Tips and Tools: Adjustable Shelving

In-process pieces of varying heights present a storage challenge. This shelf system utilizes movable ware boards to maximize vertical space.

I have set up eight different studios in twelve years, always with very little money or time to dedicate to the project. This July I moved for what I hope is the last time, and, in celebration, made the shelves I have always wanted! I thought a lot about the design, wanting to create an adjustable system for storing and moving wet work in progress. The materials are relatively cheap and the finished shelves can be made with limited carpentry skills. One of the nicest features is that the shelves are in fact ware boards and can be used to transport pots around the studio or to the kiln. Since I like to make a variety of pot sizes, effective and efficient shelving space has generally been a problem for me. Coil-built jars were always too tall for my tallest shelf, yet I wasted vertical space with plates or small cups. I wanted something that was flexible, holding many smaller pieces in the same space as a few taller ones.

1 Arm-braces for supporting shelves made with 11½-inch lengths of 2×4 boards are placed every 7½ inches vertically.

2 View of the installed ladder-style shelf unit, prior to placing the ware boards/shelves onto the arm braces.

Customizing for Your Space

These shelves can be customized to fit your space. Here is how I did it. The space I have has a pretty low ceiling, so I made the vertical pieces of wood the entire height of the wall, resting on the baseboard molding for stability. I used two eight-foot 2×4s and cut them to 7 feet 6 inches each in length. For placing the arm braces, which are also made from 2×4s, I decided to space each shelf 7½ inches apart so that I could use every brace for shelves when working on small pieces, or skip one or two for taller pieces. For the shelves, I chose standard 12-inch-wide boards (which are actually about 11½ inches wide), so we cut the arm braces to 11½ inches in length to accommodate the width of the ware boards. I have 10 braces on each side, adding just under 20 feet of board length. The shelf supports under each arm brace are made from cutting a 2×4 into a right-angle triangle. To cut the braces for 10 shelves, I used another 6-foot length of a 2×4 board. In total, I needed six 8-foot-long 2×4s for this shelf unit.

Installing the Shelves

The length of the ware board/shelves is determined by where the studs are in the wall. Make sure to screw the vertical 2×4s directly into a stud so that the structure will be strong. This was the only tricky part of creating the shelving for us, but shouldn’t be an issue for you. My new studio is in a 100-year-old coal company built right on the railroad tracks. It was built in small sections at a time, which resulted in its studs being totally inconsistent, starting and stopping wherever they pleased. They are not right behind the wallboard either, so it was extremely difficult to find them. We had to drill about 30 holes in the wall to find where we could safely put the boards and have them secure—this added about 3 extra hours and nearly cost me my marriage! This resulted in my backboards being 40 inches apart. Hopefully, with a stud finder you can easily determine where the studs are. Most buildings have studs on 16-inch centers, so you could put the vertical 2×4 boards 32 inches or 48 inches apart.

For shelves, I was able to find some boards kicking around the shop to use and I appreciated reusing wood as well as the variety this gave in appearance to the shelves. I also bought 4 new 8-foot lengths of 1×12 boards to cut into 8 shelves of 48 inches long each.

3 Supports under each arm brace are right-angle triangles cut from 2×4s.

Flexibility with this shelving unit comes from placing shelves on every arm brace or skipping a few braces between shelves to accommodate taller pots, creating a space-saving shelving unit with ware boards that can be removed to transport pottery.

We made all the cuts on a miter saw, but a circular saw would work. The only other materials needed were screws. We used 2½-inch general construction screws for putting the braces together and 6-inch timberlock heavy-duty screws for securing the shelves into the wall studs. Any 4-inch fastener will suffice, but due to our crazy old building, some of the studs were not flush with the wall and we needed an extra long screw to hit them.

Cut all your braces and vertical pieces to length. To cut the triangles  for the brace supports on a miter saw, simply turn the saw blade to a 45° angle and flip the wood back and forth for each cut. 

The next step is assembly. Mark the vertical pieces for the brace spacing (in our case, every 7½ inches, which means with a ¾-inch-thick ware board, you have 6½ inches of usable vertical space on your shelves). Lay the verticals on a flat space on their sides and screw the arm braces in from the back using 2 screws per brace. Attach each triangle support with one screw into the arm brace from the front (be sure to pre-drill a hole, otherwise the wood might split). Once you have assembled both units, attach them into a stud using a 4-inch or longer screw in 3 places. Add your ware boards, make some pots to fill them, and enjoy your adjustable shelves!

the author Maria Dondero is a studio potter and teacher living in Athens, Georgia. She received her MFA from the University of Georgia in Athens in 2008. In addition to running Marmalade Pottery, she also runs Southern Star Studio, a former industrial facility she renovated into a studio and gallery. She rents space there to many other local ceramic artists. To learn more visit,


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