Custom closets with adjustable shelving are the norm for my business today.
About a year and a half ago, my friend Gary Striegler gave me the idea of building closets with adjustable rods and shelving. At first, I was a little confused about how the rods could be adjustable, but after I read an article Gary wrote for JLC, it all started becoming clear. The shelves adjust like any cabinet with adjustable shelves, but it’s the adjustable rods that make this system really cool.
I use the Hafele North American oval rod system, and custom-cut the rods for each compartment. The rods come with a special clip that has two studs on the back made to fit into the adjustable holes. You just set the clips where you want the rod, and snap the rod in the clips—done!
When I first started building these closets, I had my cabinet builder drill the bulkheads—the dividers between compartments—for me, but I have since bought my own line boring machine, an expensive investment, but an absolutely necessary addition to my shop. I make a lot of built-ins; the machine was money well spent.
I used to use a Rockler jig for drilling adjustable shelving holes, but now I love my 32mm line boring machine. I can drill about three bulkheads in the time it takes to drill one by hand, and they’re all identical—no sweat. If you don’t have a boring machine, most cabinet shops do, and you can sub out the drilling to them—think about it!
Like many contractors today, I work with demanding clients—not only do they want top-notch quality, but they want the latest in closet designs, too.
I work mostly in custom homes—there’s no way I could install slam-bam apartment-style closet shelving like Gary Katz talks about in his recent closets article! Most of my closets feature dressers or knee spaces. Extra cabinets in a closet can cause serious design issues. So, I like to involve the homeowner in the layout process—that way, we can work out design problems before I start cutting wood.
Start from the bottom
After the layout is established, I begin making a cut list of materials. I like to put a 4-in. base under all the compartments—a feature that provides a custom look, but also makes the whole install easier, faster, and more precise.
I cut 3 1/4-in. materials to frame each base—just like the egg crates some cabinet makers build. I rip 15 1/4-in. MDF for the tops. I chamfer the edges on the tops, and trim the front of each base with 4-in. poplar, which creates a nice v-groove detail, rather than a flush joint. Flush joints are so much more difficult to deal with!
The nice thing about installing a base is being able to level the floor—which makes it really easy to install the bulkheads so that all the adjustable holes are perfectly level and aligned! So, when assembling the bases, I make sure they’re perfectly level. Closets are usually carpeted, so shims don’t show, and when I’m going after the hardwood, I install a shoe molding.
I nail the bases together, and fasten them to the wall in the back. I glue the top on with the front still exposed. Then I shim the base level from the front, and attach the poplar face.
Next, I install the bulkheads. When I make bulkheads, I cut them 14 in. wide and tall enough to reach the ceiling. I almost always take the bulkheads all the way to the ceiling. This gives the clients maximum storage. I also try to keep all the compartments the same width so the shelves and rods are interchangeable. I never build a compartment wider than 36 in., because the shelves will sag (this is all part of the learning curve!).
I cut all of the bulkheads the same height, and mark a center line right in the middle—that’s critical, because I drill the bulkheads from the center out. I know a lot of cabinetmakers who lay out their adjustable shelving holes from one end or the other, but I’ve found it’s safer to start in the middle. When you drill from the center out, your holes are the same distance from top and bottom. This way you can use the bulkhead for a right or left install—you don’t have to worry about flipping one (guess how I learned that).
I drill a vertical row of holes in the front and back for the shelving, and then I drill another row of holes 11 1/2 in. from the back for the rods, so the rods are positioned in the right place to hang clothes.
When you drill holes for adjustable shelves, make sure to space the holes on 32mm centers, not 2 in.! The holes also work better when drilled with 5mm bits instead of 1/4-in. The 1/4-in. holes are a little too sloppy for the studs on the rod clips.
I drill the center bulkheads all the way through, which eliminates the need for back-to-back or ‘mulled’ bulkheads between center compartments. I’ve been told it’s not good to drill a bulkhead all the way through because the shelf pins would hit each other, but I have never had a problem with that.
After the bulkheads are drilled, I put drill pocket holes in the bottom of each one so I can fasten them securely to the bases.
While I’m in the shop cutting material, I rip up enough stock for all the supports. I put a horizontal support—or cleat—at the top, middle, and bottom of each compartment—unless there’s a cabinet unit. I make the supports 2 1/4 in. wide.
I always rip my supports and face frames 1/8 in. wider than I need to, and run them through my planer to remove saw kerfs—many of my installs are stain-grade, and even for paint-grade work, I like to provide the very best product.
After the cleats are ready, the bulkheads are cut and drilled, and I double-check my layout on the walls. I make sure the compartments are the size I want before I install one single piece—I hate going backwards.
Once the bases are installed, the rest is easy. I nail the first bulkhead on the left side. I’m right handed, and going from left to right just seems right—it’s definitely easier for me to hold the material in my left hand and a nail gun or screw gun in my right. If you want to improve efficiency—which is the same thing Gary Katz talks about in his article, you just have to think about things like that!
I nail the first bulkhead only at the back in the corner. I then install the three supports—top, bottom, and middle. Next, I attach a bulkhead. I continue installing cleats and bulkheads across the wall, nailing the bulkheads into the support boards, but only at the back. After they are all nailed in, I begin fastening the fronts.
I cut a scrap the same width as the compartments, and use it as a guide to align the front of each bulkhead. I square up the far left bulkhead first, then fasten it with the pocket screw to the base. I use the scrap piece to space the next bulkhead, and pocket-screw it in. I continue along until all the bulkheads are screwed to their bases, each one perfectly square and rigid.
After all the face frames are done, I start running crown around the compartments. I use spring clamps to pre-assemble my crown before I install it. I’m able to get tighter joints with spring clamps, and pre-assembling them eliminates underlayment problems. (I use a 23 gauge pin nailer to pre-assemble the crown to prevent splitting the wood).
I have had carpenters ask why I put crown in closets. I figure: if you are going to spend this much time on a closet, the extra time it takes to run the crown mold is minimal, and it looks unfinished without crown molding. It really gets the client’s attention, and makes the closet look more like cabinetry or furniture instead of just shelving.
After all the compartments, face frames and crown are installed, I build the shelves. I ask the clients how many shelves they think they need, but about four per compartment works well, if they are interchangeable.
Some compartments will be rods only, and they can use the shelves in another compartment if they need to.
I cut the shelves 3/8 in. less than the width of the compartments to allow for the shelf pins, and 3/4 in. less than the depth to allow for the shelf edge trim I use.
I don’t install the rods until the end of the job, after the painters are finished. The rods I use are chrome, and I don’t want to take the chance on them getting damaged. I cut the rods 1/2 less than the width of the compartments to allow for the clips that hold them in.
Trial and Error
These types of closets have made a big impact on the homes I build. They have become so popular on some homes that we have made all the closets in the house adjustable—that’s a nice up-charge. I have also had great luck making adjustable pantries using the same methods, as well as hall closets that are sometimes used to store stereo equipment or TV components.
There has been a lot of trial and error in coming up with the perfect system. But the real trick is to always take enough time on the layout: get the compartments square; make them the same size whenever possible; make sure the adjustable holes align up from side-to-side (nothing looks worse than rods or shelves sitting out of level).
For more information on adjustable closets, see Gary Striegler’s article: Fitting Out a Custom Closet.
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Lewis Taliaferro is a custom home builder in Lone Grove, Oklahoma. He comes from three generations of builders. Nearly every member of his family has some experience in building homes, mostly rental properties. So, it was no surprise that, shortly after graduating high school in 1999, Lewis went and did the same thing. He learned a lot building those rental houses, learning from his own mistakes, and meeting sub-contractors and suppliers along the way.
After about two years, his uncle, who had been building custom homes for over thirty years, gave Lewis the opportunity to build some spec homes in a nearby development he had started. It took off! Lewis built spec homes for the next three or four years. He gained a lot of great experience in that time, but one of the greatest things he learned was trim carpentry.
Lewis has always had a love for finish work. Now that he was building spec homes, it gave him the opportunity to do more detailed work. He found out that he could dress up his homes a little more than other spec homes by giving the houses a more custom feel with moldings, and nicer cabinetry. He has been building custom homes now for about the last six or seven years.
Lewis has served as the Southern Oklahoma Homebuilders Association President, and was one of the first builders in his area to build a Positive Energy Home, and an Energy Star rated home.
Lewis doesn’t have many hobbies, but during his free time he enjoys boating, taking trips, and spending time with his wife, Stephanie, and his kids Raynee, Wyatt, and Nolan, who are his inspiration and motivation.
I like your work and your system. Great article…guess I’ll be buying a line boring machine!
Thanks for the comment!
Boring machines great, festool has a great 32mm system also.
Great article. Thanks for sharing your techniques – I think it was a nice compliment to Gary’s Katz’s previous article as was the link you provided to Gary Striegler’s article.
In the YouTube video (also a nice touch to the article) you have stained the final product, which looks great. Do you stain much of it prior to install or afterwards? Also, what kind of ply are you using there for stain-grade; birch, maple…?
Went through your article a second time. Regarding efficiency as both you and Gary Katz mention in both articles and looking at your first picture with the white unit where all holes appear to be 32mm – why not drill only 2 columns of holes rather than 3? If your closet rod holes are 11 1/2 in. from the back wall (so 2 1/2 in. from the front MDF edge) couldn’t you drill the back column of holes 2 1/2 in. from the back for even spacing? I would think the shelf support on the shelf pins would be just as good on the slightly tighter spaced pins? So long as you use all 2 in. or all 32 mm hole spacing you should be able to use the holes for both shelving and closet rods.
Maybe there’s a structural or design issue I’m missing because I see Gary S. does the same as you in his article with 3 columns of holes.
The Festool system is a really great one, but if you don’t see a need for that kind of investment, check out the Pro-Bore and Econo-Bore line boring guides at http://www.megproducts.com. One of these used with a plunge router, a 5/8″ P-C bushing and a 5 mm brad-point or spear-point drill bit will provide an accurate means of consistent and accurate line boring.
Cory, great question on the hole spacing! I have built lots of these closets with just 2 rolls of holes. It worked fine. I just drill 3 to give owners more options some items like heavy coats ect hang better on front roll, but if you use hafela system there rod clip only works for 32mm spacing.
I use a lot of birch ply for these components but we paint them mostly, and use mdf. My painters paint or stain everything after I’m done with all the millwork on the house since it’s new construction. Remodel might be nice to stain or paint before instal.
Thanks for the comments!
Wow, great work, great article. I was like man I need one of those line boring machines then I price it online at around $230, then realize that was just for the stand, haha!
I think you could save yourself a lot of labor by having the components made by a well equipped commercial shop. Though the little boring machine is a nice step up from jigs it is pianfully slow compared to commercial equipment used in shops.
The cabinet shop I buy my cabinets from in Oklahoma city is a high production shop that turns out around 10 jobs a week they use the same boring machine I do.
I would rather make the money drilling my own bulk heads and not have to wait on getting them back from a shop.
I’ve already explored those options!
I use those same adjustable closet rods and stanchions they use in clothing stores. There are several vendors, and they are relatively cheap online. That eliminates bulkheads inside the closets and gives you a lot more flexibility and a very professional looking product.
Sounds cool, I’ll check that out
Excellent job on the closet, the article and the videos! This was very compelling and even if you hadn’t mentioned Häfele I would have enjoyed it, but thanks for the shout-out. Thanks, and again, well dome. Scott
Thanks for the comments!
Glad you enjoyed the article.
Another question Lewis,
What do you attach your shelf edge trim with? Glue and pocket screws or glue and pin nails or dominos or ….?
Do you chamfer the edges of the shelf and trim to avoid trying to line those up nicely like you do with the base as you described in the article? Reason I ask is because I just attached shelf edge trim with pocket screws and glue and is was very difficult to get a nice smooth transition… probably going to have to sand them flush now I suppose on some of my shelves because the shelf itself is slightly higher than the shelf edge trim.
I’d like to see how you build your built in dressers. Your system is really great. Also I’d like to hear your ideas on closet layout.
Great article Lewis, nice system. Thanks for sharing.
In the photo of the base installation, it appears that the right support is inset from the right end of the top of the base. Is that correct, and if so, how much?
Great article. Question: why build in pieces as opposed to cases? I ask this because I began in a cabinet shop and tend to think in cases. That said, I worked “in the field” with a carpenter for a couple years and he had me do closets like the one shown here. I love the closet but always felt that building cases would be more efficient. Am I missing something (I probably am). If space is real tight I get building in pieces, but here it seems pre-built cases would have been easier.
We do site-built custom cabinetry and finishing. All of our adjustable units are built as boxes, placed on top of a levelled base (we usually use a plywood/mdf/k3 ladder, then pin nail 1/4″ for a recessed base, or 3/4″ with a 1/2″ cove moulding on top for furniture base). Our gables are typically mitered, and the outer layer is scribed to the wall. I once did a renovation and the pre-existing closet had simply nailed 4 1/2″ cletes to a shelf and attached the closet rod to the cletes, then used regular shelf clips to hold the cletes for adjustable rods.
These are great! I was wondering though, are you attaching these to the wall at all? I can’t find anything that says you do. I would assume you’re securing the cleats to studs, but never read it anywhere.