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How to install floating shelves

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Q: How do I install a floating shelf?

A: A floating shelf, as the name implies, hangs on a wall with no (or minimal) visible support. It’s modern-looking, dramatic and as practical as more complicated-looking shelving.

The secret is in its hidden support system. Shelves that float are usually supported by rods that slip into holes drilled into their back edges. If the shelf fits into an alcove, it’s probably supported by wooden cleats screwed to the wall that fit into a recess along the ends and back edge of the shelf.

Because floating shelves need to conceal support rods or cleats, they tend to be relatively thick, often about two inches. The shelves can be mostly hollow inside, or they can be a solid plank; a piece of glued-together strips, such as a slice of butcher block; or a slab still recognizable as a tree slice, complete with a “natural edge” with bark or the smooth but irregular surface that’s left when bark is peeled away.

How do you install a floating shelf? In a garage, floating shelves strong enough to hold stacks of wood can be supported by short lengths of pipe drilled into studs at a slight angle, so nothing tips off. Inside a home, most shelves that float are supported by brackets that have rods welded on. Brackets that have a single rod cost less; for example, MHMYDZ sells a set of eight supports that each have a ½-inch-diameter rod that’s six inches long ($16.95 on Amazon). A pair of brackets can support 80 pounds.

But when each component is separate, it can be difficult to get everything aligned. It’s easier to install a single piece that has precisely spaced rods welded to a horizontal support that has holes or slots for screwing into studs.

Walnut Wood Works (, based in Bell Buckle, Tenn., is among several companies that sell heavy-duty brackets of this type. It also sells accessories that can help you get everything installed correctly. The company’s 24-, 32- and 43-inch heavy-duty brackets come with rods ¾ inches in diameter and 6¼ inches long, which gives shelves a weight capacity of 75 pounds per supporting stud — a total of 150 pounds for the shelf and what’s on it if the shelf spans two studs. The shelf is usually longer than the bracket. For example, Walnut Wood Works says its 43-inch bracket would support a shelf up to 60 inches long. For longer shelves, install two side-by-side brackets.

Installing a shelf of this type begins by deciding approximately where you want it. Then locate studs in that area by using a stud finder. At least two studs must be behind the shelf, but the center of the shelf can be off from the midway point, as long as it isn’t extremely far off. Next, use a level, and mark where the screws will hit the center of studs and fit through the holes or slots on the bracket. At the marks, screw the bracket to the wall. Use 2½-inch-long No. 8 wood screws or cabinet screws, which come with a washer-style head to help them hold better ($12.30 from Lee Valley for a package of 100).

Set the shelf on the rods and scoot it back and forth until you like the placement. Mark the wood to show the ends of the bracket and the center of one rod. If you want the shelf to hide the bracket and fit tightly to the wall, use a router to cut a recess in the back edge of the shelf that matches the bracket shape. (Walnut Wood Works sells a $39.99 template for this step.) Or you can skip the hassle of cutting the recess and plug the gap along the back edge by gluing on a strip of wood as thick as the bracket.

To mark the holes for the rods, use a square to extend the mark you made for one rod onto the back edge of the shelf. Then measure over from that to locate the other hole or holes. Center them between the top and bottom edges. If the bracket came with instructions or a template, follow that.

At each mark, drill into the back edge at a perfect right angle. This is the trickiest step; if the holes aren’t spaced precisely or are angled, the shelf won’t slip onto the rods or it might slant. (You could give yourself a second chance by shifting the shelf a few inches to the right or left, then redrilling the holes.) Although it’s possible to do this with a handheld drill, using a drill press or other drilling guide will keep you from relying on your hands to keep the drill straight.

Make the holes ½ inch deeper than the rods are long, so the bit must be longer than usual. It also needs to be slightly wider than the rods. A 13/16-inch bit is perfect for ¾-inch-diameter rods, and a 33/64-inch or 17/32-inch bit would work with ½-inch rods.

Simply slipping the shelf onto the rods usually works. To make the shelf more secure, drill into the bottom of the shelf directly under a rod; tighten a screw there to lock the rod into place. Or you can squirt construction adhesive onto the rods before you position the shelf. But if you decide to redecorate and want to remove the shelves, you might curse that step, because you won’t be able to adjust them.

Have a problem in your home? Send questions to [email protected]. Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.

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