Miles of Bookshelves

I’ve heard this nasty rumor going around that there are actually stores into which one can enter, select a piece of furniture, leave with said piece of furniture, maybe perform some light, jaunty assembly work at home, and begin using it immediately. It’s the sort of thing I imagine most intelligent people might take advantage of, or perhaps those with a vested interest in their own happiness.

I never fucking learn though. I convince myself that building projects will be easy and simple, that what I really want isn’t something that IKEA can readily provide, and that there’s no reason for me to shy away from a little DIY. Then I end up covered in plaster dust and ruing the day I ever turned my nose up at a perfectly good BILLY bookcase. This is the short story of my life, perpetually retold here for your edification and enjoyment.

When Max moved in, he didn’t bring that much stuff. This was a good thing, both because I am an evil dictator and because I already have a lot of stuff. But if you are planning to move in with Maxwell Tielman, know this: 1) I will cut you, get your filthy whore-paws off my man. 2) He comes with books, and lots of them.

For a couple weeks, there were basically books EVERYWHERE in the apartment—on two mini folding bookcases Max brought with as temporary measures, the horrible free milk crate monstrosity I cobbled together, and little piles all over the place. It became eminently clear that my little pipe and ply shelves of yore, which served me well in Manhattan, just weren’t going to cut it here. I’m a Brooklynite now; I read stuff.

But I had new things on the mind, anyway—or, rather, things fed to me by the industrious, ever-stylish, and regrettably blog-less Maya, who DIY’d up some amazing wall-to-wall shelves using standard steel L-brackets and nice chunky pieces of lumber at her digs:

Amazing, right? Unfortunately, I don’t have any walls in my apartment that are really ideal for some true wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling shelving, but I figured it could work for a smaller amount of space and still look pretty great. So I did it.

Yes, they’re big. They’re bold. These books ain’t messin’.

There are some downsides to living in a fifth floor walk-up, like wheezing for breath by the time we get to our apartment door. But this also means we’re on the top floor, which means full, unrestricted roof access (you know, until I’m told otherwise. I don’t ask a lot of questions). Which means I finally have a place to build things and not turn our apartment into a total hellhole in the process.

Instead of using thicker pieces of timber, we opted for 1″x12″ pine boards, cut down to about seven foot lengths by the gentle, grumpy hands of Home Depot employees. The brackets are 12″ L-brackets, which I opted to spray paint Rustoleum matte black. After sanding everything down, I stained all the wood with a mix of Minwax’s Walnut and English Chestnut, which is basically the same as my favorite Jacobean stain that I think they stopped making. Boo.

Oh, and a word to the wise: ALWAYS keep your scraps, even if you don’t think you’ll need them. It’s nice to have a few pieces of leftover wood to test out your staining technique on, figure out how long you want to let your stain soak into the wood, etc. etc.

I’m hesitant to even show this picture of how they’re attached to the walls. Those of you who know anything about attaching very heavy things to walls are going to scream in anger about why I didn’t just screw directly into studs, and the answer is embarrassing. I couldn’t find them! I have an electronic stud-sensor, but it’s basically useless for old plaster walls since the plaster is on top of lathe, and the lathe is on top of studs, and this building was built in 1890 and your best guess as to where the studs are is as good as mine. I test-drilled and test-drilled and test-drilled for forever before giving up and just going with Plan B: toggle anchors. These babies are big and strong and require HUGE pilot holes in the walls (barely covered up by the brackets themselves), which I know full well are going to necessitate some exciting repair work for the brave soul who takes these shelves down. Hopefully that person is not me.

Drilling all those big holes is messy, messy, messy. I should really stop using my vacuum as a ShopVac, I think the identity crisis is slowly killing it.

Once all of the brackets were up and the shelves were screwed in (using 1/2″ wood screws), I decided to paint all the screw heads with Rustoleum matte-black enamel, an oil-based paint that matches the spray paint I’d already done on the brackets. I just went along, row-by-row, and touched up all the heads with a little foam brush. Twice. All 128 of them.

Because Max isn’t really one to stain wood or operate power tools or worry about painting screw heads, his major contribution during all of this was to design and print some custom little bookplates to go inside all of our books. You can read way more about that over on his blog, but I think they turned out to be the super-cutest pragmatic insurance policy ever. This way, if his eye lingers, I will know exactly which of these many books to bring to the roof, set aflame, and piss all over the ashes. No, I don’t repeat these threats several times a day, how dare you?!

Back to the books. So many books. The shelves are spaced so the bottom shelf is nicely size for larger-format texts (like design books, etc.), and the upper shelves are well-sized for more standard sized books.

Now I just need to pretty-up that region between the bottom shelf and my desk. And get over the fact that I now think I should have hung the whole thing about 4 inches lower. And my ever-sneaking suspicion that our vintage teak nightstand shelves make the whole room a little too shelfy. Here I go. Shutting up now.

About Daniel Kanter

Hi, I'm Daniel, and I love houses! I'm a serial renovator, DIY-er, and dog-cuddler based in Kingston, New York. Follow along as I bring my 1865 Greek Revival back to life and tackle my 30s to varying degrees of success. Welcome!

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  1. 9.16.11

    I like that your typewriter is on the radiator. And that hole-punch looks awesome.

    Oh yeah, and cool shelves.

  2. 9.16.11

    Looks great! I am somewhat regretting hiding most of our books away in our fauxdenza, but alas – no shelf-worthy walls left in our small house.

  3. 9.16.11

    I love you guys. Just saying it because I can.

    I think the real lesson of this post is that Maya needs a blog. (As I am required to mention every time Maya’s name comes up.)

    The secondary lesson is that I need new bookshelves in my dining room, because Elfa sux.

  4. 9.16.11
    Doug from PDX said:

    Paint the bottom brackets the color of the walls. I think it would make it look a bit more polished and your eye wouldn’t get visually stuck in that area above the desk.

    P.S. You just need a large, visual above the bed to help balance things out. A nice graphic print”¦ (hint, hint) I think that would help with things feeling too “shelfy”.

    • 9.16.11
      Daniel said:

      Oh, TRUST there will be art up on that wall. It needs it so, so badly.

      I don’t mind the brackets, actually! I think painting them would really just look like I was *trying* to disguise them, which I don’t really have a lot of interest in doing. Wouldn’t mind having a little piece of art or some kind of organization system for office supplies, or… something to make that area a bit more functional or visually interesting and less utilitarian than it is now.

    • 9.18.11
      Janet said:

      I was thinking the same.

    • 9.18.11
      Janet said:

      …as Doug that is…

    • 11.24.11
      marjee said:

      You did a great job! And how’s about a big magnetic board or fabric covered pin board panel? I know you guys are going to enjoy picking fabrics as much as you did throw cushions…

    • 9.18.11
      Mary-Ellen said:

      I agree that the bottom of the brackets needs to be white, or as Angus suggested, hung from the top of the shelf. The idea is great and I think it would look cleaner and add focus to the book shelf and it’s contents. I would also make sure all the book titles face the same direction, but that is me. I am crazy like that.

  5. 9.16.11
    Angus said:

    Did you consider hanging the brackets the other way, so that the part against the wall would be obscured by books rather than visible?

    • 9.16.11
      Daniel said:

      I don’t think the brackets could stay screwed into the wood that way… books are REALLY heavy, and the weight of the wood is something to take into consideration too. I guess maybe you could screw through the wood with a big bolt and then have a nut on the other side, but I’m not sure that would be an aesthetic improvement or a functional one.

  6. 9.16.11
    Jennifer H. said:

    If you hung the shelves 4 inches lower you’d be hitting your head on the bottom one every time you wanted to use your desk, and how fun would that be? I totally feel you on the whole “finding the studs in the wall” thing. Our house was built in 1909 and there are several massive holes in a few rooms where we tried to get all efficient and organized, only to have the newly hung items come crashing to the floor a few days later. Love old houses, hate old walls.

  7. 9.16.11
    heidi said:

    I looks great, but, uh, this is why I love my kindle.

  8. 9.16.11
    Mom said:

    Agree with Doug, painting the bottom brackets the wall color would really help my eye. That is a lot to take in, in a small space. Glad to see you back up and writing about something, anything.

  9. 9.16.11
    Karrey said:

    Aieee, love them! And the bookplates. I am dying.

  10. 9.16.11

    Love the shelves! And I third what your mom and Doug said about painting the brackets the wall color.

  11. 9.16.11
    guildencrantz said:

    If painting the bottom brackets the color of the walls, as suggested, does not suit you; how about adding another shelf, independent of the unit, under these brackets?

  12. 9.16.11
    Celina said:

    AAGGGHHH I feel your frustration on shelves. Would you mind me asking your final cost? I was trying to do this same sort of project but ended up giving up and going to Ikea.

    I live in a building just as old as yours in chicago and the studs were in such random places that we had to use lead anchors.

    • 9.16.11
      Daniel said:

      I didn’t keep SUPER careful track of budget by accident, but I think it was around $200 all told. (the brackets alone were over $6 each at Home Depot, though they might be cheaper online or somewhere else)

  13. 9.16.11
    simone said:

    I fourth. And further more, why not think 5×5 Expedit bookcase when you think “shelves by Ikea”? (Rather than Billy). They look amazing with a good white Eames chair.

  14. 9.16.11
    Colin said:

    I’d be happy to help you out with your “shelfy” problem by taking those nightstands off your hands. Just saying.

  15. 9.16.11
    Christie said:

    You know how you covered the radiator in your dorm? What if you covered the radiator in this room and extended it to make a window seat? It might make the room less shelf-y. (Or more, depending on if it ends up being used as a shelf). Or maybe not. You have a better eye for this than I do.

  16. 9.16.11
    Christie said:

    Since I can’t delete my comment, I guess I’ll just redact it. The radiator is far too gorgeous to cover up.

    • 9.16.11
      Daniel said:

      y’know, I actually did think about doing something like that, a more intense built-in thing, but it seemed like a LOT of work and a LOT of planning and tools I don’t own and… we really just wanted some shelves NOW. Plus, it probably would have meant getting rid of my desk, which I’m not totally married to but wouldn’t mind keeping around for a little while longer, at least. Maybe someday, when I’m braver… I can still see how it would look really great.

  17. 9.16.11

    Is this going to be a new trend? Real bookshelves with real live books on them? Not “objets” and twine balls and a few books bought for their color??
    Hmmmm, I LIKE IT!

    I hope you never f*ing learn. Like a Mormon mom on her 11th baby, I hope you just keep forgetting the pain and popping out more (design stuff).

    • 9.16.11
      Alyssa said:

      I lol’d IRL at “Mormon mom on her 11th baby”.

      I’m in the process of doing this exact same project. Except in my plaster walled bitch of a bathroom for bathroom things. Yes, I need all those potions, dammit. Then, if all works out, behind the sofa. And in the kitchen.

      Come moving time, I’d either just leave the shelves up in their totality, or leave the brackets for the new tenant to do what they please with and steal the lumber away to my new digs.

  18. 9.16.11

    Really terrific! We had similar lathe-and-plaster issues when it came to wall-mounting our television. I wish I had known about these magical “toggle anchors” but our 2.5″ screws being supported by the apparently 2.25″ walls seemed to do the trick. What’s wrong a little break-through of plaster on the other side, anyway…

  19. 9.16.11
    maya said:

    oh hey! , Hi!
    these look awesome!
    no one can never have too many books!
    missed you!

  20. 9.16.11
    Dennis said:

    If you’re looking for a way to dress up the wall down to the desk, continue the lines of the brackes down with metal strips. You can then use them to suspend different sized rectangles for display/design boards, calendars, note boards, etc. Kind of an oversided, mod approach to a ribbon board? Think it could look really cool and be an easy way to have an easily altered area, whether it be rotating gallery or planning center for your various projects.

  21. 9.16.11
    Christina said:

    What if you attached a 1″ x 12″ x 7′ pine board vertically under the last shelf, over the brackets (you would need to use shims and stain to match)? Then you could use this board to attach “things” to organize your office supplies, photos, etc.

    Please write often, I have missed you.

  22. 9.16.11
    Jen said:

    “Shelfy” is my new favorite word.

  23. 9.16.11
    georgia said:

    I agree with guildencrantz, a floating shelf for displaying stuff – possibly photos – or a drawer shelf painted in a color to match the chair underneath for the office supplies could help. Books stacked horizontally always “break” the shelfy look…

  24. 9.16.11
    Cindy said:

    Haha, I read this quote today: “Sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning and you think, I’m not going to make it, but you laugh inside — remembering all the times you’ve felt that way.” – Charles Bukowski

    And I think it applies brilliantly here. I totally understand the feeling of getting myself into something completely troublesome and crazy when I could’ve done it the “easy way” but you know what? In the end you come up with something amazing with funny stories to tell. Your bookshelves are gorgeous!

  25. 9.17.11
    louise said:

    looks perfect!

    i totes used black nail polish to paint the screw heads for my kitchen shelving. my boyfriend confused the words “crazy” and “clever” that night. he really should be reading more books.

  26. 9.17.11
    Isabelle said:

    I wanted to leave the same idea as Angus said; we did something like this in our first (student) apartment (also fighting with the walls and with a shelf detaching from the wall full of books falling on us during one night). But once we fixed that, they even survived an earth quake.

    We turned around only the last row of brackets (would you be able to add an additional row?) and used it for some lighter stuff than books.

  27. 9.17.11
    Fat Cat said:

    I’ve got another smart quote… “I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.” – Anna Quindlen

    Anyhow, I really like your new shelves and the impact of all those books. Maximalist is definitely the way to go with bookshelves !

    PS. And yes, Maya needs a blog. Or at the very least a teeny tiny Flickr stream ?!

    • 9.19.11
      Harold Osler said:

      I like that one. I’m always looking for great quotes about books.

      I have two different quotes in frames on a couple of bookshelves. One is a long quote from the fabulous Fran Lebowitz–“Everything is disappointing to those who read a lot. There’s no question that at no time in my life have I ever thought that life was as good as reading. . . .but I would rather read than have any kind of real life like working , or being responsible.”
      The other is a quote from “Death in a Tenured Position” by Amanda Cross.
      “She had often noticed that when people with large libraries fall into trouble, the fact that the books had nor risen en masse to help them always seemed to give those without books comfort.”

  28. 9.17.11
    Jen said:

    Hello, fellow Brooklyn blogger. Your tyrannical tendencies make me smile. You and Max are like the Brangelina of my blogger universe.

  29. 9.17.11
    Jamie B. said:

    I think the shelves look nice, there are just way too many books on them.

    You don’t need them as spaced out as Maya’s, just a little more room so they can breathe. Stick a few other objects up there to vary things out. Could you manage a small floor book shelf in the living room or somewhere else? Maybe put the most aesthetically pleasing books out there?

  30. 9.17.11
    Vera said:

    Perhaps it’s the photo, but I keep getting the visual sense that the shelves and books are going to fall. I don’t think that they actually will fall, I just don’t have that visual sense of support. <3

  31. 9.18.11
    AnnW said:

    I’m not going to read all the comments first, but how about placing a textile on the wall over the desk? It might cover up some of the brackets. You could also hang some art there. Closer to the bottom shelf, than the desk. Great job! Glad to see you are posting. Ann

  32. 9.18.11
    AnnW said:

    Oh, by the way, I’ll bet the milk crate bookcase would look really good…upholstered. Ann

  33. 9.18.11
    Ming said:

    BOOKS: the worst part about moving, every single time.

    I agree with Vera that the books *look* like they’re in danger of falling. I think it’s because you’ve got space above the books on the bottom shelf, but then the middle shelves are fitted, thereby creating a top-heavy look. Try stacking horizontally, maybe? I always do this because I can’t fit all of my books vertically, but then again I have an Expedit so it’s a whole different story :)

  34. 9.18.11
    nicolezh said:

    This looks amazing, my partner and me are keen readers too, but both of us are loosers when it comes to home inprovement. it is weird, both of us are super checkers in other fields (I can turn everything from scratch in a tasty vegan dish) but when wood and technical tools are involved, things NEVER work out the way they should…
    Lucky guys, must be fun to build something that handy and nice on top of a roof in Brooklyn!

  35. 9.18.11
    susan said:

    Quite frankly, Billy bookcases are only so-so. The shelves warp under weight and they really are kind of cheap. Good quality bookcases are never a bad idea. I think you’ve done a great job with these shelves and the height is really kind of perfect. Once you’ve lived with it a while you’ll realize that. And, really, doing the DIY over IKEA is something to aspire to, not something to overcome. IKEA is what you do when you *can’t* DIY.

  36. 9.19.11
    Alexis said:

    Looks incredible. You could consider adding one more shelf to the bottom and taking the books off the top shelf, so that there is a kind of clean lid-effect to the top shelf. Then move the desk to the LR and have two chairs in front of the book case wall. Or leave it as is. Since it looks incredible. I like the exposed brackets, for sure.

  37. 9.20.11
    Juliska said:

    I agree that you wouldn’t want another shelf any lower than what you have; you’d probably feel cramped sitting at the desk.

    I think some cool, original, Daniel-DIY bulletin-board equivalent under the lowest shelf, and just as long, would fill the space without crowding it, and give you lots of room to put up notes, drawings, etc. Artistically arranged, of course, since it’s you!

    I found your blog by way of Apartment Therapy, and now I always read them both.

    By the way, when I was catching up on your older blog entries, I came across one in which you told someone you’re not an interior designer. Then what the heck are you studying? If I had the money, I’d hire you in a heartbeat!

  38. 9.20.11
    Tamara said:

    Reading this, I’m actually happy that brick walls are common around here… that decreases the possibility that everything comes crashing down again drastically ;)

    there’s only one problem i see with your shelves… there are already full! Where to put new books? or do you just go to your roof and burn the old ones there? ;)

  39. 9.20.11
    amba said:

    a) happy to see another post. it has been awhile

    b) maybe you could hang a little 2 – 3″ ledge where the brackets end to lean postcards, photos, toys, etc. that can be changed out as wanted?

    c) i’m a tad (lie, a lot) ocd – the whole thing might appear lighter if you chunked like colors together and stacked books vertically on the very top shelf or alternating shelves

    d) don’t wait so long ’til your next project please :)

  40. 9.21.11
    Debbie said:

    Just a thought, you could take the side supports from the folding bookcase in the first photo and mount them under the bottom shelf, they look like the length and width are just about right. Then you could hang stuff from them using S-hooks or drill holes to accommodate the kind of accessories that hang on a peg board.

  41. 9.21.11
    Joanna said:

    Maya’s shelves are amazing!

    Hmm, maybe instead of covering the brackets up, you can kind of extend the look of the shelves by constructing a wooden bar (sort of like a metal kitchen utensil bar) to cover the bottom then hang decorative things like pictures, a small mirror, etc. off of it? So it would be storage you wouldn’t hit your head on while using your desk. Idk, it works well in my head, but sadly I do not have your genius.

  42. 9.23.11

    Great job on the book shelves!

    I’m going to be installing similar wall shelves and I was wondering what you did first: did you install the brackets onto the wall first and then screw the wood planks on top of the brackets, or the other way around?

  43. 9.23.11
    Kate F. said:

    So the trick to finding studs in lathe-and-plaster walls is a magnetic studfinder. They’re really old-school and low-tech, basically a little hovering arm inside a tiny plastic bow, and a magnet on the arm makes it point straight when it’s over a nail attaching lathing to the stud under the plaster. They are, how shall I say it….moody. Not at all like using an electronic studfinder on sheetrock walls. But if you’re very, very patient and meticulous (which you obviously are!) they can help you find the studs with a certain amount of reliability.

    Of course, that patience is why it took us a full weekend to install a SINGLE long shelf in our kitchen. Oh 1901 apartment, how you challenge me.

    I think I eventually found mine at a local hardware store here in Cambridge, land of plaster walls; Home Depot didn’t know what I was talking about.

  44. 9.24.11
    Ite said:


    Isn’ this very similar to your bedside tables ?,sideboards,WandregalWilhelmRenz

    It reminded me or yours the moment I did see them -they ‘re lovely btw

  45. 9.24.11
    becca said:

    Awesome! I would agree, though, that it looks a little top-heavy — I think if you could just have a few less books on the top shelf, AND place them in horizontal stacks, AND go for white- and light-colored books up there, it would make for less visual weight!

  46. 9.26.11
    Lauren said:

    Really, your blog makes me laugh, I read it out loud to boyfriend and he laughs too. You’re too funny. I’m stalking you today and I’m glad I did. Jack has some Jacobean at the shop that you can have. Just give us a holler or maybe I can hold it as ransom for brunch one of these days. . . . .

  47. 9.26.11
    Sally said:


    I have done this same thing about 3 times now, and I know what a pain it is. These look great, way to go.


  48. 9.26.11
    Sally said:

    PS I thought my shelves were too high as well, so I put a series of hanging prints underneath them. It looks pretty nice.

  49. 9.28.11
    dj said:

    Wow. Wow! Awesome! I want to get my bookshelves back up now. Have to move to a place where the wall studs are real wood and not compressed recycled Kraft paper dust, though.

    For those old walls, the only way you’re likely find the studs is with an old-school magnetic wall stud finder and searching for each nail which is holding the lath on the studs. Requires a bit more skill and takes a bit longer than the electronic sensors, though. They used to make (expensive!!!) stud sensors that worked on lath & plaster. I wonder what happened to them?

    Oh, look at that bottom shelf bend! I hope that bracket is good and strong! We Californians have to use sturdier, stiffer brackets because of the shaking. I think a mild quake would easily fold or snap that kind of bracket. Even if the bracket survived, the shelf would make a nice, bouncy springboard for launching books across the room. (^_^;

  50. 10.4.11
    Mom said:

    Time for a new post…..

  51. 10.4.11
    AFan said:

    I’m planning a blog where folks who are waiting for a new post can comfort one another. Been checking everyday!

  52. 10.4.11

    Please Daniel,
    Open, Open, Open!
    Can’t wait!!!

  53. 10.5.11

    HELLO? Are you still alive??????

  54. 12.28.11
    Karen said:

    My dad taught me a super tip for drilling: You tape an used envelope to the wall under the place you want to drill and it will catch all the dust so yo don’t have to vacuum afterwards. Here’s a picture that explains how:
    It has really come in handy for me since my interior walls are made from some hellish black material that turns into dust that doesn’t washes off and leaves the paintwork with annoying black smugdes – and I’m really too lazy to want to vacuum afterwards if I can avoid it!

  55. 6.30.12
    Sterling said:

    While I realize I’m hopelessly late to the party, I just had the exact same issue hanging shelves in my mother’s (1940) house. If you’re ever ambitious enough to fool with plaster walls and shelving again, and you feel like finding a stud, look for an outlet or a light switch. IF there’s one of those on the wall, drill your test holes in about a 6″ line above it and you ought to hit a stud…somewhere. Once you’ve found the theoretical stud, take your level, go over on the wall and mark at 10″, 12″, 14″, 16″ and 18″. Repeat test drilling. If your building was built in the last hundred years, you’ll (again, theoretically) have studs on one of those center measurements. New construction is at 18″, but that’s a cruel joke if the space is over thirty years old. I’m loving your blog, thanks for so eloquently voicing my design struggles.

    • 6.30.12
      Daniel said:

      Yes! I should have mentioned methods like these. There’s no outlet on that wall for us, and our building is about 120 years old and was renovated at some point long long ago…my guess is that very few things are standard behind those walls!

    • 7.2.12
      Sterling said:

      Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Had I paid attention to the details instead of gawking at the pictures, I’d have noticed the age of the building stated. Clearly stated, even. Apparently I was just so proud of my non-reliance on a stud finder that I rushed to share. Damn hubris.

  56. 7.25.12
    Locstar said:

    You could hang an upholstered/fabric/ribbon covered cork board in the space between the desk and the shelves….that way you would cover the brackets, and have a place to push-pin notes, pics, reminders etc :-)
    see as an example. But AWESOME bookshelf…it totally inspires me to get to work on my little cubby area that i’ve designated for my mini library. Thanx! :-)