It was 3am when the crash summoned us to the kitchen. Vast chunks of plaster had been ripped out of the wall, with plant pot fragments scattered around the mahogany shelf that had dented the worktop during its unexplained descent.
That shattering incident inspired me to ensure future wall-mounted objects would stay there forever — knowledge underpinning this guide on how to put up a shelf.
We start with the necessary tools…
Tools & Materials
Ensure you have all the tools and materials below before you start.
- Drill (preferably a hammer drill if your walls are masonry)
- Large spirit level or laser level
- Cable, pipe and stud detector (one device often does all)
- Dustpan and brush
- Screwdriver with adjustable heads
- Tape measure
- Masking tape
- Shelf and/or brackets
- Screws of at least 38mm in length
How To Put Up a Shelf — Step-by-Step Instructions
As I discovered many years ago in my Glasgow kitchen, you must securely mount any shelf to a vertical surface capable of supporting its weight. A thin sheet of plasterboard may crumble if too much weight is applied, so you need to find a stronger surface to mount your brackets.
Begin by ascertaining the composition of your wall. Is it masonry (solid) or stud and plasterboard (hollow)? You can often tell by tapping on it, though you could also create an exploratory drill hole — once there’s no further resistance to the bit, you know the wall’s depth.
You can install a shelf anywhere if the wall is masonry (brick or concrete). If it’s plasterboard, you’ll need to locate the timber batons holding it in place and mount your shelf on these.
We’re focusing on bracket shelves below, with separate sections underneath for floating and adjustable shelves. Most of the installation stages are the same.
Weight and See
The thickness of your chosen shelf will influence how far apart brackets should be, as will the loads they’ll bear. Wickes published a table in their guide to putting up a shelf — for reference, we’ve given a couple of examples below.
Example (a): A pine shelf of 16mm thickness will need brackets 400mm apart for heavy loads or 610mm apart for medium loads.
Example (b): An MDF shelf of 25mm thickness will need brackets 700mm apart for heavy loads or 915mm apart for medium loads.
The main factor here is the thickness of the shelf rather than the material, though weight also plays a part. If you can’t get your brackets and studs to line up on a plasterboard wall, you may have to place lighter objects on the shelf — or buy a different shelf altogether.
Pro Tip: Check whether the shelf will sag when holding its intended load. Balance it on bricks or books with the same gap between them as the brackets you’ll be mounting, and load objects onto it carefully. If it bows in the centre, it’s not strong enough for the weight you’re applying.
1. Scan for wires or pipes
Run the cable/pipe/stud detector over the area you’re planning to mount the shelf(s). It should detect any pipes, electrical cables or other potentially hazardous elements inside the wall.
For more tips on using these handy detectors, follow the steps in the video below:
2. If the wall is plasterboard, scan again for studs
This time, you want to find objects. You’re looking for the wooden beams holding the plasterboard sheets in place — vertical ones are known as studs and horizontal ones are called noggins.
When you find a stud or noggin, lightly mark its location with a pencil. Note: their location might influence the height of your shelf, though a shelf should stand between five and six feet off the ground.
3. Measure and mark bracket locations
Using a pencil, mark the wall through the bracket’s pre-drilled screw holes.
Create a pilot hole by lining up the end of a screw (or a punch, if you’ve got one) with the centre of each pencil mark and then tap it with the hammer. This pilot hole will give the drill bit greater purchase and ensure it doesn’t slide sideways.
If the brackets you’re using are longer on one side than the other, the longer side should always go against the wall.
Repeat this process for any other brackets or fixings, using the large spirit level to ensure they’re level with one another and not tilting to one side. The process is the same whether you’re using conventional under-shelf brackets or top-mounted ones, which double as bookends and act as more of a feature.
Pro Tip: If you need to install three or more brackets, measure the end ones first and then place the rest equidistant between these two outliers.
4. Drill holes
Before you start drilling, remember to put on your protective goggles.
If you’re dealing with a masonry wall, you’ll need a hammer drill with a masonry bit to get through it.
If you’re worried about drilling further than the length of a supplied rawlplug, hold them up side-by-side and wrap masking tape around the drill bit shaft below the bottom of the rawlplug. When the tape begins to touch the wall during drilling, the hole should be the perfect depth.
The width can be even more important than depth, and in the video below, Charlie DIYte talks about the importance of drilling the correct diameter for the rawlplug you’re using (see 3:09 onwards).
Pro Tip: Hold the dustpan below the drill as you make holes, capturing as much of the dust as possible before it settles. Tap the pan with the drill bit to dislodge the dust afterwards.
If your walls are brick or concrete, it’s a good idea to vacuum the holes after you’ve drilled them. This vacuuming will remove fragments of material that might obstruct the screws and rawlplugs.
5. (Optional) Insert rawlplugs
Depending on the wall’s composition and whether you use heavy-duty gauge screws, this isn’t always necessary. For instance, timber batons won’t require rawlplugs because they’re strong enough to support the screws directly.
If you are using rawlplugs, tap them gently into place with the hammer. Stop tapping when their openings are flush with the plaster around them.
6. Insert screws
This job often requires three hands — one to hold the bracket or fixing in place, one to position the screw in the hole/rawlplug, and one to tighten it with a screwdriver.
Pro Tip: A magnetic screwdriver might simplify proceedings.
If, for any reason, you need to remove the screws, don’t overtighten them until they’re all inserted.
7. Position shelf on bracket or fixings
The shelf should rest perfectly level if your measurements are correct. Check it with the spirit level to be sure, then wipe down any plaster dust which has settled on it.
Because there’s often dust in the air, it’s best to wait a few hours before putting any objects on your newly mounted shelf.
Ensure the shelf has the same overhang beyond each end bracket, as otherwise, it won’t load weight evenly onto the brackets — and it’ll look a bit daft!
8. Insert small screws if included
Some — though not all — shelving kits include smaller screws to insert into the shelf’s underside through holes in the horizontal part of each bracket arm. If this is the case, mark the holes with a pencil, as in step 3 above.
Take the shelf down and drill short pilot holes partway into the shelf where the pencil markings are located. Next, fully insert the screws with the shelf in situ, pressing it down from above with your free hand to ensure it doesn’t slide around.
You’re now ready to add items to your shelf. There’s no need to wait for it to bed into place — it’ll be mounted securely from the moment you pack your drill away.
Remember not to place heavy objects beyond the brackets since this might destabilise the shelf. Position the heaviest items centrally, where the brackets evenly bear their weight.
Floating shelves protrude from the wall without visible brackets or support. Instead, they rely on internal rods or brackets attached to the wall. These rods/brackets insert into pre-drilled holes at the back of the shelf.
Shelf supports may have a right and wrong way up, usually with screws hidden at the bottom. Study the instructions closely before firing up the drill.
Floating shelves tend to display a maximum load weight on their packaging, so ensure you remain comfortably below this maximum. You’ll find this and other tips about floating shelves in the short Homebase video below:
Finally, it’s worth taking a moment to consider adjustable shelves, which mount on vertical batons with holes punched into them.
Often installed in commercial environments, their industrial aesthetic works well on exposed brickwork and garages. They’re also great for bulky objects like books and tools.
The main difference is that the tracks are mounted vertically, so your spirit level can’t rest across them as it would on floating or bracket shelves.
Follow the same steps when checking for cables, finding studs (you’ll need these rather than noggins), marking holes and drilling.
Final Thoughts — How To Put Up a Shelf
You should now feel confident to assemble anything from a floating shelf to a set of adjustable ones.
The stages are broadly similar for any shelf type, but double-check every measurement and ensure spirit levels are completely flat.
Finally, since a quality drill is essential when putting up a shelf, check out our guide to the best cordless combi drills in the UK.