Defy gravity by building these floating shelves

Defy gravity by building these floating shelves

Practically everyone has shelves in their house. Not everyone has shelves that make their friends stop and think. What are those things that are attached to the wall ?”


Although floating shelves may look like magic, they are actually a simple woodworking project. The trick is to hide the brackets within the wood. There are numerous ways to make floating shelves, but the one I tackled in my house features a piece of 2-by-12 construction lumber and some dowels.

Although the build is not particularly difficult, there are steps that need to be completed with precision. This is important for strength and conceals the wall-mounting method. Although guests may be able to see the seam in a shelf, it is well hidden.

The next time you have shelves, try making them float. Here’s how it works.

Warning: DIY projects can be dangerous, even for the most experienced makers. Make sure you have all the safety gear necessary and know how to use it properly before you start this project or any other one on our site. You should have safety glasses, a facemask and/or ear protection. You must be able to safely and correctly use power tools. Do not attempt this project if you don’t know how to use them correctly or do not feel comfortable with the information.


  • Time: 2 to 4 hours
  • Cost: $50 to $80
  • Difficulty: Moderate


How to build floating shelves

1. Your lumber should be cut to the right size. Construction-grade wood is meant to be hidden inside walls and in ceilings, so it doesn’t matter what it looks like. It will need to be cleaned up before you can make a visible project from it. We have a full guide on how to properly mill wood, but the basic steps are simple.

First flatten one side. If you have a large enough jointer, this can be used. If you don’t have a large enough jointer, you can use it. Or you can grab a flattening rod on your planer. Because the board I purchased was already fairly flat, I used a handplane to practice.

Once one side is flat, joint one edge, either on your jointer or using a jointer sled on your table saw. Then, run the board through the planer to flatten the other face. Finally, trim the rough edges to the width of your table saw. Finally, trim the ends with your miter saw.

The final dimensions of each of my shelves was 10.5 inches deep, 4 feet long, and about 1 3/8 inches thick.

2. Measure the location where the studs will be on each shelf’s back. This step will save you time and headaches later. Locate the studs in the wall with a stud-finder (or whatever method you prefer). Next, locate the studs in the wall and mark the locations of intersecting studs on each board. This will help you in two ways. It will be easier to drill holes for your lag bolts earlier. You can also space the support dowels so that they don’t interfere with the bolts when drilling the holes in Step 3.

Use a center line marker for marking the stud holes. Mark each shelf’s back with a marker. This will be used later as a reference point for the lag bolt holes and dowel holes.

3. Measure the holes for support dowels. These floating shelves are held up using dowels that are buried in the wood. These dowels will require drilling holes.

I placed five dowel holes on my four-foot shelves. I started at three inches from each end, and marked each location with the center line in Step 2. These holes do not have to be exactly spaced. Adjust as needed to keep the stud marks at least 2 inches from each location. This will make it easier to install the shelves as the dowels won’t get in the way.

4. Drill the holes for the dowels. When drilling these holes, it is important to ensure they are straight and level. I recommend building a jig to keep the drill bit perpendicular to the back of each board. I didn’t build a jig. Instead, I placed my speed square on top of the shelf, directly above the hole I desired, and overhanging the back by 3 inches. I then used my combination square and set it perpendicularly to the board. The speed square was used as a visual guide to ensure that the auger bit was straight. Although it worked, I felt that there was too much room to error. I will make a jig if I ever make them again.

Drill the holes approximately three quarters of a way through the board. For me, that was approximately 8 inches. If your bit doesn’t reach this depth, you have the option to fill in the holes later.

(Optional) 5. Form the edges of your boards. Now is the right time to shape your shelves’ edges. You can make a bevel at the bottom of each shelf using your table saw. This is what I did. This is because it gives the illusion that shelves are thinner than they actually are.

[Related: The surprising woodworking tools you already have around the house]

6. Sand everything. Sanding is the first step in achieving a beautiful finish to your woodworking project. Start with 120-grit sandpaper in your random orbital sander, then move to 150-, 180-, and finally 220-grit, which is what most finishes suggest you do. Double-check the instructions for the finish you intend to use to ensure that they are consistent with your sanding requirements.

  • Pro tip: Scribble lightly with a pencil all over the top and bottom faces of your boards before sanding. The pencil marks will disappear as you sand. This will allow you to see which areas you have sanded and which areas you haven’t. It can be difficult to keep track of large projects like this.

7. Each board’s back should be cut off. A floating shelf is actually two pieces: the hanging board that attaches to the wall with dowels, and the shelf board that slides onto the dowels. Use your table saw to trim the back 2.5 inches of each board for the hanging board. The size of the shelf you are building will affect how much you can remove. My shelves were quite heavy and wide so I wanted thicker hanging boards.

Take your time when cutting this piece. You want it to be as straight as possible so that the pieces fit together smoothly.

(Optional) 8. Deepen your dowel holes. If you need to make the dowel holes deeper than in Step 4, now is the right time. You don’t need any guide or jig to keep the existing hole straight.

  • Caution: Be careful not to drill out through the front of the shelf. To help you remember the correct depth, you can tape a piece of painter’s tape to your drill bit.

9. Drill pilot holes. If you are confident with your measurements from Step 2, drill pilot holes for the lag bolts into each hangerboard now. You can wait to install the shelves if you are not confident in your measurements. I used a 5/16-inch bit for the pilot holes, and a 3/4 -inch Forstner bit to countersink space for the bolt heads.

Also drill a small pilot hole for a single wood screw with a 5/32-inch drill bit in the bottom of each shelf board, directly into one of the middle dowel holes.

10. Your dowels should be cut to the correct length. First, measure the depth of your holes for dowels. I measured the depth of each hole by inserting a small piece of wood into each hole, marking where it protruded. I then measured the distance and subtracted one quarter inch. To ensure that you can push the boards together tightly, subtract a little length.

Next, cut the dowels to the desired length. This can be done with a crosscut saw on your table saw, or with a handsaw.

  • Caution: I do not recommend cutting wood this small on a miter saw. I have never had to use a miter saw to cut small stock. This is why I don’t recommend it.

11. Sand the dowels until they fit. In a perfect world all 3/4-inch dowels would look the same and you wouldn’t have to sand them. We don’t live in a perfect world. One of my shoes fit easily in the 3/4-inch holes. The other one didn’t fit.

If your dowels won’t fit in the hole, you will need to adjust them. This is possible if you have a drill with a large enough chuck to hold your dowels. Attach the dowel to the tool and spin it up. Then, rub sandpaper on the dowel as it turns. You don’t want to overdo it. Test-fit the dowel regularly until it slides in easily and holds with friction.

Otherwise, sand them down by hand with 60- or 80-grit sandpaper until they fit. This is the most difficult woodworking task I have ever done. You should wear gloves when you’re doing this because of the blisters on my hands. Better yet, make sure you have the foresight and find dowels that fit.

  • Pro tip: Now that I’m older and wiser, I’d recommend going to the hardware store with a scrap board you’ve drilled a 3/4 -inch hole in. To ensure that the dowels fit the hole correctly, test-fit them. This will save you tons of time.

12. Glue the dowels to each hanging board. Once the dowels have been cut to the correct size, glue them in their place. This is messy so make sure you have paper towels or rags on hand. Apply a thin layer wood glue to the bottom 2 inches of a dowel. Next, push the dowel in from its front (the face that will touch shelf board), until it touches the back of the hangingboard (the face that will contact the wall). All glue must be wiped off immediately Any glue or dowels on the shelf will affect the fit of your shelf board.

  • Pro tip: I’ll admit, I didn’t come up with this tip–that honor goes to my wife. To help keep the dowels at the right angles, slide the shelf board half-way onto them while they dry. This will make it easier to install later. After the glue dried, we had trouble because one of our dowels had moved slightly in the hole.

13. Finish the shelves with stain. After the dowels have dried, you can finish them to your satisfaction. To match another piece of furniture in the room, I used Minwax Natural Oak stain. Staining pads are better than a brush or a rag. They are faster and more effective than any other method that I have tried.

Once the stain has dried according to the manufacturer’s instructions apply your finish. Spray-on polyurethane is my preferred because it’s fast and easy. I applied three coats to each shelf’s bottom and sides, and five to the top because that’s where wear and tear will occur.

14. Install the shelves. This is best done by two people. Measure and drill pilot holes in the hangerboard for the lag bolts now if you haven’t done so yet. Once you have drilled the pilot holes, one person should hold the hanger board in position using a level to align it. The second person should then drill pilot holes into the wall studs.

[Related: Build a floating key organizer cabinet you’ll love coming home to]

Once the holes are drilled, screw the lag bolts into the studs using a 9/16-inch socket on your drill.

Once the hanger board has been secured, slide the shelfboard over the dowels. This is easier if you have two people working on each side. Slide the shelf board onto the dowels by moving them around as necessary to align them with the holes. Some dowels needed to be sanded down further to ensure they fit.

Next, insert the small wood screw into Step 9. The dowels should hold your shelf board in place with no friction. However, this is a safety feature to prevent it from moving apart.

And you’re done. You can now fill your shelves with everything you need and amaze your friends with your amazing shelving skills.

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