We are going to show you how to build a ladder shelving unit step by step.
Ladder shelving is a great choice if you’re looking for a fun and quirky storage solution. Not just for storing books, ladder shelving can be made in any size and used in many areas of the home for plants, ornaments, frames and even hanging towels.
Ideal for renters, those who like to move furniture around or prefer non-fitted storage, ladder shelving also sidesteps the need to fit around skirting boards or other obstacles as they slope at a gradual angle, leaning against the wall.
Our step by step instructions and cutting list have been designed as a guideline. This build is entirely custom and bespoke to your style, space and storage needs. If you choose to follow our guide, the ladder shelving will measure approximately 520 X 2400mm.
We designed our ladder shelving to maximise three lengths of 2.4m timber for minimal waste. Two of the lengths are used as the sides and one length is cut into equally sized shelves. Of course, you can completely customise the height, width, depth and angle of the ladder to suit your space and requirements.
We used redwood PSE timber and a brightly coloured interior wood paint however, you can experiment with different timbers, colours and finishes to suit your style and spaces.
If you choose to follow our cutting list, the materials including paint will cost under £55 and are all available from Wickes.
This project will take a DIYer with moderate experience approximately two hours to build, however, to ensure the paint has sufficient time to dry we recommend leaving your project to dry at room temperature for 24 to 48 hours.
Doing it right
This project is entirely custom and can be designed to suit your unique spaces, taste and style. If you choose to use our cutting list a guide, it’s a good idea to draw up your design and tweak the measurements before you begin to ensure you have enough materials to hand.
Consider the tolerance, runout and alignment of your power saw blades when making cuts. Depending on the tolerance of your tools, you may find that the dimensions are adjusted by between 2-3mm. To ensure the 5 shelves that were cut from one 2.4m length were equal, we allowed for a 2mm tolerance per cut, so each shelf measured 478.4mm.
Using a chop saw or circular saw will ensure that your timber is cut accurately with precision speed. If you don’t have access to power tools, this project can also be completed with a universal saw. Ensure your timber is securely clamped, then slowly cut along your scribed line with a clean and sharp saw blade.
To ensure the sloping cut angle of your unit and shelves are correct and consistent, we recommend using an adjustable bevel or carpenter’s square throughout this project.
If you have an uneven or wonky floor, you can easily level your unit with two simple cuts. Measure and cut each outer length separately so the sloping fit of your unit is bespoke to your space.
Ensure that you vacuum or sweep sawdust and dirt away before painting this project.
Give the paint a really good stir before you begin work to mix any separated pigment and binder.
For the best finish, we recommend painting your ladder in stages, starting with the shelf joints. Allow each coat to dry and consider sealing your work for a longer life against scuffs and scratches.
Watch our top tip videos for our Wickes DIY skills, tips and advice.
Inspect the cables and blades of your power tools before they are plugged in to ensure they are in good condition. If any of the elements need to be replaced, make sure this is done before construction begins.
Always check the manufacturer’s label before applying any paints, stains or treatments.
Ensure your working area is well ventilated. Paint fumes can irritate your skin and eyes, so it’s a good idea to wear protective goggles, a dust mask, old clothes and gloves during this project.
For safety, we recommend wearing protective goggles, a dust mask and heavy-duty gloves when using a chop saw.
It’s a good idea to have another pair of hands around during this project to help with moving and lifting, as the unit can become heavy during construction.
Deciding on the design
This project is entirely custom to the space you have to work with, so it’s best to measure your space and decide on the design before you begin.
We designed our shelving unit with 5 shelves to maximise three lengths of 2.4m redwood PSE timber.
Our ladder had a gentle incline so our shelves were fairly narrow, however, you may wish to work with a different timber width depending on what you intend on storing.
Begin by taking your first length of timber to the wall where you intend to install your shelving.
With the top of the timber length against the wall, slowly move the bottom of the length away from the wall until you are happy with the angle of the slope. To ensure that the shelves are deep enough throughout the incline, it can be useful to use a book or an ornament as a gauge.
When you’re happy with the angle, butt up a scrap piece of timber or a flat surface against the side of your timber, then use a pencil to scribe a line on your timber length. This will be used to cut the end of your timber length for the angled slope.
Cutting the ladder sides
Laying the first timber length on your workbench, use your square to line up the blade with the angle of the scribed line and tighten the wing nut.
Taking the square to your unplugged chop saw, hold the square handle so it’s flat against the chop saw fence.
Use the handle to adjust the angle of the saw so it aligns with the angle of the square’s blade and then tighten.
Now place your length of timber on the chop saw so it’s flat against the fence. Without using power, pull the blade down to the timber to ensure the blade is aligned to the mark, then tighten the clamp.
Ensuring you have safety equipment on, cut along the scribed line with your chop saw to remove the marked wedge.
While your chop saw is as the correct angle, repeat the cut on your second timber length, to form both sides of the ladder.
When both lengths are cut, it’s a good idea to make a small marking on the top of each length to indicate which is the inner and which is the outer side. This will be useful later to ensure the sloping shelves run the correct way.
Cutting the shelves
Now return the chop saw angle to 90 degrees.
As we designed our ladder to maximise three full-lengths of timber, our shelves were cut to a precise measurement taking into account our saw cutting tolerance, to minimise waste.
Placing your third timber length on the chop saw and working from one end, use a tape measure to find the first shelf length and mark with a crow’s foot or straight line.
Align the blade to your scribed mark and tighten the chop saw clamp. Cut through the scribed mark then set the piece aside.
Unclamp the timber length, then working in the same way, measure and mark the timber before retightening the clamp.
Cut through the scribed line to create the next shelf, then repeat for the rest of the length.
Once complete, you can turn off or remove your chop saw from your workbench. It’s also a good idea to have a quick dust down to remove any sawdust and dirt.
Sanding the cut timber
Place all of your cut lengths on the workbench then take a fairly coarse sheet of sandpaper and wrap it around a wooden sanding block.
Lightly sand each cut end of timber to remove any snagged or frayed edges.
Marking the shelves
We decided to fix our shelves at regular intervals, starting from the centre of the longer lengths and working outwards, however, the choice is entirely yours. You can fix the shelves at regular intervals starting from the top, centre point or bottom of the longer lengths, or fix them with irregular spacing to accommodate specific items.
Once you have decided on your preferred placement, lay both lengths of the long timber side by side on your workbench. Ensure that one of your inside lengths is facing upwards and one of your outside lengths if facing upwards, so the cut lengths are sloping the same way. This is to help with the shelf placement and screwing later on.
Using your tape measure, measure and mark the halfway point of the first length using a crow’s foot.
To ensure that you have identical markings, use a straight edge to scribe a line across both lengths. If your square isn’t long enough, you can use the 90 degree angle built into many handsaws. Line up the handle with the edge of the timber then scribe across both widths.
Working outwards from the first line, use your tape measure to mark the remaining intervals.
As before, scribe across both lengths using your straight edge for identical markings.
Once you have marked the 90 degree shelf intervals, you will need to mark the precise angle of the shelves to match the cut slope of the outer ladder lengths. If you have adjusted the angle of your square from earlier, you can measure the cut angle of your longer length again.
Using your square, butt the handle up against the bottom of the timber so the corner of the handle and blade are aligned with the 90 degree scribe.
Holding your square firmly, scribe along the side of the blade to mark the first angle.
Repeat for all of the 90 degree markings on both lengths of timber.
Drilling the pilot holes
To guide the shelf positions and to prevent the timber from splitting once the shelves are secured to the longer lengths, you will need to pilot holes parallel to the angled lines. Whichever side of the angled line you choose, you will need to be consistent.
To ensure that the screws enter the centre of each shelf in the correct place, the pilot holes will need to be roughly half the thickness of the timber away from the angled line. It can be helpful to make small markings for these pilot holes before you begin, or you can gauge the distance by eye.
Using a wood drill bit that is smaller in diameter than your screws, pilot two holes parallel to each angled line.
Using your sandpaper and sanding block from earlier, give each pilot hole a gentle tickle to remove any snags or frays.
Countersinking the holes
Using a countersink is a great way to ensure your screw holes are finished neatly, making them easier to fill and helping to prevent the wood from splitting.
To ensure that you countersink on the outer side of each length, turn the length over that has the inside lines facing upwards, so the lines are facing down and countersink each pilot hole.
Repeat on the second length that has the lines on the outside.
Securing the shelves
Take the first length and turn it back over, so the countersunk holes are facing down and the lines are facing up. Turn the length onto its side, so the front of the unit is facing your workbench. This is to ensure the front of each shelf is flush and any overhang is angled towards the back.
Take your first shelf and line it up with the first angled line. Ensure that you line up the shelf to the side of the angled line that you have drilled the pilot holes on. You can use your square to double-check that your angle is spot on.
To ensure that the shelf is secured through the centre of the timber, you will need to pilot through the countersunk holes and into the shelf.
Hold the shelf securely then use your wood drill bit to pilot through each countersunk hole.
Now take your screws and use to your drill to drive one into each hole, so the head of the screw is sitting below the surface of the timber. Make sure to hold the shelf securely for a tight fit.
Repeat to secure the remaining shelves to the first length.
Once the shelves have been secured, turn the length back over so the outer length is lying flat against your workbench and the shelves are facing upwards.
Take your second outer length and carefully place it on top of the shelves.
Working in the same way, use your square to double-check the first shelf is aligned with the scribed angle on top of the length.
Pilot through each countersunk hole and into each shelf.
Holding the shelf firmly, drive a screw through each hole, then repeat for the remaining shelves.
Filling the countersunk holes
Now the ladder is constructed, it’s time to begin filling the screw holes for a flush finish. We used a wood filler to match our timber, but you should use the best colour to suit your project.
Using gloves, work in a generous amount of filler to each countersunk hole, packing it in tightly and then leave it to dry.
Now take your coarse sheet of sandpaper from earlier and wrap it around a small wooden block. Sand back each filled hole using the sanding block, until the filler is flush to the timber and the filled hole is undetectable to touch.
If you’re not painting your ladder, this is also a good time to lightly sand the pencil marks away.
When you have finished sanding, give your workbench a good brush, wipe and vacuum down to remove any sand dust and dirt.
Finishing your ladder
We chose to paint our ladder in a bold colour, but the choice is entirely yours.
If you choose to paint, we recommend applying two coats of your chosen colour, starting with the grooves and intricate areas first for the best finish.
Open your paint and give it a good stir to recombine any separate pigment. If you don’t have a paint tin opener to hand, you can use the curve of a teaspoon to release the lid without damaging the seal.
Using a brush and a liberal amount of paint, begin by working the paint into the joints where the shelves meet the outer lengths.
When the joints have been painted, use a roller to apply a generous amount of paint to the larger areas for a smooth finish.
Set the ladder aside to allow the first coat to dry for a couple of hours. You may find that the ladder has to be painted in stages to ensure you can get to all of the sides.
Repeat the process, applying a second to the entire ladder for a perfect finish then set aside to dry in a ventilated space for a couple of days.
And that’s it, your ladder shelving unit is complete and ready to display your books, plants and ornaments.
If you find that your unit gets any chips, dents or scratches over time you can use leftover paint to give the unit a quick touch up.
If your ladder shelving is in a high traffic area, you can also seal the paint with a wax a clear sealant to help harden and protect the surface.
Design the size to suit your space. Tall and narrow, short and wide, spacious or tight shelves; the opportunities are endless. To get started, consider where the unit will go and what you’re going to use it for.
Get creative with different shelf intervals. Depending on how you’re going to use the unit, a tall interval at the bottom of the unit or irregularly spaced shelves may work better. Draw up your design and measure out on your timber lengths to ensure the sizing is perfect for your needs.
Experiment with different timbers to suit your space. Try taking inspiration from your flooring or go with natural tones to complement a neutral space.
Paint the shelving to add a pop of colour to your space, clash with your walls or seamless blend into the background. You could even paint the outer lengths and shelves in different colours for a quirky finish.
Stain the timber to bring out the patterns of the grain for a natural aesthetic. Fill with monochrome ornaments and plenty of foliage for a nod to Scandi design.
Display your pictures frames, art and family snaps as a vertical gallery. Try painting the frames in clashing or complementary colours or stick to monochrome for a sophisticated scheme.
A book lovers heaven, use as storage for easy access to your favourite reads. Colour coordinate the books on each shelf for a trendy ombre of satisfying colour.
Position in a south-facing room or opposite a sunny window as a plant and propagation station. Perfect for displaying your potted house plants, succulents and cacti.
Use the ladder in a bathroom to hang towels, store toiletries and house your favourite thirsty plant. Paint with bathroom paint to protect against heat and humidity and add small hooks to the outer lengths for your dressing gowns.
Prop against the wall in your kitchen and use for your favourite cookery books, jars of cereal, biscuit tins and vases. Paint with kitchen emulsion for a greaseproof and wipeable finish.
Go for a wide hip height design for storing boots and shoes in a hallway. Use wide planks of timber and vary the shelf intervals for housing everything from wellies to sandals.