Make Floating Shelves with a Table Saw
by Tom Matthews
Your friends and family won’t believe their eyes when they see these floating shelves that appear to hover magically on a wall without any means of support. How in the heck do they work?!
In this article, we share the secret to make your own magic and astound everyone you know!
This type of shelving provides extra surface storage while optimizing space by eliminating the need for support brackets. With no brackets in the way, the shelves can often
be situated more closely together, allowing more room for more shelves.
These floating shelves are basically made of flat, hollow boxes. Depending on the method of construction, the hollow shelf mounts to a wooden cleat or metal rods which fit inside the rear of the box to support it from within. The cleat or rods are fastened securely to the wall studs for the strongest holding power.
Following are details for making cleat-style floating shelves, which can easily be modified in size to accommodate different wall lengths and then stained or painted to your preference.
The first step is to decide the size and shape of your shelves based on the room. You can
feasibly build the shelves as long as the wall. When designing the shelves, keep in mind the hollow nature of the shelves’ construction, and treat them as decorative shelves rather than expect them carry a great deal of weight. The mounting cleat only extends about 2 inches into the shelf, so the shelf should be lightweight, well-balanced, and fairly narrow so as not to pull away from the fasteners that hold it to the cleat.
With the design shown, the upper and lower panels are made of thin 1/4-in. plywood, which is not exactly heavy-duty material. For this reason, it’s smart to limit the shelf size to a fairly shallow depth—about 6 inches away from the wall, in this case.
Square up the board edges.
Rip the 2x4s into 2x2 stock.
The sides of the shelf are built from common 2x4 stud lumber, so the first step is to saw the rounded edges off 2×4 stock to give the wood a sharper more “furniture-grade” appearance.
I then ripped the 2×4 in half lengthwise into 2×2 boards.
Three sides of the shelf are made of the 2×2 material, while the top and bottom panels are made of plywood. The fourth side or “back” of the shelf remains hollow to accept
the wall cleat.
To ensure a flat, flush shelf surface, I carved 1/4-in. deep rabbets along the top and bottom edges of the 2×2’s by making intersecting rip cuts on the table saw. When arranged as the interior sides of the box, these rabbets form a recessed interior channel or “trough” for the
plywood to nest flush inside.
The rabbets were cut to measure 1/4-in. deep but 1 inch wide, which gave the plywood
a solid fastening surface with plenty of nailing room. I marked the “mirror image” cut-lines
on both sides of the 2×2 then adjusted the table saw’s blade depth to make intersecting rips.
Clearly mark the cuts to rip the rabbets (or channels) in each shelf side.
Set the table saw’s blade depth to make intersecting cuts along the top and bottom of each shelf.
Shown is the resulting T-shape profile of the shelf sides.
Next, cut the 2×2 channeled blocks at 45-degree miters, according to the measurements of your shelf size. Orient the 1/4-in. channels at the top and bottom of the miters.
The front piece will extend the full length of the shelf and have 45-deg. miters on
each end, but the sides will have square cuts at the rear which butt against the wall.
(See diagram above.)
Loosely assemble the miters to make sure they fit.
If cutting the corners on a miter saw, use shims beneath the bottom channel to prevent the board from rocking.
Check the miters for proper fit.
Prep the wood for stain or paint.
Measure for the plywood panels by placing the end of your tape at the corners of the rabbets and not at the outside corners of the boards; otherwise you’ll cut the panels too large. Be sure to select the most attractive plywood side for the top and bottom, keeping any rough side facing inside the box. Cut the panels to fit snugly within the rabbet grooves.
Cut the plywood panels to size.
A miter clamp is helpful when assembling the sides.
To join the mitered sides, use a combination of wood glue and finish nails. Or, ensure
a super-solid joint by fastening with 3-in. finish or trim-head screws countersunk below the wood surface. Note: For nails, you should always pre-drill the nail holes, and finish hammering with a nail set to concealed the heads with wood filler.
Check the panels for a snug fit, then add wood glue to the joints.
Fasten the top and bottom plywood panels into the shelf with brads or pin nails.
To make the mounting cleat, I used the leftover T-shaped 2x material. I simply ran the piece flat-side downward on the table saw, shearing off the “ears” of the profile so that
the “T” became shaped like an “I”. I then cut the length to fit snugly between the two sides
of the hollow box. Test-fit the cleat in the hollow shelf before mounting to the wall studs.
Before mounting, I filled all fasteners holes, sanded the shelves, then added wood stain and white paint, which I distressed for an antique look.
To make the cleats, rip the “ears” off the remainder of the T-shaped stock.
The cleats should fit easily into the shelves.
Locate the wall studs and mark them with vertical strips of painter’s tape.
If you’ll be stacking multiple shelves as shown in this article, decide where you want them located on the wall and mark the midpoint on a strip of tape that extends above and below shelf locations.
To determine height placement, hold the cleats against the wall aligned with the midpoint line of the shelf locations. Make sure the cleats are level and adjust their elevation until you’re satisfied with the look, then mark the tops of each on the wall.
After determining shelf placement, hold each cleat level against the wall and aligned with the shelf midpoints, then mark the stud locations on the cleats. Pre-drill the fastener holes through the cleats.
Mark the wall studs and the shelves’ midpoint using tape strips.
Level and pre-drill the cleats at the stud locations.
Screw the cleats securely into the wall studs.
Fasten the cleats with decking screws long enough to penetrate at least 1 inch into the wall studs. This might require countersinking the screw head inside the cleat. Mount the cleats level and securely. (You’ll get the most holding power with a stud-mounted screw on both ends of the cleat, but if necessary, you can use a bracketing wall anchor on one end.)
To mount the shelves, fit the hollow boxes over the wood cleats. Drill pilot holes along the back top edge of the shelf for a few wood screws spaced 8 to 10 inches apart. Fasten through the plywood from above.
The hollow shelves should slip snugly over the cleats.
Pre-drill the rear edge of the shelf with a countersink bit.
Screw the shelf to the cleat every 8 to 10 inches.
Here are the completed shelves.