A few years ago, I had some clients who completely changed how
I finish large walk-in closets. This couple was determined to
have the perfect master closet in their new house. Normally,
laying out a large closet takes me about a half hour, but on
this project, we spent more than an hour analyzing the average
hanging length of dress shirts and debating whether pants
should fold over a hanger or hang from the cuffs. Three days
later, I finished the design discussion by finding just the
right amount of shelf space for rolled-up socks.
After that experience, I began building closets with adjustable
closet rods and shelves; now I don’t have to worry about
the perfect location for anything. The clients can customize
the closet when they move in, then easily change it the
following year as their needs evolve — without even
having to call me for help. All I need to know is how many rods
and shelves they want.
I precut MDF vertical supports and poplar face-frame stock,
then cut and install the components on site. Standard 5mm pins
support the shelves. I finish the closet with
H¤fele’s oval rod system and other
hafele.com). This approach
gives my closets a more elegant look than I’d get using
stock components, yet installation takes about the same amount
of time, and material costs are comparable. Plus the technique
can be adapted to any size room and for other types of storage,
including pantry cupboards and bookcase shelving.
I still involve the homeowners in the layout process, but since
all of the components are adjustable, we focus primarily on the
position of the vertical supports that divide each wall into
compartments. I try to keep the spacing between 24 and 36
inches; 32 inches is a perfect compartment width. If I go much
wider, the shelves and the rod holders have to support a lot of
weight and can start to sag.
The depth of each compartment can vary. For example, clients
occasionally want to store luggage or enclose their hanging
clothes, which requires 24-inch-deep compartments. But usually
I build 16-inch-deep open compartments and fit them with closet
rods; this depth also works well for sweaters, jeans, and
linens that are stored on shelves. Twelve-inch-deep
compartments are fine for shoes and general storage.
I lay out compartments to minimize dead space in the corners,
resorting in some cases to installing two-tier lazy Susans
(such as you’d find in a kitchen base cabinet) for shoe
storage. I start compartments at least 24 inches away from end
walls to ensure good access to both hanging clothes and items
stored on shelves.
I tweak the layout on each wall until my compartments are close
to 32 inches wide and corners have at least 24 inches of
clearance; then I draw lines on the floor to indicate the shelf
support positions and help the client visualize the layout.
This is also helpful for locating specific accessories, such as
makeup areas or three-part mirrors.
Height. When the ceiling height is 8 feet or less, I
typically extend the vertical supports all the way up. With
ceilings that are 10 feet tall or higher, I’ll either
extend the supports all the way up — which allows for
three stacked hanging sections that each measure at least 36
inches high (the minimum useful height) — or stop at 8
feet or lower and leave a top shelf around the perimeter of the
Cutting the Parts
I rip the supports from 4-foot-by-8-foot sheets of
3/4-inch-thick MDF in my shop. If I need vertical supports
taller than 8 feet, I use precut MDF shelving stock, which is
sold in 16-foot lengths and 12-inch and 16-inch widths. It
comes with a bullnose, which I rip off to leave a square edge.
I use a combination blade with at least 50 teeth in my table
saw because it leaves a clean enough cut in the MDF that I
don’t need to worry about planing the edges.
My shop has a 32mm boring machine with which I can quickly cut
all of my 5mm-diameter shelf pin holes. (I also own an
inexpensive 32mm jig in case I need to drill the shelf holes on
site.) I space the two columns of holes 1 1/4 inch from the
front and back edge of the support; I position a third column
— for the closet rod clip — about 11 inches from
the back. For middle partitions, I drill the holes all the way
through the material, which makes doubling up the vertical
While in the shop, I also rip enough 2-inch-wide poplar
face-frame stock to trim the shelving units; this time, I run
the stock on edge through my planer to remove kerf marks. If
the design calls for any inside corners, I rip some 1
1/4-inch-wide face-frame stock as well. The face frames add a
lot of stability to the MDF, especially in tall closets.
Using plumb and level lines drawn on the walls during layout, I
first install the vertical supports (see Figure
1). In new construction, the floors and walls are
usually level and plumb, but in remodeling, sagging floors and
tilting walls need to be accounted for.
Figure 1. Starting at the corner, the author fastens
the first vertical support to the walls with 2 1/2-inch-long
15-gauge nails (top) and to the floor with pocket screws (far
right, top). As he assembles each compartment, he uses a
framing square and shims to square up the sides, and glue and 1
1/4-inch 18-gauge pins to fasten the MDF parts together (bottom
left, bottom right).
The joinery isn’t fancy: I use 2 1/2-inch-long 15-gauge
finish nails and a few pocket screws when fastening the MDF
supports and cleats to the wall framing, floors, and ceiling;
and I fasten the butt-jointed MDF pieces together with 1
1/4-inch-long 18-gauge pins, pocket screws, and glue. I install
face frames the same way; blind pocket screws in the corners
help keep the pieces aligned (Figure 2). After
assembly, I clean up the joints and edges with a random-orbit
Figure 2. To install the poplar face frames, the
author first pins and glues the full-length stiles in place. He
then installs the top rails with glue and pocket screws, using
a face clamp to keep the joints aligned (left). Sanding
flattens the joints before painting (right).
Shelf edges can be finished a number of ways. Although shelving
with prefinished bullnose edging looks good and is quick to
install, a simple applied band — either with or without a
profile — is an easy way to dress up a shelf and make it
a little stronger. For shoe storage, I cut wider poplar aprons
and attach them to the shelf with plugged pocket screws
Figure 3. These shelves (left) will be used for shoe
storage; their poplar aprons are attached with pocket screws
and glue (middle). Because the holes would be exposed, the
author finishes them with pocket-screw plugs (right).
In addition to adjustable shelves and closet rods, most
customers want custom features and accessories. I usually apply
moldings and paint to match other woodwork in the house
(Figure 4), and I often install cedar closet
liner in some of the compartments, gluing it up right over the
drywall. Large three-part mirrors (which should be planned for
in the layout stage) are another popular option.
Figure 4. The author uses moldings (top) and
accessories like tie racks or Shaker-style pegs (bottom left)
to customize each closet. Corners can be fitted with stacked
lazy Susans (bottom right) to provide easy access for shoes and
other small items.
Most of the accessories I install — including tie, shoe,
and belt racks and pull-out wardrobe rods — are chosen
from H¤fele’s extensive and well-organized
hardware catalog. Because these accessories are designed to be
used with frameless cabinetry, they sometimes need to be padded
out to clear the face frame.
Even the drawer boxes for the built-in makeup area shown in
this article were mounted using H¤fele’s
drawer slides. The boxes were built from 9mm Baltic birch
plywood, with the bottoms simply stapled and glued to the
Cost. While the size and complexity of the closets I
build varies a lot, I use a simple rule of thumb to estimate at
least some of the costs: It takes about one man-hour of labor
per compartment to rip the material, drill it, and make
shelves. I figure installation time by the job.
Gary Striegler is a builder in Springdale,