How to install recessed shelves in drywall

Updated February 21, 2017

Recessed shelves are most often factored into construction before a house is complete' However, they can be installed into drywall at any time. Recessing shelves into drywall requires precision and is a little tricky, but creates a very attractive feature once complete. Recessed shelves are ideal for displaying pictures, knick-knacks and other ornaments. However, it is difficult to make them deep enough for storing larger items because the thickness of the wall is limited and the width of the shelves are limited to the distance between wall studs.

Find two wall studs were you want to make the recess in the drywall using stud finder. Mark the inner edge of both studs in a vertical line, then settle on the desired height of the shelves and their distance from the floor and ceiling. Mark two horizontal lines between the stud lines to mark out the size of the recess and shelf position.

Cut out a small hole, around 4-by-4 inches in the middle of the marked off drywall using a wallboard saw. Hold the saw at an angle when cutting so that the drywall falls outward. Use the hole to check for any plumbing or electrical fixtures to avoid when cutting the drywall recess.

Position a straightedge on the lines of the drywall recess and cut out the drywall with a wallboard saw, then remove the drywall from the recess to expose the inside of the wall and the studs.

Take the height of the recess and the distance between the wall studs (most often 16 inches in standard building procedures). Cut two lengths of 1-by-4-inch lumber to the height measurement and two to the width measurement minus the thickness of the 1-by-4 lumber (usually slightly less than the stated one inch). Cut as many planks as you want shelves to the length of the width measurement minus the thickness of the 1-by-4 lumber.

Form two width and the height pieces into a rectangle frame, the ends of the width pieces making the corners on the inside of the ends of the height pieces. Use carpenter's glue to secure the corners, then set to dry in clamps.

Secure the frame together with 2-inch nails; three driven evenly spaced through each joint. Fit the shelf pieces into the frame at the distance you want between shelves and secure them to the height pieces as you did the first two width pieces.

Take the measurements of the frame, then cut a back for the shelves from 1/4-inch-thick plywood. Place the back over the frame and secure it in place with finishing nails through the back of the frame and the back of the shelves.

Fit the shelves into the recess in the drywall. The frame should be a snug fit. Adjust the shelf frame so that it is on the same plane as the drywall and then clamp the frame to the wall studs.

Drive two 2-inch wood screws through the side of the shelf frame into the studs; two between each of the shelves. Remove the clamps.

Cut two lengths of moulding to the height of the shelf frame plus the width of the moulding, and two pieces to the shelf frame width plus the moulding width. For example, 36-inch-high shelves and 4-inch-wide moulding should be cut to 40 inches long.

Cut the ends of the moulding pieces to 45-degree angles and position them around the shelves like a frame with the mitred ends mating to make the corners. Use finishing nails to secure the moulding around the shelves.

Fill all the fastener holes with wood putty and scrape the putty flat before letting it dry. Paint the shelves and the surrounding moulding to complete the drywall-recessed shelving unit.


Make multiple shelves in adjacent drywall recesses to create a set of recessed wall shelves.

Things You'll Need

  • Stud finder
  • Pencil
  • Measuring tape
  • Level
  • Wallboard saw
  • Straightedge
  • Lumber, 1-by-4
  • Saw
  • Carpenter's glue
  • Clamps
  • Hammer
  • Nails, 2-inch
  • 1/4-inch plywood
  • 2-inch wood screws
  • Drill
  • Moulding
  • Wood putty
  • Paint
  • Paintbrush
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About the Author

B.T. Alo is media director, chief writer and editor for a U.S.-based marketing and consulting firm. He holds a bachelor's degree in business and communications. Alo's interests include business, investments, electronics, personal finance, health, communication, popular trends and travel.