Float On, Part II: Floating Shelves Done Right

Hello faithful Creating Krista readers, I’ve missed you!  Dan and I have had quite a few busy weeks with work, weddings, and a mini-getaway to the Berkshires in Massachusetts.  During that time, we’ve also kickstarted the kitchen renovation into high gear, which is very exciting.  But most exciting of all?  Dan is stepping in for a guest post today about floating shelves!  This saga dates all the way back to December 2014, proving once again that sometimes you have to put projects on the backburner to get them just right.  I’m excited to present the new and improved floating shelves!  Take it away, Dan!

Starting Again, The Right Way
For my second attempt at floating shelves, I decided to build them the correct way.  The first attempt, which did not work at all, would only be able to hold unframed photos and postcards.  This time, I figured that not only would the extra work make them look good, they wouldn’t rip off the wall when a cat inevitably decides to jump up onto one of them.  The updated method, shown in the photo below, uses a support bracket that I lag-bolted directly into the studs.  Because of this, the shelf can likely hold a few hundred pounds without a problem.  That’s enough to hold both of our cats, unless we develop an over-feeding problem.


The shelf is a hollow box that slips over the support bracket, as seen below.  The shelf shown is only half on in the photo, to illustrate the simple installation.  I miraculously managed to get the fit between the shelf and bracket tight enough that it easily slips on and needs no adhesives or fasteners to keep it in place.


Building the Shelf
To make the shelf cheap and easy, I used 3/4″ and 1/8″ plywood scraps that I had left over from other projects.  If you look around online, other people make floating shelves out of hollow core doors instead.  That requires a little less work but to be honest, this ended up being pretty easy. The first step is to cut all the wood to size.  I used the 3/4″ plywood for the front and the 1/8″ plywood for the top, bottom, and sides.  The wood below is enough for both shelves, which ended up being a little under four feet long.


Below is a closeup of the inside face of the shelf front.  I cut a 1/8″ rabbet joint all the way around to give an edge for the top, bottom, and side pieces to rest on.  Without that joint, the gluing process would be much harder and I’d probably have to use wire brads or small nails to hold it together.


Before gluing everything together, there was one more step.  If you’ll remember from my first attempt at the shelves, one of the major issues I ran into was that I didn’t account for the slight curvature of the wall.  This time, I took the top piece from each of the shelves, put them against the wall where they’d be installed, and scribed them (made them fit a curved surface) the same way you would when installing a countertop.  This website does a great job explaining the process.  To do this, I ran the side of a pencil along the wall to trace its curve onto the shelf.

With the wall curve drawn onto the shelf, I cut it out using my jigsaw.  Then, for both shelves I taped the top and bottom pieces together and traced the cut onto the bottom piece using my router with a straight bit and bearing.  The way this works is that the bearing on the router bit rides along a curved guide surface, while the cutting portion of the router bit cuts this curve into another piece of wood.  Another, less accurate option would be to use the jigsaw again or a belt sander.

Finally, I glued the shelves together.  This ended up being the most difficult part of the project because  of the large number of clamps I needed, and the short amount of time I had to get everything in place before the glue started to dry.  I dry-clamped some extra pieces of wood inside the shelf to keep the walls aligned, and then removed them once the glue was set.  Although I initially thought I might need some strengthening ribs inside to keep the shelf stiff, it was very strong with just the end pieces.  The  rabbet joint was a huge contributing factor to making this a success.


Once the shelves were glued up, I had to do some finishing work to make them smooth for painting.  There were several gaps, some small (see below) and some very noticeable.


To fill the gaps, I made a wood putty, consisting of wood glue and the finest sawdust that I could find in the garage.  I looked initially in my ShopVac for sawdust, but it was filled with wood chips, wood shavings, leaves, dirt, a bug or two, and a receipt that I couldn’t be bothered to pick up with my hands and place into the garbage can.   I ended up taking dust from the collection bag on my miter saw instead.  I had to play around with the proportions of glue and sawdust to get it just right.  It took a lot of trial and error but I had plenty of materials to work with.  When it was ready, I spread it onto the shelves with a putty knife, the same way as if I were spackling a wall.


There was one significant gap in the wood that required a lot of putty.  I intended for the gap to go on the inside of the shelf where it wouldn’t be seen but during the glue-up I accidentally switched the top and bottom pieces so that the gap, which should have been on the inside of the top piece, was now on the visible outside of the bottom piece.  Using several layers of wood putty and sanding, I was able to get it smooth enough to completely hide it when painted.


Building the Support Bracket
The support brackets for both shelves were built from a single 48″ scrap piece of 2×4 that I had laying around.  I think it might have actually been in my garage when we moved into the house, waiting four years for this fateful day.  I first made a rip cut to take thin strips off each side on the table saw to remove the rounded edges (rightmost strip of wood in the photo below).  Then I crosscut the wood to length, where the bottom piece below is the scrap.  Next, I ripped two pieces, about an inch thick, for the long back pieces that got bolted to the wall (the two identical width strips), and then had a wider remaining piece (left strip).


Before I could continue building the bracket, I figured out where all the studs in the wall were, and then marked these locations on the two back pieces of the bracket.  It’s hard to see in the picture below, but I wrote an “S” on the wood to correspond with the S’s on the wall.  I had to make sure that there’d be room on the brackets to put the lag bolts through those locations.  That “xxxxxxx” was a solid piece of metal that my metal detector picked up.  Without opening the wall, I’d guess there’s an HVAC duct in there between the studs.  I was extra careful not to put a hole in the wall there.  On an unrelated note, that line on my hand is a scar from surgery for a broken metacarpal in my hand.  Krista was very helpful, not only in taking up extra chores and tying my shoes before work, but in putting off some projects (such as floating shelves) while I was recovered.


With the stud locations marked on the back piece, I was able to lay out the “fingers” on the bracket (the wooden blocks in the picture below).  If you’ll recall from earlier in this post, I had one wide strip left over from the 2×4.  To get these fingers, I just crosscut that strip into a bunch of 2″ pieces.


With the locations of the fingers penciled onto the backing piece, I countersunk two holes through the back and then pre-drilled into the fingers.  Then I drove drywall screws through both pieces to hold them together.



With the brackets assembled, I did a quick test-fit to make sure they were properly sized for the shelves.  I partially drove two screws into the back so I had something to hold onto to pull them back out of the shelves.


Installing the Shelves

The final step was to bolt the brackets to the wall.  I verified the locations for the lag bolts before drilling through-holes.  Then I pre-drilled into the studs.  Instead of my usual guesswork, I looked up a table for correct pilot hole sizing based on lag-bolt diameter, threads, and hardness of the wood.  I ended up with a much smaller hole than I would have guessed.


Driving the bolts was pretty straightforward.  After putting the bolt through a washer, I started driving it with a ratchet, which ended up being really difficult since that I had my hand raised over my head for few minutes to get the bolt all the way in.


After only one bolt, I upgraded to the impact driver.  It was fast, but very loud.  Sorry, neighbors.


The impact driver sped things up dramatically.  Below are the final photos, showing again the bracket by itself, then the shelf after I slid it over the bracket, and finally some decorations.  The plan is to eventually paint the shelves white, but that’s being held up for now while our kitchen renovation is going on.


Here’s the bracket on the wall before the shelf is mounted onto it.


Here’s the shelf mounted into the wall.


This is what both shelves look like side by side.  We haven’t painted them yet, but for now we threw some decorations up there to make the wall look a little more complete.

DSC02962-1There you have it!  A proper floating shelf tutorial that’s been in the works for six months (boy, does life get in the way).  I hope you enjoyed the woodworking prowess displayed by Dan, and the decorating fun that I pulled off by sorting through my massive collection of postcards, art, jars, and frames.


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