How to Build DIY Floating Shelves

White Wood Floating Shelf

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Overview
  • Working Time: 2 hrs 30 mins
  • Total Time: 3 hrs
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $50 to $75

Floating shelves are a lively, unique addition to living rooms, bedrooms, hallways, or any place where a special accent is needed. Unlike floor-mounted shelves, floating shelves dance gracefully across the wall and appear to levitate. But don’t get the wrong impression: Floating shelves are strong enough to display most of your favorite treasures.

What Are Floating Shelves?

Floating shelves—also called cantilevered shelves or hidden shelves—attach by one long side directly to a wall; the method of attachment is hidden. The visual effect is that of a shelf jutting straight out of the wall. 

Not only do floating shelves look great, but they also have a practical side. By eliminating traditional shelves' brackets and vertical supports, floating shelves provide more space for objects.

Floating shelves tend to be long, narrow, and rather thick rectangles. The narrow side is the depth of the shelf. Due to structural concerns, you will find floating shelves generally no deeper than 12 inches. Floating shelf length is usually greater than 16 inches to attach to the wall studs’ 16-inch on-center span.

The Basic of Building DIY Floating Shelves

Floating shelves are a clever illusion: a wood box held up by a hidden wood board.

The shelf that appears to be a monolithic block is actually a hollow wood box. This box has five closed sides and one open side.

A wood cleat is attached to the wall. This cleat is screwed directly into the wall studs and it is exactly the same size as the opening on that box. The wood box slides over the cleat and completely obscures it. At the bottom of the box, two small screws are driven upward to meet with the cleat to hold the box in place.

After the wood box is sanded and then painted or stained, its joinery disappears. It looks just like a single piece of thick wood—a single shelf that appears to magically float on the wall.

Safety Considerations

Floating shelves are generally not used for storing large or heavy items. They are not bookcases. They are intended more for displaying items of interest rather than for storage. Twenty pounds is a safe carrying weight for the shelf produced in this project. Placing more than 20 pounds on this shelf may compromise it and result in structural failure. For storage, look to dedicated storage shelves with robust support systems.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Tape measure
  • Stud finder
  • Laser level or bubble level
  • Cordless drill
  • Carpenter's pencil
  • Electric miter saw
  • Cordless brad nailer
  • Carpenter's wood clamps
  • Sandpaper
  • Wrench set
  • Circular saw

Materials

  • 1 two-by-three, 8-foot
  • 1 inch by 8 inch select pine board, 8-foot
  • 3 2-1/2-inch lag screws and washers
  • 2-inch screws
  • Wood glue
  • Wood filler
  • Paint or stain of your choice

Instructions

  1. Locate the Wall Studs

    With the stud finder, locate three adjacent wall studs where you intend to place the floating shelf. Mark the center of each stud with a light pencil mark.

  2. Cut Wood for the Shelf Cleat

    With the electric miter saw, cut the two-by-three:

    • One piece at 44 inches
    • Four pieces, each at 5-3/4 inches

    Tip

    When shopping, choose a premium spruce stud for greater strength.

  3. Dry-Fit the Shelf Cleat

    On a flat surface, lay out the long back piece (44 inches) for the back of the cleat. The nominal 3-inch direction of the wood will be vertical. This is the section that will attach to the wall.

    Then, lay the four 5-3/4-inch pieces against the long piece in an "E" shape with four prongs. Two 5-3/4-inch side pieces will be flush with the ends of the long board. The two middle 5-3/4-inch boards will be 11 inches apart from each other and 11 inches from the two side pieces.

  4. Assemble the Shelf Cleat

    Lightly dab the ends of the four 5-3/4-inch pieces with wood glue. With the cordless drill, attach the pieces with two 2-inch wood screws per board, for a total of eight, from the back side of the cleat. Wipe off any excess glue with a paper towel.

  5. Cut the Top and Bottom of the Shelf

    If all of the previous items were precisely cut, the 1 inch by 8 inch select pine board will perfectly cover the top and bottom of the cleat, with no need for ripping (lengthwise cutting). Cut only the length: two boards, each 44 inches long.

  6. Cut the Front and Side Pieces of the Shelf

    With the top and bottom pieces dry-fit, measure the three remaining pieces: one long piece for the front and two short pieces for the sides. All pieces will be flush with the top and the bottom of the shelf. Mark, then rip the pieces down to size with the circular saw or use a table saw.

  7. Nail the Shelf Box Together

    Hold the dry-fit shelf box together with carpenter's wood clamps. Nail it into place with the cordless nailer. Then, remove the shelf box from the cleat.

    Tip

    Lightly sand the tops and sides of the cleat to slightly reduce the size of the cleat. This will make it easier later on to slide the shelf box back into place on the cleat.

  8. Attach the Cleat to the Wall

    Hold the cleat against the wall. Use the laser level or the bubble level to determine level. Drill three pilot holes, then attach the cleat to the wall to the three studs with the 2-1/2-inch lag screws and washers. Tighten with the wrench set.

  9. Sand the Shelf

    Fill nail holes on the shelf box with wood filler. After drying, sand down the filler with #220 sandpaper. Sand the top and the bottom of the shelf box to disguise their junctions with the side pieces.

  10. Finish the Shelf

    The floating shelf can be painted white in any sheen or it can be stained and covered in a clear coat.

  11. Attach the Shelf

    Slide the shelf box into place. Secure from below with two 1-inch screws.