How to Build Suspended Bookshelves

Steel cable and shaft collars add style and strength

Overview: Tools, time and cost

This wall-hung bookshelf is one of the easiest we've ever built. If you can stack blocks, you can build it. And installing the cable doesn't require any more skill than drilling a hole. Things will go a lot quicker if you own a table saw, a miter saw and a pneumatic nailer, but you could easily build this project with just basic hand tools and a circular saw. We used a router to bevel the shelf edges, but this is optional.

If you're dead-set on finishing this project in a weekend, here's how. Skip the Friday night movie and cut out the parts and get one coat of finish on. Then get up early on Saturday and apply another coat or two of finish and you'll be ready to assemble and install the shelves on Sunday. We spent a little under $200 for the materials, including the oak boards, cables and other hardware.

Suspended Shelf and Key Features

The shelves partially hang from a cable equipped with shaft collar stops. For strength, screw the standards to wall studs.

Photo of suspended shelves Suspended shelves
Stop collar and cable on shelf top Shaft collar and cable from top
Shaft collar and cable under shelf Shaft collar and cable under shelf
It's Stronger Than It Looks!

Your first question when you see this bookcase might be “Is it strong enough?” And the answer is a resounding yes. It's extra strong, in fact. The back edges of the shelves are securely supported with screws and blocks, and the front edges are hung from aircraft-strength cable. We even epoxied the top of the cable to the standards just to make sure. Each shelf is held up by shaft collars that are tightened onto the cables with setscrews. So don't worry about the strength. These shelves could hold your dumbbell collection!

Homeowner standing on shelves Strength demonstration
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Step 1: Cut and prefinish the parts

Start by ripping the shelves to the widths given in the Cutting List (See “Additional Information” below). We used a full-width 1x10 for the bottom shelf and successively narrower boards as we went up. Making all the shelves the same width would be OK, too. While you're at it, rip two 1-in.-wide strips from the 1x2s for the support cleats. Next, cut the boards to length. We used a 45-degree chamfer bit and router to bevel the ends and front edges of the shelves, but you could leave them square if you'd like. After the parts are cut and prefinished, you're ready to assemble the shelf.

Suspended Shelf Parts and Details

Figures A and B show all the parts and cable placement details that you'll need for easy assembly. You can download a complete Materials List and Cutting List, and Figures A and B in “Additional Information” below.

Figure A: Suspended shelf details Figure A: Suspended shelf details
Figure B: Shelf detail Figure B: Shelf detail
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Step 2: Assemble the shelves

The shelves are too big to build on a normal workbench. If you're young and nimble, you could put them together on the floor. Otherwise, save your back and line up a few old doors on a pair of sawhorses.

Assembly is straightforward; follow Photos 1 – 6 and the details shown in Figures A and B. Here are a few tips to help:

  • Mark the back of the shelves 13 in. from the ends so you'll know where to line them up with the standards (Photo 2).

  • Keep the shelves and standards at a right angle to each other as you attach the cleats. That'll ensure that the cleats fit tight to the shelves.

  • Don't drive nails where you'll be drilling holes.
  • Drill mounting screw holes after you have all the cleats installed. It's easier to do it before you mount the shelves on the wall.

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Step 3: String the cable

The cable is flexible and easy to cut, so it's a breeze to install. Just remember to put two collars on the cable, between each pair of shelves, as you thread the cable through the holes. Leave about 4 in. of cable sticking out the top and an extra foot or so on the bottom. The extra cable on the bottom lets you use our “cable pedal” method for removing slack (Photo 8). After stringing the cable, flip the whole works over so you can drive the shelf screws (Photo 5) and anchor the top of the cable (Photo 6). Take a coffee break while the epoxy sets up.

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Step 4: Mount the shelves

The shelf standards are spaced 32 in. on center to align with studs. So all you have to do is locate two studs where you want the shelves to go and mark them with masking tape. Setting the shelves on blocks (Photo 7) is a handy way to hold them up while you drive the first few screws. Start by driving one of the top screws. Before you drive the top screw in the second standard, check to make sure the shelves are level. After the two top screws are in place, make sure the standards are plumb before you drive the remaining screws. We used No. 10 finish washers under the screws for a decorative effect.

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Step 5: Tighten the cable

At this point, the cable is slack and the collars are still loose. Your goal is to take the slack out of the cable and then adjust each shelf so it's level from front to back while you tighten the collars (Photo 8). Use an Allen wrench to tighten the setscrews. Remember, you don't need too much tension on the cable, just enough to remove the slack. Finish up by cutting the cable and covering the end with a cap nut (Photo 9).

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