How to Build a Built-in Shelving Unit

Updated July 20, 2017

A built-in shelving unit can add character to a room without taking up valuable floor space. By building them yourself you aren't limited by the designs, styles or sizes available in the store and you can truly customise them to your space. Although the colours and embellishments may differ from project to project, the basis of building a basic built-in shelving unit stays the same.

Measure the space where the built-ins will go to determine the height and width of the shelving units. Bookshelves and storage shelves will sag under the weight of their contents and a smaller span will reduce potential sag, so take this into account when laying out your shelves. According to, a practical span for a three-quarters inch thick shelf is 30 to 36 inches and the proper depth for a general shelving unit is 10 to 12 inches.

Determine how you will finish the shelves at the floor and ceiling. Will you carry baseboard and crown moulding across the front to match what is in the room and give it a truly built-in look? Or will you keep it shy of the ceiling and build a toe kick at the bottom for a furniture look? Will you paint or stain the shelving unit, or will you build it out of pre-finished material? These questions will determine what materials you purchase to construct the shelving unit.

Size the material you've selected for the sides, tops and bottoms to the appropriate lengths and widths with your table saw or skill saw. Rip strips for cleats that will support the bottom shelf. The width of the cleats for the bottom shelf should be a quarter-inch taller than your baseboard for a built-in look and should be no more than 4 inches high for a furniture look.

Drill the holes for the shelf supports with a store-bought or homemade template or use your router and a straight bit to make a dado for a shelf clip track. Install the shelf clip track.

Assemble the case using an air nailer with 1 1/4-inch nails and 1 1/4-inch cabinet screws for added strength. Begin by applying the cleats for the bottom shelf along the bottom of the case sides. Nail, then screw, the bottom shelf to the cleats and case sides. Nail then screw the top shelf to the cabinet sides.

Size the quarter-inch backer material (either plywood or melamine) to match the exterior dimension of the shelving unit and attach using wood glue and 1-inch nails.

Locate the studs in the wall where the built-in shelving is to go. Transfer these marks to the interior of the cabinet and drill pilot holes for the 3-inch cabinet screws with a three-sixteenths inch drill bit. Place the shelving unit in the space and check to be sure it is level and plumb, adjust the cabinet as necessary. Once level and plumb, attach it to the wall using 3-inch cabinet screws.

Measure and properly size face frame material to cover the exposed edges of the shelving unit. Attach it to the cabinet face with glue and the air nailer using 1 1/4-inch nails. Fill the holes with wood filler and sand when dry.

Measure the interior depth of the cabinet for your shelves. Subtract one-eighth of an inch to allow for side clearance and subtract the thickness of the face moulding plus one-eighth of an inch to ensure clearance front to back. Size the shelves and face material and apply with glue and the air nailer using 1 1/4-inch nails. Insert shelf pins or clips in the appropriate holes or slots and install the shelves to complete the built-in shelving unit.


Don't be afraid to be bold with the colours you use on your cabinet, express your personality and have some fun with it.


Always take the proper precautions and wear the appropriate safety equipment when operating power tools.

Things You'll Need

  • Tape Measure
  • Pencil or pen
  • Plywood or hardwood (as determined by your project), 3/4-inch
  • Table saw or skill saw
  • Drill
  • Shelf hole template
  • Router
  • Straight bit
  • Shelf clip track
  • Air nailer
  • Nails, 1 1/4-inch
  • Cabinet screws, 1 1/4-inch
  • Backer material (plywood or melamine), 1/4-inch
  • Wood glue
  • Nails, 1 inch
  • Sandpaper
  • Drill bit, 3/16-inch
  • Cabinet screws, 3 inch
  • Level
  • Hardwood or other material for face frame, 3/4-inch
  • Wood filler
  • Moulding, 3/4-inch hardwood or other material for shelf faces
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About the Author

Jason Frye is a freelance writer, editor and writing instructor who has been working in North Carolina since 2002. His articles have appeared in lifestyle, travel and leisure publications, websites for well-known corporations and on the blog Greetings From Teakettle Junction. Jason holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina Wilmington.