Hanging Shelves from Scratch
An amateur's guide to preparing and mounting hanging shelves without destroying your walls (or your budget, or yourself) in the process.
Whether you want to upgrade from IKEA bookshelves to something more substantial, like we did, or if you have stuff piled on the floor that you’d rather pile on a wall, shelves are a nice way to visually organize things. We wanted to install some for our books across a twelve-foot wall in our living room, and originally planned to pay someone else to do it. Yet contractors’ estimates were steep enough to send us online to figure out if we could manage it ourselves.
Turns out we could, and we’re really happy with the final result. It was a challenging project, yet it can be done with a little patience, practice, and planning. This is a walkthrough of how we did it. Note: I’m going to describe how we installed big, heavy 2” x 12” boards, but the process applies to any type of bracket-supported shelving.
Part 1 of 2: Installing the Brackets
- Tape measure
- Power drill and drill bits
- Laser level (Black and Decker makes a combination laser level and stud finder called the Bullseye. It's pretty nifty, ideal for aligning multiple things on a wall. A little pricey, but worth it if you'll do future wall-based projects and like precise alignment.)
- Stud finder (See above. You can buy this individually, of course.)
- String, and something small and heavy, like a battery (To make a little plumb line.)
- Tack nail (For the little plumb line.)
- Brackets (We used 18 12" brackets, 3 per shelf. The kind and amount you use will depend on the depth and width of your shelves. Check the load-bearing capacity of the brackets, and stagger them accordingly. Studs are conventionally installed 18" apart from each other, which means that on a six foot wall you could install 4 brackets, but you probably don't need to. Nevertheless, better to over-engineer in this case.)
- Secondary brackets We placed 3" brackets underneath the shelves on each flanking wall for further stability. These likely aren't necessary for narrower shelves.
- Black matte spray paint (If you don't like the stock finish of the brackets, that is.)
- Screws for the brackets (I think we used 2.25" #10 wood screws.)
- Heavy-duty drywall anchors (You'll only need these if you aren't screwing directly into studs. Be sure to check the weight-bearing capacity of the anchors for heavier shelves. Some are pretty strong.)
1. Mark the studs. To do this, you’ll need a stud finder. Electronic stud finders indicate the edges of studs as you run the device horizontally across the wall. Mark stud edges with a pencil. I recommend sensing for and marking studs at multiple heights per stud to see if the stud is actually perpendicular to the floor. This is especially especially important if you’ll be hanging multiple brackets on the same stud (like we did) and want them to be vertically aligned. Mark as many studs as you deem fit for your shelving. It’s better to over-engineer in this case. Each of our brackets can hold 200lb if drilled into studs, and we estimated that each board-plus-books combination would weigh around 200lb. To be safe, and since the spacing ended up looking nice, we used three brackets per shelf. Some of our books are heavy.
Double check your markings to suss out any false readings.
2a. Mark the shelf heights on one stud. To make sure your shelves are vertically spaced evenly, measure the height of your ceiling and divide accordingly. We spaced our shelves 11” apart, except for the bottom shelf, which is 16” below the second shelf. On one of the marked studs, measure the height of each shelf, making sure to account for the board thickness when measuring each shelf. For example, since our boards were 2” thick and we wanted each shelf space to be 11”, I measured 13” spaces. Double check these measurements. They’re important.
2b. Mark the shelf heights on the remaining studs. Use your laser level to mark vertical lines for the shelf heights on the rest of the studs. Don’t worry about being vertically precise yet; just make a line where the laser meets the stud that you’ve marked. If you’re hanging heavy shelves, I recommend also marking shelf heights on the flanking walls. This is where we attached 3” brackets, about 6” in front of the back wall, to bolster the shelves.
3. Mark the bracket centers. To vertically align your brackets, create a little plumb line to hang from the top of each stud that you’ve marked. I taped a battery to a piece of string that nearly hung to the floor when taped near the ceiling. Tape the string at the top of a stud, making sure it remains within the edges you marked when stud-finding (to ensure that you’re as close to the center of the stud as possible for each bracket). Then make a cross at each intersection with the horizontal shelf-height markings. This is how you’ll determine where to drill the holes for your brackets.
4. Mark the bracket heights and pilot holes. Next, measure 2” below each shelf height marking to indicate the bracket heights. (This distance depends on the height of your boards. If they’re 1” deep, you’ll measure 1”.) Once you’ve marked the bracket heights, mark the pilot hole for each bracket location by holding an actual bracket up to each marked height, aligning it horizontally with the vertical plumb line marks. Make a tick mark through the bracket’s top screw hole. The brackets we used each have two screw holes; I only marked the top one at this point, since I drilled the second pilot holes once each bracket was installed in the wall via the first pilot hole.
5. Drill the pilot holes and screw in the brackets. Before you start drilling, double-check your bracket height marks using the laser level. Once you feel confident about those heights (and the top screw hole tick marks), drill pilot holes at each tick mark using a drill bit that slightly narrower than your bracket screws. Make sure to drill holes perpendicular to the floor, using a step stool if you need a better angle for higher brackets. After drilling the pilot hole for each bracket, I would screw the bracket into the wall and drill the lower pilot hole right through the bracket screw hole. Then I’d screw in the lower screw. It takes a while, but you end up with something like this:
6. Mount the 3” supporting brackets on the flanking walls. I did this after we hung the boards and loaded the books, which was tricky. Better to do it beforehand if your shelves are wide and heavy. These brackets help stabilize the boards which otherwise bounced just a little bit when bearing weight, since the main brackets are just an “L” shape (instead of having a supporting hypotenuse frame). There weren’t studs in the right positions on the flanking walls, so I used 30lb drywall anchors when mounting these brackets. We spray-painted them matte black to match the brackets.
Part 2 of 2: Preparing, Staining, and Finishing the Boards
- Random orbital sander (This Bosch sander served us well.)
- 150 and 220 grit sanding discs (If your boards are long, you'll need a bunch of the 150 grit discs.)
- Old sheets (To use as drop cloths.)
- Work gloves
- Eye protection
- Latex gloves (To use when staining and conditioning the boards.)
- Sawhorses (I recommend having 4 sawhorses, especially if you'll be installing large boards. That way, you can set up a rotation of sanding and staining 4 boards at a time. Try to get these cheap. We got these from Lowe's.)
- A pile of rags (For applying the conditioner and stain and cleaning up.)
- Lumber (We bought untreated yellow pine off the shelf from Lowe's. More below on measuring and getting it cut.)
- Epoxy (This stuff is really only necessary if your lumber has significant imperfections in it, like knots and deep grooves, which ours did.)
- Wood conditioner (We used Minwax Pre-stain wood conditioner.)
- Gel stain (We used Minwax Interior Wood Walnut gel stain, which worked wonderfully. More on this later.)
- Polyurethane spray (We used a quick-drying clear gloss spray. I promise this isn't a Minwax ad.)
1. Measure the board widths. We knew that the boards would be roughly 12’ wide, yet measured as precisely as we could at each bracket height to try to get as close a fit to the flanking walls as possible. Turns out our walls aren’t perfectly parallel to each other: the top-most width is 1” narrower than the bottom-most width. We wrote down all 6 shelf widths to take to the store.
2. Find the boards. Lowe’s and Home Depot sell 2” x 12” yellow pine boards at different lengths. When buying the boards, bring your width measurements, a tape measure, and a pencil with you. We bought 6 16’ boards and had them cut in the store, to avoid buying a table saw. Since Lowe’s claims not to do “precision cuts,” we went ahead and marked where the boards should be cut based on our 6 shelf width measurements. Be picky when choosing your boards; some may be noticeably warped or may have large imperfections (e.g. holes where knots in the wood once were). Small imperfections can be epoxied.
I recommend test-hanging your boards on your walls before you begin finishing them, in case you need to trim them anywhere. We ended up having to sand narrow grooves where the boards met the bracket lips since the boards bowed horizontally here and there.
3. Test your finish. Stains, like paint, have unpredictable results. Buy small samples of a few stains that seem close to what you’re after, then test them on scrap wood left over from the cut boards. I recommend sanding and conditioning the scrap wood, even if not wholeheartedly, so that they’ll more closely match the final product (see below). Experiment with multiple coats of stain to see how the wood responds at each point. Many of the articles I read showed people experimenting with 5 or 6 stain variations. We tried 3.
4. Epoxying. Off-the-shelf lumber, especially yellow pine, needs a lot of love before it becomes furniture-quality, but you can get it there. Start by applying epoxy to cracks, voids, and rivets in the wood (here’s a good tutorial). I set up sawhorses in our living room and applied epoxy to two boards at a time, mixing the parts in empty yogurt cups and applying it with wooden skewers. Once the epoxy dries, which took about 8 hours, flip the boards and apply to the other sides. Be sure to check underneath the board before you start applying epoxy: you may need to tape over a void so that it doesn’t drip through.
4. Sanding. This is the most time-consuming step of the entire project, since it takes so long to get a consistent, smooth sand across unrefined boards. Your goal is to sand until the surfaces feel soft and even to your bare hand. In an open, ventilated area (I used our carport), set up two boards on sawhorses. Before you start sanding a board, use a pencil to lightly draw a wide zig-zag line lengthwise along the surface. Your goal is to completely sand the line away as you move down the board. This helps you get an even sand.
Begin by sanding with 150 grit sanding discs on an orbital sander, moving in slow, measured strokes along the grain of the wood. Let the weight of the sander create its own friction; you don’t need to lean on it when sanding. Sand the narrow front and back sides of the boards. Also, take a sanding disk in your (gloved) hand, placing it between your second and third fingers, and run it along the board edges to round them just a bit. Then sand all over again with a 220 grit disk for a finer smoothing, again moving slowly and in small strokes. Flip the board over and repeat. Wipe the board with a damp rag to clear them of shavings once you’re finished.
Note: Avoid sanding over dried epoxy. I found that sanding the epoxy resulted in a scored finish. A glossy finish looks better, even if it’s slightly raised from the board.
5. Conditioning. Once a board has been sanded, it’s ready to be conditioned and stained. I recommend conditioning 45 minutes prior to staining (Minwax’s conditioner recommends staining within 2 hrs of applying the conditioner). As with the sanding, we conditioned and stained two boards at a time on top of sawhorses. Wearing latex gloves, dip a rag into the conditioner with two fingers and apply it smoothly across the board surface, moving slowly and working small pooling of excess conditioner into dry areas. Wipe the surface with a dry part of the rag to collect excess conditioner. Let dry for 45 minutes.
6. Staining. We worked with a gel stain rather than a liquid stain, partly because it’s less messy and easier to apply and partly because gel stain looked better on our test pieces than liquid stain did. Here’s a good overview of how to work with gel stain (he uses a bristle brush, I used rags). Similar to conditioning, wipe up excess stain as you move along the board; we tried to keep excess stain from pooling for any more than a few minutes, which meant continually retracing our steps along the boards as we stained.
Let the stain dry for 8 hours, then apply another coat of stain (the second coat is quicker to apply since the boards don’t soak up nearly as much). Once dry, flip the boards, and condition and stain the other sides.
7. Sealing. Although staining provides some protection for the wood, you’ll want to finish the boards with some type of sealing agent to protect them from wear and tear. It also adds a touch of class. We used a clear gloss polyurethane spray. Once the boards were stained, we sprayed a coat of polyurethane on two boards at a time, then sprayed an additional coat 2 hours later. Make sure to do this outside.
Big note: These steps imply a much more linear process than ours actually was. It was much more cyclical. We would sand two boards while epoxy was drying on two others, and would be applying polyurethane while stain was drying on the others. Having two sets of sawhorses allows your process to be more flexible.
8. Hang them up, carpenter. That’s pretty much it. Get a friend (or a spouse) to help you raise them into place, step back, dust yourself off, and breathe a sigh of accomplished relief.