How to install wire closet shelving

A handyman project about how to put wire ClosetMaid (r) shelves in a tight space



A homeowner needed more closet space, bought see-through plastic bins as well as almost all parts necessary for the shelving. A remaining problem: how to install in a tight space? The pre-built shelf brackets, supports and shelves were a bit long, and needed trimming. This article shows this project with hopefully helpful handyman hints. It is public domain. Feel free to copy text and pictures without attribution. Like it? Add weblinks pointing to it. As with all my articles, I strive to make it informative, readable, and may help a homeowner or other handymen fix things and possibly avoid an injury. — tom sulcer May 2011

A homeowner called and asked: could you please install shelves? Hey, that’s what I do.

I’m a handyman. I fix stuff.

What’s even cooler is that the homeowner is a mom who knows how to fix stuff too, and planned out the project rather neatly.

Moms in my town are great. I was a mister mom who was fairly clueless about raising kids, and luckily moms in my town befriended me and shared their insights and advice about how to raise kids, and I continue to be grateful for their help during those years. Raising kids is challenging. And moms in general are one of my heroes along with doctors, nurses, police, firefighters, and others who help save peoples’ lives. Teachers too.

By email, the homeowner sent me an attached picture of the shelf bracket (from an existing shelf) so I could prepare. One more part was still needed, and with the picture, it was easy for me to buy the exact part from the hardware store before the assignment. That’s cool planning. Here’s the photo.

Here are the see-through plastic bins. She measured accurately, bought just enough bins to fit in the unused closet space.

Here are the wire shelves. It’s part of a closet system in which parts function together. Problem is they’re a bit wide. They’ll have to be trimmed.

Here is the space in the closet, about three feet wide from the left of the picture to the right wall (not shown). The existing shelving stays; and clothes will hang on the white cylindrical bar (pushing out the space another eight inches perhaps). The long white vertical bars are supports which will attach to the wall. Brackets go inside them. These bars can be installed anywhere on the sheetrock even if there isn’t a stud (vertical 2×4 board) behind them.

How can the vertical bars attach anywhere? There’s a horizontal support bar which goes across the closet which supports the vertical sprocketed bar. The vertical bar has a mouth-like structure which bites into the horizontal bar, which supports it anywhere on the wall (not just where the studs are). It’s all pretty intuitive, not rocket science.

That horizontal support bar, however, must screw into something strong like the studs behind the sheetrock (sometimes called wallboard). Sheetrock is the outer smooth wall which is what people see — it is strong enough to withstand minor bumps, and can support picture frames, but it is not strong enough to support a gym weights in a box on a shelf. Behind the sheetrock, there are studs which are usually spaced every 16 inches — if you find one, you know where the rest are. It’s important to sink strong screws into the studs to support heavy shelves (including kitchen cabinetry). Strong screws have a rather thick diameter, and are somewhat similar to nails.

There are several ways to find the studs — you can tap with your finger and listen to the sound — it will change when there’s something solid behind it. You can use a stud sensor which is an electronic sensor tool (costs about $25) which usually correctly locates the stud (wires and other structures in a wall can sometimes fool the stud sensor with a false reading). This tool can detect electronically when the thickness of a material changes. I use the stud sensor to help me guess where the stud is, but then I drill a hole deeper than the half-inch-thick sheetrock to test it. If the drill speeds up (like there’s only air behind it) I know to keep looking; but I find the stud, and mark it on the wall. And empty drill-holes will be hidden anyway behind the horizontal brace later.

The horizontal support bar, however, is too wide. I use a sawsall, otherwise known as a reciprocating saw, to cut through it at both ends. (I show how to cut through metal shelves soon.) This way the pre-drilled holes of the support bar align next to the studs and the bar will fit in the narrow closet space.

I drill holes and use strong screws. The idea is to bore out the same width as the body of the screw (not the threads) so that the screw can go in the hole, but the threads will grip the wood around it, and keep it from coming out. If the width of the drill bit is too wide, then the screw won’t hold, but will pop out like a loose nail at the slightest urging; if it is too narrow, then the screw will have trouble going in, and then the screw head may sometimes strip.

Guess what? The screw head stripped. You can see the round hole within the screw-head where it happened. So I must not have used a wide-enough drill bit. This stuff happens. Nobody’s perfect. The power drill keeps spinning, but the screw stops going in, and the Phillips-head (four pronged point) rips up the indentations in the screw. Then it’s hard to remove the screw. I use a vise-grips to remove the stripped screw. Vise grips are pliers which let you squeeze and hold something tight. Good tool to own.

When the errant screws are out, I re-drill the holes with a wider bit, and put new screws in — by hand with a regular screwdriver — to prevent a repeat occurrence of the screwhead stripping.

I trim the wire shelves using a procedure similar to trimming the horizontal support bar. I find a workbench in the basement, and use clamps to hold it firm.

The sawsall cuts through the wire frame in several spots. I repeat for the remaining shelves. What I found was that vibration slowed the cutting, so getting the shelf as close to the unmoving tabletop was important (while not getting too close). I wear hearing protectors.

Please be careful: A sawsall is a tricky tool to use and demands extra vigilance. Think through what will happen after the sawsall finishes cutting. Hold it firmly so it won’t jerk about after the cut. Remember the blade agitates back and forth at a rapid rate — don’t have the blade bump into something at the top (and then have the sawsall jerk backwards). Use both hands on the sawsall. Pay attention. Use common sense.

I attach the horizontal sprocketed support bars to the wall — the right one lines up nicely with the studs (adding extra support) while the left bar is attached to the sheetrock using molly bolts. The homeowner figured out exactly how to space them to make sure there was room for clothes to the left (out of sight) and wide enough so the support triangular braces (not shown) would not bump into the plastic bins when involved. This extra planning helped the project go smoothly.

Last, I attach the triangular braces at regular intervals, add the shelves (making sure to put the soft end-nibs on the metal places where I had cut — to prevent scratches), and placed the bins on the shelves.


If interested, here are other handyman projects:

I also write on other subjects, such as essays, screenplays, biographies: