How to Build a Freestanding Shelf Unit

Carrie Waller

If finding the perfect shelving unit to suit your modern taste has left you feeling like you're banging your head against a wall, just build it yourself. The process for this type of wooden shelf is straightforward and allows you the opportunity to customize every detail, right down to the paint colors.

Things You'll Need

Building your own custom shelf is easier than you'd think.
You'll first need to gather your wood and tools.
  • 1 one-by-10 wooden board, 8 feet long
  • 4 1-inch diameter wooden dowel rods, 4 feet long
  • 4 premade 5-inch wooden feet with caps
  • 4 metal angled brackets for wooden feet (screws included)
  • Awl
  • Measuring tape
  • Ruler
  • Safety goggles
  • Face mask
  • Saw
  • Drill press
  • 1-inch Forstner bit
  • Wood glue
  • Small detail paintbrush, such as a 1-inch flat wash
  • Rag
  • Foam paintbrush
  • Foam paint roller
  • Painter's tray
  • White latex primer
  • White latex interior paint
  • Acrylic craft paint in colors of choice
  • 1/4-inch masking tape

Measure and Mark Your Shelves

Measure your shelves and make pencil marks for the saw.

Start with an 8-foot board (the depth depends on your preference, but this board was 10 inches deep) and use measuring tape to mark the width of your shelves. This shelf had boards that were 2 feet long. Account for the depth of your saw blade when making your marks — in this example, a 1/4-inch gap was added in between each 2-foot length.

Cut Your Shelves

Use a saw to cut your wood board into individual shelves.

Put on proper safety equipment (safety goggles, face mask), and use a saw to cut the shelves to length.

Mark for Feet Brackets

Mark where holes need to be drilled for the feet of the shelf.

Lay the brackets for the premade feet at each corner of the bottom shelf. Use a pointed tool to mark through the holes where each screw will go. Repeat the process on all four corners on the bottom of the lowest shelf.

Drill Holes for Feet Brackets

Use a drill or drill press to drill the holes for the feet brackets.

Use a handheld drill or drill press to drill all of the feet bracket holes.

Cut Dowel Rod Shelf Spacers

Measure and mark, then cut the dowel rods into individual shelf spacers.

Cut down dowel rods that are 4 feet long and 1 inch in diameter to act as individual shelf spacers. Use a measuring tape and a pencil to mark out your preferred shelf height. Add an extra 3/4-inch on either end of the dowels, as this is how deep the spacers will each sit inside the shelves at both the top and the bottom. Use a saw to cut the dowels down into 12 individual spacers.

Mark Dowel Rod Holes on the Shelves

Use a ruler to mark on the shelves where the dowel spacers will go.

Use a ruler and pencil to mark where the dowel spacers will go. Measure in from each perpendicular edge and make marks so that you create an "X" where the center of the dowel will go. This particular shelving unit has a staggered design, so the dowels were marked 1 inch in on the top and bottommost shelves, and 1 1/2 inches in on the middle shelf. Don't forget that you'll need to make identical marks on the top and bottom of the shelves so that the dowels match up correctly.

Tip: Marking your shelves with numbers will help you to match up the correct shelves at a later step.

Drill Press Spacer Holes

Drill holes into the shelves for the spacer dowels to go into.

A Forstner bit attached to a drill press is the best method for properly drilling holes into the shelves for the dowel spacers. Correspond the diameter of the bit with the correct diameter of your dowel — in this case, a 1-inch diameter bit was used. Adjust the bit so that it will sink into the shelf at exactly 3/4 inch, and then drill the holes into each shelf — the top and bottom of the middlemost two shelves, just the top of the bottommost shelf and the bottom of the topmost shelf.

Glue Dowels in Place

A paintbrush is used to add wood glue to the holes and dowels to connect the shelving unit together.

Squeeze a bit of wood glue into a dish and, with a paintbrush, add a layer of glue into each of the holes in the shelves and then to the top and bottom of each dowel rod. Put the dowel rods into the holes and wipe away any excess glue. Repeat the steps on each shelf until the unit is completely assembled. Allow the shelving unit to dry for 24 hours.

Paint the Shelves White

Paint everything on the shelving unit white except for the dowel rods.

Pour white primer into a painter's tray and, using a brush on the dowels and a roller on the shelves themselves, paint the entire shelving unit. Then, after cleaning your materials, pour white interior latex paint into the tray and repeat the process. You may need to paint two to three coats, depending on your paint. If you plan to add extra color to the dowel spacers, as was the case with this shelf, you only need to brush paint about 1 inch on the top and bottom of the dowels. The rest of the wood can remain unpainted until the next step. At this point, you'll also want to paint the feet of your shelf white. Allow the paint to dry for 24 hours.

Mask Off the Dowel Spacers

Mask off the top and bottom of each dowel spacer with tape.

Add a length of 1/4-inch masking tape to the top and bottom of each of the 12 dowel spacers. Press the tape firmly to the dowel rods to avoid paint seepage.

Paint the Dowels and Add Feet

Add pops of color to the dowel spacers with bright paint, and then screw on the brackets and feet.

Paint your favorite colors onto the dowel rods using a foam paintbrush, right up to the masking tape. You may need to paint two to three coats of each, depending on your paint. Acrylic craft paint in gray and two shades of pink were used in this case.

When the paint has properly covered the remaining exposed wood, immediately remove and discard the tape, and allow the paint to dry for 24 hours. Finish by screwing on the brackets and feet, and then style the shelves with your favorite plants, decorative objects and accessories.

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