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DIY Box Shelves

Box shelves are inexpensive, easy to make and highly versatile. Make the combination of sizes and depths you need for any room, from the living room to the laundry. Box construction techniques are always the same.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Overview: Materials, tools and time

Not only do these storage boxes look nice, but they're easy to build—just fasten together four sides and put on the back. This is one of those rare woodworking projects that combines high style, low cost and super-simple construction.

Built from standard oak or birch plywood, these 12 x 12-in. boxes will cost about $35 for eight. If you use standard plywood, you'll have to patch voids in the edges with wood filler or cover the edges with edge banding (for more information type “edge banding” in the search box above). To avoid that extra work, we used Baltic birch plywood, which has better-looking, void-free edges. Baltic birch costs about $85 for a 3/4-in. x 60-in. x 60-in. sheet, which will give you five boxes. If your home center doesn't stock Baltic birch, look for it at a hardwood specialty store (check under “Hardwood Suppliers” in the yellow pages or search online to find a source). Use standard 1/4-in. plywood for the backs even if you use Baltic birch for the sides.

You can build a dozen or more boxes in a few hours. Spend Saturday assembling the boxes and applying the finish, then hang them or fasten them together on Sunday. To complete the project, you'll need a table saw to rip the plywood sheets and a circular saw to crosscut the top, back and sides. We'll show you how to make perfectly straight crosscuts using a guide. You'll also need a brad nailer to nail the boxes together.

Painted box shelves

Painted box shelves

Elegant or Practical

The boxes work equally well in a formal setting and a utilitarian room, like the laundry or garage. They offer an unlimited number of uses and arrangements.

Step 1: Cut the pieces to size

Get started by ripping the 3/4-in. plywood sheets into 11-1/4-in.-wide strips on a table saw. Cut out any dents and dings along the edges. It's important that these pieces be exactly the same width so the boxes will be aligned when they're stacked together. Also rip the 1/4-in. plywood sheet into 11-1/2-in.-wide strips. Crosscut the box tops, bottoms, sides and back panels to length following Figure A, below. Make the crosscuts with a circular saw and a guide (Photo 1).

Box shelf details

Box shelf details

Figure A: Box Shelf Details
Note: Figure A and a Materials List are available in pdf format in Additional Information below.

Step 2: Assemble the boxes

Placing adjacent sides in a carpenter's square ensures crisp 90-degree angles when you fasten the corners together. Set the square over wood blocks and clamp it to your work surface. Set one side and the top or bottom in the square, apply wood glue along the edge, and nail the corner together with 1-1/2-in. brad nails (Photo 2).

Fasten the remaining corners the same way. Leave the box in the carpenter's square to keep the corners square, then add the back panel (Photo 3). The back panels are 1/2 in. smaller than the overall box size to leave a 1/4-in. gap along each edge. This makes the edges less conspicuous when the boxes are installed.

Step 3: Apply a finish

Once your boxes are fully assembled, it's time to apply a finish. Sand the boxes with 120-grit sandpaper to smooth out any rough spots, then wipe away the dust with a clean cloth.

If you want to paint the boxes, first prime them with a latex primer. Foam rollers work great for applying smooth coats of primer and paint. Brush on the primer in the corners, then roll the rest. Let the primer dry, lightly sand the boxes with 120-grit sandpaper, then apply the paint.

For our stained shelves, we applied two coats of stain—Minwax Golden Oak followed by Minwax Ebony—and two coats of a water-based polyurethane.

Step 4: Hang the boxes

Once the finish is dry, you can screw the boxes together or hang them on a wall. Be sure to hang the boxes with the side pieces overlapping the top and bottom, as shown in Figure A. This keeps the corner nails horizontal and makes the box stronger. Still, the boxes are not designed to hold a lot of weight. Countersinking the screw head and filling the hole with a 3/8-in. screw hole button hides the fastener. Screw hole buttons are available at home centers.

To fasten boxes together, first clamp them so they're perfectly flush. Then drill a 3/8-in.-diameter, 3/16-in.-deep countersink hole with a brad point drill bit ($3). The brad point won't tear or chip the veneer. Then drill 1/8-in. pilot holes in the countersink holes using a standard bit.

Drive a 1-in. wood screw into the pilot hole, countersinking the head. Dab paint or stain on the screw hole button and plug the hole (Photo 4).

To hang a box where there's a stud, drill two 1/8-in. pilot holes. Then spray-paint the heads of 2-1/2-in. screws and drive them into the stud at the pilot holes (there's no alternative to leaving the heads exposed). If there's not a stud available, use self-drilling anchors, such as EZ Ancors. Drill pilot holes through the box into the wall, remove the box and drive the anchors into the wall at the marks. Then fasten the box to the wall using the screws included with the anchors.

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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
    • Brad nail gun
    • Tape measure
    • Circular saw
    • Drill/driver, cordless
    • Level
    • Drill bit set
    • Framing square
    • Straightedge
    • Wood glue

You will also need a brad point drill bit, 3/8-in. and a crosscut guide.

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 Materials List in Additional Information at the end of the Step-by-Step section.
    • Sandpaper, 120-grit
    • Primer and paint
    • Stain and polyurethane
    • Screw hole buttons

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February 20, 10:41 PM [GMT -5]

I am a 73 yo female. I always check out your projects. Like all of them, try parts of some. This one is great. I will be using some parts of these projects. I rent, so can't do the permanent stuff.

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