How to Put Up Shelves

Putting Up New Shelving

How to Put Up Shelves Why is it that when you move into a new house or flat, there are never enough shelves for all your books or other possessions? And even when you think you have put up sufficient shelving for your future needs, the shelves always seem to be overflowing after just a couple of years. Thankfully, shelving is relatively inexpensive and easy to install.

Depending on where it is and what it is to be used for, shelving can be anything from a set of planks on functional-looking brackets in a garage to elegant spans of solid wood or plate glass on apparently delicate supports made of light alloy

Essential tools:

  • Hammer
  • Masonry bit
  • Plumb line
  • Power drill
  • Screwdriver
  • Spirit level
  • Tenon saw
  • Wood bits

What Materials to Use for Shelves

Ready-cut shelves, in a wide variety of sizes, are usually made from solid wood or man-made boards, but shelves manufactured from glass or painted pressed steel are also available. Man-made-board shelves are painted or finished with wood or plastic veneer. If the standard range of shelves does not meet your requirements, you can make your own using the following materials.

Solid wood

Softwoods such as pine usually contain knots unless specially selected. Parana pine is generally knot-free and available in wide boards, but is more expensive.

You can buy hardwoods such as oak, beech and ash from some timber merchants, but their relatively high cost limits their use to special features and built-in furniture.


Blockboard is a stable man-made board constructed from strips of softwood glued and sandwiched between two layers of plywood-grade veneer.

The board is as strong as solid wood, provided the shelving is cut with the core running lengthways. You will need to lip the raw edges with veneer or solid wood to cover the core.


Plywood is built up from veneers with their grain alternating at right angles to one another in order to provide strength and stability. The edges of plywood shelves can be left exposed or covered as for blockboard.


Chipboard, the cheapest man-made board, is most often used for the core of manufactured veneered shelving. Chipboard shelves are liable to bend under load unless they are supported properly.

Medium-density fibreboard Medium-density fibreboard (MDF) is a dense and stable man-made board that is easy to cut and machine. It finishes smoothly on all edges and does not need to be lipped. MDF is ideal for painting or veneering.


Plate glass is an elegant material for display shelving. Use toughened glass, which is available to special order. Have it cut to size and the edges ground and polished by the supplier. Textured or wired glass can be used for added interest.

Making Sure Your Shelves Won’t Sag

Solid timber or blockboard, with its core running lengthways, are best for sturdy shelving — but a shelf made from either material will still sag if its supports are too far apart. Veneered chipboard, though popular because of its low cost, availability and appearance, will eventually sag under relatively light loads, so it needs supporting at closer intervals than solid wood. Moving the supports in from each end of a shelf helps distribute the load and reduces the risk of sagging.

Recommended Shelf Spans

The chart shows recommended maximum spans for shelves made from different materials. If you want to increase the length of any shelf, either move the supports closer together, add another bracket, use thicker material for the shelf, or stiffen its front edge.






Solid Wood 18mm (3/4in) 800mm (2ft 8in) 750mm (2ft 6in) 700mm (2ft 4in)
Blockboard 18mm (3/4in) 800mm (2ft 8in) 750mm (2ft 6in) 700mm (2ft 4in)
Chipboard 16mm (5/8in) 750mm (2ft 6in) 600mm (2ft) 450mm (2ft 4in)
MDF 18mm (3/4in) 800mm (2ft 8in) 750mm (2ft 6in) 700mm (2ft 4in)
Glass 6mm (1/4in) 700mm (2ft 4in) Not applicable Not applicable

Stiffening your shelves

Wooden battens, lippings or metal extrusions can be fixed to the underside or front edges of a shelf to increase its stiffness. A wall-fixed batten may also be used to support the back edge in some cases. A deep wooden front rail will conceal a strip-light fitting; a metal reinforcement can be slimmer and less noticeable.

Choosing the Best Shelf-Support System

The method you use to support a bank of shelving depends a great deal on your chosen location. It is often possible, for example, to span a fireside alcove with fixed built-in shelves that have no apparent means of support. Adjustable shelf brackets offer a greater degree of flexibility, allowing you to redesign your storage system at some time in the future as your collection or library expands. Furthermore, this type of shelving does not rely on side walls for support and can be cantilevered off a straight wall. The brackets may be made from pressed, cast or wrought steel, or from extruded alloy.

Shelf brackets

There are many systems on the market with brackets which slot or clip into metal upright supports that are screwed to the wall. Most uprights have holes or slots at close intervals that accommodate lugs on the rear of each bracket. In one system the upright has a continuous groove over its entire length, so that the brackets may be placed at any level.

One advantage of such systems is that the weight and stress of loaded shelves are distributed down the supporting uprights. Another factor in their favour is that, once the uprights are in place, shelving arrangements can be changed easily and further shelves added, as the need arises, without the necessity for more fixings.

Use the cheap and functional pressed-metal types for utilitarian shelving in a garage or workshop, and choose the more expensive and attractive brackets for your storage needs around the house.

Built-in shelves

Made-to-measure shelving tends to look more substantial and permanent than even the best bracket system. However, it invariably means more work, since you have to cut and fit each shelf individually. You must also make your own supports, usually battens screwed to the walls or vertical side panels made from solid wood or man-made boards. And unless you incorporate a library-style adjustable system, built-in shelves tend to be fixed and therefore less adaptable for future needs.

Putting Up Wall Mounted Shelving

The construction of the walls will to some extent determine the type of fixing and the positioning of your shelves. On masonry walls, for example, you can place shelf supports almost anywhere; on a timber-framed wall shelves should ideally be fixed to the studs or noggings, but you can use special cavity fixings provided the loads are not excessive.

Loads cantilevered from wall brackets impose great stress on the fixing screws, especially the top ones. If the screws are too small, or if the wall plugs are inadequate, the fixing may be torn out. This is even more likely when you are erecting deep shelves. The fixings for a built-in shelf, with its ends supported on battens within a masonry alcove, are not so highly stressed.

For most ordinary shelving, brackets fixed to a wall of masonry with 50mm (2in) screws and wall plugs should be adequate. Deep shelves intended for a heavy load such as a television set or stack of records may need more robust fixings such as wall bolts, though extra brackets to prevent the shelf sagging will also share the weight. Brackets must be long enough to support almost the entire depth of a shelf.

Fixing individual shelf brackets

When fixing pairs of individual brackets to a solid wall, first mark two vertical guide lines. Hold one bracket at the required height and mark the wall through the fixing holes.

  1. Drill into the wall with a masonry bit, insert wall plugs and screw the bracket in place. Using one of the shelves and a spirit level, position the second bracket, then mark and fix it similarly.
  2. When fixing brackets to a timber-framed wall, locate the studs and drill pilot holes for the screws. Lightly lubricate screws that are difficult to insert. If you use cavity-wall fixings, drill adequate clearance holes through the plaster lining in order to insert the fittings.

When you are erecting a hank of shelving, fix all the brackets first and simply place the shelves on them. Use a plumb line or spirit level to align the ends of the shelves before you fix them to the brackets.

Fitting a shelving system

Strong wall fixings are essential, since even one loose upright could jeopardize the safety of the whole bank of shelving.

The upright supports must be vertical, and the best way of ensuring this is to fix each one lightly to the wall by its top screw, then, holding it vertical with the aid of a spirit level, mark the position of the bottom screw.

With that screw in place, you can check that the upright is vertical in its other plane, not sloping outwards because the wall is out of true. If required, place packing behind the upright to correct it. Also insert packing wherever hollows occur close to fixing points.

Clip one bracket to the upright, then another to the second upright while you hold it against the wall. Get a helper to lay a shelf across the brackets, then use a spirit level to check that the shelf is horizontal.

Mark the top hole of the second upright, and fix that upright as you did the first one Locate brackets in both uprights and fix the shelves to them. A gap between the back of the shelves and the wall may provide a useful space for cables leading to lamps or equipment.

Making built-in shelves

The simplest way to make built-in open shelves is to fit them into alcoves such as those flanking a chimney breast. However, the surface of the walls is unlikely to be perfectly regular, and some trimming of the shelves may be needed to make them a good fit. Mark the height of the shelves and draw levelled lines from the marks, using a spirit level. Cut wooden support battens to suit the depth of the shelves.

If the shelves are not fitted with a deep lipping, cut the front ends of the supports to a 45-degree angle; you will hardly notice them once you have filled the shelves with books or other items.

For a better appearance, apply deep lippings to the front edges of the shelves. These make the shelving look more substantial and hide the supports.

For a more refined look, make your shelf supports from L-section metal extrusion. Fix the supports securely to the wall with countersunk screws.

08. December 2010 by admin
Categories: Construction | Tags: | Comments Off on How to Put Up Shelves


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