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How to Build Suspended Bookshelves

Steel cable and shaft collars add style and strength

FH10JUN_SUSSHE_04-2Family Handyman
Build this simple set of book or display shelves in a single weekend. They're strong and stylish. By changing materials or finishes you can easily customize them to fit the décor of any room.

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Time
Multiple Days
Complexity
Beginner
Cost
$101–250

Buy This PDF & Cut List

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.

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!

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 1×10 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.

Step 2: Assemble the shelves

Photo 1: Drill an angled hole for the cable

Start by drilling straight down about 1/8 in. Then tilt the drill to about a 45-degree angle and use the starter hole to keep the bit in place as you start to drill. The angle of the hole isn’t critical.

Photo 2: Nail the shelves to the cleats

Drive a brad through the shelf into the support cleat. These brads just hold the shelves in place when you flip the bookshelf over to drive in the shelf screws (Photo 5) and secure the cable (Photo 6).

Photo 3: Assemble the shelves

Add a cleat under the shelf and nail it in. Then add another shelf and tack it to the cleat. Continue like this until you get to the bottom. Now do the same thing on the other side.

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.

Step 3: String the cable

Photo 4: Thread the cable

Start at the bottom shelf and run the cable through the collars and shelves. Add two collars between each pair of shelves. At the top, thread the cable through the angled hole.

Photo 5: Fasten the shelves

Flip the bookshelf over and drive screws into the back of each shelf through the holes in the standards.

Photo 6: Anchor the cable with epoxy

Loop the cable in the recess and hold it down with a washer and screw. Then mix five-minute epoxy and fill the recess with it.

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.

Step 4: Mount the shelves

Photo 7: Mount the bookshelf

Locate two studs that are 32 in. apart with a stud finder. Screw the standards to the studs, making sure the shelves are level and the standards are plumb.

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.

Step 5: Tighten the cable

Photo 8: Tension the cables

Tighten the cable using a scrap of wood with a hole in it to put tension on the cable while you tighten the setscrew on the collar below the lowest shelf. Then snug the remaining collars to the top and bottom of the shelves and tighten the collars.

Photo 8A: Close-up of collars

Tighten the collars to keep the shelf rigid.

Photo 9: Trim and cap the cable

Use a side-cutting pliers or lineman’s pliers to cut the cable. Leave 1/4 in. protruding. Cover the end of the cable with a cap nut. Use hot-melt glue or silicone caulk to hold the cap nut in place.

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).

Project PDF Files

Click the links below to download the construction drawings, materials list and cutting list for this project.

Cutting and Materials Lists and Construction drawings

Additional Information

Required Tools for this Project

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

  • Allen wrench
  • Brad nail gun
  • Circular saw
  • Drill bit set
  • Drill/driver - cordless
  • Framing square
  • Level
  • Lineman's pliers
  • Miter saw
  • Safety glasses
  • Sanding block
  • Table saw
  • Tape measure

Required Materials for this Project

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

  • 100-grit sandpaper
  • 150-grit sandpaper
  • See Materials List in "Additional Information"
  • Stain and varnish or other wood finish

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