Introduction: Built-in Shelves Between the Studs

Picture of Built-in Shelves Between the Studs

The upstairs bathroom in our house is tiny. So small that there is nowhere to store spare toilet paper or other bathroom essentials. So I decided to build shelves within the studs. Some quick web searches turned up a few plans, and off I went to the hardware store.

What we're building is a complete shelving unit that will be recessed into the wall between two studs.

Time: One weekend

Cost: About $100 depending upon the choice of wood and the shelf height.


  • 3/4" PVC Trim Board: 3.5" wide, about 15 linear feet
  • 5/8" PVC Trim Board: 1.5" wide, about 10 linear feet
  • 3/4" PVC Trim Board: 5.5" wide, about 16 inches long
  • 1/4" Oak Plywood: 2 feet by 4 feet

I hate having to paint trim since it takes so many coats, so for this project I decided to try "fake wood" PVC Trim Boards that come already pre-painted. This turned out surprisingly well. My table saw was able to easily cut through the boards without any splintering or melting, the boards were easy to drill into, and the finish was a nice bright glossy white. A bonus (pointed out by James in a comment) is that the PVC will resist moisture much better than wood. The only caveat is that the PVC is soft - you just need to be careful when driving screws to not go too deep.

Step 1: Between the Studs

Picture of Between the Studs

Since you'll be mounting the shelving unit between the studs, the first step is to make sure the area is clear of any obstructions like electric wires or pipes. First, use a stud finder (or just bang on the wall) to find the approximate stud location. Then, using a drywall saw, cut a small pilot hole in the middle of the studs about halfway up the wall. Use a flashlight and a compact mirror to look both up and down.

In my case this turned out to be a huge timesaver. Everything between the hole and the floor plate was clear, but looking up towards the ceiling (or top) plate, I spotted a large metal wall anchor (see my blurry picture). This turned out to be holding up the closet rod for our clothes closet. The closet rod was about 70 inches above the floor, so I decided to make the built-in shelving unit be 48 inches tall, extending from 20 inches above the floor up to about 68 inches.

Now cut out the large hold in the drywall, all the way from one stud to the other. Looking at the last picture you can see the wall anchor that would have ended up in the middle of my shelf. Finally, examine the exposed studs for screws that would interfere with the shelf installation, and cut them off using a hacksaw or a Dremel.

Step 2: Frame and Shelves

Picture of Frame and Shelves

Here we'll assembly the outside frame and the shelves. First cut everything down to the correct length. Don't bother with fancy mitered joints since we'll be covering the edges in trim. My shelving unit was 48 inches tall by 14 inches wide. Try to make the width just a hair smaller than the distance between the studs, so you can easily slip the shelving unit into place and secure it without extra spacers.

Because the shelving unit is recessed into the wall, you can just use screws to hold up the shelves, since they won't be visible.

For the bottom shelf use the 5-1/2 inch wood instead of the 3-1/2 inch wood. This looks nicer and is useful for storing extra-wide toilet paper. Make the bottom shelf 3 inches wider than the other shelves (for me this turned out to be 17 inches), and cut notches so it will fit between the sides. The extra 3 inches makes it so the 1-1/2 inch trim extends out to the edge of the bottom shelf.

Step 3: The Back and Trim

Picture of The Back and Trim

Cut the 1/4 inch plywood to the correct size, and then paint one side with several coats of white paint. Because the wood is so thin, it may cause the board to warp. Don't worry, once you screw the plywood onto the back of the shelf, it will straighten itself out. Be sure to attach the back with the white side facing out!

Now it's time to attach the 1-1/2 inch trim around the outside. Here we do need to worry about visible screws. In my case, I used a Kreg Pocket Hole Jig to drill holes from the back of the shelf to attach the trim. I hate to recommend specific products, but I got this Kreg Jig a few years ago for a present, and even though I was skeptical at first, it's turned out to be extremely useful and reliable. If you don't have something like this, you could certainly do this by hand, use a nail gun and fill in the holes, or just glue the trim on.

Step 4: Final Assembly and Install

Picture of Final Assembly and Install

Here's the finished shelving unit. It looks great from the front, not so good from the sides and back, but we don't care!

As the final step, slid the unit into place between the studs, using a few screws to hold it in place. In my case I only used 4 drywall screws to hold up the entire unit since it was light, the fit was tight, and it's only going to hold toilet paper.

Fill in the screw holes with putty, and for extra bonus points, caulk around the seam between the trim and the wall, and admire your handiwork!


Ninzerbean (author)2016-09-28

This is great! I thought you used PVC because of the steam as well - before I read your reasons. I use PVC 1/4 round on the floor next to the baseboards. I hate all the coats of paint as well, then there is the sanding between coats, the place to lay it all out, turning, painting repeat, repeat. Thanks for sharing, I am going to look for a place to do this, will post pics if and when. Thank you for sharing.

Thanks for the nice comment. Definitely post some pictures when you build yours!

groghunter (author)2016-09-27

I might literally do this for a large chunk of my hallway. small house, not enough storage space.

Cool, post some pictures when you finish!

clazman (author)2016-09-27

Nice. Did that some 35 years ago. Used pine and finished it with
Watco Medium Walnut and topped off with Watco natural and finally Watco wax.
Wetsanded all coats using 400, except wax.

Chris Torrence (author)clazman2016-09-27

That sounds like it turned out well. I kind of felt like I was cheating by using the pre-painted PVC, but it was a fun experiment.

LesB (author)2016-09-27

I suppose one could remove the drywall on both sides to make the shelves accessible from both rooms, like a kitchen and dining room.

Chris Torrence (author)LesB2016-09-27

That's a cool idea. It wouldn't work in this case unless you wanted someone in the clothes closet to watch you go to the bathroom :-), but I could definitely see doing that in another part of the house.

rayp1511 (author)2016-09-27

Well done ! This brought back memories. My father did smaller versions in our living room. Nice tip on the mirror.

Chris Torrence (author)rayp15112016-09-27

Nice! Try the project yourself?

dpoulson (author)2016-09-27

Nice write up. I've been thinking of doing this myself in a few places. Both a few smalls cupboards, and a larger deep shelving unit that will use up some of the wasted space above the stairway.

Some nice tips in this instructable, thanks.

Chris Torrence (author)dpoulson2016-09-27

Cool, best of luck to you! Here's someone's under-the-stairs shelves, maybe it will give you some ideas:

deluges (author)2016-09-27

Great idea ! I would have kept the wood unpainted to bring an accent, maybe just finished it with polyurethane as it is going to be exposed to water

deluges (author)deluges2016-09-27

I mean I guess I would have used pine or cedar

Chris Torrence (author)deluges2016-09-27


Chris Torrence (author)deluges2016-09-27

We already had white trim in there, so I wanted it to match, but that's definitely another option.

jell44 (author)2016-09-27

Well done! Thanks for putting up the instructions and giving us all insight on a project that is often overlooked as a solution to cramped spaces.

Chris Torrence (author)jell442016-09-27


GTO3x2 (author)2016-09-27

Nice. That must be an interior wall, no insulation.

As a note for others: Watch for utilities before cutting into the wall. i.e. electric, telephone, drains, vents or ductwork. The especially tricky ones are the ones that serve another floor and are passing through the working level. Corners also have high chances of smaller stud spacing.

-not to be a party pooper, but this is the reality check before creating a bunch of repair work.

Chris Torrence (author)GTO3x22016-09-27

No insulation. Yes, I completely agree about utilities. I learned that the hard way a few months ago. Drilled into the basement ceiling to hang a hook, and water started dripping out - it was the drain for our kitchen sink. Easy to fix, but embarrassing. That's why I suggested cutting out the small "pilot" hole to find any unexpected utilities.

PhilS43 (author)2016-09-27

Use a magnet to find the nails or screws, unless they've glued the board.

Usually worth digging the nails out and screwing the board.

If it's an outside wall, you are creating a cold spot though.

Nice idea, similar to pocket sliding doors.

Chris Torrence (author)PhilS432016-09-27

Yep, all good points. I like the idea of using a magnet to locate the stud screws. I have a stud finder but it's not always reliable. And luckily it was an interior wall so no worries about insulation.

fretted (author)2016-09-26

Absolutely Awesome work very wel done instructable

Chris Torrence (author)fretted2016-09-26

Thanks so much! Definitely a fun project - leave a comment if you do a similar project!

SEVoiland (author)2016-09-26

Fantastic. I can make one for both of the bathrooms. They are t.i.n.y. and both would benefit from this "expansion." Thanks for the great instructions. I can do this!

Chris Torrence (author)SEVoiland2016-09-26

Sounds great! Also, since they are between the studs, you could easily do two of them side by side (if you had the space). Best of luck!

JAMESM466 (author)2016-09-26

An added bonus to using the "plastic wood" is that it will stand up very well in a humid environment like a bathroom. One of our showers has a window in it. When I replaced the rotten wood window with a vinyl replacement window I used the plastic trim. No more moisture worries.

Chris Torrence (author)JAMESM4662016-09-26

That's a really good point, which I hadn't even thought about. I'll edit the Instructable to mention that. Thanks!

seamster (author)2016-09-26

Very nice and tidy. This is a great idea!

Chris Torrence (author)seamster2016-09-26

Thanks for the feedback!

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