DIY Heavy-Duty & Non-Chunky Floating Shelves

(UPDATE: See the finished shelves here!)

Subtitle: The dirty truth. DOT DOT DOT!

You wouldn’t believe how much research it took before I landed on a design for our new floating shelves. I almost threw in the towel. But I really, really wanted thin floating shelves in the kitchen! (Like the mockup, see?)

The Problem

My shelf requirements:

  • 2″ thick or less (lest we venture into chunk-ville)
  • 11-12″ deep (like a standard upper cabinet)
  • look like (or actually be) a solid piece of walnut
  • sturdy enough to hold all our dishes

I looked far and wide – and the floating shelf designs out there were either super chunky (we’re talking 4″ thick…), a little structurally suspect, or didn’t get into the nitty-gritty of the actual installation. “My contractor/husband did it” is not helpful on a DIY blog post!

One potential solution was inspired by this blog. They removed some drywall over the studs, and bolted steel corner braces to both the studs and shelf internal structure. Then, they filled in the drywall gaps with mud and slid a sleeve over the shelf frame. Theirs were chunkier than I wanted, but I figured with a long enough brace I could make something ~2″ thick work. I went to Home Depot to see for myself about these corner braces, and when I could bend the beefiest one they had with my bare hands, I scrapped that route entirely…

The Internet’s Solution

I finally settled on the technique introduced here and here. I read the posts over and over… they made it sound so simple! And easy! And inexpensive! It was exactly what I was looking for – something sturdy (supported by 5/8″ threaded rods set into the studs) and thin (just a standard 2×12). Hooray!?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s neither easy nor inexpensive, unless you happen to already own all the required tools/are already a pro at tricky hole-drilling. And I seriously doubt a super long 5/8″ ship auger bit is in most DIYers’ toolboxes.

Here’s the gist of the two posts linked to above:

  1. Find the studs in your wall where you’re installing the shelves
  2. Mark the vertical center lines of the studs and the horizontal center line of the shelf to locate where the holes need to go
  3. Drill a perfectly level 1/2″ hole at each marked spot
  4. Screw a long 5/8″ threaded rod into each of the holes (a 1/2″ hole gives you just enough room to screw it in)
  5. Drill perfectly centered, straight 5/8″ holes into your shelf material
  6. Pound your (finished) shelves onto the threaded rods

Can you get all the work done in a weekend? According to one of the blogs, yes, but that was not my experience!

Our Process, Warts and All

One issue I had with the “drill a giant hole in your studs” is that… well, it didn’t seem like a good idea. And if you screw it up, tough nuggets. No do-overs. Here’s what I’m talking about:

The 2×4 on the left is the suggested method: drill a 1/2″ hole in the center of a 1 1/2″ stud. A stud, which, by the way, is part of an external wall in my case. Probably not a good idea to compromise its strength by removing 1/3 of its cross sectional area! And worse, if I drilled even slightly off-center, I’d throw off the balance of the whole load-bearing member. NO THANK YOU.

For comparison, the 2×4 on the right has a 3/4″ hole drilled crosswise. This is the code compliant way to drill holes in studs to run electrical wires through.

The other part that freaked me out was getting the hole exactly right on the first try. I needed some way of introducing room for error, while not potentially compromising my house’s exterior wall.

Affixing the Rods

As you can see, I opted for a more – shall we say, invasive? – approach. We cut a giant hole in our wall, exposing both of the studs we planned to use as support. Why did we do that? Well, given there was NO WAY I was drilling giant holes lengthwise through the studs, the next best option was to fix the threaded rods into 2x4s and attach THOSE to the studs. Like so:

This way, we could adjust for level either by rotating (up/down) or shimming (left/right). It was important to get those suckers as level as possible.

The part I (mercifully) didn’t get photos of was of drilling the holes and using vise grips to wrestle the 12″ threaded rods into said holes. It was awful. Husband and I had to take turns. We were, um, grumpy when we were finished. But we persisted, and we were pretty sure we were at least 2″ into each of the 2×4 chunks. This gave us 2″ in the “stud”, .5″ in the drywall, .5″ in the forthcoming tiles, and 9″ in the 2×12 shelf, which only left about 2″ of the shelf without support running through. I’d call that a win!

Tricky Things

A couple tricky things I ran into when I was attaching the rods to the studs:

  • My house is pretty old, so that means the studs are high quality. Meaning difficult to drill into. No way was I getting screws into those studs without pre-drilling…
  • Pre-drilling was tough given the tight quarters inside the wall, with the insulation and all. Because I didn’t want to risk moving the now level-to-the-wall-and-to-each-other rods, I needed to drill a 1/8″ hole through two studs. This meant buying yet another drill bit to get the job done – a super long 1/8″ drill bit that I was afraid I’d snap at any minute!

The going wasn’t easy, but I pressed on and eventually got everything affixed. Driving the screws was also darn near impossible and a 90 degree attachment made at least getting the screws started a whole lot less frustrating.

Patching the Wall

I’ve already talked a bit about drywall here on AMT but just to fill in the gaps in the process, here’s what I did to eliminate the (scary) gaping hole in the kitchen wall:

Yep, that extra hole is definitely where I transposed my measurements! (facepalm)

A jab saw made quick work of the holes, which I oversized to make the fitting easier.

Making the Shelves

This part was harder than it needed to be, because at first I ordered a 5/8″ ship auger bit from Amazon and I didn’t realize until NOTHING WAS FITTING that it wasn’t 5/8″ at all. No, it was barely over 1/2″! Blergh.

I bought the straightest 2×12 I could find at Home Depot (quite a task, yikes) and had them cut it down to size for me. Splinter city! The damage wasn’t irreparable, but I’d highly recommend cutting it yourself if you’ve got the means and the transport.

The task remains: how on earth do you drill a perfectly straight (up & down, side to side) 5/8″ hole TEN inches deep in 1.5″ thick material?

As it turns out, the answer has a lot to do with this ship auger bit. Our friend Phil (YOU ROCK!) came through in the clutch and let us borrow his drill. The drill you use for this needs to be CORDED (cordless drills can’t handle the crazy torque) and accept 1/2″ bits. Ours only went up to 3/8″. Womp womp!

Before I got started drilling, though, I did two things:

  1. I snapped a chalk line down the middle of the back of the shelves so I knew what the center was. That way, I could mark where the rods came out of the wall and be sure that holes drilled at those intersections would make the shelves level. Convoluted? The reason for the chalk line is that the 2×12 isn’t totally straight, so this compensates for some of the bend.
  2. Most importantly, we practiced our drilling setup. This is NOT a one-person job! It took a few screwups in a scrap material before we felt confident enough to do it “for real.”

What Worked for Us

The way we worked it, I manned the drill, while husband held the board steady and kept the framing square as close to the drill bit as possible. Our Kreg jig did an excellent job of helping to steady the board!

Starting the hole is the part where you’ve got the least control, so know that in advance. The drill wants to jump around and spin you this way and that… to some extent, let it. For the first two inches or so. Then, clear out the chips, re-insert the bit, and really try hard to keep that thing straight up and down. Having the framing square up super close was extremely helpful. I could step back a bit and gauge the side-to-side wobble or scoot forward and check how straight up and down I was.

If none of this makes sense, it shouldn’t. This is a weird thing. You really just have to give it a whirl and practice, practice, practice.

Finishing Those Suckers

By this time, we were home free! Actually quite a bit of time had passed before I finally finished and installed the shelves. We wanted to tile the wall first (read about that here!) before putting the shelf on. And there was a LOT left to do before we were ready for that…

To finish the shelves, I sanded them to 240 (taking care to sand out all the crappy splintered ends from the Home Depot saw), stained them with 4 coats of Varathane dark walnut stain/poly, and that was it!

I gave them a good rub-down post sanding to get rid of any remaining dust!

Varathane suggests sanding to 240ish between the first layers, so that’s what I did. A tack cloth is helpful for getting rid of the fine dust created!

At this point they’re all ready to go! YAHOO!!!

And… I can’t share what they look like installed yet. I’m way too far behind on sharing the rest of the kitchen updates and I don’t want to spoil the surprise for the 5 of you reading this blog (hi, Mom!!) Rest assured, this topic will be revisited… And maybe I’ll take a good photo of them now that we’ve been using them for the past 2.5 months!! Read all about how we installed them, what they look like, & how much we love them here!

What do you think, inspired or totally turned off to floating shelves?

15 Comments

  1. They look they they will be (are) nice and sturdy, but I think you’ve sold me on never doing my own floating shelves. 😉 The drilling a straight 10 inch hole part would have gotten me if I hadn’t already given up when contemplating tearing a big hole in the drywall. Kudos to you for sticking with it!

    1. With the drywall, it’s way less scary every time. I started with a tiny little hole, then got bolder with each project… Knowing how to patch it up is incredibly empowering!!

    2. I think the straight drilling was actually easier than we feared. We delayed a while wracking our brains for alternative approaches. However, after we tested a couple times, we were ale to get all four straight enough without having to re-drill any of them.

  2. I was mortified to see the augur pointing down toward the vicinity of those shoeless feet! Wear some boots!
    Looking forward to the end result without any holes in your feet.
    Your dad.

  3. Can’t wait to see! Bonus points for baring your cabinet innards on floating shelves ???? We prob couldn’t swing that…

    1. Ha! Well, fortunately it’s not ALL our cabinet innards – just the (pretty!) cups/dishes we use every day. Emptying the dishwasher now is SO FAST

  4. Engineer here. You don’t need to worry about that 1/2″ hole compromising the structural integrity of your 2×4 studs in this particular case because you are immediately filling that hole with a steel rod. Once that hole is plugged with steel, the stud will be equally as strong as it was before the hole existed. The wall can’t tell the difference between a solid stud and a stud with a steel plug. But otherwise, you’re right that you definitely shouldn’t be drilling holes that size through your wall studs.

    1. Thanks Jeremy! Fellow engineer here. (Well, by training anyway.) You’re right, once totally filled the holes aren’t a problem. Not a huge issue, but these holes probably wouldn’t have gotten totally filled – screwing in those rods juuuuust far enough was no joke. A more major concern for me was potentially not drilling the hole straight through the middle by accident & misalignment compounding the structural compromise. Plus I wasn’t sure this would even work! Ha. Hence the modified approach – made us both feel a lot better.

      1. Yeah it was definitely a good insurance policy. If it all went wrong, you could just patch the holes and forget about it. I’m planning a similar project right now. I think I might do it your way to allow myself room to mess it up the first time, and to have the flexibility of shimming to get the rods level and straight. Plus I’d be able to drill the holes in the 2×4’s on a regular drill press. And I think I’ll put the 2×4 in a bench vice to thread the rod into it before I screw it to the stud. I’ll still need to drill the 5/8″ hole the hard way though. But I work in a machine shop so I might be able to convince a machinist to put my 2×12 shelf into one of their big drill presses. Thanks for sharing your work, I definitely learned from it.

        1. Glad it was useful in some way to you! Access to a tall drill press & vise (and a wider variety of drilling implements) definitely would have made this easier… but it all worked out. Good luck to you!

  5. From the UK. Would it help to screw the studs into the joist to use a dome nut on the end so that you could use a long spanner or wrench to rotate it into the hole? Other projects that I’ve read about used an over size hole with mastic to give you some adjustment.

    1. Andrew, Sorry for the long delay in responding, somehow missed this one lone comment!

      What you describe sounds totally fine, maybe even better? I may have overcomplicated things by drilling into the stud and “joist” at once. An oversized hole would have made the alignment more adjustable after the fact but of course would have added an extra step. Tradeoffs! Thanks for sharing this idea!

  6. Hi there! I’m getting ready to try out your method. (I’m frightened though!) How is it holding up, now that it’s been in use for a while? Thank you for sharing your technique. I’ve been searching the internet for a while.

    1. Loni I’m glad you’re giving this a go! It’s definitely a little scary to cut your walls open but they heal up real nicely… I never ran any numbers on these shelves, but I get the sense that they’re way overengineered for what their purpose is. For our shelves, they look and behave just like they did when they were first installed 2 years ago! Really couldn’t be happier with them. If you remember, let me know how it went for you! I think you’ll be pleased! The hardest part is just getting those rods in the right place.

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