Stackable Shelves

It's shelving, storage, a desk and work surface combined

Make your own stackable shelves. A simple shop-made jig makes this project simple to build and a snap to assemble.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine






$100 - $500

Construction details

If you need shelving, storage, a desk or a work surface, check out this modular system. It's got lots of storage space for your electronic gear and books and a nifty recess to accommodate a stool. And you can easily customize this system to suit your storage needs and wall space.

The T-shaped standards (Photo 5) are simple to cut and glue. (We used Baltic birch because we liked the look of the multiple laminations on the edges, but any 1/2-in. hardwood plywood will do.) We chose sturdy, easy-to-clean 3/4-in. Melamine for the horizontal shelves because it has a tough, plastic-like surface, but you can use plywood, MDF (medium-density fiberboard) or particleboard and paint it any color you wish.

The plywood standards and the shelves are drilled precisely with a homemade jig (Photos 4 and 6 and Fig. B) and are held together with 3/8-in. dia. steel pins. The pins slide through the shelves and into the standards, so putting this together is sort of like stacking blocks or Lego pieces.

Figure A: Stackable Shelves Detail

The layers of stackable shelving are held together with steel pins. For a complete Cutting List and a PDF of Figure A, see “Additional Information” below

Stackable shelves detail

Glue the front pieces together for each standard and then “sandwich clamp” them

We went to all the trouble of gluing the 1/2-in. plywood standard fronts together to create a more stable, 1-in. thick support. This thickness also allows us to use 3/8-in. pins in the assembly for more strength and sturdiness. It would take you a month of Sundays and dozens of clamps to individually clamp all the standard fronts together. Instead, get all your pieces cut and ready to glue and then clamp three or four pairs together at one time as shown in Photo 3.

Figure B: Drilling Jig Detail

Build a jig to assemble and drill the T-shaped shelf standards

You can't successfully build this project without maintaining exact consistency. This handy jig will help. You make the jig by gluing and nailing 1/2-in. plywood strips to a 3/4-in. scrap plywood base. Use a square to lay out everything precisely as shown in Fig. B. This jig helps you assemble the parts of each standard precisely. And you can flip it over and use it to accurately drill the pin holes (Photo 6).

The jig will also be your guide for drilling the holes into the horizontal shelf boards, which need to perfectly align with the standards (Photo 8). All you need to do is screw an auxiliary fence to the jig to maintain the proper overhang on the front and back of each shelf. (For a larger, printable PDF of Figure B, see “Additional Information” below.)

Drilling jig

Measure the height and width you need for each shelf

If you plan to alter this project to suit your personal stuff, establish the height of each shelf so you can cut the plywood for the T-shaped standards. Measure the heights of things you plan to display, like a TV, stereo equipment, computer or books. Also, leave some room from the top shelf to the ceiling.

You don't want your new shelves to sag, so don't exceed a span of 29 in. between the rear wings of the standards. The span is measured from the closest points between the T-shaped standards (Photo 11). For example, if the front edges of your standards are 38 in. apart, the rear wings of the T-shaped standards will be close to 27 in. apart—well within the limit.

Choosing Materials

Melamine is tough to cut without chipping. If this is one of your first projects, you may want to consider using a different shelf material. In some areas, the black will be difficult to find unless you have a full-service lumberyard special order it. White Melamine, however, is sold in 3/4-in. thicknesses in most home centers.

Hardwood plywood with iron-on wood edging or MDF (medium-density fiberboard) are excellent substitutes for 3/4-in. Melamine. You can sand the edges of MDF easily, and it paints beautifully because it's so smooth. Plywood is readily available as well, but you'll need either 1/4-in. glue-on strips or iron-on wood edging to cover the exposed edges. You can then stain, varnish or paint the plywood.

Baltic birch may also be tough to find in some areas. It's usually sold in 5-ft. square sheets. We used nine-ply sheets because the cut edges look great when sanded and finished. Each layer, or ply, stands out. And unlike with other plywood choices, there are no voids. You can buy Baltic birch with one good side and the other made from lower-quality veneer. This makes the most sense for this project because you can hide the bad side. Other types of plywood with no voids are available. You can also substitute any hardwood plywood, but you may need to glue hardwood strips over the edges to hide voids.

Additional Information

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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
  • Miter saw
  • Cordless drill
  • Circular saw
  • Drill bit set
  • File
  • Framing square
  • Forstner drill bits
  • Hacksaw
  • Jigsaw
  • Orbital sander
  • Straightedge
  • Rubber mallet
  • Safety glasses
  • Wood glue

You also need a clothes iron, a portable drilling guide or drill press, and a laminate trimmer.

Required Materials for this Project

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

  • Baltic birch
  • Melamine shelves or hardwood plywood or MDF
  • Wood edging
  • 3/8-in. steel rod
  • 3/4-in. brads

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