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How to Build Wood DIY Closet Shelves, Finishing with Beautiful Stain and Top Coat

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When we moved into this 1973 about 9 years ago, the last thing I paid any attention to was building DIY closet shelves. When you’ve got wallpaper on every vertical surface and avocado green toilets, updating the closets with DIY closet shelves is lowest on the priority list.

While I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to conduct the world’s biggest garage clean-out (well, it felt that way to me!)…or putting in a blueberry garden on the side of my house…my closets had been running amok.

Even worse, the closet door’s top track had broken. So instead of being able to hide the clutter, this bi-fold door would usually just hang wide open, like a gaping hole, with all of our dirty secrets exposed every time we walked up the stairs to the landing of our bedrooms.

Eventually, like anything unpleasant, when you feel overwhelmed, you simply turn a blind eye and pretend it’s not there. And eventually, you stop noticing.

BEFORE

But I couldn’t ignore it anymore. After cleaning out my garage, the “Declutter Bug” was still biting, forcing me to confront every pile of clutter that was unreasonable and seemingly insurmountable. But thankfully, this closet pile was the last huge pile of clutter defiling my home!

AFTER!

And now, with new wood DIY closet shelves, pretty pink baskets, and a stenciled “LAUNDRY” sign, I am in love with my organized hallway closet!

 Organize your messy hall closet with wood DIY closet shelves. Here is how to build them.

Learn how to build wood DIY closet shelves with this easy tutorial.

In this blog post, I wanted to share with exactly how I built these DIY closet shelves, including finishing off the pine with a beautiful stain and top coat, in case you also have a bad case of the “closet uglies.” 🙂

Psst! If you’re interested in more makeovers like this, check these out:

How to Build Wood DIY Closet Shelves

Give yourself  2 or 3 days to build DIY closet shelves because you’ll need time for the wood stain to dry in between coats, plus time for the stain to dry before adding the top coat! Here’s what you need to get started:

Tools Needed for DIY Closet Shelves

  • Circular saw, miter saw, or jigsaw
  • 18-gauge brad nailer with 1 – 1/4″ brad nails
  • Tape measure
  • Stud finder (optional)
  • Wood screws and construction adhesive (optional)

Materials for DIY Closet Shelves

(I participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and other affiliate advertising programs designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites).

When building DIY closet shelves from pine wood, be sure to use a pre-stain wood conditioner to ensure that the stain goes on uniformly instead of blotchy.

STEP 1: Measure Your Closets

My closets already had existing shelves, so I didn’t have to build everything from scratch, thankfully. When I removed the old particleboard shelves, the horizontal supports were already in place and were still pretty secure to the walls. I was just going to build the DIY closet shelf pieces that will be lying on these supports. But if you’re starting from scratch, you’ll want to take these measurements:

1 – Width of your closet
2 – Depth of your closet
3 – Height of your closet (and how much spacing you want between the closet shelving.

Remember to take into account these things:

  • Your horizontal support boards will need to intersect in the corners, so adjust your measurements accordingly.
  • All of your boards will be 0.75″ (3/4″) thick.
  • Take measurements at the TOP, MIDDLE, and BOTTOM of your closet. Believe me when I say that no wall is completely straight. The measurements you take at the top could be 1/4″ shorter or longer than another measurement! (Ideally, each location of your closet that you’ll want to place a shelf, you should take measurements at that location).

How to measure your closet for DIY closet shelves.

STEP 2: Cut the Wood for DIY Closet Shelves

Someone on my YouTube channel where I featured this DIY closet makeover asked why I didn’t make my closet shelves deeper. There was a reason I went smaller on the depth, and it all had to do with the size of boards that were readily available.

You see…my hallway closet is pretty long at 53″. To cover 53″ from end to end for the shelves, it was easiest and cheapest to use pre-cut pine boards. The only problem?? Those 1″ x 12″ boards aren’t really 12″ wide. They’re actually only 11.25″ wide.

I simply bought a 6-foot pre-cut 1″ x 12″ board and trimmed it to 53″ long and–boom–instant wood closet shelves, even though they’re not very wide/deep.

So keep this in mind when designing your own DIY closet shelves. Consider how deep you want them to be and what materials you’ll need to buy in order to make them deeper. If you want deeper closet shelves, you’ll either need to stack boards together to make it wider, or you’ll need to buy a large sheet of 4′ x 8′ plywood and cut out the size you want. Keep in mind that those sheets of plywood are about $52, so plan accordingly, my friend. 

Use a circular saw to cut DIY wood shelves from pine boards, 1x11 in size.

Before moving on to the next step, make sure that each board fits properly for the shelf you measured. If it’s too tight (and some of mine were), you may damage the walls trying to squeeze it into the closet. If needed, trim a hair off. Here is how you properly trim a tiny sliver off the end of a board with a miter saw (if you have one on hand). If you don’t have a miter saw that can cut that wide of a board, use a circular saw or a jigsaw. You can also sand down the ends a little until the board fits.

WATCH: How to Use a Circular Saw

 

 

TIP: Label the back of each board so you remember which board goes into which position in the closet, since all of them may not be the same length.

STEP 3: Sand Closet Shelving

Be careful with splinters! You’ll want to take some 150-grit medium grit sandpaper, or 220 fine grit and thoroughly sand down each of the boards. Wear a dust mask to protect your lungs. You may not think that a little dust matters, but it does. Better to wear the mask than to breath in the particles floating in the air for hours after your’ve finished sanding. A fan helps, too.

(Pssst! Are you enjoying this tutorial? Click here to save it on Pinterest!)

 

How to Build DIY Closet Shelves - Sand the pine boards smooth after cutting to avoid splinters and to get a good, smooth finish.

STEP 4: Apply Pre-Conditioner (If Using Pine)

This is a lesson it took a while to learn in my DIY experience. I’ve refinished furniture…stained pine…not even realizing that the stain was all blotchy and ugly looking. 🙂 It wasn’t until later that I learned the importance of using pre-conditioner.

Pine, fir, alder, birch, and maple are all woods that will have a more uniform appearance to the stain if you use pre-conditioner first. It’s super easy to use:

  • STEP 1: Remove any sanding dust.
  • STEP 2: Use a foam brush and apply a coat liberally to the wood.
  • STEP 3: Let it soak into the wood for 5 minutes.
  • STEP 4: Wipe off the pre-conditioner.
  • STEP 5: You must apply stain within 15 mintues of wiping off the pre-conditioner.

How to Build DIY Closet Shelves - Use Minwax pre-conditioner on pine boards before staining the shelves to get an even color and no blotchiness in the stain. Leave it sit for 15 minutes, wipe off, and then stain.

STEP 5: Apply Stain

This is the fun part! I love the look of wood when those first few swipes are applied! Within 15 minutes after wiping off the pre-conditioner, you should apply the stain, for best results. Don’t ask me what happens if you wait. The pre-conditioner containers doesn’t mention that in the instructions. 😉

It’s best to use lint-free cloths. Make sure you have good ventilation and are wearing gloves and eye protection for splatters. Oh–and be very careful with your clothing! Stain does not come out, unlike wet paint.

How to Build DIY Closet Shelves - Apply a coat of stain to pine boards after using pre-conditioner by MinWax. This will help to avoid blotchy closet shelves.

STEP 6: Apply a Top Coat to Closet Shelves

You should let the stain dry for a solid 24 hours before applying the top coat. My faaaavvoorriitttte top coat is by General Finishes called High-Performance Top Coat. It’s a water-based top coat that is easy to apply and goes on so smoothly. Use a synthetic paint brush for best results.

Don’t be shocked if it goes on milky. Just smooth it out as best as possible and you’ll be pleasantly surprised how silky it makes the wood feel!

How to Build DIY Closet Shelves - After applying two coats of stain, add a top coat of General Finishes High Performance top coat which is water-based and easy to use.

STEP 7: Sand in Between Coats

This is where the magic happens! It’s easy to rush this process because you just want to get it done already, right? But sanding in between coats is key for getting your DIY wood shelves super silkly smooth. Same goes for wood furniture you’re sanding, staining, and top coating, too.

Use “very fine” sandpaper, like a 220- or 320-grit sandpaper. You’re not trying to remove anything but the slightly rough texture from the first coat of top coat you applied. When you run your hand over it, you’ll feel how smooth it feels. Be gentle with the sanding and be careful not to remove any of the existing stain. Very lightly here is key!

How to Build DIY Closet Shelves - Sand in between coats for a smooth finish.

STEP 8: Apply a Second Coat of Top Coat

Since this is just DIY wood shelves, we’re not going for super, super silky. It’s not that serious, my friend. 🙂 So we’ll only sand once in between coats and then just move on to the second coat of top coat. You see that beautiful sheen?? It feels even better! Just run your hand over it and you’ll see. Makes me really appreciate wood when I see how pretty it is with stain and top coat.

How to Build DIY Closet Shelves - Apply two coats of top coat on closet shelves, sanding in between coats, to get a super smooth and satiny finish!

STEP 9: Install Horizontal DIY Shelves Support Pieces

This is the part of the DIY closet shelving that I didn’t need to do since it was already in place. But you see those 1″ x 2″ boards on the wall? That’s what the wood shelves will sit upon.

If you need to install these horizontal shelf supports, you’ll want to keep these things in mind:

  • Attach the horizontal supports to the studs of the wall. Use a stud finder to locate the studs.
  • Use a nail gun to secure the supports, with 2.5″ brad nails. Use a 16-gauge nailer (or a hammer and nails, if you’re “old school”). If your shelves will be supporting heavy items, use wood screws to attach the supports to the studs of the wall. 
  • Be sure to use a level! If your supports are crooked, guess what?? Your shelves will be, too. 😉

 

STEP 10: Paint Your Closet

You’ll want your closet shelving supports to blend into the wall, so painting them all the same color as the wall should be done before the shelving goes in. Please don’t try to paint once the shelves have gone in. HA! I guarantee you will destroy your shelves. (Don’t ask me why I know this….).

How to Build DIY Closet Shelves - Paint the walls of the closet, including the supports for the shelves, so that they match the walls. Caulk any areas where there are gaps in the supports due to uneven walls.

 

STEP 10: Nail DIY Closet Shelves onto Supports

The shelves rest on top of the supports. Before you nail them into place, though, I highly suggest you check once more to make sure that each board that you labeled is going into the right position.

If all checks out, use a 18-guage nail gun with 2″ brad nails to secure the wood shelf to the support. You won’t need to glue it or anything. Just pop three nails along the sides and every 6″ along the length of the back.

(Good to Know: The difference between an 18-gauge nailer and 16-gauge nailer is the thickness of the brad nails and the purpose for which it’s used. 18-gauge nailers are thin brad nails that are used for trim. 16-gauge nailers use thicker brad nails and are commonly used for projects like crown molding.).

How to Build DIY Closet Shelves - Nail your closet shelves to the closet supports using an 18 gauge bran nailer.

 

STEP 11: Organize Your Pretty New DIY Closet Shelves with Baskets!

You’re almost there! This is the fun part (well, all of it is fun, in my eyes! I love cutting and staining!).

But this is where you get to decide what goes and what stays in your closet. Whatever you’re storing there, the point is to make it nice and neart and pretty. I picked up these sturdy pink and gray plastic baskets from Home Goods. I mixed it up with some cloth ones, along with some heavy duty plastic ones.

Consider these tips when organizing your closet if it’s a linen closet, like mine:

  • Use large vacuum storage bags to store big quilts and blankets. They’ll smush all the air out and you’ll get more space. Toss them in a big plastic container to keep all that plastic contained.
  • Fold the pretty, matching towels neatly to all line up. I bought these thick gray ones afor guests to use.
  • Keep things often used at eye-level, and things not used frequently up high. Common sense–I know. But it’s a good reminder. 🙂

How to Build DIY Closet Shelves - Create a pretty linen closet or hallway closet by building DIY closet shelves with pine.

 

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That’s all there is to it to making custom DIY shelving out of wood! It looks much more swanky than boring closet wire shelving, doesn’t it?? It’s time to take your closet shelving to the next level!

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6 Comments

  1. Did you stain both sides of the shelves?

  2. Hey, Michelle! Great questions on what to get rid of. There were some bulky blankets in there, curtains, old medications, sheets, etc. What worked for me was getting rid of the bedding that I knew I really didn’t need. A lot of time we keep that stuff because we think we will need it for guests. But if you only have 1 guest every so often, then all you really need is enough for that one person. Just get rid of the extra blankets and stuff. I also don’t change my bedding out–I just wash it and put the same bedding back on when it dries. So there’s no need for me to keep lots of extras around. Plus, I got some of those vacuum bags and sucked them down into really thin piles and stashed them in a plastic bin at the bottom of the closet. Those things work great for that! I also tossed out a lot of the expired medications. Little odds and ends in the closet that didn’t belong there were moved out, and other things that we like to keep there, like flashlights, we stored in those plastic totes. Hope that helps!! You CAN do this before company comes!

  3. Michelle Cano says:

    This closet is my favorite “before & after”! Any advice on how you approached the purge of the items you stored in this closet ? Your ‘before’ is totally what mine looks like. I MUST do my tiny linen closet before company comes at the end of this month. Procrastinating on this project! šŸ™

  4. Your stained wood shelves look fantastic. (I hate the wire ones) Our home has all wood shelves thankfully, but are raw wood and look so unfinished. Plus when they installed them, they made the wall supports 2 1/2 inches shorter than the depth of the shelf, so all the shelves will move and tilt down forward every time you remove or set something on them, really annoying!! Hopefully we will get around to fixing that problem, in every closet, and when we do, the shelves will def be getting stained. Thanks for the inspiration and great tutorial Serena!

    1. Oh no! Sorry they’re doing that. Have you thought about adding some more nails in the back ends so that they don’t tilt forward because of the short supports? That’s the only thing I can think of–is that they simply put the wood on there but didn’t do anything to secure it to the wood support. You could use a hammer and thin nails, I’m sure! That might solve your problem. You could also sand them down and restain them so they don’t look so worn. This kind of project is not one that even is exciting, so I can see your hesitation to do it! LOL Good luck, Terry!!

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