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Storage: How to Triple Your Closet Storage Space

Build your own birch plywood closet organizer for half the cost of buying one. Using this simple design you can build an organizer to fit any size closet in a weekend.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Overview

If you have to dig through a mountain of clothes to find your favorite sweatshirt, it’s time to take on that messy closet. This simple-to-build system organizes your closet with shelf, drawer and hanging space for your clothes, shoes and accessories. Buying a closet system like this would cost you at least $500, but you can build this one for about half that.

Our system is really just four plywood boxes outfitted with shelf standards, closet rods or drawers. We built it for an 8-ft.-wide closet with an 8-ft. ceiling, but it’ll work in any reach-in closet that’s at least 6 ft. wide if you adjust the shelf width between the boxes or change the box dimensions.

Time, money and materials

You can complete this project in a weekend. Spend Saturday cutting the lumber, ironing on the edge banding and applying the finish. Use your Saturday date night to clean everything out of the closet. That leaves you Sunday to build and install the new system.

We built the entire system with birch plywood. The total cost, including the hardware for the drawers, shelves and closet rods, was about $250. You could use MDF or oak plywood instead of birch. Everything you need for this project is available at home centers.

Cut and prefinish the parts

Start by cutting all the parts to size following Figure C and the Cutting List (see Additional Information, below). The corner box sides are slightly narrower than 12 in., so you can cut off dings and dents and still cut four sides from a sheet of plywood.

You won’t be able to cut the shelves that fit between the boxes to length until the boxes are installed (the shelves need to be cut to fit), but you can rip plywood to 11-7/8 in. and cut the shelves to length later.

Once the parts are cut, apply edge banding (iron-on veneer) to all the edges that will be exposed after the boxes are assembled (Figure A). Build a jig to hold the parts upright. Place a part in the jig. Then cut the edge banding so it overhangs each end of the plywood by 1/2 in. Run an iron (on the cotton setting) slowly over the edge banding. Then press a scrap piece of wood over the edge banding to make sure it’s fully adhered. Trim the edges with a veneer edge trimmer. (See our article on Edge Banding for more advice on veneer edges.)

Lightly sand the wood and your closet rod with 120-grit sandpaper. Wipe away the dust with a tack cloth, then use a paint pad to apply a coat of polyurethane on everything except the drawer parts (Photo 1). This inexpensive pad will let you finish each part in about 20 seconds. Let the finish dry, then apply a second coat.

Figure A: Closet Storage System

Figure A: Closet Storage System

Figure A: Closet Storage System

Strong, attractive birch plywood makes an ideal wood for the shelves and sides.

(A complete Cutting List and a Materials List are available in pdf format in Additional Information below.)

Figure B: Drawer Construction

Figure B: Drawer Construction

Figure B: Drawer Construction

The drawers are constructed from durable 1/2-in. plywood and 3/4-in. fronts.

(A complete Cutting List and a Materials List are available in pdf format in Additional Information below.)

Attach the hardware

It’s easier to install the drawer slides and the shelf standards that go inside the boxes before you assemble the boxes. Use a framing square to draw reference lines on the drawer unit sides for your drawer slides (see Figure A). The slides are spaced 8 in. apart, centered 8-3/4 in. down from the top of the box. Keep the slides 3/4 in. from the front edge (this is where the drawer faces will go). Use a 7/64-in. self-centering drill bit to drill pilot holes and screw the slides into place (Photo 2).

You’ll need to have your wire basket now (they’re available at home centers). Attach the glides for the basket 3 in. below the drawer slides. If your basket is narrower than 22-1/2 in., screw a cleat to the box side so the basket will fit.

Now attach the shelf standards. You can cut them with a hacksaw, but an easier way is to use a metal blade in a jigsaw. Place two or more standards together so the numbers are oriented the same way and the standards are aligned at the ends. Tape the standards together where you’re going to make the cut, then gang-cut them with your jigsaw (Photo 3).

Screw the standards to the inside of the box sides, 1 in. from the edges. Keep the standards 3/4 in. from the top (that’s where the box tops go). Be sure the numbers on the standards are facing the same way when you install them—this ensures the shelves will be level.

Assemble the boxes

Use a brad nailer to tack the boxes together following Figure A and Photo 4. If you don’t have a brad nailer, use clamps. Then screw the boxes together. We used 1-5/8-in. trim screws because the screw heads are small and unobtrusive (we left the screw heads exposed). Here are some tips for assembling the boxes:

  • Attach the screw strips to the box tops first, then add one side, then the bottom shelf, and then the second side.
  • Drill 1/8-in. pilot holes to prevent splitting. Stay 1 in. from edges.
  • If your cuts are slightly off and the top, bottom and sides aren’t exactly the same width, align the front edges.
  • The boxes will be slightly wobbly until they’re installed in the closet, so handle them with care.
  • The middle bottom box has a back. Square the box with the back, then glue and tack the back in place.
  • After the corner boxes are assembled, screw shelf standards to the side that doesn’t abut the wall (it’s easier to install the standards before the boxes are installed).

Build the drawers

Cut the drawer sides and bottoms (see Additional Information, below). Assemble the sides with glue and 1-in. screws. To square the drawers, set adjacent sides against a framing square that’s clamped to your work surface. Glue and tack the drawer bottom into place (Photo 5). Then set the drawer slides on the drawers, drill pilot holes and screw the slides into place.

Install the drawers in the box. Getting the drawer faces in their perfect position is tricky business. If the faces are even slightly off-center, the drawer won’t close properly. To align them, place double-sided tape over the drawer front. Starting with the top drawer, center the drawer face in the opening (Photo 6). You should have about a 1/8-in. gap on both sides and the top. Press the face into the tape. Take out the drawer and clamp the face to the drawer to keep it stationary. Drive two 1-in. screws through the inside of the drawer into the face.

Hang the boxes in the closet

Now install the boxes. Start by drawing a level line in the closet, 11 in. down from the ceiling. This will give you just over 10 in. of storage space above the closet system after the top shelf is installed. Then mark the stud locations on the wall with tape.

Don’t assume your closet walls are plumb—they’re probably not. So you can’t just place a box in a corner without checking for alignment. Hanging the boxes is a two-person job, so get a helper. Start with the corner boxes. Align the top of the box with your level line on the wall. Have your helper plumb the box with a level while you drive 2-1/2-in. screws through the screw strip into the wall at the stud locations (Photo 7). Attach the other corner box the same way.

Find the center of the wall, then make a mark 12 in. on one side of the center mark. That’s where your shelf unit will go. Again, have your helper plumb the box while you align it with your marks and screw it to the wall. Prop up the drawer unit on spacers so it’s tight against the shelf unit. Align the edges, then clamp the boxes and screw them together (Photo 8). Drive screws through the screw strip into the wall.

Then place the top shelf over the boxes. We could just barely fit our shelf into the closet to lift it into place. If yours won’t fit, you’ll have to cut it and install it as two pieces. Make the cut near one end, over a corner box, so it’s not noticeable. Screw the shelf to the box tops with 1-1/4-in. screws.

Then attach shelf standards along the sides of the shelf and drawer units (Figure A). Cut the adjustable shelves to length to fit between the corner boxes and the middle boxes. Finally, screw the closet rod flanges into place, cut the closet rod to size and install the rods.

Figure C: Closet
Storage Cutting
Diagrams

Figure C: Closet Storage Cutting Diagrams

Figure C: Closet Storage Cutting Diagrams

We're showing only the 3/4-in. plywood here. The 1/2-in. and 1/4-in. plywood sheets are for the drawers and back.

Back to Top

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

    • Clamps
    • Miter saw
    • Air compressor
    • Air hose
    • Brad nail gun
    • Cordless drill
    • Circular saw
    • Stud finder
    • Countersink drill bit
    • Level
    • Framing square
    • Hearing protection
    • Jigsaw
    • Orbital sander
    • Paint tray
    • Safety glasses
    • Self-centering drill bit
    • Paintbrush
    • Utility knife
    • Wood glue

You'll also need a paint pad.

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

    • See the Material List in Additional Information at the end of the Step-by-Step section.

Comments from DIY Community Members

Share what's on your mind and see what other DIYers are thinking about.

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September 11, 11:44 AM [GMT -5]

I was able to complete this project within a week, working part time on it. The largest impact on the amount of time needed to complete the project was pre-finishing the pieces before assembly. I applied the 2 coats of poly and let them cure overnight and then sanded them down the following day and applied a third coat (the sanding is a must on birch ply, as the grain becomes "hairy" while using water based stains / poly - one light sanding cleans up the hairs nicely and the 3rd coat really "pops"). I have limited space in my workshop, so I couldn't finish everything at the same time. Plus, be sure to double the amount of time required for some items (like shelves) where both sides of the item need to be finished (2 coats on side A, 15 minutes between coats, time to cure (at least 2 hours), sand, 3rd coat on side A, time to cure, flip, 2 coats on side B, time to cure, sand, 3rd coat on side B, time to cure and done)... so these could take 10 hours or more to complete. I typically let them cure overnight.

I also added a light fixture in the closet, so this ate up one day adding the switch outside of the closet, running the wires up to the attic, down to the fixture and to find a power source.

Here are some notes on this project that may be helpful for others interested in building this in the future:

1) My closet is 88" wide - using the 20" wide side boxes and 24" center boxes left 12" middle shelves and hanging rods. There are a bit small, but will hold folded clothing snug in the cubby. I would suggest that anyone with the same size closet (88" W) make the side boxes 17" wide. 17" wide would leave 15" shelves for the side boxes and the middle shelves (although, I am not sure if 15" is a good width for a clothing shelf, but I am sure it is better than 12").

2) Be sure to align the shelf standard properly or else your adjustable shelves will be crooked. I didn't have this issue, as I took the time to make sure all of the standards aligned perfectly to the top of each box and that each starting hole on each standard was 3/4" from the top of the sides - this way all shelves across the unit could be inline with one another.

3) When attaching the standards to the center boxes (which I did in the closet after the 2 center boxes were mounted and attached to one another), don't make the mistake I made: I placed my standards 1 1/2" from the edge on every box... so when I put on the front standard (the one closest to the front of the center boxes) I put it 1 1/2" from the front... totally forgetting that the middle boxes are almost 2" greater in depth then the side cabinets! So I had to pull the standards off and move them back 2 more inches to correct the issue.

4) Add cleats to the lower center box. I added two cleats to the top and bottom inside of the bottom box. I know 1/4" ply could do the job well, but I know the drawers can get full and heavy and didn't feel a few screws into the bottom of the top box and a few thru the 1/4" ply would support this monster box very long... so I added a little extra strength with 2 additional cleats.

5) Use wall ancors when you only have one stud for a box. Sadly my wall just didn't align with my boxes at all. I ended up with one stud for every box. The side boxes had a stud about 6" in from the edge of the box, so I mounted the box using the studs, drilled a second hole through the cleat and sheetrock, removed the box from the wall, inserted a wall anchor and remounted the box using the stud and wall anchor. I know it was more work, but it add much more stability to the boxes. For the center top box, the single stud was in the middle of the box, so I added two additional anchors 10" from center on each side (using the same hole alignment method as the side boxes) for a total of 3 anchor points for each cleat.

6) Use pocket holes when possible. If you have a pocket hole jig, use this to secure the top and bottom shelves to the sides vs. nailing through the sides of the boxes. I also used them to secure the cleats to the sides (putting the poket holes on the back the cleats). Not only did this keep the sides very clean, it added strength to the overall box.

Some other notes:

I would suggest leaving the drawer building to the end. As the instructions state: mount the slides to the lower center cabinet (I placed them 13/16" back from the front) and assemble the box (and triple check that the box is square or else the drawers will not slide properly - lesson learned on another project). All slides are different and have different thicknesses, so after my box was build (with the slides installed) I was able to measure the inside distance between the slides, subtracted 1/16 from that measurement and build my drawers from there.

My box was 24" wide (with 22 1/2" inside opening), 41 1/2" hight (with a 40" opening) and 20 1/2" deep (leaving 19 3/4" inside - 19" with the extra cleats in place). I decided to skip the wire basket and add a 5th drawer instead (leaving the entire box square). I designed the drawers to be 6" high w/ 7 3/4" high drawer faces. My actual drawer box size was 21 7/16" W x 18 1/2" D x 6" H - so for my 5 drawers I had to cut 10 - 21 7/16" x 6" front / back pieces, 10 - 17" x 6" side pieces and 5 - 21 7/16" x 18 1/2" 1/4" ply bottoms. I used 3/4" ply for the sides, as I couldn't easily find 1/2" ply (BTW - most big box stored do not carry 1/2" birch ply, so you may have to go to a lumber yard to find it). After all of the boxes are build, perfectly square of course... I mounted the slides flush to the front of the drawer box and the bottom of the slide inline with the seam between the 1/4" bottom and the bottom of side piece. I knew this was a consistant place on every box and made mounting the slides very easy.

I hope this long mess above helps! Cheers :)

Charles

March 25, 1:14 PM [GMT -5]

Hmm...well now I'm thinking that there are actually only 3 units - two ends and the center (drawer unit) and the "units" on each side of the drawer unit is actually just shelves. Is that right? I am thinking now that maybe the four boxes that the instructions refer to are the two end units and the two piece middle unit? Is that right?

March 25, 1:09 PM [GMT -5]

I am a little confused here. In the description, it says that this plan calls for building 4 boxes, but isn't it really 5? Aren't there two units on each side of the drawer unit? The pictures seem a little misleading and perhaps it's more apparent once you actually start construction but my closet is not quite 8 feet wide and I'm trying to figure out how to adjust for that. I just wish there were more pictures. If anyone who's build this can offer some answers, I sure would appreciate it.

January 30, 8:11 PM [GMT -5]

Make the drawer fronts and backs 20 1/2 " long vs the 20" shown in the plans. I had to had quarter inch shims to each side to mount hardware in order to fit.

January 29, 9:21 AM [GMT -5]

The "cutting List" shows the drawer bottoms as 20" x 19", this is incorrect, it should "read" 21" x 19".

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