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Built-In Shelves

Use this project for built-in shelves to unlock hidden storage space between the studs in your walls. Install a single, open box of shelves, or install two boxes and add a set of glass doors.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Look inside your walls for extra space

In almost every room of your house, you can find tons of storage space hidden between the two sheets of drywall. Simple stud-space cabinets like the two we show here are great for capturing some of this wasted space. We’ll show you how to build them.

Basic version of built-in shelves.

Basic version of built-in shelves.

Built-in shelves with glass doors.

Built-in shelves with glass doors.

Build a basic box with a face frame, or build two and add glass doors

The basic shelf project is simple to build using common carpentry tools and a drill. We used a pocket hole jig, but this is optional. You can get excellent results by simply nailing the parts together. Even if you’ve never built a cabinet, you’ll be able to finish the basic shelf project in a weekend.

The glass door cabinet is a bit more challenging and requires a few more tools. You’ll need a table saw and a miter saw to make the precise cuts required. You’ll also need a pocket hole kit to assemble the doors and a router with a 3/8-in. rabbeting bit to cut the recess for the glass. If you use concealed hinges like we did, you’ll need a 35-mm Forstner bit to drill the hinge recess holes.

Basic built-in shelves

Cut the hole first

Before you buy materials, choose the location for your built-in cabinet and cut the hole. Then you can adjust the dimensions if your wall studs aren’t exactly 14-1/2 in. apart. Remember, your walls are full of pipes, wires and ducts, so you need to do a little detective work to find a good spot. The plumbing wall of a bathroom is probably a bad choice. Look for heat and cold air registers that could indicate ducting, and outlets or switches that mean there’s wiring in the stud space.

When you find a spot you like, use a stud finder to make sure the studs are at least 14-1/2 in. apart. Then cut a small access hole to inspect the stud space (Photo 1). If there are obstructions, at least you’ll only have a small patch to make. If the area is clear, cut the hole (Photo 2). Now measure the distance between studs and subtract 1/2 in. to determine the width of the cabinet. Measure from the surface of the wall covering—drywall or plaster—to the back of the opening and subtract 1/4 in. to determine the depth of your cabinet. If you have 2x4 walls with 1/2-in. drywall, you can build the cabinet box using standard 1x4 boards.

Build the box

Cut the sides, top and bottom from 1x4 boards, or from whatever width boards you need. Then drill 1/4-in. holes for the shelf supports (Photo 3). Build a simple template from a strip of pegboard screwed to a strip of wood. Locate the center of a row of holes 3/4 in. from the edge of the wood strip. We chose to drill holes every 2 in.

Choose the spacing you prefer, and mark the holes accordingly so you don’t get mixed up while you’re drilling. Secure a stop collar to a 1/4-in. drill bit so that the shelf support holes are 3/8 in. deep. Set the two sides next to each other, lining up the ends, and draw a square line across the faces, 4-3/4 in. from the bottoms. Make an “X” to indicate the bottom of the sides so you don’t get them reversed when you assemble the box. Then align the center of a pegboard hole with the line and clamp the jig before you drill the holes (Photo 3).

After you’ve drilled holes in both sides, assemble the box (Photo 4). Cut the plywood back to fit and nail it to the back of the box. Nail one side, then measure diagonally, or use a framing square to make sure the cabinet is square before you nail the remaining ends and side.
Cut the face frame parts, and assemble them with pocket screws (Photos 5 and 6). We built the face frame so that it overlaps the inside edge of the cabinet by 1/8 in. on all sides. Drill pocket holes in the cabinet sides and attach the face frame with pocket screws (Photo 7). If you don’t own a pocket hole kit, simply nail the face frame parts to the cabinet with finish nails and fill the holes before you paint.

Cut the shelves to length after you’ve assembled the cabinet. Measure the distance between the sides and subtract 1/8 in. to determine the shelf length.

Exploded view of the basic cabinet.

Exploded view of the basic cabinet.

Exploded view of basic built-in shelf assembly

Use this exploded diagram to see how the cabinet is constructed. See Additional Information below for the Materials List and the Cutting List.

Mount the cabinet

Slide the cabinet into the opening and use a level to make sure it's level and plumb (Photo 8). Drive screws through the cabinet sides, or simply drive nails through the face frame to secure the cabinet.

Add glass doors to your built-in shelves

Built-in shelves with glass doors.

Built-in shelves with glass doors.

Glass door cabinet

The doors on this cabinet are inset into the face frame and require a precise fit, making this project more challenging than the basic cabinet. You should have some woodworking experience to tackle this project. But because the doors are assembled with simple pocket screw joints and the hinges are fully adjustable, you don’t have to be a cabinetmaker. You just have to measure and cut accurately.

Including the glass shelves and frosted glass inserts, hinges and other hardware, and the paintable boards, this project cost us about $300. If you keep at it, you’ll be able to complete the cabinet in a weekend. Then you can spend weeknights painting it and install it the next weekend.

This cabinet spans one wall stud to fill two stud spaces. To allow this, we joined two basic cabinets with a mull that’s 2 in. wide by 1/2 in. thick. You have to remove the strip of drywall covering the center stud for this cabinet to fit.

Start with the basics

Follow the instructions for the basic shelf unit for cutting the holes in the drywall and building the two cabinet boxes. Then join the two boxes by gluing the 1/2-in.- thick mull between them (Photo 9). Screw scraps of boards to the top and bottom of the cabinets to hold them steady. Remove these temporary supports after the face frame is installed.

Exploded view of cabinet with glass doors.

Exploded view of cabinet with glass doors.

Figure B: Glass Door Cabinets

Use this diagram to see how the cabinet is constructed. See Additional Information below for the Materials List and the Cutting List.

Add the face frame

Unlike the basic cabinet above, the face frame for this cabinet must fit flush to the cabinet sides to accommodate the concealed hinges we’re using. To make sure the face frame fits perfectly, cut the top and bottom rails to fit exactly between the sides of the cabinet. Align them with the inside edge of the box and clamp them temporarily. Then measure and cut the face frame stiles to fit (Photo 2). Now you can remove the face frame parts, drill pocket holes and join them with pocket hole screws. Keep the inside pocket holes at least 1/2 in. from the edge to avoid hitting them with the rabbeting bit when you rout the recess for the glass.

Build the doors

Inset doors are difficult because they have to be exactly the right size and perfectly flat. The trick to flat doors is to build them with straight and flat boards. Sight down the boards when you choose them at the lumberyard or home center to make sure they’re flat and straight. Also, find lumber with straight grain if possible. The fewer knots and curvy grain patterns in the wood, the better it will be for doors.

The Materials List in Additional Information (below) lists 1x6s. Cut 2-in.-wide strips from these on a table saw for the door parts. We cut our boards 1/16 in. oversize, stacked them alongside each other and ran them through our portable planer to remove the saw marks. If you don’t have a planer or jointer to dress the edges of the boards, just make sure to use a sharp saw blade when you rip the parts, and then sand off any saw marks after you assemble the doors.

Use the face frame as a guide for building the doors. First cut four door stiles 1/4 in. shorter than the inside dimension of the face frame. Stack them tightly together inside the face frame and measure the remaining width (Photo 3). Subtract 3/8 in. from this measurement and divide by two to determine the length of the four door rails. Cut the door rails. Then test-fit all the parts, using 1/8-in. spacer shims between the doors and the cabinet and between the pair of doors (Photo 4). Adjust the lengths if needed. Finally, join the rails and stiles with pocket screws.

The next step is to rout the recess for the glass. Mount a 3/8-in. rabbeting bit in your router and adjust the router to cut a rabbet about 3/16 in. deep. Rout the inside perimeter of each door, moving the router clockwise (Photo 13). Adjust the router to increase the cutting depth an additional 1/16 in. and make the final pass. Finish the rabbet by squaring off the corners with a sharp chisel.

Mount the doors

We used Blum 110-degree clip top hinges on the doors. These hinges provide three-way adjustments and have a built-in soft-close mechanism. You can save a few dollars by substituting a standard concealed hinge without the soft-close feature. This type of hinge requires a 35-mm recess in the door to accept the hinge, and a mounting plate on the cabinet.

Start by making three marks on the hinge side of each door to indicate the centers of the hinges. Mark the center of the door and 3-1/2 in. from the top and bottom. Then measure in 13/16 in. from the edge to mark the center of the 35-mm hinge bore. Use an awl or sharp nail to make a starting hole for the 35-mm Forstner bit. Before you drill the hinge recess holes, hold the door alongside the cabinet, center it so there’s a 1/8-in. gap at each end, and transfer the hinge marks to the cabinet sides (Photo 6).

Next attach the hinge mounting plates to the cabinet (Photo 7). Draw a line 2-7/16 in. from the face of the cabinet to locate the hinge plate screws. Drill 35-mm x 1/2-in.-deep recesses in the doors with the Forstner bit at each hinge location (Photo 8). Practice on a scrap of wood first to gauge how deep to drill. Mount the hinges (Photo 9).

Test-fit the doors by clipping the hinges to the plates. You should be able to adjust the hinges until the doors fit perfectly. If not, you may have to plane or sand the door edges a bit. When you’re happy with the fit, remove the hinges and plates so that you can paint the cabinet and doors before you install the glass panels and shelves.

Install the glass and mount the cabinets

When the paint or other finish is completely dry, you can install the glass. Set the glass into the recess and apply a neat bead of clear silicone around the perimeter to hold it in place (Photo 10). Make sure to cut the tip of the caulk tube carefully to leave an opening about the size of a 6d finish nail. Let the caulk cure before you reinstall the doors. If you need to replace the glass, just slice the silicone bead with a utility knife.

Mount the cabinet in the wall (Photo 11). Then install the doors by clipping on the hinges. Finish by adjusting the hinges until the spaces between the doors and the cabinets are equal. Then install the glass shelves. We used nickel “spoon”-type shelf supports. To keep the shelves from slipping, we stuck clear polyurethane door bumpers to the top of each shelf support.

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