How to Build Floating Shelves in an Alcove
After a recent refurb of our living room we were left with two bare looking alcoves either side of the chimney breast. We decided they needed some shelves and we really wanted floating shelves. Floating shelves look as they are floating without supporting brackets and therefore look much neater. However, trying to find ready-made shelves that fit your particular alcove perfectly is nigh on impossible unless you are very lucky. Apart from the length and depth being exactly what you want, your problems are likely to be compounded by the fact that your alcoves will likely not be square. We live in an old Edwardian terrace and there isn’t a right angle in the place! However, you can build DIY floating shelves for under £10 each and it is actually much easier than you may think, easily within the capabilities of most people who can use a saw and a tape measure.
Commercial custom built floating shelves are an option but are very expensive, £50 each and more, and even these will not allow for the sides of the alcove not being square to the back wall or parallel to each other. Most of these floating shelves rely on a bracket that screws into the back wall only and the shelves slide onto rods or similar to hide the bracket. This doesn’t sound like a very sturdy option to me and if your back wall is not perfectly flat your floating shelves won’t be either. Adding to that, our alcoves were wider at the back than the front making it pretty much impossible to fit a ready-made shelf that wouldn’t leave gaps.
I decided the only option was to build some floating shelves from scratch. The first thing to do is decide on the number of shelves and the spacing. We went for four floating shelves each side with the bottom shelf almost the full depth of the alcove and the other shelves somewhat shallower. We also decided to have a larger gap between the bottom shelf and number two shelf, more space for a lamp etc, all down personal preference here really.
Next you need to choose your materials and this will depend on how thick you want your shelves to be. We decided 45-50mm thick shelves gave the look we wanted so I purchased some 34mm x 34mm planed batten and some sheets of 6mm MDF board. This should give shelves around 46mm thick (34mm plus 2 x 6mm). You will also need screws and wall plugs. I used size 8 x 65mm screws with the appropriate sized wall plugs. Remember the wall plugs only need to be long enough for the amount of screw that will protrude through your batten.
Getting the Job Done
Once you have decided exactly where you want your shelves and the size, you need to start cutting the batten to size. This is where you start to allow for variations in your alcove dimensions, cutting the size of the battens to the size of the alcove at the individual shelf position. For each shelf you obviously need two long strips, front and back, and two short for the sides. I also decided to have one in the middle which doesn’t really give much structural support to the shelf but provides a further point of fixing for the MDF shelf surface.
Then you start by screwing the first batten to the back wall of the alcove, making sure it is perfectly level. For additional support you can use Pink Grip, No More Nails or similar. Then fix the sides, again ensuring they are level, and finally attach the front strip. You should pre drill the all the holes in the batten to avoid splitting and countersink them, especially the front batten as you are going to need to hide these screws. If you decide to add the middle support you can fix it at the back by inserted a screw at 45 degrees. As well as using adhesive to help the screws stick the battens to the wall, I used some PVA wood glue at the joints too.
Then just repeat this for your other shelves, not forgetting to adjust the batten size if you’ve decided your bottom shelf is going to be deeper.
Once you have finished the frames you will need to cut the MDF to make the surface, top and bottom. This again is where you can adapt to any unevenness in your alcove so you will need to measure each shelf carefully. This is where an adjustable square or carpenter’s sliding bevel will come in very handy as you need to measure the angles at the sides and back relative to the front batten. Starting with the top of your first shelf, measure the angles and the lengths of each side carefully. Using the machined edge of your MDF sheet as the front (this edge is going to be flush with your front batten), draw out the shape of your first shelf. Once you are sure it’s OK, cut it out, preferably using a jig saw or fine tooth circular saw. A slight shortcut here is that you can use the top sheet for each shelf as a template for the bottom, it’s unlikely your walls change that much over an inch or two. Don’t worry if you mess one or two up, MDF is cheap and it’s worth persevering to get a nice fit.
Once you have cut out the shelf surface you need to attach it to your battens. Now you don’t really want to be testing all your battens with hammer and nails, although they should hold up! Glue and clamping would do but I opted to buy a cheap nail gun, so glued and nailed with the gun. At £50 it didn’t add much to the overall project cost and now I have a free nail gun to use elsewhere!
No matter how good your measuring you will have some gaps. These can easily be filled with decorator’s caulk. At around £1 a tube this is about the best value and most useful product ever available in a DIY store! At the front of the shelves you will also have some countersunk screws to hide with filler. For the front you could buy pine strips or similar but you would have to plan ahead and build your shelves to the thickness available unless you have a table saw or other means of cutting to the exact thickness of the shelf neatly. I chose to simply fill any small gaps and sand with a sanding machine until smooth. Just be careful sanding as the MDF is softer than the pine batten. A small sanding machine is easier to keep square on rather than doing it by hand. Once painted the join between the batten and MDF is virtually invisible.
Once you’ve made sure all your nail heads are sunk and filled the front edge is filled and sanded smooth time to paint. I used a small roller with a couple of coats of good quality eggshell wood paint (B&Q Valspar paint is amazing by the way, fantastic coverage) which gave a nice, slightly textured finish. One thing to be aware of is that you will inevitably make some marks on your existing wall surface that will need touching up so make sure you have or can get the colour to touch up. Or, do what I didn’t do, plan ahead and build your shelves before you decorate!
So there you go. Each side probably took a weekend and overall cost, including the nail gun (I already had drills, sander etc) was less than £150, which I think is a bargain and I reckon they look OK. My wife likes them so that’s really all that matters.
Shout up if you have any questions, I’ll be glad to help if I can.
Matt3 years ago
Followed this guide and had a brilliant result. Many thanks!!
OMG3 years ago
Glad it was helpful!
daraghscaife3 years ago
Do you have ny idea what weight these shelves will hold?
OMG3 years ago
It will really depend on the soundness of the walls and the wallplug/screw size combination as well as the overall width. As they are held at the sides and not just the back, they should hold a substantial amount. The ones I built explained above can hold a full shelf of books, 10kg easily. Never tested them to destruction though!
Taeko Hill3 years ago
Thank you for this post, it’s given me some encouragement to try and make our own alcove shelves. To have them made would be so expensive and I can’t find a carpenter who is available these days anyway. Your shelves look really smart as well
OMG3 years ago
Thanks very much. It’s really not that hard, important thing is to take your time, check for level and double check your measurements.
Max2 years ago
Great post! I’ll give it a try. Could you confirm the diameter of the wood screws that you used though? 8 x 65mm screws sound massive…
OMG2 years ago
Well, you need to allow for the batten width and a decent amount into the wall. You don’t need to use such large screws but it depends how much weight you intend to put on the shelves and how sound the walls are. Our house is old Edwardian, with sand from the beach used in the mortar which is now dusty and crumbling!. Large screws means I could probably sit on the shelves, although I haven’t tried it.
Max2 years ago
Many thanks for the reply and explanations
NRTHRNupstart2 years ago
This was the first guide I read that made me feel confident enough to make our alcove shelves!
Just got a bit of filling, sanding and painting to go. Thank you!
OMG2 years ago
Hey, that’s great, really glad it helped. Thanks for the feedback, much appreciated.
Jennie2 years ago
Following this guide now and so far so good. Do you know what size/shape nails you used please?
Mark K2 years ago
If you mean the nails for the MDF panels, just panel pins will do or if using a nail gun, 20mm or there abouts.
Minsu Kim2 years ago
Thanks for this post. Encouraged to try and make our alcove shelf. We’d like a walnut looking shelf. Do you have any recommendations on the type of wood to use if we are to stain it a walnut color?
OMG2 years ago
The MDF I used would be no good unless just painting. It would soak up too much colour and has no grain effect and would juts look bad. If I were doing it and wanted a good wood effect I would use good quality marine ply. Check out some wooden boat building and outfitting pictures to see what can be achieved. However, this is a little trickier to cut to shape than MDF and would need a decent saw. It’s also quite a bit more expensive, especially if you get a cut wrong! Another consideration would be the front edge of the shelf. You would almost certainly need some form of solid wood finishing strip to cover the front edges of the plywood and front batten so you would get a nice stained finish on the front edge of the shelf.
Guy2 years ago
Great, inspiring post. I’m looking at doing this although I’ll need to finally invest in an electric saw. You mentioned jigsaw or circular saw—can I ask what you used? I’m leaning towards a jigsaw and relying on caulk to cover up the not-quite-straight cuts.
OMG2 years ago
Thanks Guy. A lot will depend on the material you use for the shelf panels. I have a cordless Ryobi circular saw (same make as the drill in the picture and uses the same batteries) which I use a lot but even with a very fine tooth blade this can be a bit fierce for MDF, it would be OK if you wanted to use plywood. I used a hand held jig saw for most of the MDF panel cutting. It’s a bit trickier to get a straight line, takes a bit more time, but easier to see what you are doing and to cut odd shapes for walls that are not straight and square. You don’t have to spend a lot, just make sure you get some fine tooth blades. I just have a cheap one like this which has worked great for everything I’ve needed it for. If you were using it everyday and needed for heavy duty stuff you may want to spend more but there is no need just for cutting MDF. Caulk is your best friend!
Guy2 years ago
Thanks so much for the feedback!
Haz2 years ago
Thanks for the great post. Very easy to follow with the pictures and sizes of everything. I’ll be building these in my living room soon for sure!
OMG2 years ago
Thanks & good luck, I hope they turn out just how you want!
Chris2 years ago
Hi, great post. I’m planning on fitting this style of shelving along the whole length of a wall – approx 3 metres. I’m wary of how strong they will be, especially in the middle. Do you think I can just put several beams front to back across the width of the shelf? I notice you say they don’t actually add much structural support and are more for having somewhere to screw the top and bottom boards.
Old Man Grumbling2 years ago
That’s quite a span and the leverage involved means that the fixings will have a lot more work to do. What you need to do about it will depend on then weight you need it to hold. If it’s 3m of Encyclopedia Britannica you may have some serious fixings to work on! If it’s just a few ornaments, or most of the weight at the ends but not so much in the middle it could be easier. The front to to back struts I used really only just supported the shelf cladding itself but certainly don’t offer any strength in terms of how much weight the shelves will hold.
The first thing I would consider is using marine ply rather than MDF for the shelf cladding. This will make the shelves much stiffer. Then you need to think of the strength of the rear baton fixing, especially around the middle of the shelf. It will be fine at the ends but the real leverage will affect the middle. This will depend on the wall structure itself. If you are fixing to brick, or plaster over brick, rather than plasterboard you are in luck. Just make sure you use some decent masonary fixings that are long enough to go through the batons and and a good 3 inches into the wall. Then you will need to ensure that you screw the top ply shelf cladding onto the baton, rather than just using panel pins/nail gun as I did. The bottom one can be just tacked on.
If your wall is plasterboard you could still do it using plasterboar fixings but I would suggest that the shelf wouldn’t be up to holding much weight such as books.
Chris2 years ago
Thanks for getting back to me. We haven’t decided exactly what will be going on the shelves but most likely a mixture of books, ornaments and photos. I’d like to be able to fit something that will work for any option. Fortunately it’s going into a brick wall, the party wall with next door.
I’ve also seen online you can get floating shelf brackets and screws so I’ll see if I can make any use of those. They’re designed for screwing into a solid shelf, not the type you fitted – and the type I plan. Maybe I can use extra front to back struts and fit those floating shelf supports in them.
Becky F1 year ago
Thanks so much for this well written post! I’ve followed it and I’m almost ready to paint, did you prime the mdf before painting?
Philip Manfield1 year ago
just finished a set of these, thank you they look brilliant
OMG1 year ago
Topp stuff, glad you find it useful! Thanks