Back to Shelving and Storage Question List

Heavy Duty Garage and Basement Storage Shelves

Planning for efficient storage...

There is an essential rule in life... this essence can be lost in our day-to-day struggle to survive. If you don't know where you're going, you probably won't get there!

The same is true for storage. To strive for elegance is to reach for simple form and function... a worthy goal in all our pursuits. But what is the best way to attain efficiency and still maximize our storage options?

Ignore what you already have... think of your storage space as a tabula rasa, a blank tablet with endless possibilities!

Always build the biggest structure first... it's just common sense. In homebuilding, exterior walls are erected before interior walls, interior walls before the drain pipes, drain pipes before the sinks, etc.

Try to visualize the area you wish to optimize without the hodgepodge of free-standing metal shelves, oddly placed storage hooks, and general clutter. Most garages and basements have an abundance of stuff that just won't fit on a 12" pine shelf... toys, tools, boxes still unpacked after the big move... let me guess... six or seven years ago, etc. To make matters worse, all of these things are, by some devilish design, unstackable... that is, if you value them!

Are we in the same place? I thought so! Then (as if you didn't expect this leading question), what can you do?


The design and materials used in these shelves have evolved over years and have been used by handymen all over the world. Remember... this is not static plan, but rather a template. Using the basic shelf-centric concept, you can devise a personalized version that suits your needs. These can be installed freestanding, attached to a wall, or installed end-to-end to any desired length, by simply modifying the basic design.

This graphic is a completed unit. It is eight feet tall, has four shelves, and is constructed entirely of 16- 2x3x8' SPF studs and 2-4x8 sheets 1/2" plywood. Each shelf is 2' x 8', giving you a total equivalent storage of 64 feet of 12" shelving!! And, if that wasn't good enough, there is virtually no wasted materials.

NOTE:  All horizontal 2x3's, including the base, are perpendicular to the shelves for maximum strength!  The graphic at the left shows the (nominal) 3" face of the horizontal 2x3's.

All dimensions are optional, but, for the sake of economy and to minimize waste in your own design, you may wish to heed the following suggestions:

  1. Use 1/2" plywood with a smooth face on at least one side. Thicker plywood is unnecessary, no matter what you plan to store on the shelves. You can use particle board if it suits you, but I just don't like the stuff.
  2. Avoid any twisted lumber... this design will not untwist any but the most marginally deformed studs.
  3. Use dimensions that minimize waste. I know that some of you may have more money than God, but I don't know anyone who became or stayed wealthy throwing money away. If you want to take the economy route, simply plan your shelf sizes to accommodate the 4'x8' size of a piece of plywood. The most cost-effective plan is to build an even number of 2'x8' shelves... you can have four 2'x8' shelves (64 square feet of storage), with no waste, from two sheets of plywood. Similarly with height, if you stick with even heights... 6', 8', 10', etc., you can eliminate most of the lumber waste, too.
  4. Excessive moisture considerations... If you expect the floor to get wet frequently (wet basement or garage floor), you can seal the bottoms of all uprights before assembly with a good waterproofing, and also install the bottom shelf slightly off the floor. You could use pressure-treated wood also, but I have never been able to get pressure-treated 2x3's locally. 2x4's make the whole thing look too bulky!

Order of assembly ...

Assemble all shelves first... Assemble 2x3 frame first, using 3" box nails. Then, nail on the plywood using 1 1/2" box nails. (You can use screws throughout if you prefer... using nails is a little quicker and saves a little money.)  Be sure that the shelf frame is squared up!

Attach 4 corner uprights to bottom shelf... You can locate them on the long or short sides of the shelves, depending on where you are installing the unit. For example, if the unit will have the long dimension against a wall, you would probably want to mount the rear uprights on the short ends of the shelves. (You can affix the shelves directly to the wall, and forego using rear uprights altogether. See Additional Notes below for details.)

Use 3" galvanized square drive screws for this part, 2 per upright, and a level or carpenter's square to get the unit somewhat true. This lower shelf can be on the floor or slightly raised. If your floor is way off level, a slightly raised position will allow you to compensate for the unevenness.

Install second shelf from bottom...Mark the location of the bottom of the shelf frame. Use C-clamps or wood clamps to temporarily attach a board across the two closer uprights at the height mark. Place the shelf on the board, and raise the other end until you are in the marked position. Secure the other two uprights to the shelf with clamps. Return to the first end, and check the unit for squareness and level. If you are satisfied, affix all uprights with a minimum of two 3" square drive screws each.

Install remaining shelves...The End.   Applause!!

Additional notes:

  1. You can add additional uprights mid-shelf for additional support, advisable if you plan on really loading these babies. If the unit is against a wall, reinforce the rear of the shelves by installing pieces of 2x3 vertically between the shelves. Of course, if you affix the shelves to drywall wall by screwing them to the studs (or with some sort of concrete anchor for masonry walls), this reinforcement to the rear of the shelves may not be necessary.
  2. If you want to affix the shelves directly to the wall, try the following trick: attach the 2x3 for the shelf to the wall first! Be sure of your location, and check for level. When you build that shelf, leave out the 2x3 that is on the wall. Slide the shelf assembly over the wall-attached 2x3, secure the front uprights to the shelf with clamps. Get your level right, and secure the front uprights. Nail or screw the plywood to the wall mounted 2x3, and end nail the shorter shelf 2x3's to the wall mounted 2x3.
  3. There is a downside to wall mounting. If the wall is uneven, your shelving will be, too!!
  4. If the floor is really uneven, it becomes impossible to accurately pre-cut the vertical supports. The best way to proceed is to pre-cut the uprights slightly overlength.. Install all shelves as level as you can. After you mount the top shelf, cut any excess 2x3 off with a hand saw.
  5. You do not have to limit the height of these to 8 feet. You can make them as tall as you want. However, you begin to lose some stability at the shelving gets taller, so I would advise attaching the unit to the wall and also using 2x4's instead of 2x3's for increased strength.


One of our readers, BH, offered a few tried and true modifications to our design that will add extra strength, but also increase both the materials cost and the construction time...

1) He uses 2x4 lumber instead of 2x3's, and full 3/4" plywood instead of the 1/2" we recommend.  He likes the extra strength.  To quote BH, "What can I say... I over build!"

2) By chiseling out a notch, or "dado", in the vertical supports the shelves will enjoy even more strength!  The dado should be about 1/2" deep and the height should be the width of the framing lumber plus the width of the plywood (4 1/4" in this case).  See the detail photo at the right.

To mark the dados, lay the vertical supports next to each other and mark the heights of the dados across all of them at the same time.  You can cut out the dados in a few different ways.  BH makes repetitive cuts with a circular saw across the lumber to clean out the wood and form the dado.  Other alternatives are to use a wide wood chisel to break out the dado, though this may not work if the wood is knotty or has a twisty grain.  The quickest way is to use a router... a power tool designed specifically for this kind of work.

We also thank BH for contributing the photo used at the beginning of this article and the detail of the dado.  NH has built many of these shelves, but never had his camera handy to get a good shot.  Thanks, BH!

Back to Shelving and Storage Question List