DIY Utility Shelves

Inspired perhaps by our recent awesome OESH infographic, the Washington Post just put together a little infographic of their own on the health hazards of sitting, interviewing a former member of my research team at the University of Virginia, Jay Dicharry, who is now director of the REP Biomechanics Lab in Bend, Oregon. Jay made sure that recommendations were appropriately made on the basis of our research so I vouch that the advice is the real deal.

Running a factory, I rarely sit nowadays, and I have to say, I feel more fit. The key may be that I’m always finding things to do that require me to move around. Like building utility shelves that we always seem to need more of. Anyhow, I thought I’d share with you our plan for making them as they really are simple to make, requiring only common power tools and costing $53 (or less depending on what’s recycled). All the meanwhile, it keeps you from sitting, which makes it, according to the above, a legitimate exercise.

Here’s a CAD (computer aided design) drawing of the design which is approximately 6 feet tall, 4 feet three inches wide and 2 feet deep. (No, you don’t need CAD to make this. We only used CAD because we are so facile in designing shoes with it that drawing up this shelf unit, was faster than the time it would take us to find a napkin to draw on). We designed it so that the shelves are a convenient 4′ by 2′ size. This means that you can buy a standard sheet of 1/2″ thick plywood from Lowes or Home Depot and have them cut it into 4 – 4′ X 2′ sections (which they’ll do for free – many folks do not know this) so that (1) you can fit the pieces into your car and (2) you don’t need a table saw.


Here’s the total list of ingredients:

1 sheet of 1/2″ plywood or OSB board (cut into four 4′ by 2′ pieces) – (costs about $17)

Six 2 X 4′ s that are 12 foot length cut into the following lengths (costs about $32 total):

4 – 6′ length
8 – 4′ 3″ length
8 – 1′ 9″ length

A box or a big handful of 2 1/2″ long screws (“deck” screws or “drywall” screws – it doesn’t matter – just make sure you have a bit for your drill that matches the head of the screw, as well as a 1/8″ diameter drill bit). You’ll need a total of 80 screws. Costs about $3.

A small handful (less than a quarter pound) of 1 1/8″long drywall screws. Costs about $1.

You can ask Lowes or Home Depot to cut all the 2 X 4’s for you as well (from six 12′ lengths). Make sure all the 4’3″ boards are a full 4’3″ in length (so that the 4′ wide plywood pieces slide in okay). The other pieces can be slightly shorter than the above (which will happen because the width of the cutting blade, the so-called “kerf,” takes away from the length). Just need to be sure that within each set, they’re all the same length.

We get the plywood cut at Lowes but we cut the 2 X 4’s ourselves using a miter saw. The one in the factory is the same one that I bought years ago that we had in our basement. It is the first power saw I ever got, the reason being that I’ve felt that it is more manageable and controllable than a regular circular saw or table saw, which we still do not have. It can only chop down and as long as all body parts, especially fingers, are kept far away from where it’s chopping, everything will be fine. (For any power tool, I strongly recommend what I think many folks never bother to do…read the manual…which has a nice lengthy section on safety.)


If you go the miter saw route or cut the 2 X 4’s with a hand saw (truly amping up the calories burned!) you can still have Lowes or Home Depot cut them into 6′ pieces for you so that you can either fit them into your car or strap them on to your car roof.

Below is the wood, all cut up and ready to go.


While the miter saw is optional for this project, the following tools are not. You need at least one drill and preferably two so that you don’t have to keep changing between a drill bit and a screwdriver bit. (The littler drill on the right is actually an impact driver which is incredibly powerful despite its dainty size). And a tape measure and a pencil. A builder’s square, like below is handy too but it’s not absolutely essential as I describe another, arguably better method below for squaring things up with just the tape measure.


To make the shelves 18″ apart, lay out the four 6 foot long pieces and mark up from one end 18″ where the top of the 2 X 4 support for the bottom shelf will go. Continue marking up at 36,” and 54″ for the second and third shelf; the top shelf will go at the top.

Next, begin screwing the two ends of the unit together as below. Pre-drill the screw holes that are closest to the end of the wood — this will help keep the wood ends from splitting. You can use the builder’s square as you go, making sure everything stays at right angles. Or, you can put just one screw in each end of the short pieces, then use the diagonal squaring up method (described below) before screwing in the rest of the screws (placement of screws is shown by the red arrows in the picture to the right). You’ll end up with two ladder looking things:


Now put them on their edge and screw in 4 of the 4′ 3″ pieces. Here’s where I find the diagonal square method essential. Put just one screw in each end of the 4′ 3″ pieces. Then take diagonal measurements from the bottom of the unit on one side diagonally across to the top, like the below. Compare that measurement to the diagonal in the opposite direction. To get those measurements equal, just push the wood together in the direction of the diagonal that is longer so that it shortens up. Repeat these diagonal measurements a few times while you’re screwing in the rest of the screws to make sure nothing shifts.

Now flip the unit over and screw in the other four 4′ 3″ pieces. There should be 4 screws at each end; 2 going into the support and 2 going into the horizontal piece.


Now all you have to do is stand it up and slide the plywood into place. Screw the plywood down with 1 1/8″ long drywall screws.

When I stand it up, invariably I find I have to put shims (thin pieces of wood or even pieces of cardboard) under one or more of the legs, depending how level the ground is, wood warpage, etc.


Voila! They’re plenty strong that you can climb up and sit on them. But in the spirit of keeping on the move, don’t sit for long!

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