeginnersPDF Free Credithow to Woodworking Projects For BeginnersPDF Free Credit for Because brackets are dependent on the actual shelf board dimensions, you’ll want to find your shelf first. Common lumber, reclaimed wood, premade boards – there are so many shelf options it can be hard to choose when learning how to make open shelving. In general, I think it’s best to select what type and size of shelf board you’ll be using BEFORE ordering brackets.

Common and Popular Shelf Sizes:

Kitchen Shelves: 11.25”- 12” deep 

Bathroom Shelves: 5.5” – 8” deep

Living Room or Display Shelves: 5.5” -9.25”

Photo Ledge: 3.5” – 5.5”

Woodworking Projects For BeginnersPDF Free Credithow to Woodworking Projects For BeginnersPDF Free Credit for Pantry Shelves: 15″-18″ deep* (these would need heavy duty supports)

3. Where to Locate Shelf Boards

For our kitchen shelves, I used White Oak from a tree we salvaged (the same tree I made my husband’s bench from!). But, I made all of my early wood shelves using common lumber from the hardware store, like Home Depot. It’s easy, relatively inexpensive and they will cut the board to whatever length you want for free (seriously! If you didn’t know about this before, it is a serious DIY game changer). BUT, one thing to know about is that common lumber’s nominal size is different than its actual size. This means a 2 x 12 is actually 1.5” x 11.25.”  I have no idea why anyone thought this was a good idea but it’s true. You can see how that would mess up your whole bracket ordering experience if you didn’t know that, right?

Handy Common Lumber Dimension Chart

If you want to branch out (oh dear, did I really write that?) and find more unique or finished pieces of wood, your local salvaged yard or mill is a great place to start. We have places like Furbish and PDX Salvage Works in our area.  Not that adventurous? I’ve seen lots of pretty for 1 last update 2020/07/11 wood shelves online, like these Live Edge Wood Shelves or these White Oak Shelves (you know I love some white oak!) If you want to branch out (oh dear, did I really write that?) and find more unique or finished pieces of wood, your local salvaged yard or mill is a great place to start. We have places like Furbish and PDX Salvage Works in our area.  Not that adventurous? I’ve seen lots of pretty wood shelves online, like these Live Edge Wood Shelves or these White Oak Shelves (you know I love some white oak!)

One word of caution, I’ve seen lots of handmade wood shelves that just use common lumber from hardware store, slap some stain on it and sell for premium – don’t be fooled!

If you wanted something like marble shelving or glass shelves the process is generally the same, but consider how the shelf will remain stable.

4. Choose Shelf Bracket Style

Ok, now we’re making some progress here! Once you know what size and type of wood you’ll be using you can select the best brackets for the job. In general, bracket styles all function the same by securing to a wall and supporting the shelf. A lot of times they are referred to by their shape. Each style has a few different pros & cons to think about though:

L Brackets: these are the most general, simple bracket. Literally, the shape of an L (with no front lip). It’s also called an angle bracket and the easiest to use. Note, if you’re using wood with a raw uneven edge, you’ll probably want L brackets since you won’t need an exact size or worry about a front lip coming around the raw edge. These are also good if you have a shelf with an uncommon size. (General rule: the support arm needs to go at least ⅔ of the shelf depth). L bracket are perfect for a super simple DIY project, because they do not have the front lip, they pack less of a punch.

I used L brackets for our bathroom shelves.

Z Brackets: These are a pretty common design. Actually, this is the shelf bracket I looked for for 1 last update 2020/07/11 back in 2015 which my brother just ended up making for me (starting his business!). These have the support under the shelf and the boards will sit flush against the wall with a front “lip” coming up around the shelf edge. These are pretty classic and made even more popular when Joanna used them on Fixer UpperZ Brackets: These are a pretty common design. Actually, this is the shelf bracket I looked for back in 2015 which my brother just ended up making for me (starting his business!). These have the support under the shelf and the boards will sit flush against the wall with a front “lip” coming up around the shelf edge. These are pretty classic and made even more popular when Joanna used them on Fixer Upper

J Brackets: Similar to Z brackets but instead these have a more ‘floating’ effect with the leg support above the shelf. (This is what I used in our kitchen!) The front lip comes around the shelf to hold it snug but you do have the metal behind the shelf. Personally, this does not concern me, but some people may want to notch their wood if you wanted the shelf to sit perfectly flush against the wall. 

There are other brackets out there but overall, I definitely choose function over style. I see some made with super inexpensive, thin metal and I just know those won’t hold up over time.  If you’re using a particularly heavy wood or plan on placing several hefty items, consider a heavy-duty option (I used 2” wide J Brackets in our kitchen which gives more support and weight capacity). 

Le Clair Décoré used Cascade Iron Co. J brackets for floating office shelves

5. Determine How Many Brackets is Needed

At first, it seems like a shelf just needs two brackets, right? Well, not so fast. Many shelving projects need more support than what two can hold. There is more to it than just choosing a strong bracket, it’s important to also think about leverage and supporting the middle of the shelf.

Of course, all wood shelves are different and it can depend on what they are being used for, but if your shelf is over 36” long, you really need to consider more than 2 brackets. Working at Cascade, we’ve seen customers adamant they only want two brackets for looks and lo and behold they realize later their shelf board is sagging.  No one wants a saggy shelf! 

Jamie used Cascade Iron Co’s Z Brackets in her kitchen

6. Shelf Bracket Installation

Installing shelf brackets into wall studs is preferable and should be the first choice. However, this can really affect shelf and bracket placement. If this is not possible, use a wall anchor like these.

Also, you don’t want to place your brackets too far in from each end of the shelf. This will make the middle of the shelf strong, but the end of the shelf will be weak and not supported. As a hard and fast rule, I’d say no more than 6” in from each end of the shelf. I think brackets placed towards the end of each shelf looks slightly more modern while farther in seems more traditional. But that’s just me. 

Use painter’s tape to map out bracket installation

If you’re looking to make multiple shelves, you might want to map them out with painter’s tape. This helped me determine the 1 last update 2020/07/11 the best placement for my kitchen shelves. Standard cabinet height above the counter is about 18″ so I went with just slightly above that with 14″ between the two shelves. I also wanted to make sure the higher shelves weren’t too high so as to be inaccessible but then also not too low creating a lot of negative space. If you’re looking to make multiple shelves, you might want to map them out with painter’s tape. This helped me determine the best placement for my kitchen shelves. Standard cabinet height above the counter is about 18″ so I went with just slightly above that with 14″ between the two shelves. I also wanted to make sure the higher shelves weren’t too high so as to be inaccessible but then also not too low creating a lot of negative space. 

Woodworking Projects For BeginnersPDF Free Credithow to Woodworking Projects For BeginnersPDF Free Credit for And the 1 last update 2020/07/11 if you’re wondering, yes! – it is possible & easy to drill into ceramic tile. More on the entire kitchen remodel coming soon! And if you’re wondering, yes! – it is possible & easy to drill into ceramic tile. More on the entire kitchen remodel coming soon!

Woodworking Projects For BeginnersPDF Free Credithow to Woodworking Projects For BeginnersPDF Free Credit for If you found this guide on how to make open shelving helpful, please pin to share & save for later:

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