Trials In DIY Floating Shelves

February 07, 2012   //  Posted in: Decor, DIY, Living Room   //  By: Emily   //  21 responses

I don’t know about you, but it takes every ounce of willpower to not buy each IKEA EXPEDIT shelving unit that gets posted to Craigslist. I’m a shelving fiend, but I don’t have the space for all of those little cubes. For months now, I’ve been scheming ways to add appropriate shelving to the nooks and crannies in my home, not only to hold my library (which seems to multiply like rabbits every spring at the start of garage sale season), but to hold other items too. Souvenirs. Tsotchkes. Framed prints and pictures that don’t have dedicated wall space. I don’t have many level surfaces that can serve a rotation collection of curated goodies, but I envy those who do.

Put on the thinking cap. I wanted shelves, and I preferred floating shelves over bulky brackets. Even the brackets in the kitchen (seen here) are too bulky for me. I kicked off this brainstorm session a few weeks ago by plopping blue painters tape onto the walls around my house. This was mostly helpful because it helped to flag where I thought shelving would be appropriate, and then Pete would know what I was thinking too, and we could both react to it, move the tape around, stand next to it, etc. It’s always easier for me to see the layout before I’m actually standing there with a drill and screws ready to install.

How about a shelf above another bookshelf?

Now, there are pieces of blue tape all over the place, and we’ve been living with it that way for awhile, but for the purposes of this experiment, I decided to test out my floating shelf plan on the most inconspicous of all of the locations: that one shown above, the corner of the living room. To complement the Sauder shelving unit, an additional tier of shelving seemed like a nice opportunity to anchor the decor in that little nook.

In planning, I bought and gathered enough materials to complete this single floating shelf (no sense in spending $100 in materials if the first is a flop).

  • One piece of reclaimed 2×6 board to serve as the shelf itself (my piece was found in a friend’s garage, is certainly old and naturally weathered)
  • Stain (Optional, but I used leftover Rust-Oleum Ultimate in Kona)
  • One french cleat (an 18-incher that I bought for $14 from Home Depot, marketed as being capable of holding up to 200-lbs.)
  • Wall anchors (I’m going into plaster on this particular wall, and I’m a big fan of 2″ toggle bolts)
  • Cordless drill and assorted bits
  • Circular saw

I’ll say this upfront: I wasn’t sure how using a french cleat to hang a floating shelf would work. This is my first french cleating experience, which made me feel like I ought to be wearing a baret in honor of the occasion but forged ahead without. I knew I wanted something constructed differently than all of the hollow door DIY shelves I’ve seen done on the interwebs (I had a lot of reclaimed lumber, but no old doors), so I ignored most of the tutorials I found online and came up with my own plan. It took a bit of thought to decide how this could really come together, it was nothing instantaneous, and because I couldn’t find other examples of it being done, I had a lot of questions that only experimentation could answer. For one thing, I had no way of knowing if a 2×6 board cantilevering from the wall would be supported by the 200-lb. limit. I had no idea if the french cleat would fit together securely. I had no idea of the shelf would rest flush against the wall or stick out awkwardly, but I kept all of these concerns in mind as and forged ahead.

First things first: I measured the board I had to fit the space. It needed be trimmed from 48″ down to 42″ to match the width of the Sauder shelf, and within that 42″ span, I was able to center the french cleat and mark with pencil on the edge of the board where it would need to be attached.

Planning where the french cleat will be attached.

Marking where the french cleat would be attached to the edge of the shelf.

Placing the french cleat against the edge where it would be installed, I simulated how both pieces attach to one another and measured that it added an extra 3/16″ to the depth of the shelf. This meant that the shelf as-is would have a 3/16″ gap between it and the wall.

A 3/16" gap, there would be.

In my brain, having even that little of a gap was a no-go, so I toyed with creating an inset area for the cleat to sit within. By using a circular saw custom-set to depth, I carved out a 3/16″ inset area on the designated back of the shelf, leaving just a little bit of raw wood in tact to overhang the french cleat that would be installed on the back of the shelf.

Circular saw magic.

Being uber-cautious to ensure that the blade did not go all the way through the 2″ edge of wood, I was left with the perfect inset area to install the french cleat and as planned, an uncut top edge of the shelf that would overhang the top of the cleat and remain flush with the wall. To attach the french cleat to the shelf, I used some very heavy wood screws that came with the product, even though they were intended to be used to install the backer piece to the stud. Beady, curious dog eyes wondered what I was doing.

Cleat attached to the shelf. Beady dog eyes.

As I explained when I listed materials, I opted to use 2″ anchor bolts to secure the back piece of the french cleat to the lath and plaster wall. I’ve never had a problem with them holding a considerable amount of weight before, but just in case, I planned to use four. (The center hole happily hit a stud, so I’ll use a real screw to attach to that; don’t ask about all of the pinholes you see, someone forgot she had a real stud finder from Santa).

Mounting the french cleat to plaster using anchor bolts.

Mounting the french cleat to plaster using anchor bolts.

With the anchor bolts tightened, the back half of the cleat was secured against the wall. Really well. I immediately took the shelf and slipped the pieces of the french cleat together to see how they’d marry up.

Big surprise here. A total flopster. As in, the project was a flop, and the shelf itself was… flopping downward. Not good.

Whomp, whomp. A tilting floating shelf.

I tried to make it work, a wiggle here, a wiggle there. Still ultimately awkward.

"Does it really look tilty?"

So I left it alone for a few hours, and returned with a solution: Shims.

The cedar pieces we had on hand (thanks to Pete for having picked them up just the last time we were at Home Depot) were just enough to wedge behind the piece of french cleat that sat tight against the wall, and tilt it upward to a degree where the shelf piece would be forced to rest differently, and have less room to slouch, so to speak.

Putting shims behind the wall-mounted french cleat.

To cut the shims once they were in place, I scored the exposed base with a utility knife, and then simply snapped each one clean; the piece of wood doing the hard work was pinned in place, the scrap wood was cleared, and the bracket remained at the optimum angle.

Snapping excess shim from behind the wall-mounted french cleat.

Testing the shelf once more, it worked! What a difference a shim makes. It went from sloping forward, to being perfectly level. With a fresh coat of stain using leftover Rust-Oleum Ultimate in Kona (same as the dining room shiplap walls), I hung the shelf back into position. Fully level with the shelf beneath it. Happy dances for a trial wall well-done.

Finished floating shelf.

I wouldn’t go as far to say that I decorated the spot to its fullest potential (hell, I didn’t even tidy up the shelves for this shot), but I did pull out a few of my favorite nomadic pieces and gave them a place to rest for the night.

Finished floating shelf.

Perhaps best of all, I did successfully get it to sit flush with the wall, with no gap and no visible cleat from the top or the bottom.

Flush with the wall.

But what’d I learn?

  • It doesn’t seem to want to fall out of its own grip – and that’s a plus. It needed a little tap-tap from the hammer to get in place, and quite the pull to remove the shelf from the wall piece.
  • While I got it to rest level pretty easily, it’s not something I want to chance holding up to the weight of more than a few frames or a couple of small books.
  • It’s supporting the 6″ cantilever fine, but on other shelves I don’t trust that it’ll support the 8″ cantilever I’m hoping to do.
  • There are bigger french cleats out there also – some upwards of 30″ long for only about $14 on Amazon (shop around). Surely it would be stronger with a cleat running over more than half of the surface area.
  • All in all, I have no reason to hate on the french cleat aside from it not working perfectly the first time, but going with my gut, I have to trust the bracket approach far more.

That said, I think I’m going to have to succumb to the cleanest, sleekest (hopefully metal) brackets for my future shelves, unless any of you have other DIY floating shelf suggestions. Please send them along.

(I swear, everything I’ve thought up for floating hasn’t yet been mass manufactured, so there might be a business opportunity in there too, yo. Get in touch with me if you’re in an investor.)

  • Marty
    4 years ago - Reply

    Looks great Emily. I got to the photo where you determined it was a flop and was literally screaming “shims” at my computer. And then came the shims photos.


  • jb @BuildingMoxie
    4 years ago - Reply

    nice post and a good counter post to a recent bmoxie bracket post. I’m not sure if I mentioned this to you or someone else, but I have used a similar cleat system to hang credenzas and heavy art. OK — and I was probably inspired maybe Ikea’s cabinet system. Anyway …when I’ve had to go there I have never seen the “French Cleat” @ HD. maybe they stock now… in my area *shrugs* and I’ll have to look. Thanks for pointing out. Rail systems can also be found in longer lengths 6′ … 8′ at industrial hardware places — Grainger or Fastenal in my area, and can be cut down with a chop saw. Cheers E. and ps nice glasses.

  • Reuben
    4 years ago - Reply

    I’ve never had much luck with this type of shelf. the ones I’ve seen that have been most successful have used a router on the back side of the shelf so that the bracket is recessed slightly into the shelf. This helps it to stay flat… But.. I’m also more of a bracket person.

  • rachel
    4 years ago - Reply

    I too have been trying to dream up ways to make floating shelves. I bought a 2×12 at Home Depot and had them cut down to size for floating (ideally) shelves in my kitchen but couldn’t figure out a way to make them float. I was really excited when I saw your post but then saw your comment about it supporting a 6″ deep shelf. sad. I will keep brainstorming but I am thinking I may need to break down and use brackets. I will keep you posted if I find an alternative!

    • Emily
      4 years ago -

      12″ floaters would be wonderful, right? DO share if you figure something out. Michael on the facebook wall had a few ideas you might want to see…

  • Diane
    4 years ago - Reply

    I tried one of the metal french cleats once and was very disappointed. I think one made from a wood would be stronger. You could make the portion that attaches on the wall out of a similar piece of wood as your shelf; then just cut a groove (half of an upside down “V” in the bottom of your shelf so that the shelf would fit down over the cleat. Then screw down thru the shelf into the cleat to hold the shelf in place. Google “wood french cleat”.

    • Emily
      4 years ago -

      Great idea! I was ultimately trying to avoid drilling down into the top of the shelf, but this is super helpful. I will google away and see what I can find. Thanks Diane!

  • jb @BuildingMoxie
    4 years ago - Reply

    I hadn’t realized you were not satisfied with this set up. (guess I didn’t read closely enough) How about pocket screwing the top side of the shelf to the studs. cutting out the drywall to recess any fasteners. mortising (using a router) the back of the shelf and slipping it over something surface mounted and then nailing or screwing from the top, mortise and tenon along the length of the shelf (too much to get into) looking into some sort of cam set up (like you find on self-assembled furniture) … for deeper shelves maybe incorporate some sort of cable suspension from the top. or a combination of some or all, etc. lots of options. anyways. all the best.

  • jb @BuildingMoxie
    4 years ago - Reply

    oh or simple keyhole openings (simply cut with 2 drill bits — doesn’t have to be pretty) on the back of the shelf.

    • Emily
      4 years ago -

      How strong do you think keyholes would be with only a little bit of wood holding a heavy shelf and it’s contents in place? I’m a little wary of putting so much pressure on those points… unless I’m imaging it wrong.

    • jb @BuildingMoxie
      4 years ago -

      hey E. I did just kinda chuck that out. but I have installed shop made shelves with backs fitted with keyholes. certainly a matter of how quality the material is (and piece of old, old growth salvaged material should be strong) Beyond that if the screws are set correctly (how far you screw them in), they will create a tension situation between the screw, shelf and wall. strong enough to hold a 6 to 8 inch deep shelf. As I thought more about it. rigging a keyhole yourself may be difficult. two bits … a dremel and lots of care. ha! Maybe research a keyhole bit for your router or take them out and have them professionally cut. anyways… I fancy the idea of hanging floating shelves as end tables in my bedroom, but hadn’t really thought about it too much. I do think there is success in here somewhere (i’d personally have to lean more to the idea of mortising out the back the shelf and addressing from the top . . . or maybe something with long bolts). ha! good project, thanks for sharing and a good one.

    • Emily
      4 years ago -

      Much research to ensue. I appreciate all these thoughts, I will be needing to test them out on more very inconspicuous parts of the house. Closet shelves, perhaps :)

  • Heidi
    4 years ago - Reply

    First, I l-o-v-e the salvaged wood – so yummy.

    I like this concept: “bore a pair of holes into wall studs, insert metal bars or wood dowels into the framing and slip a solid wood shelf over the supports” from:

    This requires available studs (or some intense 2×4-adding). If available it could be awesome, though. I might even go as far as using a threaded metal rod that I could screw into the studs, then drill the holes DEEP into the wood shelf so the rod extends 75% or more into the wood. Then I wouldn’t be afraid to put more weight on it.

    Looking forward to hearing the next installment!
    :) Heidi

    • Emily
      4 years ago -

      This sounds totally possible (not to mention, SOLID). Thanks for sharing that link, Heidi!!

    • jb @BuildingMoxie
      4 years ago -

      I like this from Heidi. and that’s where I was going on with my long bolt comment from above. maybe all thread or lag screws. Set a bolt and just chop off the head. slide your shelf right over it. good. would require a little care both when drilling into your shelf (might want to do that on a drill press) and when setting the fastener…if the “rod” is beefy enough you could make minor adjustments for level my whacking or bending. cheers! and glad I stuck around on this one.

  • Callie
    2 years ago - Reply

    Hi Emily! Just wondering if you’ve thought any more about floating shelves since this post…I pulled out this post today as we’ve been thinking of building a floating shelf / mantle in our apartment. We think we’re going to buy a lack floating shelf from Ikea to get their hardware, and then see if we can retro fit an old board to take the place of the actual shelf…should be interesting! But if you’ve thought of any other methods lately I’d love to hear them! :)

    • Emily
      2 years ago -

      Your approach sounds like a good one – I would not again try the method I used in this post, it didn’t install as evenly as I would have liked (who wants to use so many shims to get a level surface!). Let me know how the LACK product works for you, OK? I still love floating shelves and would love to find a better way to install them (without creating a whole framework and ending up with thick chunky shelves!)

    • Callie
      2 years ago -

      Thanks for your fast reply! I’m super grateful for your blog post, because otherwise I probably would have tried a similar DIY approach. I totally agree that I’d rather have one board than the whole framework that’s popular on Pinterest…I shall let you know how it goes!

  • Kathy M
    1 year ago - Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing this. As I was having the exact same problem and could not figure out how to fix it. I am going right out to get some shims and fix this shelf that has been driving me crazy for months!!

  • Jim Weller
    12 months ago - Reply

    L-brackets. Hide behind drywall or paint to match on top of drywall.

    • Callie
      11 months ago -

      I find the L-brackets aren’t ‘hidden’ enough without hiding under drywall (not an option as we are currently renting). I finally came up with a great design for my floating shelf and have been meaning to blog about it – will do that soon and come back to share!

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