Best Options for DIY Closet Organizers

organized closet
Csondy/E+/Getty Images

Most builders don’t give much, if any, thought to closet organizers when they construct new homes. The typical closet found in new residential construction contains little more than a closet rod and a single shelf. This kind of conventional treatment in a closet uses only about half of the available storage space, the available storage is often hard to access conveniently. We all recall closets where shoes are piled on the floor, requiring that we bend down to sort through the selection in the dark. Top shelves are often filled with layers of stuff that is both hard to see and difficult to reach.

There are, of course, professional closet organizing contractors who can custom-design and custom-build one of the fabulous systems like those featured in showcase homes, and a bustling industry exists to fill these needs. But such systems can be shockingly expensive, putting them out of reach for many homeowners. That’s why there is also a steady and growing market for closet systems that can be installed by do-it-yourselfers.

If you have a closet that is usually a mess, and that you suspect holds long-missing stuff, now is the time to do something about it.

Features of a Good Closet Organizer

Many of the bargain closet organizing hardware offered at big box home improvement centers offer little more than a way to add two more clothes-hanging features, and perhaps a built-in shelf or two. But a good closet organizer should do more than just tidy up the closet. Equipped with the proper components, it can reduce the need for bulky dressers and other cabinet furniture in the bedroom or other parts of the house. If you are considering buying additional furniture, it is a good idea to first make sure you have maximized the potential of your closets, and only then look at what other storage features your bedroom might require. With a closet organizer that includes spaces for folded clothes, shoes, ties and belts, purses, jewelry, and accessories, you may be surprised to find that a strong investment in a closet organizer can save you money by eliminating the need for additional expensive furniture.

Closet Organizer Options

Closet organizers tend to fall into one of two design types. They can be entirely freestanding, resting on the floor, or they can be entirely hung from the wall, but many are a bit of both. Drawer units can be set on the floor, with shelves and hanging rods attached to wall-mounted standards. The popular Elfa system sold by the Container Store and various systems made by Schulte are good examples of this kind of hybrid system.

Some wall-hung systems do not have to be attached to studs, but you will be able to support heavier loads with fewer problems if the hardware is securely fastened to the wall studs. Some have vertical rails attached high on the wall from which the various components can be hung, while others rely on vertical standards connected to the wall.

Ikea offers the modular Stolmen system, which can be mounted very easily to the wall or ceiling. This system is quite portable, so you can take it apart and move it as the need arises.

EasyClosets and Closets To Go are online sources for several styles of closet organizers. The sites offer you the chance to design your system, or you can send them the relevant dimensions and let them design one for you.

Types of Closet Organizers

Beyond the decision between freestanding and wall-mounted designs, you will also have a choice of materials used in the components of your closet organizing system.

Wire Systems

Wire systems are generally the least expensive, and they are also the easiest option for DIY installation. Home centers and other retail outlets carry entire systems that are based on stand-alone components, as well as rods and shelves that are attached to wall-hung brackets. With so many components, it is easy to customize a closet organizer that fits your needs to a tee.

The open mesh of the drawers and shelves is nice for circulation and visibility, but small items can fall through. Shelf liners can remedy that problem, but wire systems inevitably have a somewhat low-budget feel.

The closet organizers mentioned above are all available with wire mesh options. ClosetMaid is a basic DIY closet system available at Lowe’s, Home Depot, and online retailers. It is low-cost and easy to install and customize, and although it won’t win any awards for great looks, you may not care since it will spend most of the time behind closed doors.

Melamine

Melamine is composed of a layer of plastic resin (usually white but sometimes black) applied over a cored of high-density fiberboard (particleboard). Look for thermally fused melamine over 3/4-inch particle board, which is the material of choice for closet specialists. Better materials will use a thicker higher-density fiberboard for the core. Home centers often carry cold-pressed melamine, which is less durable, applied to 5/8-inch-thick particleboard that is not as strong.

Melamine closets are affordable and easy to clean. Many people don’t like that ultra-sanitized appearance of the white surface, but others are comfortable using it in their kitchen cabinets. Shelving made from melamine over a fiberboard core sometimes sags over time if used to support heavy items.

Solid Wood

Solid wood might be the best choice of all for a well-lit walk-in closet, where appearance is more important than it would be in a small closet. Solid wood closet organizers are usually built from finish-grade plywood panels with solid-wood edging strips covering the exposed edges. Using plywood somewhat reduces the cost overbuilding the organizer with solid board lumber. Still, solid plywood organizers can easily cost several times more than melamine or wire. Given that most closets are closed and dark most of the time, many consumers conclude that their money is better spent elsewhere.

If you like the appearance of solid wood but can’t handle the expense, consider using wood-grained melamine. This material is often used in low-cost office equipment. In a closet, it may well be difficult to distinguish it from the real thing.

DIY or Hire a Pro?

Most of the DIY shelving systems offer design assistance, either online or, in the case of Elfa, at The Container Store. Once you are satisfied with a layout and its components, you can install it yourself, following the supplied instructions. Installation usually requires little more than a cordless drill and a few hand tools. Some companies will direct you to a professional installer if you aren't confident of your DIY skills

As carpentry projects go, building a closet system from scratch is not particularly difficult. For those more interested in doing the work themselves, good sources for racks, hooks, shelves and other components include Rockler, Lee Valley Tools, and KitchenSource.com.

If you would rather leave the design and installation work to a professional, there are two ways to go about it. The first is to hire a general handyman or carpenter to build what you want according to your directions The second is to hire a professional closet consultant to handle the whole process. This is often the easiest solution, but you can expect to pay handsomely for a service that handles all aspects of planning, design, and installation of your closet organizing system. Nationally, the average cost of a pro-installed closet organizer is about $3,000, while a DIY version with similar features might cost at little as $600 for the basic materials. For many people, though, the speed and quality offered by pro installation are entirely worth the cost.

California Closets is a well-regarded and widely advertised franchise that delivers soup-to-nuts closets. You may find similar businesses in your local area. For best results, it is best to compare quotes from both a carpenter and the closet professional before making a final decision.