Self-Sufficiency Sundays: Build a Shelf!

I have this low south-facing window in my dining room, and I wanted to take advantage of the light to grow some plants. Unfortunately, though, I couldn’t find a shelf that fit that exact spot – everything was either too high or too narrow. You can see where this is going.

When I googled “how to build a bookshelf,” I didn’t expect to find anything that I could actually accomplish, but actually, it turns out that it’s quite easy to make your own shelf. Plus, it causes less waste, since you can reuse lumber (unlike pre-shaped particle board), and shelf-building will be a handy skill when we’re all living in our post-apocalyptic sod huts. Below are the instructions for a pretty small shelf, but these measurements are just for the sake of demonstration; you can make your shelf any size you want. Just don’t make it so long that it’s going to bow in the middle – or if you do, put an extra side board in the middle to prop up the top. You’ll need:

-3 boards 24″ long, 8″ wide, and 1″ thick – these are the top and sides
-1 board 22″ long, 8″ wide, and 1″ thick – this is the middle shelf (note: you must subtract the width of the side boards so that your middle shelf will fit under the top shelf. So if your top shelf is 32″ long, your middle shelf must be 30″.)
-4 boards 1″ long, 8″ wide, and 1″ thick – these are the supports
-a power drill with 1/4″ drill bits
-16 1/4″ screws, 2″ long
-wood glue
-paint and a carpenter’s square (optional)

Hardware stores and lumber yards will often cut the wood for you. Make sure your wood is eco-friendly, though. (Unfortunately, I can’t help you there.)

Decide how high up you want the middle shelf to go. I put mine just a couple of inches off the ground – that gives me room to store my watering can, potting soil, and gardening books. (When we have guests over for dinner, I just drape a decorative sheet over the shelf, so that all they see are my lovely plants.) Once you’ve decided, mark the spot with a pencil on both side boards. The first thing you’re going to do is drill in your supports.

The supports are what actually hold the shelves up, so they’re pretty crucial – you don’t want the weight of your stuff resting on the screws alone. Take one side board and glue on 2 supports: one where you want the middle shelf to rest, and one in line with the very top of the board. Now, drill two holes into the side board for each support; these are going to be your guide holes for the screws. Repeat for the other side board. Now scrape (or dip) your screws in the soap and screw them into the holes.

Note: the guide holes and the soap are extremely important steps. Do not power-drill the screws directly into the wood! It’ll crack along the grain and ruin your nascent shelf and you’ll have to go scrounge up some more lumber.

Once you’re finished, your side boards should look more or less like this (ignore the nails):

Now it’s time to screw on the top. Simply follow the same steps you did for the supports: glue, drill, soap, and screw. Do one side board at a time, of course, and don’t try to do it upright. Also, the carpenter’s square will ensure that you’re screwing it on at right angles, so that you don’t end up with a Picasso shelf. Just line the square up against the top periodically to make sure you’re on track.

At this point, the shelf should stand on its own. Huzzah! Now, you may find that there are little gaps between the boards, or that your middle shelf doesn’t quite touch the side shelves. Don’t worry about it. Self-sufficiency isn’t about perfection. Repeat the steps for screwing in the middle shelf, and you’ll find that the side boards tighten up as you lock it in. You got yourself a shelf there, buster. And you swore you couldn’t do carpentry.

Now you can paint it whatever color you like! I went with blue, mainly because we had some paint left over from when we did our walls. But, you know, if yellow’s your thing, you can go with that. Red, I don’t know. I’m not going to judge.

I know these instructions sound kind of complicated in writing, but all the parts fit together pretty intuitively when they’re in front of you. And if you’d like additional instructions, I learned from and

Stop consuming – start producing!

One Response

  1. The middle shelves not touching the side boards isn’t actually a sign of having done anything wrong, but rather of using milled lumber.

    When you go to a hardware store (or a lumber mill, for that matter), you’ll see boards in measurements like 8″ x 1″ or 6″ x 2″ or 2″ x 4″. The numbers, however, don’t actually refer to the proper and exact measurements of the board. What they refer to are the approximate measurements of the boards before they are milled and smoothed down. You can often find rough-cut lumber at lumber yards as well, it’s *obviously* rougher and hasn’t been dried or cut into smooth, even boards. The process of shaving the top layers of wood off of each side of a piece of rough cut lumber, called planing, changes the measurements of that piece of lumber.

    So, a milled 8″ x 1″ piece of lumber is actually probably closer to 7 3/4″ or 7 7/8″ x 3/4″ or 7/8″.

    If you add a measuring tape to your list of tools, you can very easily check the width of your side boards. Then, just cut the center shelf 1/2″ longer or so (whatever is appropriate based on your measurements).

    Just remember to measure, twice, before you make any cuts. And don’t assume that the measurement labeled on the board is *actually* the width of any piece of lumber.

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