I don’t know about you, but it takes every ounce of willpower to not buy every secondhand IKEA EXPEDIT shelving unit I see. I love shelving, 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. I wanted to showcase more souvenirs. Tchotchkes. 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 are too bulky for me.
I kicked off this brainstorming session a few weeks ago by plopping blue painter’s tape onto the walls around my house. This was helpful because it helped to flag where I thought shelving would be appropriate. Then, Pete would know what I was thinking, and we could both react to it, move the tape around, pose next to it, etc.
Now, there are pieces of blue tape all over the place. We’ve been living with it that way for a while, but I finally I decided to test out my floating shelf plan on the most inconspicuous of all of the locations: the living room. To complement the smaller shelving unit, an additional shelf seemed like a nice opportunity to anchor the decor in that little nook.
Tools and materials
- 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 was my first French cleat installation experience. 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 came up with my own plan.
It took a bit of thought to decide how this could really come together. It was not instantaneous, and I had a lot of questions that only experimentation could answer. For one thing, I had no way of knowing if a 2×6 hardwood board cantilevering from the wall would be supported by the 200-lb. limit. I had no idea if the French cleat would securely fit together. I had no idea the shelf would rest flush against the wall or stick out awkwardly, but I kept all of these concerns in mind and forged ahead.
Step 1: Cut Board to Length
I measured the board I had to fit the space. It needed to be trimmed from 48″ down to 42″ to match the width of the existing shelf.
Step 2: Attach the French Cleat to the Wood
Within that 42″ span, I marked the edge of the board where the French cleat would need to be attached on-center.
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.
I wanted to avoid a gap, so I toyed with creating an inset area for the cleat. By using a circular saw custom-set to depth, I carved out a 3/16″ inset area on the designated back of the shelf. I was careful not to cut all the way through. I wanted to leave a little bit of raw wood intact because it would disguise the French cleat installed on the back of the shelf.
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. As planned, an uncut edge of the shelf would overhang the top of the cleat and remain flush with the wall. To attach the French cleat to the shelf, I used wood screws. Beady, curious dog eyes wondered what I was doing.
Step 3: Attach the French Cleat to the Wall
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).
Step 4: Connect the French Cleat
With the anchor bolts tightened, the back half of the cleat was secured against the wall. 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.
I tried to make it work, a wiggle here, a wiggle there. Still ultimately awkward.
So I left it alone for a few hours, and returned with a solution: Shims.
These shims were just enough to wedge behind the French cleat to improve the angle. Now, it sat tight and tilted upward. It could no longer be a slouchy shelf.
To trim the excess length on the shims once they were in place, I scored the exposed base with a utility knife. Once scored, the wood snaps clean. The piece of wood still wedged in place will keep the French cleat at the optimum angle.
Testing the shelf once more, it worked! What a difference a shim makes. It went from sloping forward, to perfectly level. With a fresh coat of stain using leftover Rust-Oleum Ultimate in Kona, I hung the shelf back into position. It is level with the shelf beneath it. Happy dances for a trial wall well-done.
I wouldn’t go as far to say that I decorated the spot to its fullest potential (I didn’t even tidy up the shelves), but I did pull out a few of my favorite nomadic pieces and gave them a place to rest for the night.
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.
But what’d I learn?
- A French cleat doesn’t seem to want to fall out of its own grip – that’s a plus. It needed a little tap-tap from the hammer to get in place, and quite the muscle 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 I will not try this on an 8″ cantilever.
- There are bigger french cleats out there also – even 30″ French cleats. My shelf surely would be stronger with a cleat running over more of the surface area.
- All in all, I have no reason to hate the French cleat aside, but with anything heavy or cantilevering, I will be using a bracket instead.
That said, I think I’m going to have to succumb to the cleanest, sleekest (hopefully metal) brackets for my future shelves.
(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 an investor.)