How to Build a Custom Closet from Scratch (with photos and plans)

The ghosts that lurk in my closets aren’t scary phantoms from the past; they’re all reminders of current confusion — shoes heaped in a haphazard tangle, favorite shirts lost in a crush of hanging things, and my son’s lost birthday gift finally turning up under a stack of blankets (where I hid it two years ago).

If your closets provide more chaos than convenience, a simple organizing system like we show in this story can be a great improvement. A combination of clothes rods, shelves, and drawers puts everything at your fingertips.

This shelf system is a bread-and-butter project for all do-it-yourselfers. You won’t need advanced woodworking tools nor do you have to buy expensive materials This system cost $400, not including the clothes rods.

You’ll see how to put this system in a 12-ft. walk-in closet. If you don’t have a closet this large, simply adapt parts of this design to fit your space.

Build instructions

  1. Saw right angles accurately using your framing square as a guide. Score the cut line with a utility knife to avoid chipping.

  1. Glue and nail trim to the unfinished plywood edges. Paint and stain pieces before assembling them.

  1. Nail together the central tower containing the drawers, using 8d finish nails. The sides do not have to reach the ceiling.

  1. Erect the tower and plumb the sides. The framework for the drawers must be exactly square. Tack each side to the floor with a 6d finish nail.

  1. Screw a 1-in. steel angle to a permanent shelf and to a wall stud to hold the tower upright and plumb.

  1. Nail 1x4 cleats in at least two studs in the wells to support the shelving and clothes rods.

  1. Assemble the rest of the permanent shelves and vertical dividers, nailing them with 8d finish nails.

  1. Drill 1/4-in. holes for the adjustable shelf supports using a template and a sharp brad point bit.

  1. Position and screw closet rod brackets to the cleats and vertical dividers. Cut rods to length and drop them in.

  1. Glue and nail the edges of the drawers together with 4d finish nails. lf the pieces are square, the drawer will be square.

  1. Screw on the drawer front (from the inside) and mount the slides on the bottom.

  1. Position and screw the slides to the drawer frame. Make sure they’re perfectly level. Insert the drawer and reposition them if necessary.

Planning your closet space

The chaos in our closets readily tells us whether we need more shelves, closet rods or drawers. Professional closet designers recommend that you plan around two key elements — drawers and a rod for long, hanging garments. Both need special treatment. Locate the drawers below eye level so you can easily see their contents and where you can open them without obstruction. And make them spacious, at least 16 in from front to back (Fig. A), so they’ll hold a lot of stuff.

Long, hanging clothes, like coats and dresses. take extra space because they don‘t fit into the double clothes rod system. where you put one rod about 42 in. above the other. This is a favorite space-saving idea for shorter hanging garments, but you can’t use it for long things. So plan for the extra length right away. Count up your long garments and allow about 1-12 in. of rod width for each.

As you plan, draw a rough sketch of your closet walls, measure their width and height, and figure out the best position for the drawers and long clothes. Then divide up the remaining space between the shelves and the rods for the short clothes. Jackets, skirts, blouses, shirts, slacks, and suits will hang less than 40 in. long, so you can stack one clothes rod above another to save space. And folded clothes, like sweaters and jeans, shoes, purses, hats, blankets, towels will go on shelves, which you fit into the leftover space.

Materials and assembly

One nice feature of this closet storage system is that you can build it from whatever wood fits your taste and pocketbook. You can fashion a rough, but perfectly functional unit from unpainted No. 2 pine boards, or make it fancy with varnished hardwood (approximately 4x more per board foot).

This storage system uses 34-in. birch plywood. The 34 in. x 1-ft. wide plywood shelves are strong enough to span about 3 ft. without sagging or needing reinforcement. In addition, plywood is perfectly flat, straight and easy to nail. For finishing. the birch veneer surfaces paint up smoothly, though you could substitute sanded fir plywood (Grade AB) for 30% less cost, or a coarser grade (CD) for 65% less per square foot This project doesn’t use fir because the coarse grain pattern in fir plywood shows through even a good paint job.

Cutting the 4x8 sheets of plywood into strips will be no problem if you use one of the factory edges for a saw guide. Set your sheet on a couple of sawhorses, clamp the guide in place, and cut the strips. If you use a sharp blade, cutting in the direction of the grain of the top veneer won’t cause ugly splintering (the grain runs parallel to the 8-ft. side of both plywood faces).

However, cutting across the grain (Photo 2) causes the top veneer to splinter. The solution is to first score your cut line deeply with a utility knife. Then cut slightly (164 in.) to the outside (the waste side) of the line.

To make this storage system more attractive, I glued and tacked a decorative strip to the unfinished front edges of the plywood. Any 34-in. wide molding from a lumberyard will do, though this is a fancy “triple bead” design cut into solid birch strips with a special router bit (Fig. A). You can save a lot of time if you stain and/or paint all your pieces before nailing them together, though you’ll have to touch them up after assembling the entire system.

The shown photos for step-by-step assembly fall into two parts:

  1. First, the system was made rigid and strong by nailing together the permanent shelves and upright parts (Photos 3-7).
  2. Then, the adjustable shelves, clothes rods, and drawers were added (Photos 8-12).

The critical section is the “tower” reserved for drawers. It was assembled and erected first, making sure the sides and bottom were level, plumb, and formed right angles (Photo 4). Otherwise, the drawers won’t fit squarely. If your floor isn’t flat and level, plane or sand the bottom of the tower‘s vertical sides to level the permanent shelves.

Anchor the tower to the floor with two 6d finish nails and to the wall higher up with a steel angle brace screwed to the permanent shelf and to a wall stud (Photo 5). This adds a measure of safety to keep the shelves from tumbling forward should a 5-year-old climb up after the family pet.

The adjustable shelves rest on four supports that you insert into holes in the vertical sides of the closet system. By drilling more holes, you can move these supports up or down to fit the shelf space needed. At first, it’s tempting to drill the sides top to bottom to get maximum shelf flexibility like you see in the commercial systems But after drilling the first few dozen holes, you might just decide that flexibility isn’t so important after all. Choices are great, but you can always drill the additional holes when you need them.

The template shown in Photo 8 makes the job a lot easier and more accurate. Cut a 14-in. board the same width as the vertical sides, layout and drill the grid of holes using the dimensions we show, then clamp it to a side, and drill away.

Watch for two problems, though:

  1. First, most drills chip the plywood veneer as they begin the hole. So use a sharp brad point drill bit and begin the hole slowly to minimize this problem.
  2. Second, avoid drilling too far or you'll pop out the other side. Wrap a strip of masking tape around the drill bit to use as a depth gauge.

Closet rods

Clothes hangers have become fairly standardized, so you can comfortably center your closet rod brackets 10-34 in. or more from the back wall. And make sure any shelf above the rod clears the rod by at least 1-12 in., so you can easily slip the hangers up over the rod.

Metal rods like we show here cost under $10 per foot but don’t bend under the weight of clothes. Wood rods are much more economical, but they’ll bend under a heavy load. A pair of closet rod brackets cost around than $2.


Drawer building calls for a bit more accuracy than the rest of the storage system. For a drawer to be square, you have to cut the sides and bottom perfectly square. So saw the pieces precisely. A table saw, though not essential, will make this job easier. We used 12-in. birch plywood for the drawer sides and 14-in. for the bottoms. Once you’ve cut the pieces, glue and nail the edges together following the detail in Fig. A. The bottom automatically squares up the sides.

Fasten the 34-in. drawer front with two screws from the inside. Don‘t glue it: you might want to adjust it later.

Screw the drawer slides to the drawer bottoms and to the tower sides (Photos 11 and 12). If you haven’t worked with slides before, you’ll find this bottom-mount type an easy introduction. Half of the screws directly to the drawer bottom. Position the other half carefully on the sides of the tower, so that the drawer fronts are evenly spaced when closed. Remember to keep the slides perfectly level. And if the drawers don’t fit precisely on your first try, don’t worry. These slides are very forgiving, and take only a minute to reposition.

Drawers cost more than shelves and closet rods. Figure about $40 in material for each ($25 for plywood. $15/pair for slides).