October 18, 2015
Learn Woodworking and Build a Garage Shelving Unit | Part 1 - Plans

This post will be the first entry in a series detailing a weekend project I recently engaged in, which was the construction from scratch of some garage shelving. Furthermore, I expect that this series will be the first of many woodworking projects that I detail on this blog. Why, you may ask, am I writing about carpentry on a blog that has, up until now, been focused on computers and web development? I see this blog as focused on engineering, and woodworking is certainly a type of engineering! Furthermore, I think that there is a niche for amateur woodworking tutorials and I intend to fill that.

These posts will be written for the use of amateurs, including those who have zero experience in working with wood. I will be writing the most basic of techniques, including how to create and adapt plans, how to properly measure and cut wood, and the like. This is the kind of post I would have found useful when I was starting out, and it is my hope that it will be of use to others, too. Note that I am far from an expert myself, so I will be glad for any feedback that those more experienced can provide me.

Let's get started!

I have a messy garage. Perhaps you do too. To solve this problem, I decided it was time to build some shelving upon which I could stack all my stuff. This series of posts will walk you through my build process from start to finish, and will hopefully serve two purposes:

  • Show you how you can build a shelf just like mine
  • Show you the general processes involved in building a project out of wood – creating the plan, finding and sizing the materials, and assembling the item.

This series will consist of 4 posts, which are as follows:

  1. Plans and Materials
  2. Cutting the Wood
  3. Attaching the Brackets
  4. Assembly

In Part 1 – Plans and Materials, I am going to focus mostly on the theory of designing woodworking plans, using the garage shelf as an example. This post will be almost entirely dedicated to showing the thought processes one goes through when designing a piece of furniture, and it’s going to be more abstract than the rest. The actual plans for the shelving unit will be posted near the end.

Part 1 will be divided up into the following subsections:

  1. Choosing A Starting Design: where to begin – finding a good set of plans to start with
  2. Adapting The Design: adapting the plans you’ve chosen to fit your needs
  3. Purchasing the Materials: you’ve got your plans, now get the materials

Let’s begin!

Part 1: Choosing a Starting Design

Every design needs to start somewhere. Usually it starts with a vision of how you want your furniture to look. Experienced carpenters can usually turn that vision directly into plans – for amateurs like myself, it’s usually easier to find existing plans that closely match what you’re looking for on the internet.

I began this project by Googling “heavy duty shelving plans” and looking through the results. I looked for a set of plans that met a few criteria:

  1. It should be simple. There should be no complicated cuts or joins. All cuts need to be able to be done easily with a handsaw; all joins need to be able to be done simply by screwing two pieces of wood together.
  2. It should easily adaptable. Someone else’s plans likely won’t fit my garage, or my goals – so I need to be able to easily adapt them without radical changes to the design. I need to be able to extend the plans in all three directions. As an example of a plan which isn’t easily extendable, consider this: it’s a nice shelf, but the bracket it uses means the shelves have to have a certain width, and I can’t easily change that.
  3. I should like the way it looks.

Using these criteria, I did a long search and eventually found this plan, a screenshot of which is below:

This design uses Simpson StrongTie RTC2Z connectors to hold the shelf together. These ties are designed to use 2x4 lumber. All cuts are straightforward, all wood is joined using the connectors, which simply screw directly into the lumber. It’s easily extendable in all three dimensions; and I like the way it looks. It fits all my criteria.

This will give us our basic starting design – next, we adapt it to fit our needs.

Part 2: Adapting the Design

We have a basic idea of how our shelving unit will be constructed – but now we need to adapt it to our own needs. We can change the size of the shelves, the width, height and depth of the unit, and even how many shelves it has.

In order to determine how to adapt the basic design to fit our own needs, I usually go through three steps:

  1. Finding Your Limits: How big can the shelving unit be? You need to know how much space you have to work with.
  2. Creating the Plans: turn the limits into a plan, while taking into consideration other factors.

Step 1 - Finding Your Limits:

Ultimately, your build must fit within the space you have. Every project should begin by figuring out how much space you have to work with. This is usually as simple as measuring your area – in this case, my garage.

Here is a photo of where my shelves are going to go (the new shelves will replace the old set of cabinets):

The new shelving will replace this old cabinet

Some notes:

  • Obviously, my height limit is determined by my ceiling – the shelving unit can’t be taller than that!
  • My width is limited by the fact that I have a concrete step – my shelf can’t extend out past that.
  • My length is limited such that it must fit between the appliances seen in the photo. Furthermore, I want to eventually fit two shelving units in this space, so I need to account for that.

Given the limits above, I measured the space and found that my shelf design could have no more than 66” length x 36” width x 96” height. This was the largest that my shelving unit could be. Any larger and it won’t fit.

Note that the format of length x width x height will be maintained throughout the remainder of this post.

Step 2: Creating the Plans

We know how much space we have, and since we have our basic plans we could theoretically alter them so that it takes up our entire project space. However, it is usually smarter to look at other numbers, limits and considerations, and tradeoff between them to reach a final set of dimensions.

Here are some of those limits and considerations:

  1. Buffer Size: you may not want your furniture to take up the entire amount of space. For example, I don’t want the very top of my shelf contacting the ceiling – better to bring it down a bit. I also don’t want the front legs of the shelf right on the edge of the concrete lip, so I decreased the width a bit.
  2. Error: even masters make mistakes. Amateurs certainly do. Decrease your dimensions a bit from the max allowed, so that, if you end up with a final size that’s larger than planned, the item will still fit.
  3. Materials Size: you’ll need to purchase materials to build your shelf. Materials come in set lengths. Try to choose dimensions so that you don’t waste material (i.e. try to use as much of each piece of lumber you purchase as possible.) Try to avoid unusual lengths that might be tough to purchase lumber for.
  4. Sturdiness / Stability: this is not really a problem for our current project (our project space prevents us from making a shelf big enough to be unstable), but it should still be considered – make sure your final design will bear the weight you plan to give it. For simple projects like this, you should be able to “feel” whether your plan is unstable or not.
  5. Reasonableness: by this, I mean a very simple thing – don’t be dumb. Don’t design shelves that are only a few inches high (unless you have small things you want to store on them). Don’t make a shelf that’s very thin. Basically, make sure that the final project can actually store a wide variety of items.

The process of adjusting your dimensions generally involves making tradeoffs between these many factors.

Here are a few other tips which may benefit the amateur woodworker:

  • 2x4s are not actually 2” by 4”. In actuality, they are 1.5” x 3.5”. This will be the case for most rough cut lumber – the width and depth dimensions will usually be about ½” short (however, the length of the lumber will be true! A 12” stud will in fact be 12” long). You need to use the true dimensions of your materials in your plans, not the stated dimensions.
  • Long pieces of lumber usually have a warp to them. Make sure your design either allows or accounts for this, if necessary.

For my own shelves, after making these adjustments, I determined that my shelves would have dimensions of 63” x 31” x 80”. This can be seen in the following set of plans that I created:

Click here to download

As you can see, I made it smaller in all three dimensions, in consideration of buffer size and error. I also specified the lengths when considering the materials I’d need to buy. Finally, the final design is stable, sturdy, and reasonable.

Now we have our plans – we need to purchase materials.

Part 3: Purchasing the Materials

The Lumber:

I will need the following pieces for my plans:

  • 4 lengths of 80” (the posts)
  • 8 lengths of 60” (the long beams)
  • 8 lengths of 24” (the short beams)
  • 3 pieces of plywood or fiberboard, 31” x 63” (the shelf surfaces)

Usually you don’t purchase the exact lengths of lumber needed for these sorts of projects – you purchase longer pieces and cut them to size. As stated above, your design should be set up such that you don’t have a lot of leftover wood at the end; or if you do, try to make it usable.

I ended up purchasing 8 lengths of 12’ 2x4, which would be subdivided in the following ways:

  • 4 lengths cut into 60”, 60” and 24” lengths (8 lengths of 60”, 4 lengths of 24”)
  • 2 lengths cut into 80”, 24”, 24”, and 16” lengths (2 lengths of 80”, 4 lengths of 24”, 2 lengths of 16” left over)
  • 2 lengths cut into 80” and 64” lengths (2 lengths of 80”, 2 lengths of 64” left over)

Everything Else:

Total cost for me ended up being around $150 for the materials.

Some of the materials - the lumber and 8 of the StrongTies


In this post we have:

  1. Created the plans we will be using
  2. Determined which materials we will need

It is my hope that you can use this post to create your own plans for a similar shelf; or just use my plans if you want one of the same size. You can download them below:

Click here to download

In the next post, we’ll be discussing how to cut our lumber down to size – this is more difficult than you might think!