How to Build Your Own Modular Shelving Unit

We have a back bedroom that was once a sunroom/dining area. We know this because once we ripped up the brown shag carpeting, there was a layer of vinyl tile glued to the hardwood floor. Bad. Very bad. (Note to homeowners: If you want to cover, for whatever reason, your hardwood floors with vinyl tile, please don’t use a permanent adhesive. Consider the fact that someday, someone may want to go back to the hardwoods – yeesh!)

Back to point. We converted this back bedroom into a den of sorts. We now use it to house our television, many of our books, and a desk for working at home. But it’s a small room. So to fit a couch (which we’d need to watch TV), a television, shelves for books, and a desk, we needed to come up with a plan. We were inspired by these:

All pictures courtesy of

These are Elfa systems from Container Store. Let’s just all agree that these are great. I love the built-in feel of these shelves, how space efficient they are, and the multi-function factor. Plus, as a bonus, a modular shelving system is easily installed and easily adjustable.

But, take a look at the price tags if you get a chance. Those systems can run upwards of $1500! We definitely didn’t have anywhere near that amount in the budget, but we knew that something like this would be ideal for our new den.

Never dismayed, we decided we could and would build something just as functional and appealing on our own. Home Depot has a system called ClosetMaid that serves roughly the same function as the Elfa systems at Container Store, so we went to our local Home Depot to check it out. From looking over the products, it definitely seems ClosetMaid is more designed for function than form. Many of the pieces are those rubber coated wire shelves, which, though completely functional, aren’t really appealing in, say, a den.

Image courtesy of

But the bones are still there, and that’s the important part. This would work. But, first a plan.

We knew we could use the ClosetMaid system plus a little creativity to come up with exactly what we wanted. But first, we had to actually decide what exactly it was we wanted. We knew this much:

  1. We needed plenty of storage for our growing selection of books and files;
  2. We needed a desk incorporated into the shelving;
  3. We needed a space for our television;
  4. We had at least an 8 foot by 8 foot wall to work with.

So, we roughly sketched some plans based largely on the pictures above and set off to purchase all we’d need.

First, we needed all the brackets and support systems to rest the shelves on. From studying the pictures above, we decided we’d need four of the vertical shelving supports, so we picked up four 84″ ClosetMaid White Shelftracks. We also knew we didn’t want a white shelving system, but our Home Depot only carried the white ClosetMaid system. No worries, though. We simply picked up some aluminum colored spray paint, and we were good to go.

Each of these shelving systems is designed so that the vertical supports hang from a track that supports the entire weight of the shelving system. In other words, none of the vertical supports is attached to the wall. Only the hang track (mounted at the top) is attached to the wall, and each of the vertical rails hang from that track. Shelves are then attached to the vertical rails.

So, next we picked up an 80 inch Hang Track.courtesy

Finally, we decided we would install one long and deep shelf across the bottom to serve as both a desk and a surface for the television, two long shelves across the top for books and files, and two shorter shelves that would run half the length of the system to hold boxes of storage (DVDs, photos, etc.) and our DVD player and VCR (yes, we still have one). For that, we’d need four shelf brackets for each long shelf and two for each shorter shelf. So, we bought eight 10 inch brackets (for the two book shelves), four 12 inch brackets (for the two shorter shelves), and four 16 inch brackets (for the long desk on the bottom).

courtesy of

Now, all of this was white, but, as I said, we wanted an aluminum color shelving system, so we spray painted it all to the exact color we wanted. All of the pieces painted very easily, and we didn’t have to sand or prime anything.

Next, we tackled the problem of the shelves. We knew we didn’t want the functional but boring white wire shelves, and we didn’t want the alternative that ClosetMaid offered either (white or wood grain laminate shelves). So, we decided to make our own shelves to achieve a higher end look, like this example (a close-up of the last Elfa picture from above).

To make these wood shelves, we opted for birch plywood. We decided birch plywood would make a good choice for several reasons. First, plywood is much stronger than if we had used a solid piece of wood (especially when having shelves that span eight feet in length). Second, birch plywood has a beautiful veneer that we could easily stan and poly to achieve the look we wanted. Finally, birch plywood is very inexpensive (something like $40 for an eight by four foot sheet).

We had the lumber yard at Home Depot cut our plywood into four eight foot long strips based on the dimensions for which we’d just purchased brackets. The only problem with birch plywood is that the edges are a dead giveaway that it’s not solid wood.


So, to remedy that, we bought some birch veneer strips that are easily ironed on to create the illusion of solid wood.

With all our equipment in hand, we were ready to construct our modular shelving unit. Oh, and we’ve only spent about $100 thus far!

Once we got everything home, we first set to work spray painting all the hardware. Once that was completed, we just needed to find the studs in the mounting wall, and we were all ready to mount the hang track. Using a level and a tape measure, we marked the exact location we wanted to mount the hang track and attached it with 2.5″ deck screws directly to the studs. That was all the drilling that we’d need to do – the rest was just attaching the rest of the pieces to the previously mountd hang track.

Next, we cut our iron-on veneer to size, and using a hot iron, we “glued” the veneer edging onto the sides of the shelves. The veneer edging has a glue pre-applied to the back that, once heated, melts just long enough to attach to the edges of the plywood. We used a piece of aluminum foil between our iron and the veneer to protect the face of our iron from sticky glue bits. Don’t worry if you don’t get the veneer exactly straight the first time. You can always reheat the veneer with the iron and loosen the glue then reattach it. Once the veneer was attached, we used a sharp knife to trim down any of the excess poking over the top, sides, and bottom of the shelves.

With veneer securely in place, we grabbed some water-based polyurethane we had leftover from a previous project and some old rags and wiped several coats of polyurethane on the shelves. We decided not to stain them, as we liked the look of the natural wood. Of course, we had to allow the poly to dry overnight before reapplying coats, but the shelves were perfectly protected and ready to use in just a couple of days.

Armed with dry polyurethaned shelves and an already mounted hang track, it was time to start building our modular shelving unit. First, we hung the vertical railings from the hang track. Each railing is notched and hangs from the hang track.

Next, we sort of guessed the distance we would need between shelves and placed the shelf brackets in the holes. Just make sure to count down on each railing the same number of holes for each shelf bracket to ensure an even shelf. Then, we just adjusted all the brackets until they were exactly to our liking.

After getting all the brackets in place, we placed each shelf atop the brackets and measured the overhang on each side to ensure it was perfectly centered. We knew having a little bit of overhang on either side of the ends of the shelving unit would be fine, as we were going to attach each shelf to the shelf bracket.

Finally, with a few wood screws of various size, we drilled through the shelf bracket and into the plywood shelf to ensure a secure fit.

And then…we were done! Easy. We then just loaded up the shelves with some of our books, filing boxes, electronics, and a couple of lamps.

And here’s our shelving unit. Pretty close to our inspiration pictures, don’t you think? And all this for only $100!


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3 responses to “How to Build Your Own Modular Shelving Unit

  1. renee

    Wow, i’ve been watching your updates and have been inspired and amazed at you two! Incredibly beautiful rooms. when i saw the first pic on facebook of your living room, i seriously thought it was the pic you were going to try to achieve. Turns out it was already how your living room turned out! Thanks for showing us all your hard work. We just moved about 2 weeks ago and are doing renovating and learning lots. we only wish there was a home depot here!!!

  2. Pingback: Breathing New Life Into an Old Wood Frame Couch « Bungalow Bungahigh

  3. Pingback: A Year Later « Bungalow Bungahigh

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