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How to Build a Custom Built-in Shelving Unit

DIY Expert & House One editor Jenn Largesse shows how to build custom shelving units around an existing fireplace mantel for a custom, built-in look.

The fireplace wall in our new home is the main focal point of our open-living kitchen and family room, but because it’s sandwiched between the opening to the dining room and a wall of windows, it creates an awkward layout for the television and seating. To give it a purpose and de-emphasize the un-centered fireplace, I’m adding a full wall of built-ins that will house the television, hide cords, and create a beautiful focal point for the space.

And because we want the quality of the built-ins to match the integrity of our home, we’re teaming up with Baird Brothers Fine Hardwoods [https://www.bairdbrothers.com/] to use the finest materials for the job. I’m lucky to have Baird Brothers Fine Hardwoods here in my backyard in Ohio, but their family-owned facility offers shipment of fine hardwood products nationwide. For this project, I’m using a high-quality cabinet-grade birch plywood and hard maple boards.

In part one of this project, I removed and updated the mantle with new molding, demo’d the tile around the fireplace, and replaced it with new marble mosaic and subway tile. To view the videos showing those parts of the process, click the links below.


Steps for building custom built-in shelving units:

Step 1: Size the parts

Jenn Largesse

To get started on the built-ins, rip ¾-inch plywood into 16-inch-wide strips, and then cut them to length to create the sides, shelves, and cabinet dividers. Prep the ends of the shelves and top edge of each divider for assembly by drilling pocket holes. Note: Because my cabinets are 9 feet high, I also used pocket holes to add another foot to the height of each cabinet side. To fill the pocket holes, I used wood glue and plugs, which I then trimmed with a flush cut saw and sanded smooth. For less noticeable pocket holes, I used wood filler.

Step 2: Mark the sides

Jenn Largesse

With the large pieces cut, stack the cabinet sides. Measuring from the bottom edge, mark the height of the shelves. Carry this mark into a line on the inside walls of each cabinet to keep the shelves level front to back during assembly.

Step 3: Layout the pieces

Jenn Largesse

Layout the pieces with the horizontal shelves sitting between the vertical sides. Assembling large pieces like this—and keeping them square—can be difficult. I recommend working on a flat surface and using corner clamps to keep connections square.

Step 4: Assemble the pieces

Jenn Largesse

To use a corner clamp, set the side of the cabinet into the clamp, apply glue to the end of the shelf, position the shelf into the clamp, and then adjust the placement. Note: I also used a pocket hole right angle clamp to keep the front edge of the board in place, and then screwed the pieces together. With one side of each shelf attached, I apply wood glue to the opposing edge of each shelf and tip the remaining cabinet side into place.

Add the supports under the bottom shelf and nailers to the top of each cabinet to later support the crown molding.

Step 5: Add the dividers

Jenn Largesse

Measure and mark the lines for the vertical cabinet dividers, and then place the dividers. Use pocket holes to attach the top edge of each divider, and mark and screw through the bottom of the cabinet to secure the bottom edge of the each divider.

Step 6: Add the shelf supports

Jenn Largesse

Because my built-ins are so wide, I also attached a 1×2 on edge below each shelf to help carry the weight of long the shelf. For even more support, I’ll also screw through these supports and into the studs in my wall. This combined with the support of the face frames along the front edge of each shelf will help carry the weight through the center of the shelves.

Step 7: Size and install the back panels

Jenn Largesse

Lay ¼-inch plywood backs onto the assemblies and trim them using a router fitted with a flush cut bit. Note: You could also use a jigsaw or table saw to size the back panels, but I found this was the easiest way to get a good fit. Also since this edge of my cabinet will be hidden by the adjoining walls on the outside edges and the mantle and TV panel on the inside edges, I chose not to inset my panel, so this was just a straightforward trim cut.

With the panels sized, slide them to the side, mark the placement of each shelf, and then nail them into place through the back edge of the shelves and cabinet walls.

Step 8: Build the face frames

Jenn Largesse

Cut the boards to size, and then drill pocket holes into the ends of all the horizontal pieces. Rest the pieces face down, and then glue and screw them together. NOTE: I rested the face frames on the cabinet during assembly. I would have preferred to place them on a flat surface, but these are big assemblies and I was officially out of working space at this point.

Lastly, flip the face frames over to check their fit.

Step 9: Finish the cabinets and prep for install

Jenn Largesse

With all the major assembly work complete, give them a few coats of paint.

Cut recesses for any electrical boxes. Install furring strips over the studs on the walls to create a cavity to run wires to the new television wires, and to act as the nailer for the shelves.

Step 10: Install the cabinets

Jenn Largesse

Lay the cabinets in place on the floor, and then tip them up against the furring strips.

Step 11: Add the face frames and molding

Jenn Largesse

Tip the face frames up and nail them into place. Add the baseboard and top it all off with crown molding.

Step 12: Install the central panel

Jenn Largesse

Run all the cords and wires, and then size and install the center panel and television mount.

Step 13: Install the doors

Jenn Largesse

Lastly, install the doors. Note: I used European inset hinges, but had to pad out the inside walls of my cabinets with a scrap block because they were made for frameless cabinets.

Step 14: Enjoy your new built-in!

Jenn Largesse

Fill nail holes, caulk joints, touch up with some paint, and enjoy your new built-in!


Shopping:

(5) 3/4” x 4’ x 8’ sheets of plywood

(4) 1/4” x 4’ x 8’ sheets of plywood

(4) 1 x 2 x 9’ boards

(8) 1 x 2 x 8’ boards

(2) 8-foot lengths of baseboard

(2) 8-foot lengths of crown molding

(5) Custom Shaker doors

(5) Door pulls

(10) European frameless inset hinges

1 1/4” Pocket hole screws

Pocket hole plugs

Wood filler

Wood glue


Tools: