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Make your own DIY ladder shelf

Wooden ladder shelves look great and are really handy for storage if you’re short on space. If you’re looking for a fun project to do at home, why not make your own shelf? Our step-by-step guide will show you how.

Updated

A wooden ladder shelf beside a bed

In our opinion, a DIY ladder shelf is one of the best craft projects out there. Why, you may ask? Well, for a start, it’s pretty straightforward and can be completed in one afternoon. So it’s a project that suits everyone from beginners to serious DIY enthusiasts. Making your own is also far more sustainable than picking up a cheap, high street version.

What’s more, the result is a functional, stylish piece of furniture that should last you for years.

And finally, there are so many ways to decorate the shelves, so you could end up with anything from a brightly coloured wooden ladder shelf for a kids’ room, to a sleek dark stained unit for a home office. You can even use your shelving unit outdoors to hold plants, or as a mini bar!

Ready to get started? Here we go… (We made our ladder using all new pieces of wood. We’ve also included some tips below on upcycling an old ladder and using pallets.)

What you need to make your DIY ladder shelf

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An assortment of tools and supplies needed to build a DIY wooden ladder shelf
  • Sheet timber (200cm x 80cm should be enough)
  • Wood glue
  • Wood varnish or paint
  • Paint brush
  • Screwdriver
  • Tape measure or ruler
  • Clamps
  • Spirit level
  • Saw (either manual or electric) 
  • Sandpaper and a sanding block or an electric sander
  • Screws (3mm diameter x 4cm length)
  • Safety equipment if you’re cutting the wood yourself (gloves, goggles, sensible shoes)

How to make a DIY ladder shelf

Cut the sheet timber to size

Timber cut list

You might want to print out this cut sheet so you have all the measurements to hand. It’s to make a two metre high shelving unit, with five shelves. If you want your wooden ladder shelf to be shorter or longer, just adjust the measurements of the ‘legs’ and add or remove shelves.

If you buy your wood direct from a timber merchant, you could ask for it to be cut to size. This usually costs more, but will save you a couple of hours. Otherwise:

1. Measure the length you’re going to cut, adding marks at various points to ensure you get a straight line.

A hand measuring wood

2. Draw a straight line to connect the marks, using a ruler or a long spirit level.

A straight line on a piece of wood

3. Use a manual saw, jigsaw or mitre saw to cut each piece of wood to size.  

Cutting wood to size, using a spirit level and a jigsaw

4. To create the angle on the two side panels (ie the legs of your ladder), measure 15mm from the bottom of each piece and then draw a straight line from the 15mm mark to the base.

A line drawn at an angle on a panel of wood

Sand the wood

5. Use a fine steel sponge or sandpaper to smooth the surface of each piece of wood and to remove any splinters, light stains or rough patches.  

An electric sander sanding wood panels

6. Do the same for the edges. If you have an electric sander, you might want to curve the edges.

An eclectic sander sanding the edges of a wood panel

7. Wipe all the pieces down with a damp cloth to remove any sawdust. You’ll need to rinse the cloth regularly.

Wood being wiped down with a damp cloth

Varnish or paint

8. Paint or varnish each piece of wood to achieve your desired style (see below). If you’re using paint, make sure it’s one that’s designed for wood. Remember to paint with the grain for a better finish.

Varnish being applied to wood

9. Follow the instructions on the varnish or paint tin for the number of coats and drying time. You’ll likely need at least two coats, with at least an hour’s drying time in between coats. Some paints will also need to be finished with a coat of clear varnish.

A bottle of paint and a paint brush beside a wood panel

We gave our shelves backs, to keep books in place. (And just because it looks nicer!) You’ll need to fix the backs to the individual shelves before you join the shelves to the ladder. 10. Run a small line of wood glue along the base of a shelf, where the back will sit.

A line of wood glue being applied to the edge of a wood panel

11. Run another line on the bottom edge of the backing wood.

A line of wood glue being applied to the back of a wood panel

12. Stick the two pieces of wood together, and use a clamp to hold them in place.

Two pieces of wood being held together with clamps

13. Once the glue is set, drill three pilot holes on the underside of your shelf, before you take the clamps off. If you don’t have clamps, you may need to hammer in some tacks to keep the pieces in place before you drill the holes. These pilot holes will help to stop the wood from splitting when you put the screws in.

Holes being drilled into wood

14. Once the pilot holes are done, screw the screws into them to secure the base of the shelf to the back. 15. Repeat for all 5 shelves.

Assemble your wooden ladder shelf

16. It’s time to put everything together. This can be a little tricky and will require two people. The distance between the shelves will depend on your personal preference. We decided to evenly space them 30cm apart, but you may want a couple of the shelves to be further apart near the bottom, especially if you’re using the shelves for larger books, plants or general knick knacks.

A spirit level on a wooden ladder shelf

17. Prop the two legs of the ladder against a wall, so that the angled base of each one sits flat. Measure from the bottom of each leg so you know where to put the bottom shelf. Have one person hold the shelf in position. Use a spirit level on both the base and the shelf back, to check it’s straight. Drill two pilot holes each side, and use four screws to secure the shelf to the ladder.

A partly assembled wooden ladder shelf propped against a wall

18. Repeat with the top shelf. Once the top and bottom shelves are in place, then add the others one by one.

An assembled wooden ladder shelf propped against a wall

Ta da! Your DIY wooden shelf is pretty much finished. All you need to do now is fill any holes with wood filler if you want to, and touch up the paint or varnish.

Once your new shelving unit is dry, it’ll be ready to fix to the wall. You can do this by attaching brackets to the top of each leg, and then fixing those to the wall using screws and wall plugs.

Decorating your wooden ladder shelf

A wooden ladder shelf with various items on it beside a bed in a bedroom

How you decorate your shelf is entirely up to you. The beauty is that you can always repaint or restain it in a few years, as your decor changes. You could try:

  • Oiling the ladder and shelves, rather than painting, for a rustic feel.
  • Painting the whole thing one colour. 
  • Painting each section a different colour. 
  • Using different tones of the same colour, starting with the darkest shade on the bottom shelf and working up to the lightest shade. 
  • Covering each shelf with wallpaper. 
  • Using decoupage to decorate the shelves. Which brings us on to…

Decorating your shelf with paper

Decoupage is a popular DIY technique that sounds fancy but just means gluing paper onto a surface. Here’s how to do it for your wooden ladder shelf:

  • Buy some thick wrapping paper with your chosen design (or a selection of different paper).
  • Stick the paper onto the surface of the ladder using specialist decoupage or wood glue. 
  • Use gloss varnish to protect the paper. (Do a patch test with your chosen varnish to make sure you’re happy with the colour.) 
  • You can also use clear nail varnish to touch up small areas.

How do you keep ladder shelves from slipping?

We recommend securing the ladder to the wall to keep it from slipping. (After all, you don’t want to end up with broken ornaments or plants everywhere.) It’s vital that you fix it to the wall if you have children or pets, as you don’t want them getting injured.

The easiest way to secure it is to attach brackets to the top of each leg and then fix those to the wall with the help of screws. You should be able to pick suitable brackets up from a hardware store or just search online.

How do you build a free-standing ladder shelf?

You can build a free-standing DIY ladder shelf by starting with a step ladder, or fixing two ladders together in an A shape. The shelves will all be different sizes, starting with the smallest nearest to the top point of the A, and the largest nearest to the feet.

The basic principles of making these types of ladder shelves is the same as the above, but it is a little trickier to measure out the shelves. Each shelf will also need to be attached to four ladder legs, rather than two. Or you can just attach it to the rungs.

Originally published