How to Build a Ladder Shelf
Usher in stylish-yet-functional storage space to any room with a DIY ladder shelf. Traditional storage methods like bookcases and wardrobe-style cabinets can make rooms feel smaller by taking up massive visual space. A ladder shelf combats this issue by letting plenty of light through its open frame, much like floating shelves. However, a ladder shelf can be moved from space to space without damaging the walls, making it a great alternative to wall-mounted shelving options. Get started on your very own DIY ladder shelf today.
What Is a Ladder Shelf?
A ladder shelf is a stand-alone wooden shelving unit designed to look like an open ladder. The unit features straight legs at the rear with angled legs at the front, which results in a tapered look with narrower shelves at the top and deeper shelves at the bottom.
Before You Begin
This ladder shelf is designed to be 7 feet tall and 2 feet wide with a depth of approximately 1-1/2 feet at the bottom of the shelf, and the listed materials are intended for this size. However, the overall dimensions can be altered to better fit your space and needs, though we don't recommend going narrower than 18 inches, as this will create a tipping hazard. Once you've determined your ideal size, use the materials list provided as a guide for what to purchase.
To ensure your ladder shelf can hold the weight of all the things you intend to put on it, pay close attention when building and follow all assembly instructions closely. Improperly fastened joinery in furniture building will only hold for so long as it's compromised from the start. To further ensure the safety of your shelf around pets and children, we recommend anchoring it to a wall using furniture anchors.
What You'll Need
Equipment / Tools
- Miter saw
- Speed square
- Tape measure
- Straight edge
- Circular saw or table saw
- Chalk reel (optional)
- Orbital sander
- Utility knife
- Drill bits
- Pocket hole jig
- 2 Trigger clamps
- Staining supplies (optional)
- Painting supplies (optional)
- 3 1x3 x 8' pine boards
- 3 1x2 x 8' pine boards
- 1 4' x 8' x 3/4" paint-grade plywood
- 1-1/4" pockets screws
- 1-1/4" wood screws
- wood glue
- 3/4" iron-on edge banding
- 80-grit sanding block
- 120 and 220-grit sanding pads
- Stain (optional)
- Clear wood sealer (optional)
- Pre-stain wood conditioner (optional)
- Paint (optional)
- Primer (optional)
- Furniture feet (optional)
How to Build a Ladder Shelf
Cut Angled Leg
The two sides of the ladder shelf will consist of one straight leg at the back and one angled leg at the front. The front and back legs will be connected to one another with horizontal braces, which will also serve as the shelf supports.
To cut the angle for the leg, set a miter saw to 10 degrees and cut off the end of one 1x3 board.
Cut Legs to Height
To cut the legs to height, start by marking and cutting a 1x3 to your desired height. Ours is 7 feet. Lay the straight leg flat on your work surface, then lay the angled leg next to it with the angled end at the top. Adjust the angled leg until the angled end is straight in line with the end of the straight leg, verifying with a speed square.
Use a straight edge to transfer the height of your straight leg to the angled leg, then cut off the angled leg once again with a miter saw at 10 degrees, making sure the lowered angled cut is parallel with the top cut.
Use the two boards as guides to cut the legs for the other side of the shelf.
Cut Top Horizontal Support
Place the straight and angled legs beside each other once more and adjust until properly aligned. Space the tops of each board until they're 3 inches apart.
Lay a 1x2 across the top horizontally, so that one end is flush with the edge of the straight leg, and the other rests across the edge of the angled board. Trace the edge of the angled leg on the horizontal support and cut using a miter saw.
Use the 1x2 as a guide to cut a second horizontal support for the other set of legs.
Attach Horizontal Supports
To fasten the horizontal supports to the legs, first place the support on the legs in position and drill four pilot holes (two on each side) through the support and into the leg, being careful not to drill through to the other side.
Glue each side of the joint and tightly fasten using 1-1/4-inch wood screws. Wipe away any excess glue.
Repeat this process on the other legs, but position the horizontal support on the other side of the legs. This way, when the shelf is assembled, both supports will face inwardly.
Cut and Fasten Shelf Supports
The shelf supports will be made and fastened to the legs in the same fashion as the top horizontal supports. Simply place the board on the legs so the top of the board will be 3/4-inches below the desired shelf height, mark the cut line, cut to length, then glue, and screw it into place.
Since the shelf supports will be identical for each side, make two of each support and remember to fasten so that all supports face inwardly once the final product is assembled.
Regarding the number of shelves and specific placement, this is entirely up to preference. A good benchmark is 10 to 14 inches between shelves, with the top shelf positioned ten inches from the top of the legs.
Mark and Cut Shelf Pieces
Mark and cut your shelves to fit each shelf support. The width for each shelf will be the same, but the depth will be determined by the corresponding shelf supports.
Measure and mark the plywood using a tape measure and a straight edge or a chalk reel, then cut using a circular saw, or, if you have access to one, a table saw.
Sand All Boards
Now that the legs are fully assembled and the shelves have been cut out, sand all boards to 120-grit to remove all splinters and rough edges, then follow with 220-grit to achieve a smooth surface.
Apply Edge Banding
To give the plywood shelf inserts the look of solid wood, apply edge banding around the front and sides to hide the plywood layers. To do this, follow these steps:
- Roll the edge banding out along the side you plan to apply, then use your hands to snap off a piece that is 1/2 inch longer than the plywood.
- With the adhesive side down, place the banding on the plywood's edge, so that it overlaps on the ends and sides.
- With an iron on high, iron the edge banding just as you would iron clothing. The heat will activate the adhesive.
- Let the adhesive cool.
- To trim the ends, place the banded side of the plywood against a piece of scrap wood and score the excess with a utility knife, flush with the ends of the plywood.
- Snap off the excess.
- To remove the excess along the edges, sand with an 80-grit sanding block, always pushing toward the plywood to prevent the edge banding from pulling away.
- Repeat until the fronts and sides of each shelf insert are covered.
To make attaching the shelves easier, place the top and bottom shelves on the corresponding shelf supports and clamp the entire shelving unit together with trigger clamps. This way, the shelving unit will stay in position, allowing you to fasten all middle shelves into place. Then, you can remove the clamps and finish by attaching the top and bottom shelves.
Attach Shelf Inserts
The shelves will be attached with wood glue and pocket screws. First, slide a shelf into place and mark the bottom for pocket holes. The holes should be arranged so that the screws drive into the four legs from the underside of the shelves, with two pocket screws side by side in each leg. Use a pocket hole jig to drill the pocket holes at your marks. Repeat until each shelf is marked and drilled.
To mount the shelves, apply wood glue to the shelf supports and the leg portion just above the supports. Then, slide the shelf into place and tightly fasten it with pocket screws. Wipe away any excess glue.
Once all middle shelves are attached, remove the clamps and attach the top and bottom shelves.
Attach Rear Horizontal Supports
To give the ladder shelf more side-to-side strength, two horizontal supports will be attached to the back. Cut two 1x3 boards at a length that matches the width of your shelves, sand with 120- and 220-grit sandpaper, and then use a pocket hole jig to drill two pocket holes at each end.
With the pocket holes facing the back of the shelf, screw the supports in place between the legs. Place one support near the top and one near the bottom of the shelf.
Finish the Shelf
Apply stain and clear sealer or paint the shelf in your desired color. If you plan to stain and seal, a pre-stain wood conditioner will prevent the finish from being blotchy. This is a necessary step for staining softwoods and plywoods.
If you plan to paint the ladder shelf, first prime the wood using a primer for bare wood.
Whatever finish you choose, follow the manufacturer's instructions for product application.
Attach Furniture Feet (optional)
If the shelf is to be placed on a hard floor, protect the floor's surface by attaching rubber furniture feet to the bottom of each leg.
How to Maintain Your Ladder Shelf
To keep your ladder shelf looking good as new, wipe clean with a damp rag to remove any dirt or dust. Depending on which finish you chose, using wood cleaning products may be effective. Consult the cleaning products instructions for which finishes it can be used on and always test first in an inconspicuous area.