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Originally published Thursday, October 4, 2012 at 4:30 PM

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Extended shelf life: Creating storage space from stuff

The Pragmatist: Shelves, the easiest of DIY projects, can be made from skateboards, snowboards and just about anything else you can screw to a wall.

The New York Times

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Like a lot of people, I entered the world of home maintenance when I installed my first set of shelves. It was just me, a screwdriver, screws, wall anchors, wood scraps and a set of directions evidently written by someone with a sick sense of humor.

After an hour of ineptitude and a monologue that would have made George Carlin blush, I beheld my first big-boy project, then promptly filled it with junk and checked off "shelves" as something I had learned enough about.

And for 20 years, I was right.

Then, in the last year, I've watched a steady stream of images course through Facebook, Pinterest and Houzz suggesting that shelves, of all things, have entered a new era of Marthafication.

"People are starting to use bookcases and shelving almost as a design element," said Jordan Parnass, a Brooklyn-based designer and architect. "It lets you think about how to have something that becomes an interesting object that still serves a purpose."

A quick trip through design blogs reveals shelves made from grand-piano cases, leather belts, 35-millimeter film, skateboards, snowboards and just about anything else you can screw to a wall.

OK, I figured. If this trend represents Shelving 102, let's make a run at it.

In addition to Parnass, I called on Barry Katz, a Connecticut-based designer and builder, and Ronique Gibson, publisher of the Stagetecture home design blog. Their counsel: if one approaches the project with a modest appreciation for aesthetics and home construction, a shelf can move beyond its lowly Sherpa status.

To that I'll add one thing: namely, don't try to get too cute too quickly while recycling flat old toys for the project. I did, and nearly crossed the DMZ separating cool from dangerously ugly.

But more on that later. To start, it helps to understand the basics of home construction.

Many homeowners know that modern houses are framed with two-inch-by-four-inch lengths of wood or steel called studs, and these studs are generally 16 inches apart. If the framers built your home on the cheap, the studs might be 24 inches apart.

You can secure a shelf on a wall by attaching it to the drywall with anchors, but my panelists said you're much better off screwing through the wallboard and directly into the center of the stud because drywall, unlike wood, can crumble.

You may not need such strength for displaying ceramic replicas of endangered tree frogs, but should you ever replace them with other endangered species (like, for instance, books), the added stability will be useful.

Unfortunately, finding a stud poses challenges that will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to locate something on the other side of a wall.

Katz recommended using electronic stud finders. "But I regard them as a step up from divining rods," Katz said. "I'm not sure how they work."

I found an old entry-level Zircon stud finder, which I compared to a new $30 Zircon that purports to find the center of the stud. It's an important nuance, since you don't want to be alerted, by the sound of crashing ceramic frogs, that you drilled into the edge of a stud.

In my younger daughter's room, I tried to attach a so-called floating shelf (Lack, from Ikea, $15), which has no diagonal support and must therefore be anchored to a stud. The stud finders disagreed on all but two of the nine likely stud locations along a 35-inch span of wall between a door and a closet. With all the pencil markings, the wall looked like a scratch pad.

What to do?

I chose the thinnest drill bit I could find and poked holes into the wallboard at the likeliest spots, hoping to feel the resistance of the stud at some point. No luck.

I tried the other seven spots, figuring the shelf would conceal the holes. Still nothing.

This span of wall, it turned out, had no stud. (I still don't know what set off the stud finders.) Meanwhile, the shelf wasn't wide enough for me to screw its edges into the wall's outer frame, so I put that particular plan on the, uh, back burner.

Gibson pointed out that stud finders are often unnecessary anyway. Some people, she said, can rap their knuckles along the wall and find studs by sound.

They're probably the same people who can pick combination locks using their ears, or tune gongs. I tried Gibson's suggestion and got sore knuckles and no studs.

Gibson said if you start at the edge of a wall and measure 16 inches in, then in 16-inch spans beyond that — allowing for the roughly 1 ½-inch width of a common stud — you have better chances of scoring. Look closely at the wall from different angles, too. Beneath the paint, you might see markings where the builder screwed the drywall to the studs.

Apartments with brick or concrete construction can carry heavy shelves nearly anywhere, since masonry anchors are extremely stable. This is especially good news for those in small apartments, Parnass said.

"Walls are one of your greatest assets in reducing the amount of stuff you have in the way, and making the room as open and spacious as possible," he said.

Assuming you can find a stable platform and firmly anchor it to a wall, a shelf's design can take nearly any form, my panelists said.

"I like the idea of making shelves out of reclaimed materials, especially if it's something that was going to end up in a landfill," Katz said. "If you have a family that skis, there might be a leftover pair that you could turn into a shelf in a kid's room."

With no skiers in my family, I trekked last week to the local antique warehouse, where I found a splintered wooden pair that most likely never felt the chill of artificial snow. I also grabbed a pair of old wooden golf clubs, thinking I could lay them across shelf brackets and prop a row of books on top. Finally, I stopped at a nearby Salvation Army, where I picked up some old leather belts.

I then bought some basic metal shelving brackets and some good quality screws (Power Pro brand, 2 ½-inch wood screws, $6 for a 1-pound box). At home I pulled out my cordless drill, a level and a pencil, and set to work.

The ski shelves turned out fine, if not downright cool. They screwed easily into brackets, and the profile was subtle but interesting on the wall. (I plan to swap out the new metal brackets, which were a poor match for vintage skis, for more rustic wood.)

The leather belts worked well, too. Using passable directions from Gibson's site, I attached the belts to a piece of reclaimed barn lumber from my garage, then screwed the belts into the wall. One big caveat: use sturdy, solid belts. The first one I tested ripped at a seam, and the second was so thin the screw tore it open.

The old golf clubs were a bad idea, mostly because the "wood" shafts were really just plastic veneer covering extremely hard metal. With woefully inadequate drill bits and no vise to secure the squirming clubs, I needed around 40 minutes to drill four holes.

It got worse. I couldn't find screws that would thread through the metal and into the shelf brackets (nor could my go-to hardware store manager), so I wedged dowels into the holes, then slipped shims under the skinny parts of the clubs to keep my "shelves" level. Later I swapped the metal brackets for wooden ones (Truwood 7-inch bracket, $10.50) and cut channels to hold the shafts more securely.

After all that work, I stepped back and thought, "Meh."

At least I had managed to attach them to a stud.

As far as I know.


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