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How to Organize Your Closet: Custom Designed Closet Storage

Updated: Feb. 22, 2023

Expert planning advice and step-by-step instructions for making every inch of storage count.

FH00DJA_ORGCLO_01-2Family Handyman
For the cost of a regular dresser, you can install a modular closet organizer and double your storage space with adjustable shelves, drawers and closet rods that look built-in.

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Step 1: Overview

If you find yourself rummaging in your closet every morning mumbling to yourself, “One of these days I’ve got to get organized,” then read on, because we’ve got a solution.

For about the price of a dresser, you can install modular closet organizers that practically double your storage space and look great too. The units are constructed of particleboard with a durable Melamine coating. Although wire shelves are more economical, the modular systems offer several advantages. They look like a built-in unit, offer adjustable shelves and closet rods, and allow you to add drawers or shelves in the future.

Installing a modular closet system is a great weekend project. The Melamine units we chose assemble easily with special locking hardware. If you’re familiar with basic leveling, drilling and sawing, you’ll have no problem assembling and installing the units in an average-sized closet in half a day. But don’t get too excited yet; first you have to measure and plan the closet, round up the parts, and prepare the old closet for the new shelves.

For this project, you’ll need a tape measure, a level, a Phillips screwdriver, a drill with a No. 2 Phillips bit and 3/16-in. wood and 1/2-in. spade bits, a circular saw with a 140-tooth plywood blade and a hacksaw with a 24-tooth-per-inch blade. An electronic stud finder would be handy, but rapping on the wall with your knuckle or looking for nails in the baseboard are great low-tech methods.

Step 2: Sketch out a master plan

Photo 1: Mark the cleat location

Draw a level line on the back wall of the closet to indicate the bottom of the hanging cleats. Refer to the instructions for the height of this line. Locate the studs along this line and mark the wall.

Photo 2: Screw the supporting cleats to the wall

Drill 3/16-in.-screw clearance holes through the cleat at the stud locations. Then screw the cleat to the wall with 3-in. pan head screws, leaving them a little loose. Use a shelf to space the cleat from the end wall to allow room for the side panel of the storage unit.

Photo 3: Screw in the fastener bolts

Lay the sides of the first storage unit on a carpet or dropcloth with unfinished edges together. Screw fastener bolts for the fixed shelves and cleats into the predrilled holes. Your instruction sheet will show which holes to use.

Start by carefully measuring the closet’s width, depth and height. Use graph paper to make scaled drawings of the floor plan and each wall you plan to put shelves on. Include the width and position of the door on your plan. Let each square equal 6 in. This allows you to sketch in and try out different storage unit options.

The knock-down storage units are available in standard widths, with 12, 18 and 24 in. being the most common. Depths range from 12 to 18 in. depending on the manufacturer. Some units rest on the floor and reach a height of about 84 in.; others, like the ones we chose, hang from a cleat or rail mounted to the wall.

Each storage unit consists of two side panels drilled for shelf pins and connecting bolts, one or two hanging cleats and some fixed shelves (Photo 4). The parts are connected with ingenious two-part knock-down fasteners consisting of a connecting bolt that screws into the side panels and a cam mechanism mounted in each fixed shelf and cleat. To assemble, just screw the connecting bolts in the right holes, slide the parts together, and turn the cam clockwise to lock the parts together.

The basic units are essentially boxes with a lot of holes drilled in the sides. Complete the system by adding adjustable shelves, drawers and closet rods. All the components are designed to fit into or attach to the predrilled holes, so very little additional drilling is required.

The biggest difference among brands is in the quality of the drawer slides, closet poles and mounting system and in the range of unit sizes and available options. Better-quality units also have a more durable surface.

We could have saved some money by using standard-sized, floor-standing, modular storage units, but that would have required settling for a less efficient plan and doing more assembly work. Also, hanging the units on the wall avoids the extra work of cutting around or removing baseboards or dealing with uneven floors and has the advantage of keeping your floor clear for cleaning.

Although Melamine-coated shelving is a great product for an affordable, prefinished storage unit, it does have some limitations. The particleboard core will not stand up to moisture. Wire shelving may be a better choice in damp places. The Melamine coating is more durable than paint but not as tough as the plastic laminate used on countertops, so don’t expect this stuff to tolerate the same abuse you give your kitchen counters. Storing books or heavy objects may cause the particleboard to sag over time. Consider a stronger material like plywood or metal shelves.

Step 3: Get your closet ready to go

Photo 4: Assemble the cabinet

Assemble the cabinet by aligning the holes in the fixed shelves and cleats with the fastener bolts. Lock them together by turning the cams clockwise. Then position the second side and lock it in. Face the cams where they’ll be least visible when the cabinet is hung.

Photo 5: Hang the cabinet

Hang the assembled storage unit by pushing it tight to the wall and sliding it down onto the interlocking cleat.

Photo 6: Level the cabinet

Check the side panel to make sure the cabinet is plumb and screw through the bottom cleat into a stud to secure it.

Photo 7: Use anchors if you can’t find studs

Install toggle anchors for additional support if cleats land on only one stud. Hold the cleat in position and drill a 3/16-in. hole through the cleat and the drywall or plaster to mark the location of the toggle anchor. Remove the cleat and enlarge the hole in the wall to 1/2 in. Then install the anchor and attach the cleat, making sure to leave a space for the side panel of the next storage unit.

Photo 8: Mark filler shelves in place

Mark the oversized filler shelf for cutting by laying it on top of the storage units and drawing lines along each side panel onto the shelf.

Photo 9: Use a plywood blade to cut the shelf

Cut the filler shelf with a 140-tooth plywood blade in a circular saw. Clamp a cutting guide so it just covers the line, and run the saw against it to provide a straight cut with a minimal amount of chipping. Construct the cutting guide by screwing a straight 1×6 to an oversized piece of 1/4-in. plywood. Run the saw against the 1×6 fence to cut the plywood at the exact blade location.

Photo 10: Place the shelves

Tilt in the filler shelves, resting them on shelf support pins. Cut the metal closet rods with a 24-tooth-per-inch hacksaw.

Photo 11: Tighten the mounting screws to finish

Complete the installation by tightening all of the mounting screws after adjacent units are connected with the two-part fasteners provided. Install the drawers and drawer fronts and set the adjustable shelves on the shelf support pins.

If your closet is anything like ours, the biggest part of this project will be clearing it out. When that’s done, remove the rod, shelf and everything except the baseboard from the walls. Place a scrap of wood under your hammer or pry bar to avoid crushing the drywall or plaster when you pry off the shelf support boards. Patch the holes with a lightweight surfacing compound. Then sand and repaint the walls and you’re ready to hang shelves.

Once your design is complete and the closet walls are patched and painted, it’s all downhill. The storage unit systems are so well engineered that even if you can’t pound a nail, you’ll feel like a master cabinetmaker when you’re done. Photos 1 through 11 show the basic steps involved. Consult the instruction sheet provided with your system for exact procedures and placement of connecting bolts and other hardware.

Here are a few assembly tips and things to watch out for:

  • Check the end walls of your closet with a level to see if they’re plumb. If they slant inward on the bottom, you’ll have to mount the first cleat farther from the wall to allow the storage unit to hang plumb.
  • Extend the level line (Photo 1) only as far as necessary to line up the cleats. Find the studs and mark them above the line, where the marks will be hidden by the cleats. Double-check the stud locations by probing with a nail to be certain the hanging screws will hit solid wood.
  • Get help setting the units in place. Avoid racking or twisting the assembled storage units; the thin area of particleboard near the connectors might break.
  • Don’t tighten the mounting screws until you’ve joined the units with the special two-part connectors. You’ll need the “slack” to align the holes properly. If the closet walls are wavy or crooked, slide shims behind the units to get them lined up.
  • Install all of the full-size units. Then cut the filler shelves to complete the system (Photos 8 and 9). Tilt the top filler shelf in from below, and then install the shelf clips under it. A snug-fitting shelf is hard to install from the top.
  • Some systems have adjustable drawer fronts. Loosen the screws just enough to move the fronts into alignment, with even spacing between the drawers. Then tighten the screws and drill for the knobs.

Design Tips

  • Divide your clothes into short (about 40 in. in length including the hanger) and long (up to 70 in.). To save closet space, the rods for shorter clothes can be stacked in a “double-hanging” arrangement. Allow about 1 in. of hanging space for every garment. A good rule of thumb is one-third long-hanging to two-thirds double-hanging rods.
  • Set long-hanging rods about 72 in. from the floor and double-hanging rods at 42 in. and 84 in. Another option is a medium-hanging rod for slacks at 60 in. high. Use the space above for shelving.
  • Compartments for shoes may look tidier, but closely spaced adjustable shelves are more efficient and less expensive. Allow about 7 in. of shelf width for each pair of women’s shoes, and 9 in. for men’s.
  • Keep your dirty laundry corralled with a wire basket.
  • Don’t put drawers against the end walls of your closet, and make sure they will open fully without hitting a wall or door. Drawers are expensive; if you can’t afford them now, install adjustable shelves and add the drawers later.

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
  • Circular saw
  • Cordless drill
  • Hacksaw
  • Level
  • 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.

  • 3-in. pan head screws
  • Anchors
  • Closet system