Annoyed by an overstuffed closet packed so tightly that you can’t find your favorite shirt or shoes? Where the closet rod bends under the weight of all of “his” and “her” clothing?
If so, the simple DIY closet shelves organizing system we show here is a great solution. It utilizes the closet space much more efficiently by dividing your closet into zones that give your slacks, dresses, shirts, shoes and other items their own home. As a result, your clothing is better organized and you can find your party shirt or power skirt quickly and easily. It also prevents “closet creep,” where “her” clothing tends to infringe on “his” zone. (Or vice versa!) Overall, you’ll get double the useful space of a traditional single pole and shelf closet.
In this article, we’ll show you how to build this simple DIY closet shelves organizer, step-by-step, and tell you how to customize it to fit closets of different sizes. We designed it for simplicity; you can build it in one weekend, even if you’re a novice. However, to do a nice job, you should have experience using two basic power tools: a circular saw and a drill. A power miter box and an air-powered brad nailer ($90) make the job go a bit faster, but they aren’t necessary.
Don’t buy it—build it!
While you may be tempted to buy a prefabricated organizer, it’ll be surprisingly expensive when you tally up the cost of all the pieces. The materials for our organizer cost only $150. We used 1-1/2 sheets of oak veneer plywood, plus several types of standard oak trim that you’ll find at most home centers and lumberyards.
Keep in mind that if you use other wood species, you may have trouble finding matching trim, and you’ll have to custom-cut it from solid boards on a table saw. If you choose to paint your DIY closet shelves organizer, you can use less expensive plywood and trim, and cut your expenses by about one-third.
Begin by measuring the width of your closet. The DIY closet shelves system we show works best in a 6-ft. closet. If your closet only measures 5 ft., consider using a single vertical divider, rather than the two we show in Figure A.
Closet rod and shelf system how-to: Assemble the center unit
Photo 1: Use a guide to crosscut
Measure your closet dimensions and cut the plywood vertical dividers and shelves to size (Figure A). Use a guide to make crosscuts perfectly square.
Measure the baseboard
Measure the height and thickness of your baseboard.
Photo 2: Cut notches in the dividers
Use a jigsaw to cut notches for your baseboard so the vertical dividers will fit over it.
Photo 3: Attach the molding
Smooth the cut plywood edges with 80-grit sandpaper and a block, then glue and tack 3/4-in. screen molding onto the edges that will show. Apply a stain or finish and let it dry.
Photo 4: Attach the shelf
Lay out the intermediate shelf positions with a square, spread glue on the shelf edges and nail the shelf to the dividers with 6d finish nails. Nail the 1/2-in. hook strips to the dividers as well.
After referring to the Cutting List and your closet dimensions, rip the plywood into two 13-3/4-in. pieces for the vertical dividers. If you plan to rip plywood with a circular saw, be sure to use a straightedge to get perfectly straight cuts.
We’ll be using hook strips to attach the center unit and shelves to the closet walls, as well as for spacing the uprights (Figure A). If you want to save a bit of cash, you can rip these strips from the leftover plywood (and enjoy the gratification that comes from using the entire sheet). Cut the plywood to length using a factory plywood edge as a guide (Photo 1).
Always check for accuracy by just nicking the plywood with the blade to make sure you’re hitting your mark. Fully support your project with 2x4s so the cutoff doesn’t fall and splinter. Also, for smoother cuts, use a sharp blade with at least 40 teeth. You don’t have to cut out the baseboard in the closet or even trim the back side of the dividers to fit its exact profile. The back of the organizer will be mostly out of sight, so square notches will do (Photo 2).
You’ll have to trim the tops of the dividers back to 10-3/4 in. to make it easier to slide stuff onto the top shelf (unless you have an extra-deep closet). We angled this cut to the first shelf point (Figure A). Apply the screen molding to hide the raw plywood edges on the dividers and shelves.
You’ll have to cut a 7-degree angle on the molding with a circular saw, jigsaw or miter saw to get a perfect fit on the dividers. Cut this angle first and when you get a nice fit, cut the other ends to length.
You could also apply edge veneer (iron-on) or any other 3/4-in. wood strips to cover the edges. Now sand all the parts to prepare them for finishing. A random orbital sander with 120-grit sandpaper will make quick work of this, but a few squares of sandpaper and a wood block will also do the trick. After sanding, wipe the surface of the wood with a clean cloth to remove dust.
It’s easiest to apply your finish before assembly. We chose a warm fruitwood-tone Danish Finishing Oil. This type of finish brings out the natural grain of the wood, looks velvety smooth, and is easy to renew when you scratch or scuff it. Use a small cloth to rub a generous amount of oil into the surface until the plywood and hook strips have an even sheen, and allow it to dry overnight.
After the finish oil dries, assemble the center unit. Lightly mark the vertical dividers where the interior shelves and hook strips will be positioned and drill 1/8-in. pilot holes to simplify the nailing.
Then spread a thin bead of glue onto the shelf ends and clamp the unit together. Use four 6d finish nails to pin the shelves securely (Photo 4), then countersink the nail heads with a nail set. Nails and glue are strong enough for holding garments and other light items, but if you plan to store your boat anchor collection on a closet shelf, put a cleat under the shelf to bear the weight.
Position one of the center unit’s interior hook strips at the very top of the dividers and one above the bottom notches, and one under each shelf. The strips will shore up the unit and keep the plywood from bowing when you install it.
Protect prime space
Your bedroom closet is valuable real estate, and the only way to protect it is to store off-season or rare-occasion clothing elsewhere. Many of us use garment bags, plastic bins (stored off the floor in a humidity-controlled basement) or a freestanding wardrobe. However, many mid-century homes have closets on the main level that are 4-1/2 ft. deep or better, and they’re perfect candidates for off-season use.
Deep closets can fit double rods mounted parallel to each other in the front and the back. It’s an ideal setup for tightly stashing off-season outfits. Add a rolling bin on the closet floor to store accessories, beachwear or ski gloves in Ziploc Big Bags. This will keep your bedroom closet clear and your active gear at hand.
Every clothing item should be handled annually and those not worn in a given season cast off. Passing along unused attire creates the luxury of space and ease in any closet.
In the closet
Photo 5: Install the center unit for the closet rod and shelf system
Set the center unit in the closet, level it with shims, predrill and tack the hook strips to the wall studs with 6d finish nails.
Photo 6: Install the hook strips
Level the hook strips with the top of the dividers, then predrill and nail them to the studs. Continue the strip around the closet sides.
Photo 7: Nail the top shelf in place
Trim the top shelf ends to fit the side walls, drop the shelf into place, and nail it to the tops of the vertical dividers and to the hook strip with 6d nails.
If you have a thin carpet and pad, you can place the center unit directly on top of it. However, if you have a plush rug with a soft padding, stability is a concern. After determining the exact placement of your unit (by centering the unit on the midpoint of the closet; Photo 5), mark and cut out two 3/4-in.-wide slots in the carpet and pad so the dividers rest on the solid floor below.
Find the studs using a stud finder and mark them with masking tape. Also measure and mark the center of the wall on tape. This way you’ll avoid marking up your walls. Set the unit in its position against the wall. Level and shim as necessary (Photo 5).
Predrill the hook strips with a 1/8-in. bit, then nail the unit to the studs. Level and nail on the remaining hook strips (Photo 6), starting with wider hook strips along the side walls to accommodate the hanging rod hardware (Figure A and Photo 8).
The inside walls of the closet will never be perfectly square because of the mudding and taping of the drywall corners. Measure your closet width and cut your shelf to the widest dimension, then tilt the shelf into position. At the corners, mark a trim line along each end to achieve a snug fit (Photo 7).
Finish the closet rod and shelf system
To avoid having to Harry Houdini yourself around shelves, install all your closet rod hardware before you put in the side shelves.
The hardware for the closet rods should be positioned about 1-1/2 to 2 in. down from the shelf above and about 10 to 12 in. from the back wall. In our closet, we hung our top rods 10 in. from the back, which is good for pants, and our bottom rods, for shirts and blouses, at 12 in. If you want your top rod 12 in. out, make the top shelf 12 in. wide and trim less off the top of the vertical dividers.
To best secure the side shelves, sand the cut edge that will be in contact with the center unit with 100-grit paper. This will break up any finishing oil and provide a cleaner surface for the glue. Lay out the remaining shelves on their side wall hook strips and use a level to determine their exact position on the center unit.
Mark and drill the pilot holes through the center unit, then lift out the shelf and apply a thin bead of glue. To prevent smearing, put the center unit side in first while tipping up the wall side of the shelf. Keep a cloth handy to wipe up the inevitable glue smudges.
Nail the shelves in place and you’re done. Fill ‘er up!
Required Tools for this Project
Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.
- 4-in-1 screwdriver
- Air compressor
- Brad nail gun
- Circular saw
- Cordless drill
- Drill bit set
- Safety glasses
- Speed square
- Stud finder
- Tape measure
- Utility knife
- Wood glue
Required Materials for this Project
Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.
- 1-1/16“ closet rod (8')
- 1/2“ x 2-1/2“ hook strip (24')
- 1/2“ x 3-1/2“ hook strip (9')
- 1/4“ x 3/4“ x 8' screen molding (4)
- 3/4“ x 4' x 8' sheets of oak plywood (1-1/2)
- 6d finishing nails (1 lb.)
- 80-grit sandpaper
- Pairs of rod holders (4)