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How to build custom closet shelves

I’m sorry for taking so long to share the tutorial of how we built the custom shelves in my closet!
Completely DIY closet on a budget!

The honest truth is that when we were building these, I thought intensive construction tutorials would just not be your thang, so I didn’t take awesome photos at the time. But I obviously have no idea what I’m talking about, because you guys have been emailing me and asking for more details. First it was like “I can’t wait to see the post about how you built the shelves!” Then it was, “You ARE going to post about the shelves… right? Did I miss that post?” And now hope has been waning and the emails have become hopeless and sad, like “I just… thought… there’d be a shelf post…”

I can’t take another day of you not getting your dream closet, guys. I can’t have that on my conscience. I just want you to get to wake up every morning, sigh wistfully and smile happily while you pick out your clothes.
Build these custom closet shelves! Come see how to do this whole closet on a budget!

Especially when you can do all those shelves for only about $120 or so.

My closet is about 5 feet by 5.5 feet, and the ceilings are 8 feet tall. Obviously all these measurements and dimensions will be different for you based on the size of your closet and how you configure the shelves.

Materials you’ll need

  • 2 sheets of MDF
  • 7 eight-foot pieces of poplar for the shelf fronts (optional)
  • Shoe molding (aka quarter-round molding) — amount depends on your closet layout and size.

Step 1 (The Fun Part): Design your layout

You can see more about how I designed the shelf configuration in this post, but here’s the big lesson to remember: there is no right answer. I’ll give you a few guidelines that helped me, but ultimately you get to decide what’s the best way to design the shelves for your stuff.

I drew my layout on paper and just lived with the idea for a couple weeks, shifting things around as I had new ideas and thought about other ways I might use the space:
Custom closet shelf layout ideas!
My shelves are all 12 inches deep, but that’s only because I didn’t have much space to make them deeper. If I could’ve gone with 14 inches, I think that would’ve been a little better.
Custom closet layout guidelines
Otherwise, we just made up all the shelf dimensions ourselves. There are no hard and fast rules. Not like the five-second rule, which is basically natural law, and upon which you can base all your beliefs and life choices.
This is where we landed on the left wall:
Closet dimensions
And this is the right:
Closet dimension suggestions and guidelines
Here’s what’s so magical about doing this yourself: if you don’t want the mirror situation and you have four million purses, just erase that section and add more purse storage. If you don’t need as many shelves, get rid of ’em and have more hangy space. No rules. Except the five-second rule.

Step 2: Cut your MDF pieces

We like MDF instead of plywood because it’s never warped, it’s cheaper than plywood, and it looks just as good (sometimes better) when it’s painted. We’ve never had any problems with it sagging or looking worse over time.

The first thing to do is cut the vertical pieces. My shelves are 12 inches deep and the ceiling is 8 feet tall, so these pieces are 12 inches by 8 feet. I didn’t take a ton of pictures of this step (Bad blogger! Six demerits!) but these are the pieces I’m talking about:
Custom closet shelf tutorial
We needed six pieces like that — three for each side. (One vertical piece goes against each wall and one vertical piece in the center, for each side of the closet.)

There are a lot of ways to add the horizontal shelves, but the way we did it was to rout out a section on all the vertical pieces so we could slide the shelves in. See what I mean here?
Routing out a slot for shelves to make custom closet shelving
And here it is with the shelves slid in those slots:
DIY closet shelf plans
Go ahead and rout out those slots before you install the vertical pieces.

If you don’t know how to use a router, you can screw in a board under the shelves and rest them on top of that board. That’s what we did for the shelves in the laundry room. See how the shelves are resting on a small board that’s screwed into the wall?

That’s just another option if you’re not into the idea of using a router. But you should totally get a router. They rock.

Step 3: Install the vertical pieces

If your closet has any baseboard or crown molding, you’ll need to cut it out of the sections of wall where the vertical pieces will go first. (We use and love this multitool for little jobs like this.) *affiliate link
Removing baseboards to install custom shelf unit
Then just stand the vertical pieces up in the room and slide them into place. (I say “just,” but keepin’ it real — it took both of us to stand these up in the room and maneuver these into place because they were such a tight fit in the room.) Screw the side pieces into the wall. The middle piece will be held into place by the shelves when you add them.

Step 4: Cut and install the horizontal shelves

If you routed out a slot, you’ll need to add the depth of the slot on both sides to the width of every shelf. Then just cut them to the same depth as the vertical pieces, slide them into the slots and screw them in.

Step 5: (Optional) Add the poplar fronts

I’m a girl who will forever be devoted to the look of thick, chunky shelves. I’ll never stop loving them all of my days. So we added some 1×2-inch poplar boards to the front to fake that chunkiness.
False fronts to make shelves look thicker
If you don’t care about that, you can totally skip it. The extra materials cost us about $35, which I think is a fantastic investment.

To install these, we just cut them to length and nailed them right onto the MDF with finishing nails. It’s okay if it’s not perfect; you’ll caulk it and paint it all in the end anyway, and no one will know about the imperfections. Except me. And I pinky swear I won’t tell a soul.

Step 6: Install the shoe molding

Here’s the sitch: my closet walls are warped and crazy. When we installed the vertical pieces and the shelves, there were all kinds of cracks between the shelving and the back walls.
Fixing a gap in a built-in shelf unit
To solve that problem, we installed some shoe molding (quarter-round) all along the inside. It just makes things look a little more finished, but it’s optional if you’re happy with the way your shelves fit in at this point. Installing quarter-round is super simple. Just cut it to length and nail it in with finishing nails.
using quarter-round molding on shelf units

Step 7: Caulk and fill the nail holes

Go ahead and block off your calendar for the next six months and don’t plan to emerge from your closet until you’re so sick of caulking and nail-hole-filling that you want to gauge out your eyeballs.

That’s just real life, guys. That’s a real step you have to take if you want to do this.

Here’s what it looked like after it was caulked and the nail holes filled:

Step 8: Prime and paint

Hopefully this step will go smoother for you than it did for me.

But when it’s done? CELEBRATION!
DIY closet shelving tutorial!

Step 9: Trick it out!

Now you can add some slide out organizers for scarves for belts…
DIY slide-out scarf organizer for custom closet!
…or DIY drawers (tutorial here) for your jewels:

Or you can add under-shelf lighting. (Tutorial on this coming!)

Or, like diamonds or whatever.

How fabulous would it be to have custom shelves in your closet? Come see how to make your own!

You can see all the posts on the closet projects right here.

Anyone ever built a shelving system? What will it take to erase the demerits I earned from the delay in posting this? I can handle whatever it is, just be honest.

Let's connect


  1. Just sorted my jewelry yesterday in my closet and realized that it will never look like yours 😉
    I’m damaged for life now after seeing your closet!

  2. Ahaa, its fastidious discussion about this article at this
    place at this blog, I have read all that, so now me also commenting at this place.

  3. This closet is seriously my favorite!

  4. IN LOVE!! Your closet takes me to a wonderful girly place of gems and roses! 🙂

  5. Either six laps around the track, six spirit posters, or reposting the Minnie Mouse dress. One of these things was not a way to erase demerits on my high school dance team (guess which and you go down to 5 demerits).

  6. Oh, Kelly, you guys did an amazing job!!! Will you work for food and drinks? LOL, so many good details! xo Kristin

  7. I continue to drool over your closet every time I see it. It’s.Just.So.Pretty. You’re seriously motivating me to take action on our closet… or at least get the thinking-cap on. 🙂

  8. Yaaaaaaas! I was one of the people waiting! Our closets are basically caverns without any useful storage, so I’m about to get on this like white on rice.

  9. Lately it seems about every time I step away from reading your posts I have an overwhelming, almost uncontrollable pull to buy a router. Why do I not have one of these?! And when can Andy teach me how to use one? Will that be part of the session at Haven? I think Ad Optimization and Routing 101 would be way popular.

  10. I love your closet SO much!! I made the most out of ours and it’s definitely not as glamorous as yours but it’s functional and is really giving us both so much more space than we had previously. Maybe I’ll tackle all this lovely custom business someday!

  11. Thanks for the tutorial Kelly – in my dreams I hope to follow it one day – pinned for when that day arrives:)

  12. I absolutely love it! We are currently living in Army Housing, but I I can install that lovely pull-out scarf organizer in our closets. I am think it would work well for hubby’s tie collection as well. Thanks so much! And again, well done!

  13. Can you hook me up with an affiliate link for the router you recommend?

  14. You totally have me itching to redo our closet. Blogs are bad. Filing this away for a later (but hopefully not too much later) date!

  15. This is very helpful! We are currently planning an add-on to our house complete with a walkthrough closet! I’ve been trying to plan something like this and your post proves I can do it within my budget! I’ll be making my husband read this one too! 😉

  16. What a great tutorial. I am so impressed with your routing skills. This closet came out amazing.

  17. Amazing Closet. Nice tutorial Kelly! Thanks for sharing.

  18. So amazing! Makes me think we can actually tackle our closet makeover but I’d need like 6 months off from work and 10 sessions of pre-paid couple’s therapy first haha

  19. I’ve been trying to convince my husband to do this in our closet! We have a huge walk-in, but it’s so dysfunctional! I think I will email him this post 😉

  20. I’m really glad you added the poplar fronts. I always say, if you’re going to do it, do it right. It looks great and very high end.

  21. I love your closet- Thank you for sharing. Two questions. I thought MDF sheets were 8′ by 4′ so Im confused how you got an 8.5′ tall piece. Did you find a larger piece? Or use boards that were already cut to 12″. Is the 12″ depth of your rod sufficient. My contractor said I needed more deepth than that? Any suggestions would be appreciated.

    Thank you!

    • Oops! Our ceiling is 8 feet tall. Going back to edit that now. You can see how the 12-inch rod depth looks. It’s definitely enough but I’d have it be deeper if I had the space.

  22. A very detailed tutorial, so easy to follow! My first and only experience with building my own shelves was inspired by the instructions from this article. Well, it’s an easier one which is rather minimalistic, but as a first attempt it was really enough for me… I’ve never worked with wood before so it took me quite a long time to make this piece. The painting and decorating sounds as the biggest fun of your creation process, I will try to use this idea when I will work on the next piece 🙂

  23. Just stumbled upon your blog and you have some great ideas and DIYs! I’m a college student on a budget and I cannot wait to try some of your stuff! Also, I LOVE THE DRAWER KNOBS. #tootrendy and #superchic GREAT JOB, I will definitely be following you!

  24. The closet looks great! Can you tell me what the flower wallpaper is?

  25. Just letting you know I featured your post on my blog!

  26. Found your post thru the IHeartOrganizing blog. Love this post. Didn’t realize at first that the scarf rods slid out–looked great if it didn’t, but what an awesome idea! P.S. Have the same leopard scarf as in your scarf photo.

  27. Can imagine how you felt when you saw the closet’s done! My girlfriend wants a big closet, she has a lot of pairs of shoes and I´ve seen some good ideas here. Thx 4 u post.

  28. I’ve never built anything this large, but your closet is pushing me over the edge. How did you/your husband make the long cuts of the MDF? Table or circular saw? Many thanks!

  29. Christine says:

    Wow! I absolutely love you DIY closet! It’ spectacular .
    You’ve inspired me to tackle my own closets in a similar fashion instead of spending tons of money on pre-made closet units.
    I did have one question regarding where you purchased those fabulous woven baskets on your top shelf? That would save me time and energy because I wouldn’t have to put my seasonal clothes in the attic.
    Thanks in advance and love your blog.

  30. Love this tutorial, thank you! My husband and I are about to re-do our own closet, and this is perfect! Just wondering, in the section where you have 2 levels of hanging space, do you feel like you wish you had a shelf above the lower hanging level? In thinking through past closets, I’ve always had a shelf above that bottom level, but in reality it probably doesn’t get used much (but its been a while since I’ve had that, so I can’t remember very well). Just curious of your experience! thanks!

    • I haven’t missed having a shelf there at all. We purposely skipped that so I had more space to hang pants, and this layout definitely works better for me. I wouldn’t have been mad at a tiny bit more shoe space though!

  31. I am drooling over your closet, I was wondering how long and how hard of a project this was..My husband and I are ready to make a trip to home depot to get all the stuff needed!

  32. Goodness I want to do this so badly to my closet! How much would it run though generally..?

  33. Where did you get the little drawers?

  34. Really great work!!Nice post.Definitely I will try it out….

  35. Awesome! I have been searching for this very thing! We are in the planning stage of redesigning our bedroom, and redesigning our closet is part of that. On our tight budget, you have provided some great ideas. Thanks

  36. Just curious…was there a reason you didn’t pre-paint before you installed? Also, Love love love your results! Was looking at the Ikea units but can’t afford them plus I’d still have to install them! Might as well DIY! We have some partial sheets of MDF from display units I made when I had a gift shop. Its just still in the garage, so I have some of what I need already!

    • Thanks! We probably could’ve primed before we installed, but we knew they’d get nicked and messed up in the installation process so we decided to wait. I’m not convinced that was the right answer. 🙂

  37. Love the closet! Want to add shelving to my master walk-in, but didn’t want to pay the price of a custom one. Since I have an interest in building things, I think I can handle doing something similar to what you did. I know there are different sizes of MDF so I am curious as to which size you used. Thank you.

  38. Thanks so much for the tutorial. One question though, I’m a single gal with no such tools on hand for a project like this. Do you think it’s possible to have all the pieces cut at Lowes or Home Depot?

    • La Canadienne says:

      I’m in the middle of my own DIY closet, (thank you, Kelly for posting! Just what I was looking for before starting w/a few modifications), and learned some things.
      The long and short of it:
      Home Depot posts signage, “We are unable to cut this material”, without explaining why, so I took it upon myself to do a little research (unfortunately after I’d cut & routed, and inhaled MDF dust). In the process of making MDF, formaldehyde (a carcinogen) is used amd therefore in most MDF boards. Since MDF dust is super-fine, when cut/routed the dust spreads everywhere and is easy to inhale deep into your lungs and stays there (really bad for your lungs). Amongst other reactions, it can also irritate your skin, as it did with me. If you’re going to use MDF, I’d suggest doing a little research first. You may be able to acquire some MDF that has been processed without carcinogens (some States have banned MDF processed w/carcinogens, or in the least, use the best safety precautions. 🙂

  39. You’ve totally inspired me to undertake this project. Your closet is just lovely! One question: is that center vertical piece of MDF attached to the wall in any way? Thanks!

  40. I LOVE this!!! I am wondering….could this design be used for a 7ft by 10ft closet??? The only thing I’m concerned about is how to attach the vertical pieces to the wall, or will the shelves being routed and screwed into the vertical pieces be enough to support it all??? I’d appreciate your input!! Thanks! 🙂

  41. Thanks for this post! I have been dealing with a tiny closet for the longest time and have finally decided to install a walk-in closet. I am so excited!

  42. Could you list the tools that you used for this project? Thanks! It’s beautiful and soo inspiring.

  43. This was a great tutorial and it wasn’t that hard. I will say that it is more like 500 though…

  44. Great “how to”. Quick question, did you install the verticals on top of the carpet, or cut a space for them to sit down on the cement?

  45. holy moley your posts are awesome! one day when i convince my hubby to help me i will do this also! great, great job!

  46. I WANT THISSSS!! Thanks to your great post I’m hoping to have it in the near future! (: Xo

  47. Amanda Smallwood says:

    did you use 1/2″ or 3/4″ MDF board?

  48. What kind of screws did you use to secure verticals side pieces to wall?

  49. Thank you for posting, I am sure this will help a lot with my own diy closet which i am about to start soon. Can yo please tell me how the drawers were installed?…are those on slide out metal brackets?

  50. I need a closet and your article is so helpful.
    Now, I am dying to DIY like you but as a student, need to plan some budget first. But I really love and hate because you make it looks so easy. hahaha. (JK) It is very beautiful . Its every woman’s dream!

  51. This is such a cool idea and oh so true! These are exactly what I have been looking for.

  52. I’m a little confused about the poplar on the vertical boards, the picture of the process seems to have them, but it looks like the end product doesn’t, as it appears less chunky. Did you change your mind about it? Am I just not seeing it right?

  53. How did you attach the vertical MDF boards in the middle of the closet to the wall ?

  54. That is one of the best closets I have ever seen. You and your husband are so talented and so kind for sharing. Thanks so much for sharing, it is truly inspiring!

  55. I love what you did with your closet. What a beautiful inspiration!

  56. It looks like the shelves were both routed and screwed. Was this just for extra support? Did they crack at all when being screwed in?

  57. OH.EM.GEE

    First time routing anything and MDF?!?!? Saw dust EVERYWHERE ???? Wish I would have known, I would have skipped that step and used the other method. I have one board done and I’m done LOL! Wish I would have known.

  58. Did you use 18mm mdf?

  59. Awesome idea, Kelly.

    I reckon this will make my wife’s closet look much more organized.

    Don’t tell her I said that 🙂

  60. Wooo, The closet is beautiful and soooo inspiring.


  1. […] dig in and talk details, starting with the right side of the closet. We built the shelving (see how to do that here), painted it all Benjamin Moore Atrium White, and created this little vanity area for jewelry […]

  2. […] about building a closet storage system for our master closet. I’ve been totally obsessed with Kelly’s custom built closet shelves for weeks. I’m determined for us to do something similar this summer because my closet needs […]

  3. […] this is her closet makeover. That wallpaper! That crystal light fixture! That shelving! I want to move in. I’ll bring […]

  4. […] Build master closet organizing […]

  5. […] Eek. Wish me luck. I’m taking some inspiration from Kelly at View Along The Way, and her insanely gorgeous custom closet. If you haven’t seen it yet, you have to check it out – gorgeous! I think I know my […]

  6. […] How to build custom closet shelves – * view along the way * […]

  7. […] How to build custom closet shelves – * view along the way * […]

  8. […] thanks to the internet which is out in my house right now because we have no power. I looked up the plans, and how to install shelves in a closet and used those plans to construct the shelves that will be […]

  9. […] six years later, in the early 1980s, that all changed. Interest rates went over 15%. How to build custom closet shelves – * View Along the Way * I’m sorry for taking so long to share the tutorial of how we built the custom shelves in my […]

  10. […] How to build custom closet shelves – * View Along the Way *. May 7, 2014 – Step-by-step tutorial to build your own built-in shelving unit for a closet. […]

  11. […] How to build custom closet shelves – * View Along the Way *. May 7, 2014 – Routing out a slot for shelves to make custom closet shelving. And here it is with the shelves slid in those slots: DIY closet shelf plans. Go ahead … […]

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