Sunday, January 17, 2021

Closet Makeover - part 1

 I'm pretty sure I've mentioned in the past that one of my hobbies is playing board games. We've taken over a bedroom and made it into a game room. It confuses people who come over to play games but it's nice to have a room where we can leave a game set up and not have to worry about it getting in the way of dinner or something else. We took one of the closets in this room to store all of our boxed games.

Currently the games are stored on the top shelf and two small book cases shoved into the sides of the closet. We've got a couple of totes on the floor with scenery for miniature based war games. This works but we've maxed out our storage. We don't really buy that many games but we already have more than can be stored in this arrangement. 

Well, I've been thinking for about the last 20 years that I'd make custom built ins for the closet. This is the year! 

The indecision decision for this project is how to design it. I have Euro Games in their classic square boxes, Book Shelf sized boxes (8.5"x11"), flat pack games, and big box games. I also have some totes with scenery I keep on the floor. I want my shelves to be as wide as possible to maximize storage. I need them to be tall enough to hold my largest boxes on end. I also have a number of wide games that cannot stand on end and need to be stacked. I want some shorter shelves so the stacks don't get so high.

In summary, I want my shelves to be as wide as possible, some short, some tall, and some in the middle.

My closet is 25" deep, 75" wide, and 91" high. I think I can split the width and have 36(ish)" wide shelves. I still want totes for storing things like miniature game scenery so I think I'll create one large shelf that spans the entire closet so that I can just slide my totes in underneath. With that decided I just need to figure out what height I want to make my individual shelves and how to build them.

I thought about boxing in the entire closet to make everything square and flat and then using pocket hole screws to hang shelves. I don't know how out of plumb the walls are but I know from when we installed hardwood floors that the floor slopes 2 inches from the front of the closet to the back. I'm assuming the walls aren't close to plumb. My thought was I could line the sides and back with 3/4" plywood. To get them square and plumb I'd need to shim all the walls with furring strips. It'd be a nightmare to get right and take three full sheets of plywood. I'd also have to build everything in place rather than in my workshop. I'm calling this my "big box" design and I'm not liking it overly much.

My next thought was putting the bottom "full" shelf in level using legs scribed to the floor then building shelves up from there. I drew that design idea out a couple of times then decided that I didn't really need legs on the sides. Since it is a full shelf reaching all the way from side to side I could just use cleats attached to the wall.

The other part I need to figure out is the shelves. The trick to making built-in anything is to build as much of it as possible in your shop and then install it in a way such that it looks like it was built in place. If I were going with the big box strategy I could just pocket hole screw them to the sides and a divider, or use shelf pins to make them adjustable. But since I've already decided against the big box strategy I need a way to support my shelves. 

One of the challenge of working inside a box is the need to be able to get the parts into the space. Since my door is narrower than the space inside I need to make sure everything can fit through it. I also want to minimize my costs.

My Ideas

  • Medium Box - build two boxes 3' wide and 5'(ish) tall in my workshop I can put on top of my base shelf next to each other. I could put fixed or adjustable shelves in them.
  • Small Box - go with a Thomas Jefferson - yes, that Thomas Jefferson - approach and build individual boxes that could be stacked on top of one another. These could vary in width and height so long as I plan ahead.
  • Minimalistic - Instead of making full boxes, I could make U-shaped shelves. Basically a box without a bottom. I could then use pocket hole screws to fasten the sides to the lower shelf.

Medium Box pros and cons

I probably won't be able to make these boxes reach entirely to the ceiling without some gymnastics to get the boxes into the closet. With a wide lower shelf that will cramp the amount of space I have to fit pieces into the upper part of the closet. On the positive side, I'll be able to make the shelves inside it adjustable either through the use of pocket hole screws or shelf pins. I really like the strength of pocket holes vs shelf pins but the easy adjustability of shelf pins is nice. Though there is a bit more work engineering shelf pin style shelves in that I'll need to make a shelf pin hole jig, and I like making small notches in the bottoms of shelves to capture the pins so the shelves cannot easily slide out. I still have some more utility style shelf brackets I could install but those would be ugly.

Small Box pros and cons

These boxes have some very useful attributes. I would be able to build them entirely in my shop, then install them by stacking them on top of each other in the closet. Since each box would only be approximately 1' x 1' x 3' I have no concerns with be able to get them into the closet. If we ever decided to move we would be able to deconstruct the shelf, nail a board across the front and use the boxes as shipping containers for our games. Since the bottoms would be double thicknesses of 3/4" plywood I I would have much less worry about the 3' shelves sagging over time. I would also be able to construct different width shelves so long as I could come up with sets of shelf-boxes that added up to 75" in width.

There are a couple of downsides to this style of shelf. They would take more materials to make than the other designs (materials == cost). They would only be easily adjustable within limits of already constructed boxes.


This style of shelf takes some of better attributes of the first two ideas. It uses about as many materials as the Medium Box design. I could make a variety of shelf widths so long as I have sets that add up to 75"

Unfortunately the downsides of this approach outweigh the positives. Since I wouldn't necessarily have a solid panel running from the top to the bottom or solid boxes stacked on top of each other this structure would be much weaker than the first two. It would be less modular and adjustable than either of the first two as I'd have to unload all the shelves, deconstruct them, then put them back together, and then reload them. It would also be more work to make the initial set of shelves since I would have a lot more in-place assembly.

This is basically a really bad idea on multiple levels where the cons out weigh the pros. I'm just including it here as it was an idea I briefly considered.

Ultimate Solution

I'm going to go with a hybrid approach. I'm going to go with the Medium Box design but rather than make two boxes, one for each side, I am going to make four boxes, two for each side. By splitting each side into two boxes, on on top of the other I'll effectively be adding a fixed middle shelf that will add some strength. Of course that's offsetting the strength lost my having monolithic sides. However, I don't have any worry about getting the boxes in place. I can get the bottom two in place and then slide the second two into place by lifting them vertically and sliding them on top of the lower boxes.

The only thing I have to decide now is how tall to make each of the boxes. I think I want the sides to be consistent because it will make construction easier. I've thought about three options, split the height evenly, maximize the use of my 2' x 4' plywood sheets, and finally make sure I get the maximum number of 1' height shelves. I think I am going to go with the last option which will make 1' shelf heights standard and maximize the number of them.

Design Iterations

Initial Design, small box plus two iterations of the base

Big box design plus cleats for bottom shelf

Multiple iterations of the medium box design

The design I am going with is the lower right hand side one in the last page of scribbles. I drew out the top one on that page then realized that I was going to have a lot of off-cuts from from my 2'x4' plywood. So I drew out the bottom left design which made more efficient use of the plywood I have. Then doing the math I realized the 48" high box wasn't going to divide evenly for 1' high shelves. I may not be fast, but I get there.

So, I did some erasing and drew in the right hand side boxes. The lower right hand box is sized to have three 12 1/4" high shelves plus the 3/4" shelf that's 13" per shelf plus an extra 3/4" for the top of the box. The top box gets the remaining space between the bottom box and the top of the closet. It will have space for two shelves plus a third 9" shelf. 


This should be a quick one-weekend build especially if I scrimp on sanding, leave the plywood edges bare, and don't bother putting finish on it. I know, that doesn't seem like a fine woodworking approach; however, these are utility shelves. The games don't leak, there isn't going to be moisture in the closet. 

It'll be fine.

Or if it isn't fine, I can replace it later. Or I can come back and pull out sections and put finish on them later.

It'll be fine.

(Also, since I am finishing this post Sunday night I can say I didn't quite get the closet built ins finished over the weekend. Super close but that'll come in the next post.)