Wall of Bookshelves With a Rolling Ladder 'on the Cheap'

Introduction: Wall of Bookshelves With a Rolling Ladder 'on the Cheap'

About: I'm an independent lady who enjoys designing and completing new projects inside and outside my home. Quite satisfying to re use/ recycle and re purpose 'on the cheap' and realize a finished project that starte…

I've been wanting a wall of floor to ceiling bookshelves with a rolling ladder (to reach the top shelves)..see the pic of what I wish I could afford....for a long time but money is tight (as is for lots of us...). I spent some time researching these type of shelving online...wow! get your wallet out!!! Beautiful as they were, I sure couldn't justify spending $2000 or more, depending on the unit.  I had it in my mind that maybe I could afford somewhere around $150 - $200
Then I got the idea, why not check out IKEA?  Surely they've got shelving units...sure enough, they did but by the time I calculated buying 3 shelves plus the 3 extension pieces and their 'ladder' (which was metal and I really wanted wood so that wasn't going to work) the cost would be about $600! Wow! again...so that idea went out the window.
Over the next few weeks I kept rolling (lol?) the idea around and I spent some time thinking 'outside the box' trying to come up with a way to get the bookshelves with ladder 'on the cheap'...
I got it into my head that even though I couldn't really afford the IKEA shelves maybe I could just get some shelves and modify them for what I had in mind.

Step 1: Sourcing Out My 'cheaper Shelving Idea' and Getting Started on My Project

I started keeping an eye online on 'for sale' sites, viewed a lot of ads, answered quite a few but nothing was quite right for my project and often just too much money for my tight budget.  I had just about put the idea out of my mind, figuring I'd have to wait until I won the lottery to get my wall of shelves with ladder, when I happened to come across 4 shelves.  Hmmm, what if I took the 3 and placed them side by side then cut the 4th into 3 equal smaller cabinets to make up the height difference to the ceiling? Awesome idea! 
Only thing is...they were a light oak colour and I needed black.
I decided I could paint them and it would be fine.
I was on a mission...first I'm off to pick up the shelves for a total cost of....wait for it....$40 for all 4...bit of a chunk out of my 'under $200 budget' but an excellent deal!
After purchasing my shelves I'm off to buy sandpaper, primer, paint (which I'm going to buy with my points at CTire so I'm not including the cost because basically it's free but the cost would have been $13.49 x 2 for paint and $11.99 for primer, the rollers/brushes/trays I already had on hand)
Next, I sourced out a carpenter who agreed to cut the shelf into 3 equal 23" pieces...the exact measurement I needed to add to the shelves which are 72" high.  This would give me a total height of 95" (measurement from floor to ceiling)
I was very pleased with myself and got started with the rough sanding to get ready for prime/paint. 
So in total now, I have 3 shelves...72" x 30" x 12" plus the 6 shelves for each...that's a whole lot of pieces to sand/prime/paint...plus now I have the 3 smaller ones as well.

Step 2: Materials You Will Need

- 4 tall bookshelves (used if possible to keep the cost down) I used 72" x 12" x 30" bookshelves
- 3 of which you will keep exactly the same (1 of which you will cut the side boards into 3 equal pieces (I cut them into 23" pieces...you will also cut the backing board into 3 equal pieces)
- 2 extra kickplates measured to the same as the others you already have (when you cut the one shelf into 3 you will be short 2 kickplates
- 3 - 1/2" x 30" (my shelves are 30" wide) x 1/5" shims to attach to the back of each shelf and mount to wall stud for support

rail for ladder to roll on
- 1 piece of wood the same width as all the shelf lengths together and about 2" x 1" (I used 90" x 2" x 1")
- 4 - 1" dowel pieces cut to 2.5" in length
- 1 piece of 1/4" flat bar (metal) x 2" x total length of all your shelves in a row (I used 1/4" x 2" x 90") I got my flat bar at the local 'metal supermarket' (cost was $16) drill 6 holes in the metal bar (from the end measure in 1", 3" on each end and drill a 1/4" hole..then divide the balance of bar by 3 and drill 2 more holes....these will attach to the dowel supports later

rolling ladder
-3 pieces of hardwood (I used poplar...inexpensive but still hardwood)...2 cut into 7' lengths x 3" x 1" and 1 cut into 12" pieces for the ladder rungs
- hardware: 2 rigid wheels, 4 loose 2" pulley wheels, 4 bolts (1.5" x 3/8")/washers (3/8") that fit into your pulley

other wood needed
- pieces of wood (2) for the pulley brackets plus 2 wedge shaped pieces
- 2 pieces of wood for the ladder rail stops (I used 1/2" x 6" x 1.5") drill a 1/4" hole in centre of each to attach to metal flat bar

other hardware needed
-wood screws (ass't sizes)
- 8 extra dowels (1/4") for extra kickplates

tools needed
- drill, saw, chisel, hammer, tape measure, level

also, if you don't like the colour of the shelves you will need sandpaper, primer/paint and paint supplies (ie rollers/brushes/trays etc)
- if you choose to have cabinet doors on the bottom you will need 6 pieces of wood to fit the measurement of your bottom cabinets and also you will need 6 knobs and 12 hinges

Step 3: Sand/prime/paint

I was very pleased with myself for thinking 'outside the box' and for actually finding all the shelving for only $40 off my budget of $200!
So, remember now, I have a total of 3 full shelves which I took apart so they would be easier to work on plus I have the one shelf which is now 3 pieces so you can imagine how many pieces I am working on.  While I'm rough sanding I have lots of time to think.  Thinking about how this is all actually going to work I decided that I would use the small pieces for the bottom.  I could make small cabinets with my 'cut' pieces and I'd only have to make 2 extra kickplates to finish it off.  I then thought how nice it would be to have doors on the bottom small cabinets...that way I'd have some storage with doors...So, I'd have to go and buy some wood at the Home Depot for the doors...I managed to get them to cut all 6 pieces the measurement I needed for the doors (I needed 14" x 23" for each of the 6 doors)
Also, since I'm having 2 doors on each small cabinet I'm going to need 6 cabinet knobs ($4.99)...looking for something in a nickel satin finish to match furniture I already have

Step 4: Measure Twice/cut Once

so, before I head off to the Home Depot to get the wood for my cabinet doors, I measure twice so I cut only once (well, actually, I only pay once)..I don't want to be getting the associate at HDepot to cut all my doors, pay for the wood only to find out it's the wrong measurement.  I locate the MDF and figure if I buy 2 sheets of 1/2" x 48" x 24" ($7.42 each total $14.84)I can get all my doors cut out of that and also, my 2 extra kick plates). 
I get all that done and head over to the hardware isle to see if I can find everything on my list.
cabinet door hinges/screws, pulleys for the rolling ladder part.  I manage to find most of the hardware I need, but they don't have any loose pulleys which are 2" with 1/4" space for the metal flat bar) ...
Next, I head over to Princess Auto where I find exactly what I need...they also had the 'rigid' wheels so I picked up 2 of those too...
total cost of pulleys ($7.49 ea x 4 and wheels was $2.49 ea x 2 total $34.94)

Step 5: Continue Priming/painting and Brainstorming As I Go Along

all the while I have been priming then while I'm waiting for drying time I'm brainstorming about how am I going to make this bracket for the pulleys at the top of the rolling ladder.  I also, need to figure out measurements for my ladder.  I figure I'm going to need about a 7' ladder with rungs about 12" apart.
According to my calculations I'm going to use:
2 - 7' pieces of hardwood (I chose popular as it's cost effective) 3" x 1" x 7' for sides of my ladder ($12.28 ea x 2)
then I need another one same size but cut down to 14" pieces for my rungs (I need 6 of these)
I think I'm going to use 2" deck screws for the rungs
Off to HDepot I go to get the hardwood for my ladder....I've got time while my priming is drying anyway

total cost of hardwood for ladder $24.56

I measure the long side rails for the ladder and divide by 6 to decide where to place my ladder rungs.
I also angled the one end of the side ladder rails at 1/2" so that when it leans toward the shelves it will be straight.  I decided to angle the rungs at the same angle so the rungs are straight when the ladder leans.
after I have this marked I realize it might be stronger if I chisel out each ladder rung...off to CTire...they happen to have a sale on a set of 3 chisels reg $16.99 on sale for only $6.99!  I got lucky again...the set has a 1/2", 3/4" and a 1" so I should be good to go
I've never chiseled anything before so went online and did some researching on how to chisel and after a bit of a learning curve I think I may have found my calling? lol
So I have my angled slots chiseled and ready for my ladder rungs to be screwed into place.  To give the rungs extra support I screwed a small piece of wood under each rung (approx 2.5" x 1/2" x 1")
Now it's starting to look like a ladder     :)

So I get started on the wheels...here I added an extra support piece of wood the width of the ladder (3") and about 1.5" high...also, gave me the extra width needed to attach the wheel bracket to.  (I had this wood on hand) I attached this piece along the edge of the angled end of the ladder rail so when the wheels hit the floor they will be straight to compensate for the leaning angle of the ladder to the shelves.  I drill out pilot holes first and then insert the screws and it turns out looking like a real ladder so that's a good thing

Step 6: Putting It All Together

I'm finally finished with all the sanding/priming/painting (BIG job!), anyway, I get all the pieces I need for the smaller cabinets layed out and start screwing it all together.  I take 2 of the 23" x 12" x 1/2" side pieces and attach them to a shelf piece (29" x 12" x 1/2") on the bottom of cabinet and I also attach the kickplate using dowels.  Next I screw in the top shelf to form my small cabinet......I install the butt hinges ($1.99/2 at Surplus Store) on my cabinet doors (I ended up chiseling out the spot for the door hinge side to make any small adjustment then drill out for my cabinet knobs...I measure in 2" and down 2" for the correct placement of my knobs...I want them near the top and centre.  I repeat this for all 3 of the small cabinets then place them next to each other in a row where I want my shelves to be (see pic)...Originally I wanted this floor to ceiling shelves with rolling ladder in my living room but at this point it's going in my bedroom due to space issues in livingroom. The plan in the near future is to move so I'll be able to put them in my new livingroom.   The tall shelves will then sit on top of the small lower cabinets. I have been feeling a bit discouraged because this project seems to be taking forever just to get everything primed/painted/cut blah blah blah...but now I am feeling encouraged as now it seems easier to visualize my project

My cat supervises my progess

Step 7: Moving on to the Large Top Shelves and Attaching the Ladder Rail

Now that I have the bottom 3 cabinets ready and in place I can start on putting the large top shelves together.
I need 2 of the long side boards...72" x 12" x 3/5" for the sides, 1 kickplate, 3 stationery shelves and 3 adjustable shelves and the backing board...
I get all this together first and then begin assembly making sure you put the side of the side board with the shelf support holes facing inward.
At this point you can imagine how cluttered my apartment is...Normally I'm a bit of a 'neat freak' and this is unusual for me to have anything out of place, but, I am on a mission to get my shelves 'on the cheap' so I deal with it.  The cat is also making adjustments for our new project...he can hardly get to his exercise gym and bed...it's only temporary though until I can move them into their new home

Notice the thin piece of wood sitting on the shelf on the left of pic...that is a shim piece I fashioned to attach to the back of each tall shelf (you need 3 of the same) where I will screw into the wall at the stud.  This is extremely important for safety.  You wouldn't want a shelf this high to fall.  This shim is going about 3/4 way up the back of the shelf (Iwood on hand in the garage)

So, once I get the tall shelves up onto the base cabinets, even though I painted the backing board black also, I have an epiphany...I decide now that I could have options as to what colour the back will be...so I head off to the $ store to pick up 9 sheets of bristol board (2/$1.00 for a total of $4.50)...I chose white...the plan is to place them in behind the adjustable shelves....this gives me the option of changing out the background to just about any colour/design/pattern

Happy at this point to say....they're finally starting to take shape

I decided to take a break and went around the house looking for some items to put on the shelves to give me an idea of how it will look when I get it full of trinkets etc....I'm feeling pretty good about my project

Now that the shelves are all in place and secured to the wall I can get started on the rail that the ladder will roll on.
First I get the 90" x 3" x 1" board (HDepot $7.10) and drill pilot holes.  I've measured the shelves ahead of time and figured out where I need to attach it.  I am putting one hole on each end and then 2 more spaced evenly.  Next I drill pilot holes where my 2" x 1" dowel supports (HDepot $3.27 for a 48" x 1" length) will go(I cut 4 of them)...I basically put them about 1" away from the pilot holes for attaching the board to the shelving.  I attach my dowels to the long support board and mount it to my shelves about 3/4 way up. (see pic)

Next I get my metal flat bar (I have had holes pre-drilled (local metal fabricating shop) at 1" from each end and 3" from each end and also 2 more holes spaced evenly) that I will attach my dowel supports to.   I attach the metal flat bar to the ends of the dowel supports using 6 x 1.5" screws (see pic)

Note: The hole closest to the end is for my 'ladder stop' that will get attached later

Step 8: Attaching the Pulley Bracket and Finally, the Rolling Ladder

Now to start working on the pulley bracket

drill 2 holes in each pulley bracket piece of wood (I used 2 pieces of wood which again, I had on hand, each being 7" x 1.5" x 1"), drill out pilot holes and attach your pulley/washer with 1.5" x 3/8" bolt.  I put a washer (on hand so free) between the pulley and the wood for ease of movement.  Assemble 2 of these.

I decided that to measure easier I would take the metal flat bar off the shelving for now. (see pic 1)

I re-assembled the metal bar onto the shelving to test out the pulley bracket I made.
I roll the pulley bracket onto the metal rail (see pic 2)

Excellent! They roll nicely...

I set the ladder in place about 17" or so out from the shelving to see how much gap I have to fill.  Looks like I need a fairly small wedge (I needed 2 wedges measuring 7" x 7/8" x 1/2")to offset the gap (see pic 3) between the pulley bracket and the ladder (I first attempted this with one bracket but my angle was off so I tossed those aside and started over) For me it seems easier to mount the pulleys on a flat piece of wood and make up the gap afterward (I used scraps of wood on hand for the wedges)

With the ladder still temporarily in place I take a measurement, mark my spot then removed the pulley bracket and attach the pulley bracket to the wedge with screws.  I finished painting the pulley bracket/wedge.

After the paint totally dried I attach the pulley bracket/wedge to the back side of the ladder where I previously marked the spot.

Roll the ladder onto the metal rail and screw (1" x 1/4" bolt with nut x 2 HDepot $0.19 each x 2 total $0.38) on your ladder stops (wood on hand)  on each end of metal rail


whew!  I can't believe all this for under $200! 

overall, though, I have to say, there is something to be said for designing and making something yourself....gives you a pretty great sense of accomplishment

all that's left to do now is ENJOY!


my next project is refinishing two 1940's slipper chairs...'on the cheap' of course!       :)

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    William Divale
    William Divale

    6 years ago

    I want to be nice. The plans described looked great but when I tryed to download the plans I got conned into signing up for your products. Then when I did that I found that I had to pay for a year's service to get the plans. You guys are not very honest and I do not wish to do business with you.


    Reply 4 years ago

    sorry, not sure what you mean by ..signing up for products..?
    I made this ladder bookshelf up myself and have never had any plans or any products to sign up for..I share my project ideas on this site and hope that others might be inspired to reuse recycle and re purpose...that's my goal..and above all..to enjoy


    7 years ago

    What about the ladder?


    8 years ago on Introduction

    This is just what I need for my new mini-studio. I priced ready-to-buy and I was horrified that the hardware alone costs over $600.

    I can afford this and I am excited to get started. Thanks!


    9 years ago on Introduction

    great job! I am going to pay to have someone make the exact one for me, except in a different color to go with my baby grand that I got when my parents died. Can't wait to see it in my living room. Thanks so much!!!


    9 years ago

    Definitely going to see how cheap I can replicate this for. Great job!