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Project Lab: Giant DIY shelves for your basement or garage

My home features a dry, finished basement. But when we moved in, it was basically one giant, open, wasted space.

My wife, Abby, and I decided one way to fix this would be to build some custom shelves in the back of the main area. The ceiling there drops down a level underneath a sunken living room and some vents. This establishes an “uninhabitable” zone that is perfect for storage.

About a year ago, I custom built a set of giant shelves out of 2x4s, plywood and heavy-duty pocket-hole screws for half of that space. The shelves have held up well. But I hadn’t found time to build another set of shelves for the other half of the space—until now. My wife, Abby, and I had some vacation time to burn, so we teamed up and tackled the rest of the project. 

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See the full build in the video above, or keep reading for more details about how we did it.

1. Design and limitations

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Design

Each shelf section is made up of three elements: 2x4 frames, 2x4 brackets and 3/8” plywood shelf toppers. The 2x4s boards all sit vertically, their strongest orientation. Pocket-hole screws hold the 2x4s together, while 1” drywall screws hold the plywood to the 2x4s.

Pocket hole joinery works great here because it increases usable space, its strong and it reduces the amount of lumber required. It’s also incredibly fast to build, even for beginners.

These particular shelves couldn’t be permanently attached to the walls in our basement because we’d like to eventually paint the paneling and replace the carpet. They are light enough to slide in and out of place when empty. You could always attach them to the wall for added strength.

2. Deciding dimensions

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Dimensions

We started by measuring the height, width and depth of the space. We left about an inch of wiggle room at the top and at one side to make it easier to pull the shelves out in one giant piece.

Next, I had to figure out the width of each shelf unit. I divided the width of the entire space by three shelving units. This gave me a number that felt right for balancing open space against structural integrity, but I could have added or subtracted here if the width was too wide or too thin. For practical purposes, I decided to make the first two units the same, round width, then build custom-size brackets for the remaining space.

3. Cutting, drilling the 2x4s

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Cutting, drilling

There are tons of boards to cut here, so a length stop is invaluable. I just clamped a piece of scrap metal to my workbench and referenced the end of every board against it for a particular length while cutting with my miter saw.

While I was cutting away, Abby drilled the pocket holes. For the brackets, she biased those holes against one edge of the 2x4 to prevent the screws from colliding when screwed into opposite sides of the frame.

4. Building the frames

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Frames

I started by clearing off a space on my large, flat workbench. A floor works just as well if that’s all that’s available. Then it was a matter of screwing the crosspieces to the vertical posts. We found it easiest to focus on one side of the frame at a time.

5. Building the shelves

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Shelves
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We stood the frames on end, then screwed the shelf brackets in place. We kept the bracket spacing consistent by measuring from the bottom of the frame and marking the top of where each bracket should be.

When you start connecting the different sections together, you can’t use the usual Kreg clamp method anymore, because there’s a bracket directly on the other side of the frame (hence the pocket hole offset mentioned earlier). We got around this by having Abby push on the end of the board while I lined it up and screwed it in place.

6. Cutting, installing the plywood

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Plywood

Each shelving section gets its own rectangular shelf surface with notches in the corners for the 2x4 columns. It’s a good idea to double check the measurements of these spaces front-to-back and side-to-side in case any them are out of square.

First, we used a circular saw, straight-edge jig and plywood scrap cutting pads to cut the rectangles. Then we marked the corner notches using 2x4 cutoffs. The left and right outside faces use full chunks. The inside faces use half chunks because the adjacent pieces each share 2x4 columns. I cut those notches with the circular saw for speed, though a jigsaw would be more precise.

Finally, we dropped the plywood pieces in place and screwed them down with 1” drywall screws.

That’s it. The project was done!

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IN REVIEW

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In review

How much did this project cost?

We spent about $100 on 31 2x4s, $100 on five sheets of plywood, and $10 on pocket hole screws, for a total of about $210.

What tools do you need?

Not counting basic measuring tools, I used an electric miter saw, a drill, a circular saw with DIY straight edge, a Shop Vac, a Kreg pocket hole drilling set with heavy-duty-screw add on and an impact driver.

Bare minimum, I think you need a circular saw or jigsaw with straight edge, the Kreg pocket hole setup and a drill.

How hard was this to build?

Using pocket hole screws makes this shelf build pretty easy. These fasteners are easy to use and help automatically keep everything square, which can be a challenge for new DIYers.

Working on this project with two people is highly recommended. I bet it took me four times as long to make the first set of shelves than it did to build the second set with my wife. It was also much more fun!

Should I tackle this project?

Some big, steel, industrial shelving units can found for cheaper than what we spent here. But there’s no guarantee that they will fit well in your space.

Consider this project if you want custom shelving that maximizes storage space in exchange for a potentially higher cost and time spent building.

I'd love to know if you found this useful or have any questions. Leave a comment below or find me on social media: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook. Find more of my work at ProjectLab.How.

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