How to Build Floor-to-Ceiling Shelves

Couch and floor to ceiling bookshelf in cozy living room
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Project Overview
  • Working Time: 8 - 12 hrs
  • Total Time: 1 - 3 days
  • Yield: One floor-to-ceiling shelf, 96 x 31 1/2 inches
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $200 to $250

Perfectly positioned at the intersection of form and function, a set of attractive floor-to-ceiling shelves can be the focal point of a well-made space. However, when crafted in a way that gives them that built-in look, there's no denying the aesthetic effect they can have. And the visual impact of this accessory isn't limited to one style, but can instead be tailored to any type of home, giving it an elegant boost with storage to boot.

From the over-the-top, dark wood bookcases of yesteryear filled with intricate millwork and brass accouterments to the sleek, minimalist examples of today, built-ins have never really gone out of style. Ready to give your home the custom-built look it's missing with a set of DIY floor-to-ceiling shelves? Here's how.

Before You Begin

This floor-to-ceiling shelving unit is designed to be built in sections, meaning you can build as few or as many sections as desired. We've chosen a shelf width of 30 inches, meaning you could add sections and make the entire width of the shelving unit 60 inches, 90 inches, 120 inches, etc. You could also alter the width of any and/or all sections to achieve a custom width that fits perfectly in your space. However, we don't recommend making the shelves wider than 3 feet, as this will compromise the overall strength and safety and may result in shelf sag.

Painting vs. Staining

The instructions below are written with the intent to paint the shelves. If you desire a stained or natural wood look, you should opt for stain-grade plywood, which is more expensive than paintable plywood. Additionally, steps such as caulking joints and filling nail and screw holes should be replaced with stain-friendly options such as filling with tintable wood filler and sanding.

Safety Considerations

Because of the construction of these shelves, you may be tempted to simply place them against the wall rather than affix them to the wall itself. This should be avoided at all costs, as the design of this shelving unit is not intended to support itself, especially once loaded down with weight. Failing to properly secure it to the wall studs can pose a tipping risk and result in severe injury, especially to children and pets.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Table saw or circular saw
  • Miter saw
  • Measuring tape
  • Pencil
  • Speed square
  • Drill
  • Countersink bit
  • Drill bits
  • Stud finder
  • Level
  • Laser level (optional)
  • 18-gauge nail gun with nails
  • Painting supplies
  • Caulk gun

Rip Guide

  • Straight scrap board
  • 2 Clamps

Materials

  • 1 3/4-inch 4x8 paintable plywood sheet
  • 1 1/2-inch 4x8 paintable plywood sheet
  • 6 8-foot 1x2 poplar boards
  • 2-inch wood screws
  • Wood glue
  • 3-inch wood screws
  • Wood filler
  • Paintable caulk
  • Rag
  • 220-grit sanding pads
  • 1 quart primer
  • 1 quart paint

Instructions

How to Build Floor-to-Ceiling Shelves

The following steps will outline how to build one single shelf section and can be repeated to increase the overall width of the shelving unit. Additionally, this design is intended for 8-foot ceilings; all vertical dimensions should be adjusted to fit your specific ceiling heights.

  1. Rip the Vertical Boards

    The sides of the shelving unit will be created by ripping a plywood sheet down into two pieces that measure 10 3/4 inches wide by 8 feet long. This width will make the depth of the shelf exactly 1 foot once the backer and front trim have been attached.

    To rip the plywood, use either a table saw or a circular saw. If using a circular guide, clamping a straight scrap board on as a guide will result in a straighter cut.

  2. Rip the Horizontal Boards

    The horizontal boards will also be made up of plywood pieces ripped to a width of 10 3/4 inches. Before cutting them to length, rip the remainder of your plywood sheet into two more full 8-foot pieces.

  3. Cut the Horizontal Boards to Length

    Use a circular saw or miter saw to cut the two ripped plywood boards into pieces that are 30 inches long. This should yield six pieces total with some small scrap leftover.

  4. Decide Shelf Positioning

    There are no rules for positioning the horizontal shelf pieces, except that one horizontal piece must span the top of the shelving unit and another must sit against the floor. What you do with the remaining four pieces is totally up to you and your needs. Additionally, you can leave a shelf or two out, or cut more from another plywood sheet.

  5. Mark Shelf Positions

    Once you determine your layout for the remaining pieces, mark the front edge of the two vertical sides with a tape measure and make a corresponding mark in the middle of the front edge of the shelf pieces. This way you can line the two marks up when it comes time to attach the shelves.

  6. Attach Top and Bottom Pieces

    This step will be much easier to complete with a second pair of hands, but if you are attempting it on your own, a set of corner clamps will help.

    Start by aligning the edge of a horizontal board with the top side of a vertical piece. While holding tightly in place, drill three equidistant pilot holes using a countersink bit through the outside of the vertical board and into the end of the horizontal board.

    Apply a layer of wood glue to the end of a horizontal piece and the corresponding spot on the vertical board. Press into place and carefully screw the boards together with 2-inch wood screws until the screw heads sit just below the surface. Wipe away excess glue.

    Repeat this process on the other side of the top, then again for the bottom piece.

  7. Attach Shelf Boards

    Align the shelf pieces using the marks made beforehand and, using the same drilling, gluing, and screwing process that was used for the top and bottom pieces, fasten them into place. Wipe away excess glue.

    Warning

    Before attaching the shelf pieces, ensure they are set perfectly level both side to side and front to back. Failure to do so will result in uneven shelves.

  8. Rip the Backer

    Once constructed, your shelf unit should measure 96 inches by 31 1/2 inches. This will also be the exact dimension of your backer, made from 1/2-inch plywood. Rip to size using a table saw or circular saw.

  9. Attach the Backer

    Apply a bead of wood glue on the edge of all vertical and horizontal boards and lay the backer overtop of the shelf. Drill pilot holes and screw into place. Placing once screw every 10 to 12 inches will be sufficiently strong.

    Tip

    To aid in locating the horizontal boards once you've placed the backer overtop of the shelves, use a straight edge to transfer the marks to the sides of the shelves. This will allow you to see the position of the horizontal boards even after they've been covered.

  10. Wipe Away Excess Glue

    Flip the shelf unit over and wipe away all excess glue.

  11. Repeat Steps as Needed

    Repeat the prior steps to build as many shelving units as you need to fill the width of your space. Once each shelving unit is completed, they can be attached to each other as you install them with glue and 1 1/4-inch wood screws.

How to Mount a Floor-to-Ceiling Shelf to the Wall

To ensure the safety of the floor-to-ceiling shelves and further their built-in look, they must be mounted to the wall studs.

  1. Find and Mark Wall Studs

    Use a stud finder to locate each stud that rests behind the future location of the shelves.

  2. Transfer Marks to Shelf


    Because the shelf will cover any marks made on the wall, you need to decide the best way to relocate the studs once the shelf is pressed against the wall. The best way to do this would be with a laser level. By setting the vertical beam on the centermost stud, you could easily measure from this point to find the remaining studs.

    If you don't have access to a laser level, you'll have to measure the distance from each of your marked studs to a point that will remain uncovered by the shelf. Once the shelf is in place, measure once again from that point and mark the inside of the shelf.

  3. Drill Pilot Holes

    Drill pilot holes using a countersink bit so the screw heads can later be hidden. Planning for two to three screws spaced around 2 feet apart in each stud will make for a secure hold.

  4. Screw the Shelf to the Wall

    Screw the shelf into the wall using 3-inch wood screws.

    Tip

    If your room has baseboards or crown molding, getting your shelf to sit flat against the wall will require you to remove the section of the trim that rests behind the shelf. This is most easily done by marking a straight vertical line and cutting with an oscillating multitool.

How to Add Trim to Floor-to-Ceiling Shelves

  1. Cut and Mount Upper and Lower Trim Piece

    Measure the full width of your shelves and cut a 1x2 to that length. Align the board at the top of the shelf against the ceiling and flush with each edge. Once you've ensured fit, add a bead of wood glue to each side of the joint and nail the board into place using an 18-gauge trim nailer. Repeat on the horizontal edge against the floor. One or both of these steps may require you to adjust the width of the 1x2 to rest flush with the shelves.

    Warning

    While handy, trim nailers can be very dangerous, as nails can easily ricochet off of the material you're nailing. For this reason, always wear eye protection and keep your free hand out of harm's way.

  2. Cut and Mount Vertical Trim Pieces

    Measure the distance between upper and lower trim and cut a 1x2 to that length. Install the vertical pieces using the same method as was used to mount the horizontal trim, ensuring the outer edge is flush with the outer lip of the cabinet. Glue and nail in place.

    If you've chosen to craft multiple shelving units, use a 1x2 to cover the vertical seam between them. This should result in each edge of the 1x2 sitting flush with each cabinet's inner lip.

  3. Cut and Mount Horizontal Shelf Pieces

    Measure the distance between each vertical piece to find the length of the horizontal shelf trim, then cut 1x2 boards to this length. Align the vertical pieces to sit flush with the top of each shelf and overhang the bottom. Glue and nail each piece in place.

    Tip

    The overhang created by the trim beneath the shelves is the perfect spot for hiding wiring for low-voltage lighting, should you decide to illuminate the shelves.

  4. Route the Trim Edges (Optional)

    By routing the edges of any or all of the trim, you can alter the overall aesthetic of the shelving unit. Leaving it as-is will be the most minimal option, whereas a slight chamfer will give it a modern look. Additionally, opting for a more intricate bit will make it look more traditional.

How to Paint Floor-to-Ceiling Shelves

  1. Fill Screw and Nail Holes

    Use wood filler to fill all screw and nail holes, setting the nail heads first if they're protruding from the surface. Take this time to fill any large gaps that couldn't be easily filled with caulk. Let the wood filler dry according to the manufacturer's instructions.

  2. Sand the Wood Filler Until Smooth

    Using an orbital sander fitted with 220-grit paper, sand all of the wood filler until smooth. For areas that have a lot of hardened filler, 120-grit sandpaper may be necessary, but be sure to follow it up with 220-grit.

  3. Caulk the Joints

    For the most professional painted finish, every single joint should be caulked. This includes all of the joints around the top and bottom of each shelf. To make this quick work, cut a small hole in the tip of the tube of caulk and apply a clean bead to each joint. Wipe smooth with a damp cloth.

  4. Prime the Raw Wood

    All raw wood and filler needs to be primed using high-quality primer before being painted. Apply the primer according to the manufacturer's instructions and sand if specified, removing all dust once complete.

  5. Paint the Shelves

    Paint your shelves to fit your desired aesthetic. White will offer that classic built-in look, while going dark and moody will give them a modern twist.

When to Call a Professional

While this project can easily be completed by a DIYer, a professional should be called if you suspect the wall you're working on contains gas or water lines or improperly secured electrical components. Additionally, if the installation of these shelves will result in electrical receptacles being covered, an electrician should be called to relocate the boxes before continuing.