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ELA DIY: Make Floating Shelves for your Classroom

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There’s just no advertisement for a book like displaying it cover out. Cover out is everything! That’s why I always had my windows and shelf tops lined with books splayed this way and that. I’d lean them up against everything I could think of, but…. it wasn’t what you could call neat.

It wasn’t until years after I first started teaching that I learned about picture ledges/gallery shelves/floating shelves/whatever-you-want-to-call-them.

I was on a carpentry kick, having already built my own workbench and made it through the awkward conversation at my local Home Depot where the man selling me my new circular saw looked deep into my eyes and said “this is REALLY dangerous.”

I had discovered Ana White, home building genius, who shares such lovely plans for just about everything you might ever want to build on her website. I eventually built her folding sandbox, toddler dress-up center, table and chairs, kids’ workbench, kids’ kitchen center, and floating book shelves. Notice a theme? Yeah, I wanted my little ones to have alllll the cool stuff.

But the easiest project was the floating shelves, and I thought I’d share it with you, just in case you’d like to fill some gaps in your classroom walls with book displays. I’m going to walk you through my version, which I hope will feel VERY unintimidating, and then link you over to Ana’s slightly more technical version with lots of photo examples from home builders around the world.

Step One: Visit a Hardware Store for Materials

Little known fact – pretty much every lumber store will cut your boards for you! That means you won’t even need a saw for this project. All you need to do is decide in advance how many shelves you want to build and how wide you want them to be on your wall.

Let’s say you want to start small, with one three-foot long display shelf. The back and bottom of the shelf are made out of 1 X 3 inch boards. The front is made of a 1 X 2 inch board. So you’ll need two three foot lengths of 1 X 3 and one three foot length of 1 X 2.

Easy, right?

Let’s say you want to have four two-foot long display shelves, in a row between your bulletin board and your bookshelf. Then you’ll need eight two-foot 1 X 3 inch boards and four two-foot 1 X 2 inch boards.

So you go to your lumber store with your dimensions, and you ASK FOR HELP! Let a friendly guide walk you to the pine boards, pick out your long boards (they’re usually sold in 6 or 8 foot lengths), and then walk with your friendly guide to the store sawing area and share your dimensions. Ten minutes later you’ll be ready to roll!

This is a good time to pick up wood glue, some 2 inch screws for your shelves and a drill if you haven’t got one at your house. If you want to paint or stain your shelves, pick up a small bucket of your color of choice as well. Ooh, and maybe a little sandpaper for the edges of your shelves. Safety goggles will protect your eyes in the event that a screw somehow goes awry (though I’ve also used sunglasses in a pinch).

Step Two: Connect the Shelf Boards

When you get home, find a flat place to work. You might want to put a sheet down just to keep sawdust and paint off your surface.

If you want to, you can sand the boards before you put them together. You could also wipe them off and paint/stain them before you put them together. But you can also wait and do that at the end.

Lay the bottom of your shelf on the floor, and stand the back up next to it and the front up next to it on the other side. At this point, you can run some wood glue along these seams and put something heavy on either side for a couple of hours while the glue dries. This makes the next step of drilling really easy, because the shelves will already be locked in place when you start to drill. But you can also just skip the gluing step, or drill through your wet glue if you don’t want to wait around.

If you’re not going to glue your shelf together, then it’s a bit trickier keeping everything in place while you drill. In an ideal world you’d clamp your base board onto a workbench, but I’ve made plenty of projects without a workbench and you can too. Just find a creative way to hold your base board in place while you attach the back and front.

Don your sunglasses or safety goggles, and add a screw every six inches or so along the length of the front and the back.

Step Three: Polish the Look

Once you have attached the front and back, you’re done! Easy, right?!

Unless you decided to pre-sand and pre-paint your boards, now you can take a little time to sand the corners and edges of your shelf so it’s smooth, then wipe it off so there’s not sawdust on it. Once it’s all dry, add a coat or two of whatever you think would look nice in your classroom. Or leave it as plain wood, that’s nice too!

Step Four: Get Help to Hang the Shelves in your Classroom

These shelves need to attach to studs in your classroom wall. This is a good time to get help for a half hour from someone who works on your school’s maintenance team. They will have a stud finder they can run across your wall to help them find the safe beams to hang shelves from. They’ll also know where there might be heating, plumbing, or electrical elements in your wall that need to be avoided.

Hopefully, they’ll look kindly on your carpentry project and take some time to help you!

Soon you’ll be lining your shelves with fun displays and seasonal reads. And (hopefully) sending me a picture to make my day.

Learn More: Check out the Formal Plans at Ana White’s Amazing Website

Now that you have the basics in laymen’s terms, go check out the full plans on Ana White’s website! She’s amazing, and you just might discover a half dozen more projects you want to try next.

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I'm Betsy

I’ll help you find the creative ELA strategies that will light up your classroom. Get ready for joyful teaching!







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