Q: My husband and I have a house that was built in the 1950s. One of the little remodeling jobs that was done by a previous owner was to turn two built-in recessed cabinets that were on top of each other into a closet.
Unfortunately, he just cut off the horizontal strip of wood that divided the lower and upper cabinets and took out the shelf. He then put in five shelves.
For three of the shelves he used two pieces of wood for support on the left and right side. For two other shelves, he used two different-size pieces of wood for side supports. For back support, the same type of wood was used, only it doesn’t reach all the way across the length of the shelves.
The paint in the closet is peeling, so we need to repaint. I think this would be a good time to make everything more uniform. Is just using 1-by-2-inch strips for side support on all the shelves strong enough? Is using brackets an option?
A: Sounds to us as if the "remuddler" used whatever wood that was on hand to rig the shelves and supports. We agree it’s a good time to rebuild the shelves and make everything uniform. Forget the brackets — they’re unnecessary.
This is a great do-it-yourself project. If we were doing the job, we’d tackle it like this:
Take out the existing shelves and supports, leaving just a bare box. You’ll get rid of the mismatched shelving, and you’ll eliminate a good deal of scraping and sanding. Also, you’ll be using new materials, which will make the final product a whole lot nicer.
After demolition, you’ll be left with prepping and painting the inside of the cabinet, and installing new shelving.
Use a paint scraper to remove loose paint, then fill any voids and level the surface with Spackle. Sand the interior smooth, then prime and paint. This will be a three-coat job: one coat of primer, sand, then two finish coats.
The next step is to install wood supports for the shelves. No need to use brackets. One-by-2s will be plenty for the side and back supports of shelves up to 32 inches. If we were planning on painting the whole cabinet, we would use pine or fir rather than a harder wood such as oak or poplar.
It’s a little easier to work with. Use construction adhesive and screw these pieces into the studs for a solid installation. It’s a good idea to drill pilot holes before setting the screws. That way you don’t risk splitting the wood.
Don’t try to use the old shelving. New shelves are inexpensive and will save you a lot of time and produce a better job than trying to scrape, sand and reuse the old ones. The lumberyard or home center will gladly cut them for you — sometimes for free, sometimes for a nominal charge.
You have a number of choices for your shelves. They can be natural wood, then stained or clear-coated. If you don’t want to paint you can use melamine, a medium-density particleboard with a white factory-applied finish.
Whatever shelving material you choose, be sure to beef up the front edge so the shelves won’t sag. Drill pilot holes and use finishing nails and construction adhesive to affix 1-by-3s to the front edge of the shelves. This will stiffen the shelves and give them a nice, finished look. The 1-by-3 face trim will also hide the side supports.
If the shelves are painted, or if you use melamine, we suggest that you use poplar for this reinforcement job. It paints extremely well and is plenty strong. If natural wood is the choice, your face pieces should match the shelving material: oak to oak, birch to birch, etc.
Follow these instructions, take your time, and the cob job you’ve got now will morph into a handsomely finished shelving unit.