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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
- 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.)