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Closet Shelving Layout & Design

When I started out in the building business, interest rates were low, money was easy to borrow, and custom homes were the way to go. But six years later, in the early 1980s, that all changed. Interest rates went over 15%. No one could afford, let alone qualify, for a loan. Economics and demand dragged us into multi-family housing—we started installing finish work on apartment complexes, condominiums, and townhouses. The work was hard, the prices competitive, but the profits were good if you had your act together, if you were fast and didn’t make mistakes.

Five or six years later, I was glad when the custom home business came back with a roar. But I wouldn’t trade what I learned from those 200-plus unit buildings, not a bit of it. Our approach to every high-end custom job—from the big ones to the little ones, and our profit margins—still depends on the lessons learned from production work. And installing closet shelving is a perfect example.

When it comes to installing closet shelving, if your crew isn’t following a manual of practice—a system that simplifies repetitive tasks, eliminates needless steps, and speeds installation time—then you’ll never enjoy the profits that can be made in closets. Once the exterior doors are in, before installing any interior doors or trim, we like to get the closet shelving in place, if it’s paintgrade. It’s just easier to work in a closet without the doors in the way, and besides, that way we don’t have to worry about banging shelving into new doors. We wait to install the baseboard until all the shelving is in, too, because the baseboard has to be cut around the dividers.

Closet Design

Laying out and installing closet shelving used to be simple—you just installed a single shelf and pole in every closet, about 66 in. from the floor, so a dress wouldn’t drag on the carpet. Maybe people didn’t have so many clothes back then.

Today, closet design is an important part of construction, but designing closet shelving doesn’t have to be a brain-twister. Though closets seem to come in many different sizes and shapes, they’re actually limited to only two basic types: walk-in closets, and reach-in closets.

Control Closet Design

(Click any image to enlarge.)

No matter how high-end a home, the closets always share a lot in common—at least the ones outside the master bedroom. After all, there are only so many possible configurations. The three most common types of shelving arrangements are (see image, above): Double Pole, Single Pole, and Linen Shelves. We try to include a little of each in every closet, and we use 15 1/2 in. dividers to separate and help support the shelving.

To allow enough room for medium-length coats and shirttails, Double Pole should be spaced a minimum of 40 in. from the floor, and 40 in. apart. That puts the top of the 1×4 cleats at 42 in. and 84 in. from the floor (see image, below). We angle-cut our dividers, leaving a 1-in. toe on the floor, so it’s easier to get a vacuum near the wall. Whether the customer wants wood, melamine, or MDF shelving, we limit the span—anything over 34 in. will sag without a support.

Single Pole is meant for dresses and long coats. It must be installed at least 66 in. from the floor, farther for tall clients. To secure the pole and the rosettes, we use 1×4 cleats to support all closet poles. For linen shelving, we use 1×2 cleats.

This shelving arrangement is a catchall—it’s not meant just for bedding: shirts, sweaters, sports clothing, and even toys will end up on these shelves. To keep closets uniform and easier to install, we keep to the same layout—12 in. on center for all but the bottom two shelves.

Blankets and boxes need more space, so we put the first linen shelf at 18 in. from the floor, and the second one 15 in. higher, for boots or tall toys.

The top shelf is usually above the door header, which means that, in a 24-in. deep closet, it’s tough to get anything up there.

Even though the dividers are 15 1/2 in. deep (so they’ll support the poles!), we install a 12 in. top shelf, and radius or angle-cut the tops of the dividers.

These simple design rules apply to even the most complicated closets, from reach-ins, like the one in the previous illustrations, to elaborate walk-ins, like the one below. Just remember one thing whenever you turn a corner with shelving: All closet poles require a minimum 24 in. clearance before the next divider, otherwise there won’t be enough room to slide clothes into the corner.

Walk-in closets, and long reach-ins, pose a problem when it comes to shelves sagging, too. The best solution is another design strategy: eliminate mid-span supports on linen shelves by limiting their span to 32 in., then let the closet poles run longer. After all, metal supports for single and double pole are easy to install, but installing supports for linen shelving isn’t so easy, and there are a lot more shelves!

A not-so-simple story pole

Obviously, the trick to making money in closet organizers is being organized yourself, and that starts with the design. Once you’ve controlled and simplified the design, control and simplify the layout and installation, too—teach your crew how to make and use a story pole for every job.

It’s a fact of life: the more times your carpenters pull out a tape measure, the more mistakes they’ll make, the slower they’ll work, and the less profit they’ll produce. There’s hardly a carpentry layout task that doesn’t benefit from the use of a story pole.

Make closet story poles from a piece of durable 1×4, and don’t just pencil the marks—cut notches so the pole can be used from job to job.

Make all the notches at the top of the support cleats, except the top cleat! Instead, cut the story pole 3 1/2 in. short, so the mark for the top shelf—made by striking a pencil across the top of the story pole—will be at the bottom of the cleat; that way, your carpenter won’t have to climb a ladder to see the top shelf mark.

With good design control and a story pole, a single carpenter can lay out all the closets in a typical home in less than one hour, and even make a cut list, too. Whenever possible, we try to keep linen shelves the same width, so they can be cut in packages. The same with Double Pole arrangements, especially if there are several closets of roughly the same size. That way, only one special measurement needs to be made in each closet. But I’ll save that subject for another day.

Important Closet Requirements

Single Shelf-and-Pole: To accommodate long coats and dresses, a section of Single Shelf-and-Pole should be installed in every closet (closets for children are often an exception). To keep dresses and coats from dragging on the floor, install Single Shelf-and-Pole at least 66 in. from the floor—take the measurement from the bottom of the shelf (that puts the pole at about 64 in. from the floor). For exceptionally tall people, increase the height to keep long clothes off the floor.

Double Pole: If pants are folded over a hanger, they only need half the hanging height as a long dress—about 34 in. from the bottom of the shelf to the floor. Shirts are longer and require 40 in. from the bottom of the shelf. Because most of the clothes in our closets today are pants and shirts, Double Shelf-and-Pole should predominate in every closet, which doubles the storage space. To make the job of installing shelves easier and to allow homeowners the choice of changing the arrangement of their clothes, I separate all Double Poles by 42 in., which makes the top shelf 84 in. from the floor.

The Top Shelf: The top shelf should run completely across the closet, and around all three walls in a u-shaped closet, so the same 84-in. height determines the second or top shelf over a Single Shelf-and-Pole, too (see diagram, above). In most 8-ft. closets, 12 in. of space remains between the top shelf and the ceiling, which is enough room for shoe boxes, hat boxes and other storage.

Sweater Shelves: A typical bank of sweater shelves should begin 16 in. from the floor, which allows room for tall boots on the floor. Succeeding shelves should be spaced about 12 in. apart. If the top shelf is installed at 84 in. from the floor, this sweater shelf arrangement should result in a somewhat even spacing.

Shoe Shelves: Shoes only require about 7 in. of height (that includes high-tops and pumps). To get the most from your closet space, design shelving specifically for shoes and don’t rely on 12-in.-spaced shelves for shoe storage. An 84-in. tall bank of shelves, with the first shelf 16 in. from the floor, can include 4 shoe shelves and 3 sweater shelves (see diagram). Of course, if there’s room, and you’re expecting a lot of shoes, build an entire bank of shoe shelves.

The only shelf in a closet that won’t align horizontally with other shelves is the Single Shelf-and-Pole, because it’s set at 68 in. from the floor. The 16-in. space between the Single Shelf-and-Pole and the top shelf can be divided again by an additional shelf, which creates a perfect location for a few pairs of shoes.

(This article originally appeared on GaryMKatz.com)

Comments/Discussion

41 Responses to “Closet Shelving Layout & Design”

  1. Ben

    Great Idea, the story pole for this task. I’ve got a few pieces of scrap 3/4″ Azek material laying in the shop right now, leftover rips from 8′ sheets. Odd widths like 3″ and such. Perfect for making story poles out of. I also like the notch cut idea. Of course, most of my helpers are quite shorter than I, so I’d reverse some. Make the “level” line mark for the cleat, then mark the angle of the notch. Remove the board and cross the angle mark to make an X. That way there’s no confusion on which side of the mark the cleat goes. Also I will write on the Azek at each notch with a Sharpie, explaining what each one is for. Practically fool-proof, lolol.

    Thanks Gary for another brilliant, simple solution.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Brian,
      Yes, it is a very economical way of sprucing up a closet and taking full advantage of the space. There are a lot of fancier ways of installing closet shelving, but the basic dimensions haven’t changed much. Adjustable shelving is great, but once it’s installed, we find that most customers never change the shelving arrangements. There are only so many configurations that can be used in a closet. Once you maximize the shelving configuration for a given client/closet, there aren’t may other ways to improve it.
      Gary

      Reply
  2. Ron Paulk

    Custom closets have always been a service we offer our clients. Often they get quotes from one or two to the big national companies. Most of the time, we end of doing the job. Our favorite material to work with is Shop Maple plywood and chrome bars. We get a really nice look that our clients appreciate. SketchUp usually wins the work for us. I design my components to float above the floor so the base can be installed and painted first. I like to install the closet at final after flooring, etc.. is complete.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Ron,
      These days we use a lot of melamine and pre-finished plywood, too. But the layout and dimensions haven’t changed much–which is what I was concentrating on in this story. We’ll be publishing a story by Lewis Taliaferro in the next week or two. Lewis’ story is on closet shelving installation–with adjustable shelves!

      Gary

      Reply
  3. Charles

    I can guess why you radius cut the tops of the dividers, and why you chamfer the 1 x 2 cleats, but want to ask anyway just in case you have reasons I haven’t thought of.

    Reply
  4. Jesse Wright

    Great article! We have improved the designs over these simple ones over the years. But for the most part the layout is really the same. With out building cabinets there isnt much more you can do, besides add hardware.
    One thing we have been doing lately is applying aromatic cedar edgebanding. We rip it ourselves from a box of cedar floor liner. That really sells. Especially when the customer doesnt want a lined floor.

    Reply
    • John David

      Jesse,
      That’s genius! You do know that now there will be hundreds of carpenters copying your idea? Me included! ;-)

      John

      Reply
  5. Roger

    Many good suggestions in this article. A substantial part of our business is “fixing” poorly installed or layed out closets. But there are issues even with new construction, such as wavy walls. This is why the track systems are often a good place to start. All those cleats take a lot of time to cut, will have to follow the “waves” in the wall, and are not adjustable. Customers demand adjustability in their closets.

    With a track system, the track is easy to level, and the dips or bows in the walls can be shimmed out to the high spot so the face of the closet will be even with fewer gaps. The problem with track systems is that the track is NOT strong enough to hold up a wall of material, But after the system is in place, cleats can be placed strategically to add strength and side to side stability. This way you can float the system off the floor and the base is never an issue. Or just take the verticals to the floor and wrap them with the base across a toe kick under a bottom shelf. If you are in a custom home, this will enhance the bult-in look.

    Pre-drilled panels will allow the home owner to move their shelves, and hanging rods, up or down if they need a little more or less room than the standards you mention. If you are using wood, there are a number of jigs for 5mm holes and shelf pins are available in many varieties, and are strong enough to hold folded clothes, or shoes, if you do not exceed the spans you point out.

    One last point; certain treatments or finishes can interact with clothing and even stain them over time. This is why laminates are so popular in closet material. Be careful of solvent based stains and finishes, and be sure they are completely dry before your client puts their Hermes scarf on the shelf!

    Reply
  6. Ed

    Thanks for taking the time to write the article. You could have been finishing out more closets and invoicing your time!

    Have you tried using some other method of supporting the shelves rather than the 1 x 2 cleats? What about a dado to receive the shelves then screw through the vertical support? I realize this adds time to the project but would also clean up the design. I would imagine you might have tried this already?

    I also greatly appreciate the reader comments to the article. Aromatic cedar edgebanding? Excellent!

    Reply
  7. GusM

    first- pictures of completed projects would be appreciated over Sketchup drawings.

    I see nothing attractive, utilitarian,labor saving, or cost saving about the type of shelving you describe here. Today’s vinyl coated steel systems are more versatile, stronger, and more cost effective . There are a variety of styles such as linen,pantry, or standard shelving, drawers,baskets, shoe racks etc. In your system I hear no mention of the fastening system, the hole plugging, or the paint or varnishing. You mention the location of dividers in a corner. What about closet rods that allow the clothing to sweep around the corner without interruption ? What about the issues of adequate fastening locations behind the drywall. I know there are rules of thumb for stud locations but we all know a stud or block is not where it should be all the time. What about painting and finishing time. I build custom homes of my own design. I build the staircases , mantel pieces, install crown and build entertainment centers . I know and love wood . Unless we are talking cabinet grade closet systems for high end projects you cannot beat the vinyl covered steel systems for strength, ease of installation, versatility, ease of maintenance,appearance and overall cost. Finish carpenters can also learn the system and tweak it with wood accents and upgrades Melamine, particle board, , #2 or d select pine –hah! This is my standard sales pitch to customers when I discuss shelving systems in my homes.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Gus,
      This was an article on Closet Shelving Design & Layout, not on installation. The intention was to cover measurements, shelving styles, and layout systems for production work that can be applied to custom homes. Even though materials have changed dramatically from the ones illustrated in this ten-year-old article I previously published in Fine Homebuilding, we’ve been using these layout systems since the early 1980′s for all of our closet work.

      We’ll be publishing an article by Lewis Taliaferro in the next week or two. His story covers closet shelving installation with contemporary materials. Ironically , he uses some of the same layout techniques described in this story.

      We would certainly welcome an article from you on installing vinyl coated steel closet systems, especially closet rods that allow clothing to sweep around the corner without interruption!
      Gary

      Reply
  8. GusM

    Thanks for the feedback Gary. As always I enjoy this site and the articles very much and always look forward to a new article. I have a brother who builds the same class of house I build(semi-custom move up or retirement homes in a coastal New England location). He says his customers refuse the vinyl systems and require that he provide shelving as described in your article. My customers after a discussion of what I feel are the pros and cons of each system usually go with a vinyl/ steel system with a number of bells and whistles added such as shoe racks, baskets, and double top shelves. Many people shy away from these shelves because they have seen them improperly installed and inadequately braced and anchored. Again, thanks for your efforts in putting this web site together. Gus

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Gus,
      Great to hear about your brother! You can write about the vinyl systems and he can write about other alternatives! HONEST! We could use a few articles on closets–there are so many different approaches. Wait and read Lewis’ article this Friday and then let’s talk!
      Gary

      Reply
  9. Chris

    Great article! I’m looking to build a shelving unit based on your design. Do you have any material that gets into the details a little more? For instance, I’m planning to build mine using 1/2 plywood. I’m not sure what material I should use for the cleats and what size thickness they should be. I’m assuming you used 3/4 thick material (MDF)? Your thoughts on whether or not the 1/2″ plywood is sufficient?

    Thanks!
    Chris

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      1/2 in. material is not strong enough. Period. Even with 3/4 in. material, you can’t span more than 32 in.
      Gary

      Reply
      • Chris

        I went with the 1/2 in material only because my span is going to be 23in. on each side of the middle shelf section. The middle section (with shelves) is going to be 24in. wide.
        My closet is 80in wide and 24in deep.
        wall I—-23in—-I–middle shelves 24in.–I—-23in—-I wall.

        I have already bought the material, but if you feel it wouldn’t support that span, I’ll go with the 3/4in.

        Thanks so much for providing input. I really appreciate it!

        Reply
  10. John

    The one drawback to this design would seem to be the need for the vertical support to rest on the floor. Although, the bevel to shorten it is great. If this support were raised up above the baseboard, it would speed the installation of base and flooring. Does the vertical carry the weight? Is it more there to support the outer edge of the shelf with the top cleat carrying most of the weight? Would shortening the vertical require a extra bottom cleat? Just wanted some thoughts…

    Reply
  11. Daniel

    Very informative article. I am looking at trying this design in my closet. What do you mount the dividers with though?

    Reply
  12. Chris W

    Gary,

    I finished my son’s closet project and drew much inspiration from your design. Due to the closet size, I modified a few things and wanted to share the outcome in your blog.

    First of all, thanks for suggesting the 3/4″ plywood, it would have been a mistake on my part to go with the 1/2″. As you said, it would not have been adequate for support.

    Here are a few of the pictures. The limit is 5 photos, I tried to pick out my favorites.

    This is is a picture of my son’s closet “before”:

    I made the shelves from birch plywood. I used pine for the shelf fronts, attaching them using Kreg pocket hole joinery.

    I used the next size down in screws for joining the front since my material was less than 3/4 thick.

    This picture shows the finished left side of the closet, with toys already loading the shelves.

    This picture shows the right side of the closet with the upper and lower closet rods. There is an upper shelf and middle shelf.

    I also tapered the middle divider so that we can still vacuum in the closet. In addition, I added two more cleats on the right side so that there was more surface area for the divider to be secured. Before installing the center support, I marked the baseboard, indicating where the support would line up. I then removed the baseboard and cut out for the center support. I also notched the carpet too.

    I created the story stick that you mentioned above and it was a big help in the layout process. It will help my future closet remodels to go faster and smoother.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Charles

      I want to do that to my son’s closet too.

      Did you edge band the edges of the plywood that are on the right side of the closet? Or did you simply paint over it.

      Did you prime and paint or just paint?

      Do you have any opinions of using BC (cheaper) grade plywood as opposed to your birch veneer plywood? It is going inside of a closet after all.

      Reply
      • Charles

        Also, you mentioned that your closet is 80″ wide. It appears you have a single traditional swinging door. What is the width of that closet door?

        Great job by the way!

        Reply
        • Chris W

          Thanks, Charles.

          Yes, I edge banded the plywood on the right side of the closet. I could have painted over the edges, but I don’t like the edges showing.

          I primed all of the plywood with BULLS EYE 1-2-3® WATER-BASE PRIMER, lightly sanded w/220 grit, then applied two coats of Sherwin Williams ProClassic® Interior Acrylic Latex Enamel, lightly sanding w 220 grit between coats.

          I believe that you could use cheaper BC grade plywood and have great results. The main problem you may run across is that the cheaper plywood often has voids on the exposed edge. If you can live with that, go the cheaper route. You can always edge band. :) I would definitely go with 3/4″ as Gary advised.

          I would need to measure again to be certain, but I believe the door measures 30″, could be 36″ though.

          Reply
  13. Roman Lopez

    Hi Gary, this is an awesome article. I am going to do the closets for my sister’s new house and this definitely helps me feel more confident about it. One major question though, are 2″ brad nails through studs with construction adhesive strong enough to hold up the 1×2 and 1×4 supports? Is this same technique (but using 1″ brad nails as to not go through the vertical supports of the dividers) strong enough to attach the 1×2 supports to the vertical walls of the dividers?

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Yes, if you use some type of adhesive. The adhesive will be stronger than the nails.
      Gary

      Reply
  14. David

    This is a very informative artical on shelving. Can you tell me how you would fasten the dividers?

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      The dividers are fastened into the ends of the cleats. That’s why the cleats are always installed first. Remember, the dividers rest on the floor, so there is no shear pressure.
      Gary

      Reply
  15. Kimber Janney

    Very nice article, great time saving techniques, thank you.
    I’ve done similar vertical partitions before and have had to replace the baseboard when remodeling closets with them. Starting partions above baseboard level accommodates future remodeling and provides even more room for vacuuming and shoes.

    Reply
  16. Joanna

    Hi! This is a great article! How do I find someone in the SF Bay Area to do a closet for me like this please? Is it more economical this way or via a company like California Closets? Thanks.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Call a local lumberyard, like Beronios or Golden State and get a referral for a good finish carpenter!

      Reply
  17. sherrill

    Thank you a hundred times! This is just what I was looking for. I have an irregular space for a small walk-in and was trying to figure out what standard measurements I should use for various types of storage. You saved me hours of computations.

    Reply
  18. STorval

    I’ve managed to convince my wife to let me try my hand at building a custom closet for one of our two master walk-ins. She’s letting me try on my closet.

    The one thing I’m stuck on: How are the vertical supports dividers attached to the back wall? Are they attached at all, or are they only supported by resting on the ground? What keeps this system from rocking side-to-side?

    I’m handy, but this would probably be my largest project to date. Can someone point out what is keeping this vertical supports against the back wall? Is it just that the entire structure, when complete, supports itself?

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      STorval,
      Read some of the other comments and you’ll see that they’re attached to the ends of the cleats–you start by attaching one set of cleats, then one divider, then another set of cleats, etc.
      Gary

      Reply
  19. George

    Just wondering how i should attach the 1×4 cleats to the sidewalls? I do not have a stud in the middle that I can nail to. Solutions?
    Thank you!

    Reply
  20. Jane

    Do I need a centre brace for a 64 inch closet rod & what is the strongest rod? Thank you in advance. Jane

    Reply

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