I've been using white melamine to finish closets for years.
Readily available in 12-, 16-, and 24-inch widths and in 8-,
10-, and 12-foot lengths, edge-banded melamine is perfect for
building attractive, durable, and economical shelving that can
be adapted to many different closet layouts.
Recently, I've been purchasing my melamine from a local cabinet
shop rather than through a lumberyard. This saves me about 25
percent compared with the price for basic white lumberyard
melamine and allows me to offer my customers a broader
selection of colors and patterns. Once homeowners see how many
options are available, they rarely choose plain white melamine,
even though colored and special-order melamine can cost more
(see Figure 1).
Another benefit is that my cabinetmaker is willing to rip
melamine to width and run it through his edge-banding machine.
Although I'm limited to 8-foot lengths (the cabinetmaker buys
49-by-97-inch sheets), I can get any width I like. The shorter
length isn't a problem, because closet rods need to be
supported every 3 or 4 feet anyway; I can land shelf joints on
brackets that carry the rod.
author buys the entire closet package from a cabinetmaker who
rips melamine into shelves and cleats before banding them with
a matching edge (above). This nearly eliminates ripping and
edging material in the field and allows customers to get highly
customized shelving in virtually any color or pattern they
This also means that I now use shelf cleats made out of
melamine instead of MDF. While I could make the melamine cleats
myself, I don't want to edge-band that much material on site
— it's just too slow — and the lumberyard doesn't
sell edge-banded material in narrow widths. As for MDF, it
would need to be puttied, caulked, and painted, an especially
time-consuming job if the shelves are tightly spaced. When you
factor in the labor, MDF cleats can be way more expensive than
the shelves themselves.
The author has installed a lot of closets, so he has a
pretty good idea of what does and doesn't work. Clients can
have whatever configuration they want, but if they do not have
a particular layout in mind, he recommends using the ones shown
It seems that when people design a custom home, they decide how
big the closets should be and then move on to the thousands of
other decisions they have to make. In most cases, the next time
they think about the closets is when the wall paint is dry and
they can finally see the space. This is about the time I arrive
on site. So the first thing I do is talk to the customers about
what they want and describe to them solutions that have worked
for my previous customers.
A layout stick simplifies planning.
To save time during this process, I use an 84-inch-long layout
stick instead of a measuring tape. Because it contains all of
my favorite measurements, I can hold the layout stick against
the closet wall and quickly show my clients where everything
might go. These locations are just suggestions; the homeowners
can have any layout they want. To make it easier for them to
visualize the layout, I mark shelf locations by placing blue
painter's tape on the walls. If there are any doubts, I leave
the tape up for a few days and let the owners move the
"shelves" around till they're happy (Figure 2).
Figure 2. To
help his clients visualize shelving options, the author uses a
layout stick premarked with standard shelf measurements, and
blue painter's tape to indicate potential shelf and support
Once the layout has been determined, I mark the cleat locations
on the wall. Since the walls are already painted, I always
measure to the top of a cleat so that the shelf will hide my
marks. At the same time that I'm laying out shelves, I mark
stud centers so I know where to nail through the cleats.
Closet shelving systems vary in accordance with the size of the
closet and the clients' storage needs. A basic layout might
consist of a single shelf and either a single or double closet
rod, while a larger closet might also have room for a stack of
fixed or adjustable shelves. Another, more costly option is to
include a bank or two of drawers. If the room has an otherwise
empty wall, we could install a fully edged cleat with Shaker
pegs or coat hooks on it (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Drilled to accept
Shaker-style clothes pegs, this cleat was edged by the
cabinetmaker in the shop and then cut to fit on site; only the
ends were edged in the field.
I use a full 3 1/2-inch-wide cleat for shelves with closet
rods, but only a 1 3/4-inch-wide cleat for shelves without. A
typical cleat height for a single rod is 66 inches above the
floor; for double rods, the cleats are typically 42 inches and
84 inches up (measurements are always to the top edge of the
When I build a stack of shelves, I like to make them 84 inches
high — the same height as the cleat for an upper shelf
rod. Each closet wall might have a different layout, but if
they all terminate at a wraparound shelf at 84 inches, they
will integrate cleanly.
Banks of shelving. Double closet rods are
popular, which means that there often is a lack of shoe storage
space. The solution is to build a separate stack of shelves and
use the lower portion of it to store shoes. I usually install
fixed shelves spaced 6 inches apart, but if the customer wants
adjustable shelves, I'll drill a series of shelf-support holes
spaced 2 inches on-center. To prevent the sides from bowing
out, I'll install a fixed shelf halfway up the stack.
Another easy option is to install adjustable shelves between
two stacks of fixed shelves. It's simply a matter of drilling
holes for the shelf supports in the sides of the fixed shelf
units and installing them as far apart as the adjustable
shelves are long.
Varied width and spacing. In a linen
closet, I put the first shelf 20 inches up from the floor and
the second 16 inches above the first; from there, I install
shelves 12 inches on-center up to a height of 6 feet. For
pantry shelving, I like to stagger the depth and height. I'll
start with a 16-inch-deep shelf, then place a 6-inch shelf 8
inches higher, then put a 12-inch shelf 8 inches above that.
This arrangement allows single-depth cans to sit behind taller
items while staying visible. Any really tall items can sit on
the 16-inch shelf and shoot past the 12-inch shelf.
I'm not limited to standard widths when I order stock from a
cabinetmaker. Most of the time I order 6-, 12-, 16-, and
24-inch shelves, but there have been plenty of times when I
opted for other widths.
I don't order cleats ripped to width because in our humid
climate a narrow rip with a band on only one edge would
"banana" (bow due to absorbed moisture) pretty quickly. To
prevent this from happening, I order the cleats twice as wide
as necessary (typically 4 inches for 1 3/4-inch cleats and 7
1/2 inches for 3 1/2-inch cleats) and ask the cabinetmaker to
band both edges. This seals them up pretty well, and on the day
I plan to install them I cut them to width by ripping them in
half. They won't bow immediately, so everything is fine as long
as I nail them up that day.
Ripping the cleats also gives me a sharp, square edge where the
shelf hits the cleat. No caulking is necessary, because there
will be a good tight fit. I'm always careful to handle ripped
melamine edges carefully, because they're sharp enough to cut a
Edging in the field. There are often
messy spots where the particleboard core is exposed. This might
happen when a piece has to be ripped on site or when a shelf or
cleat runs partway across the wall. I handle this by
edge-banding the exposed area in the field. Instead of
heat-sensitive material that goes on with a heat gun or iron, I
use a peel-and-stick edging called Fastedge (FastCap,
888/443-3748, www.fastcap.com). The back is coated with a
pressure-sensitive adhesive, which sticks very well and is much
easier to apply than traditional edging materials.
The manufacturer also sells a handy pressure roller for
pressing peel-and-stick edging onto the surface, and a
dual-blade trimmer for cutting it flush to the edge of the
melamine (Figure 4). Trimming is necessary because edge bands
are wider than the thickness of the material they are designed
to edge. These tools make the job so easy to do, there's no
reason to ever leave an exposed edge unfinished.
author uses peel-and-stick vinyl tape to edge areas where the
particleboard core is exposed. Here, he uses a dual-blade
trimmer to cut the tape flush to the face of a melamine shelf.
This trimmer also works on wood veneer edging.
I can buy a 250-foot roll of the maple-pattern Fastedge for
approximately 30 cents per foot. Iron-on edging is about a
nickel less per foot, but the peel-and-stick is so much easier
to use, it trumps any difference in cost.
When shelves go around an inside corner, I butt one to the
other and join them with pocket screws — two near the
front and one in the middle (Figure 5). There's no good way to
fill these holes, so I hide them by drilling them where they're
hard to see. If the shelves are below eye level, I drill from
below; if the shelves are up high, I drill from above. I use an
aluminum Kreg jig to guide the bit; it's much superior to the
newer plastic models.
pocket screws, the author can make a strong, tight joint with a
minimal amount of labor. This shelf (top) is higher than eye
level, so the screws go in from above. When the shelf is lower
(bottom), the author hides the holes by installing the screws
In many closets, the top shelf goes all the way around the
room, so if the heights are right, the top of the door casing
can act as a cleat.
When building stacks of shelves, I like to dado shelves into
the sides. This has a great "wow" factor with clients and is
faster than any other shelf-support method you could reasonably
do on site.
I could support the shelves with individual cleats, but that
would look clunky and there would be all those extra cleats to
deal with. A plate joiner might work, but whatever you gain by
not cutting a dado, you lose by having to slot both sides of
the joint and use glue. One of the nice things about using a
dado is that it hides any chipping that occurs when you
crosscut shelf pieces.
Special-size bit. I use a router to
cut the dadoes. Plywood is usually undersized, but the 3/4-inch
melamine I use is actually a full 3/4 inch thick. As a result,
the dadoes have to be more than 3/4 inch wide or the shelves
won't go in. I make 1/4-inch-deep dadoes with a .78-inch
straight bit that I bought from a specialty supplier (Woodline,
800/472-6950, www.woodbits.com). The bit's extra
three-hundredths of an inch is just enough for a perfect fit
are a lot of ways to support fixed shelves, but the author
prefers dadoes (top) because they're fast and hide any chipping
that occurs when the shelves are cut to length. With the
right-size router bit, he can get a tight fit
Laying out and cutting. I start by
clamping both sides to a bench, aligning the sides, top, and
bottom so that both pieces can be laid out and cut at the same
time. I mark dado locations by transferring marks from the
layout stick, which could be either standard locations or marks
that correspond to where the clients put the blue tape on the
wall. Even if the layout is slightly off, the sides will still
be identical when you use this method.
Because I clamp the sides with their front edges touching,
there is minimal chipping where the bit exits one and enters
the other. To guide the router square across the face of the
stock, I use a Clamp 'N Tool Guide (Griset Industries,
714/662-2888, www.trugrip.com). Available in 24-, 36-,
and 50-inch sizes, this aluminum rail has a built-in clamp that
holds it square to the stock. I could do the same thing with a
board and a couple of screw clamps, but the purpose-built guide
is self-squaring and less likely to vibrate loose.
The shelf banks are quite heavy, so I assemble them on the
floor as close as possible to their final location. I put the
shelves into the dadoes without glue and nail them in from each
side with four 1 5/8-inch 18-gauge brads. To hold the unit
against the wall, I fasten 1 3/4-inch cleats below the top and
middle shelves with a 15-gauge finish nailer.
There are a couple of ways to stabilize the sides of the
shelving unit where they hit the floor. If I am working on
subfloor, I nail a small piece of metal flashing to the bottom
of the side, allowing it to project beyond the edge, and nail
through it into the floor (Figure 7). On hardwood or vinyl
floors, I will run a pocket screw through the side and into the
floor. When I'm done, I use colored putty to conceal any
visible nail holes.
Figure 7. Thin enough to be
covered by the finished flooring or by baseboard, small pieces
of flashing nailed to the verticals hold the shelving in
Some of my customers have been asking for banks of drawers. I
don't mind installing drawer units, but it is not economically
feasible to fabricate them in the field. On one recent job, I
ordered knock-down drawer units from CabParts (970/241-7682,
www.cabparts.com). The company's service
and product were excellent, but the freight charge was way over
the estimate. Next time, I'll explore a supplier who is closer
To support some inside corners and the front edge of long runs
of shelving, I install narrow, edged strips of melamine stacked
vertically and wedged between the shelves (Figure 8).
Overlapping these pieces and nailed from behind, another
continuous piece of melamine strengthens and conceals these
joints and gives the shelving a finished look.
lengths of edged melamine help support the shelves. The author
then overlays a second, continuous strip of melamine, fastening
from behind to conceal nail holes.Chas Bridge is a finish carpenter in