Freestanding shelves

A few years ago, when I was living in Manhattan, I wanted strong book shelves to hold our large library of books on city planning. I didn’t want to mar the walls of our rental apartment. I knew of designs that made shelves free standing by means of a vertical pole in the front of the bookshelves so that gravity — the shelves “fall” against the wall — gave them stability. I found some at Shelf Shop on First Avenue (since closed), and they were very cool, but they were also very expensive. So, I came up with my own design for a bookcase that used materials I could get easily at my local lumber dealer and hardware store.

Freestanding wooden bookshelves using a pole shelving design

These shelves can be filled with heavy books and do not need to be physically attached to the wall, floor, or ceiling.

I used 2″x2″ wooden poles, cut to fit my 8′ ceilings. I tightened them in between my floor and ceiling using adjustable glide levelers.

Wooden shelf Pole for Pole shelving

A groove in the 2"x2" runs the length of the pole and is just deep enough to fit the metal standard so it is flush with the wall-facing side of the pole.

I had the folks at Wood-o-Rama (where I got all the lumber, standards, and brackets) cut a groove on one side of each pole into which I fit and screwed your basic 1-slot standards. (Wood-o-Rama has since moved from its 108th street location to New Jersey.) For the shelves, I used 9″ brackets and cheap 1″x12″ boards of knotty pine.

The result is perfect for a rental apartment and won’t break the bank: adjustable shelving for my office, with no drilling into the wall, floor, or ceiling. I made a set of 6′ by 12″ shelves for a total of $250.

About the adjustable glide levelers: Also known as leveling mounts, these are the round metal, plastic or rubber “feet” that you sometimes find on the bottom of cafe table legs; they screw up or down to keep the table level. You can get them at most hardware stores in sets of 4 for about 3 bucks. I got metal ones at the wonderful Grand Metro Hardware on 94th and Broadway. They come with plastic sleeves that fit into a 3/8″ hole. I recommend getting levelers with at least a 2-inch length to account for uneven floors and ceilings.

Metal shelf brackets are inserted into standards. The brackets should be shorter than the depth of the shelf.

To prevent the metal from making a mark on my ceilings, I covered the metal surface with a small circle of felt backed by adhesive — the cheap felt that you put on the bottom of furniture legs to protect wood floors. The “foot” of each pole was positioned on a square plastic furniture caster cup.

For my shelves, I drilled a short 1-inch deep hole in the top end of each pole using a 3/8-inch drill bit. I then tapped in the plastic sleeves and screwed in the levelers. When it was time to position the poles for my shelves, I just put each pole in place, then “unscrewed” the levelers until the pole was nice and tight between floor and ceiling. Once I put stuff on the shelves, I tightened them a bit more, since the weight bent the poles ever so slightly.

7 Responses to Freestanding shelves
  1. nloewenNo Gravatar
    July 12, 2009 | 1:31 pm

    Just a question to clear something up…
    You screw in the standard from the back so the screw heads don’t show up out front, right? And the standard is what the brackets hook into, is that right?
    I’m going to try it; thanks for the example!

  2. John McCroryNo Gravatar
    July 13, 2009 | 4:31 am

    You're exactly right, Nick. The standard, which is a C-shaped metal rod, has slots in it that the brackets fit into. The groove in the wooden poles will need to be cut to a depth allowing the standard to fit with its face flush with the side of the pole.

    Good luck!

    • SusanNo Gravatar
      March 20, 2010 | 12:17 am

      These shelves look great. How have they stood up over time? The shelf brackets I am familiar with that look like the ones you used have a little "hook" at the end (at the rear of each shelf in your configuration) to keep the shelf from falling off of the bracket. Did these stick into and mark the wall? Could one remove the hook? The wall would prevent the shelf from coming off the bracket. Has anyone built these since this was posted? Thanks.

      • johnmccroryNo Gravatar
        March 20, 2010 | 12:57 am

        Thanks, Susan. The shelves stood up quite well for three years, even holding lots of heavy architecture and city planning books.

        Then I moved to a circa 1930 house with 7" ceilings, so the shelves are too tall to fit and so are in storage. They came apart easily for moving! (FYI, this post dates to 2004, in an earlier iteration of my blog)

        To answer your other question: I used brackets that were shorter than the shelves are wide. My shelves are 1"x12" planks and the brackets were shorter — 9" — so that the edge of the wooden shelf rests against the wall, not the bracket. The tooth or "hook" simply sinks into the soft wood of the underside of the shelf, which I found helpful because it keeps the shelf from sliding from side to side. I gently hammered each tooth into the wood with a rubber mallet. You can also get brackets without teeth, if you like.

  3. Erika Kachama-NkoyNo Gravatar
    July 17, 2009 | 4:45 pm

    Hello John–Found your page via Hiding the 1-slot standards behind the pole is very clever. Bravo.

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John McCrory and John McCrory, Stonehaven Life. Stonehaven Life said: DIY freestanding shelves via @johnmccrory – nice! […]

  5. sydneyNo Gravatar
    November 10, 2012 | 8:02 am

    i love this shelve. which screws are the best for the slves?

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