Wooden ladder shelves are a great way to add a rustic vibe to your home, and while you could go out and buy one, starting a DIY ladder shelf project is much more fun!
I went through a few blueprints online to familiarize myself with how exactly I was going to build it, so what I came up with is kind of a Frankenstein build, but the overall outcome was gorgeous, and I learned a few things along the way that helped me become a better carpenter (not to mention develop skills I can use if I need to do any home repairs on the fly).
This was my very first DIY ladder shelf project, so I enlisted the help of my friend and his workshop where I was able to use a table saw for the very first time (an exciting opportunity!). However, to make this shelf more friendly for beginners, you could use a circular saw instead. In fact, you could even get away with a handsaw if you feel like your cuts are precise enough!
I also learned how to create dado joints and used a router so I could make curved corners that were smooth and consistent.
Here is a basic plan on how to make your own ladder shelf.
- DIY Ladder Shelf Materials
- DIY Ladder Shelf Tools
- Basic Project Overview
- Initial Cutting
- Building the Top Piece Assembly
- Creating a Rounding Template
- Building the Steps/Shelves Assembly
- Building the Back Support Assembly
- Adjusting the Fold and Drilling Holes
- Sanding Down the Ladder Shelf and Adding Varnish
DIY Ladder Shelf Materials
I used a fair amount of high-quality white pine, around 7 planks worth, with each plank measuring around 90 x 20 x 900 mm. However, it’s not a bad idea to have more on hand just in case you make a mistake. And if you’re a beginner, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, and that’s ok! Sometimes you have to make mistakes to get better at something.
I used 8 M8 carriage bolts that measured 55 mm long, fastened by 8 M8 washers, and 8 M8 lock washers. The carriage bolts I used had large, domed heads so I only needed to use a washer and a nut on one end. You’ll still need the lock washers because the bolt will be located inside a moving joint. Without them, the nuts would eventually start unraveling on their own the more you use the ladder shelf.
My carpenter friend also said that you could use M6 bolts, but I haven’t tried it. Let me know in the comments below if you do use M6’s and how it worked out for you! Also, here’s a home construction tip if you’re on a budget: don’t be afraid to make your own jigs for measuring so you don’t have to spend on measuring tools. Just make sure they’re accurate and working.
DIY Ladder Shelf Tools
As I mentioned, I used a table saw for this project. If you don’t have one, a circular saw would be your next, best bet. I wouldn’t recommend a handsaw, especially for beginners, but you are more than welcome to try.
Another essential tool is a drill press, which you’ll need because the bolts have to be in straight, 90-degree holes in order for your ladder shelf to work. You’ll also need a cordless drill just for all the other holes you’ll need to put in.
You’ll also need a Square to make precise measurements. To sand down the ladder shelf, I used sandpaper with 180 and 320 grit. I also used a router and a jigsaw, and while they’re not essential (you could do both by hand), it’s still really fun to use.
SAFETY NOTE: This project used a fair amount of power tools. If you’re not familiar with how to use power tools, I suggest you brush up and practice with a professional first. ALWAYS wear safety gear like earmuffs and eye protection. In fact, don’t even begin this project if you don’t have those. You could also try wearing steel-mesh gloves, especially if you’re using a table saw, but that might affect the accuracy of your cuts. It will, however, protect you from losing a finger or two.
Remember: if it’s not something you’re comfortable with, leave it to a professional.
Basic Project Overview
A basic, DIY ladder shelf for beginners usually consists of four different assemblies that you build separately and then join together:
This assembly requires two sides with three stretchers (i.e. joining pieces), joined together by butt joints that are dowel-reinforced.
Steps (or, Shelves)
This assembly requires two sides with three steps, all joined together by dado joints.
This assembly requires five wooden slats with two supports, all joined together by dado joints.
This assembly requires two simple side pieces with the ends rounded out. This ladder shelf is designed to fold back up when not in use, making it perfect for small spaces like apartments or lofts.
I started off the project by cutting the leg pieces to size, making sure to add a 60-degree angle on each end of the leg. To accomplish this, I clamped the pieces together and ran them through a table saw to ensure that all the legs are of the same length. You can do this with a clamp and a circular saw, but make sure to mark the legs with some pencil just so you have a guide to go with.
I then took several boards and ripped them in half, using a piece of the scrap to check my fence and whether it was set at a right distance from the blade, again to ensure accuracy of my cuts and helping me avoid weird angles.
The ripped pieces were then cut down to various lengths to serve as spare parts for the other assemblies.
Building the Top Piece Assembly
For the top, I used 5 wooden slats and joined them together using a dado joint cut to shape by a router. Dado joints are joints created by cutting a slot or a trench on one piece and adhering the other piece into the trench and securing with some wood glue. A router is a type of power tool that cuts trenches more precisely and much more quickly than with a saw.
Creating a Rounding Template
This project requires having several rounded ends, so I decided to make a rounding template to ensure that all my rounded corners are identical, not to mention making the process faster and smoother.
For the template, I used a scrap piece of wood that I cut into the right width. I then drew a right circle on the right diameter and cut it out using a jigsaw. To make it even smoother, I used sandpaper on the edges.
I then used this rounding template for all my rounded ends, making sure that my cuts followed the template, helping me create identical, smooth, rounded ends.
Building the Steps/Shelves Assembly
This particular ladder shelf requires having three steps. For practicality purposes, I decided to build a functioning step ladder that could be used as shelving instead of just a simple, leaning ladder shelf. I feel like this makes it more versatile and useful, especially in smaller spaces.
For the step/shelf supports, I used a router to cut out six dado joints. Make sure that your dado joints are air-tight. My mindset when making dado joints is: it has to be tight and precise enough that the wood glue is just an unnecessary precaution.
For the step/shelves themselves, I selected three pieces of plank that had no large knots. Wood knots make for weak spots, and you want something that is smooth and sturdy. I then cut these planks to identical lengths.
Building the Back Support Assembly
Using the table saw, I cut my stretchers precisely so that they fit between the back supports perfectly, without the need for through-dowels. However, for safety, I fastened them anyway with blind dowel joints to make them more secure and stable.
Adjusting the Fold and Drilling Holes
To make the ladder shelf fold, I cut the tops of the back stretchers at a slight angle by constructing a simple jig and running them through a table saw. Again, you can use a circular saw or a handsaw if you’re confident about your accuracy.
These cuts need to be exact because improper angles will cause the ladder shelf to not close all the way. You can also use garage door hinges for the folds, as this would give your ladder shelf a rustic, yet industrial, vibe.
After I made my cuts, I drilled bolt holes using a drill press. For added accuracy, I had all the parts with pairs clammed together, so the drill press goes through and through at the same, exact angle.
Sanding Down the Ladder Shelf and Adding Varnish
At this point, your ladder shelf should be pretty much done: I took my 180 grit sandpaper and cleaned up the entire surface of the ladder shelf, making sure to pay attention to sand down any pencil marks and obvious splinters. I also gave the edges extra effort to round them off and to ensure there are no ‘sharp’ edges to the ladder shelf.
I used some store-bought varnish and wood finish to complete the project. I let the whole thing dry for 24 hours. I was pretty proud of how mine came out, and I hope you share your DIY ladder shelf for beginners project in the comments section below!