How to build your own floating alcove book shelves

Who doesn’t dream of a an entire wall filled with books?

The idea of using the dead space of an alcove for neat, stylish shelving in your living room or bedroom, is incredibly attractive.

Often, alcoves are too small for any real furniture, and they end up eating into your space. So, using them as a practical storage solution to show off an impressive collection of books can be a great way round that problem.

Bonnie Harington, a copywriter and content writer from Bristol, has a special interest in interiors and property. This year, she created stunning floating alcove shelves – all by herself.

DIY alcove shelves may seem like a daunting task, but Bonnie says they are definitely achievable with the right tools and a careful plan. And you’ll save yourself a fortune in the process.

‘There’s quite a bit of maths involved, but it’s pretty straight forward,’ Bonnie tells Metro.co.uk.

‘Floating means you can’t see how the shelf is fixed to the wall, i.e. no visible brackets or fixings. A floating shelf is named because it looks to be floating on the wall, but everything to secure the shelf is hidden inside.

‘This is a job for a confident DIYer, ideally two people, and you’ll need at least two weekends, including painting.’

Essentially, Bonnie says, you’ll be screwing batons to the wall and then constructing a box around those batons to make the shelf. She has outlined her 10-step process, and if you follow it closely, there’s no reason why you can’t do this yourself at home.

This is what you’ll need:

  • Measuring tape
  • Pencil
  • Sprit level
  • Wood glue
  • Drill
  • Masonry drill bit, wood drill bit and screwdriver attachment
  • Saw
  • Hammer
  • Wall plugs
  • Wood screws and masonry screws
  • MDF
  • Wood filler
  • Caulk and caulk gun
  • Sandpaper
  • Primer and paint

Step 1

‘Measure the height of your alcoves and work out how many shelves you want,’ says Bonnie. ‘From there you can work out how far apart the shelves need to be, and how tall they need to be. (Using the materials suggested here will give you shelves that are quite chunky- approx. 5cms. Account for this is in your measuring).’

Bonnie says you don’t have to have the shelves equally spaced if you don’t want to, instead you can space them out according to books, wine bottles or storage baskets.

‘If you do want them evenly spaced, remember to divide the height of your walls by the number of shelves you want,’ she adds.

‘For example, if you have a 2.5 metre room, and you want six shelves, you’ll have a shelf every 41cms. Remember to account for the height of your shelf in your measurements.’ 

Step 2:

Once you have your measurements double and triple checked, Bonnie says it’s time to buy your wood – which you can get from your local hardware store or timber merchant.

‘Using sheets of MDF makes this job more affordable, but MDF can warp or bow over time,’ she says. ‘We overcame this by putting supporting batons inside the shelves.

‘Alternatively, finishing plywood is slightly stronger, but more expensive.

‘For ours, we bought 18mm MDF for the top of each shelf, 25mm x 25mm soft wood batons for the interior structure of the shelves and the wall batons, 6mm for the bottom of the shelf and 6mm for the front panel.’

Bonnies says it’s very important to go to a timber merchant that has an industrial saw onsite.

‘They can cut your MDF for you, perfectly straight and to your exact measurements,’ she says. ‘You are not going to be able to get clean, straight lines in lengths of your MDF if you try to cut it yourself.

‘The sheets of MDF are huge – 1.2 metres by 2.4 metres. Having the timber merchant cut the wood for you means its also easier to transport home.’

Step 3

It’s time to begin.

‘Lay down some dust sheets and gather your materials,’ says Bonnie.

‘With a pencil mark the wall according to your measurements. Use a spirit level to ensure the lines are absolutely level.

‘Keep checking everything’s straight as you go through the process. You can’t check too much.’

Step 4

‘Using the saw, cut the lengths of your baton to the right size for the back and sides of your alcove.

‘Drill holes in the batons (using a wood drill bit), and drill holes in the walls (using a masonry drill bit).

‘You’ll need to make sure the holes line up, so use the measuring tape.

‘Pop some wall plugs into the wall (you might need to tap them with a hammer), line up the holes in the batons and the holes in the walls before attaching tightly with screws.

‘Make sure your batons are 6mm away from the edge of the alcove/ chimney breast, so when you put the 6mm piece of MDF over the edge of your shelf, it’ll be flush (level) with the wall.’

Step 5

With your MDF already cut to size, Bonnie says it’s now time to ensure the shelves are strong.

‘With screws and wood glue, attach two batons to the centre of each piece of 18mm MDF,’ she says. ‘You could do this in a cross pattern or a zig- zag pattern. Make sure you leave enough room at the edge of the MDF to attach it to the batons on the wall.

‘Pre-drill some holes into the MDF to make it easier to screw into the batons that are already affixed to the walls.’

Top tip

‘If you counter sink your screws- that is, drill a little cone into the wood- the head of the screw will sink into the little cone.

‘You can cover it with filler and, once dry and painted, the screws will be invisible.’

Step 6

‘This is definitely where two pairs of hands are a good idea,’ says Bonnie.

‘One person can hold the strengthened 18mm MDF onto the wall batons, and the other person can screw the MDF into the batons with the drill and screwdriver attachment.

‘So far, you’re halfway! Each of your shelves has the top, and now it’s time for the base of the shelves.’

Step 7

Next, Bonnie says put some wood glue on the wall batons and strengthening batons.

‘Place the 6mm MDF onto the underside of the batons. You’ve basically made an MDF and baton sandwich,’ she says.

‘Screw the 6mm MDF into the wall batons for each of your shelves.’

Step 8

‘Take the 6mm pieces of MDF and place them on the front of your shelves, meaning you’re hiding any raw edges of MDF or batons.

‘Affix with some glue and screws. The shelves should now be flush with the chimney breast.

‘Fill any gaps in the wood with wood filler and cover any screw heads if you’ve counter sunk them. Allow to dry and sand smooth.’

Step 9

Using caulk, the next thing to do is to carefully trace the edge of the shelf where it meets the wall.

‘It’s sort of like piping icing onto a cake,’ says Bonnie.

‘Do this for the top, front, and bottom of the shelves. Then, drag a damp finger over the caulk, pressing it into the gap between the wall and the shelf and smoothing it out at the same time. Leave the caulk to dry fully before painting.

‘Caulk is especially helpful if you have an old house and the walls aren’t exactly straight! It hides any imperfections and is used pretty much wherever one material joins another, e.g. the tops of skirting boards and walls.’

Step 10

This is the fun, creative part – choosing your paint colour and finishing it off.

‘Prime your shelves with a decent primer, at least one coat, and once it’s fully dry, apply the paint colour of your choice,’ says Bonnie.

‘We chose to paint the shelves the same colour as the walls (navy blue). When we’ve built our own shelves in our first house, we had white shelves and deep green walls. It was very labour intensive to do all the cutting in over many coats of paint!

‘Once fully dry, a second coat of paint is likely to be needed for a better coverage of colour.

‘Now you’re done! Stand back and admire your handiwork with a cold drink, before filling your shelves with your favourite things.’

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