How to Build Display Shelves

Display Shelf

The clean lines of this simple shelf in your bedroom, bath, entryway, kitchen, or living room enhance whatever you choose to display on it. Those same lines tell you that this project is easy to build from readily available materials.

Size considerations
The shelf is 32 inches long, sized to span two wall studs spaced 16 inches on center, the traditional construction of a framed plaster or drywall-covered wall. If you want to lengthen it, keep stud spacing in mind. Some homes are built using 24-inch stud spacing. If your walls are lath-and-plaster or brick, you'll need to use appropriate hangers.

Other treatments
Although this shelf is shown in naturally finished maple, it can easily be made of any species available. Finish options are as varied as the range of stains and paints available. Keep in mind, though, that softwoods, such as pine, and some plain hardwoods, such as poplar, often look best when painted.


About 2 hours to construct, plus an hour to finish

Tape measure, clamps, drill bits, counterbore, countersink, electric drill/driver, circular saw or table saw, jigsaw with hardwood cutting blade, combination square, level, stud finder

Sawing, gluing, clamping, finishing

Find and mark wall studs at shelf location

Shelf Features

You can add ready-made maple Shaker pegs to hang hats and coats. You also can cut a groove in the shelf top to display plates.

Forming Parts: Step 1

Cut the top (A) to size and check the ends for square. Measure and mark the points where you'll drill the screws through the top to attach the support rail (C) and the side supports (B).

Forming Parts: Step 2

Copy the side support pattern grid onto heavy paper (each square = 1 inch). Make pencil dots where the pattern line crosses the grid lines. Connect the dots to form an arc.

Forming Parts: Step 3

Place the cutout pattern on a maple piece wide enough for the side supports. With a combination square, draw a line at a 45-degree angle to the direction of the grain. Align the pattern with the line and trace it onto the board. Repeat for a second piece (two are needed).

Forming Parts: Step 4

Make sure the side support profile aligns across the grain, as shown in the side support pattern drawing. Cut the straight edges. Use a jigsaw to make the curved cut along the pattern line. Repeat for the second piece. Sand edges smooth.

Break the Edges

Sharp saw blades leave sharp edges on wood that can splinter and cut your hands. So it's always a good idea to break, or soften, the edges of project pieces before assembling them.

Use fine abrasive paper (120-grit) on a sanding block or a fine mesh sanding pad to go over all edges. You'll still finish-sand the entire assembly before applying a finish.

Option: Add a Plate Groove

If you want to display plates on the shelf, rout a groove to keep the plates from slipping off. Before you assemble the shelf, mount a 1/8-inch round-nose bit in a router. With a guide attached to the router, cut a 1/4-inch-deep plate groove in the top of the shelf (A), 2-1/4 inches from the back edge. If you don't have a router, you can cut a shallow groove using a straightedge, backsaw, and chisel, or you could use a table saw.

Assembling the Parts: Step 1

Cut the rear support rail (C) to size. Refer to the drawing to lay out screw hole locations on the rail for mounting to wall studs (adjust for stud spacing other than 16 inches). With a 1/8-inch countersink bit, drill holes for #8 wood screws.

Assembling the Parts: Step 2

Position the support rail (C) between the two side supports (B) and check for a flush fit. Apply wood glue to the ends of the support rail, position the side supports to the ends, and clamp in place. Set aside and let the assembly dry.

Assembling the Parts: Step 3

When the B/C assembly has dried, lay out and drill 3/8-inch-diameter holes 1/4 inch deep from the outside of the side supports. Center and drill 5/32-inch pilot holes inside the 3/8-inch holes.

Assembling the Parts: Step 4

Drive #8x1-1/2-inch flathead wood screws into screw holes in the side supports. Be sure the screws sink into the wood below the 3/8-inch holes. Then coat the holes with glue and press 3/8-inch maple mushroom screw hole plugs into place.

Assembling the Parts: Step 5

Drive #8x1-1/2-inch flathead wood screws into screw holes in the side supports. Be sure the screws sink into the wood below the 3/8-inch holes. Then coat the holes with glue and press 3/8-inch maple mushroom screw hole plugs into place.

Cover with Plugs: Sand the Plugs Smooth

Mushroom screw hole plugs make an attractive accent, but they're an obstruction on the top. Instead, glue in 3/8-inch-diameter wood plugs, then cut them off and sand them flush.

Hanging the Shelf: Step 1

Most wood-frame homes are built with wall studs spaced 16 inches on center. If you expect a shelf to support a load, you must mount it to the studs. Find studs with an electronic stud finder, then mark their location.

Hanging the Shelf: Step 2

Use a long carpenter's level (or a smaller one on top of a straight 1x2) to draw a line on the wall between the marked studs. This will align with the bottom of the shelf's back support rail.

Hanging the Shelf: Step 3

Have a helper assist you in lining up the shelf with the line, then insert a nail set through the screw holes and tap indentations into the wall. Remove the shelf and drill 5/32-inch pilot holes into the studs.

Hanging the Shelf: Step 4

Reposition the shelf over the holes, then drive the #8x3-inch flathead wood screws into the shelf and wall. Complete the installation by pressing in (don't glue) finished mushroom-head screw hole plugs.

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