How to Add Shelves to a Closet

It has become clear to me that the best way to understand the Handy Maniac’s lessons is to take a hands-on approach. Just listening to someone tell you how to paint the Sistine Chapel isn’t going to turn you into Michelangelo.  Also, if I keep blogging for free, I may need a more lucrative skill set.

On my first day of working with the Handy Maniac, we head off on foot to a nearby job in Brooklyn. I think of myself as a brisk walker, but I am winded keeping up on the 10-block trip. By the time we arrive, my thermos of coffee is almost gone. My suggestion that we, “take-5 for a cup of Joe,” is vetoed, in spite of my obvious grasp of trade lingo.

HM sets the pace for the day's work.

HM sets the pace for the day's work.

We are at a newly built townhouse, an usual thing for Brooklyn. Or at least novel for HM, who tends to work on OLD SHIT – NOTHING BUILT AFTER 1900.  He likes to call himself A BROWNSTONE MECHANIC. The good news is most of the angles in this new construction are close to ninety degrees and most of the surfaces are level, unlike most places he works. The bad news (for the owners), is that the closets, which are huge by New York City standards – like, The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe huge – just have a single clothing bar and shelf. Any New Yorker cannot stand this waste of space. And so we are here to add shelves.

HM has already been here to measure the closets and discuss the best shelving options with the owner. The rooms have high ceilings so there is lots of unused space. HM suggests two additional shelves for long-term storage, pointing out that the second shelf has to be more shallow in order to squeeze items between the opening of the closet door and the higher shelf.  (Most people would put two of the same width shelves up and then not be able to put anything on the higher shelf. ROOKIE MISTAKE.) For the nursery closet, they agree on one additional shelf that is higher and wider, to accommodate larger items like suitcases.  (HM prides himself on coming up with solutions that fit your actual life, NOT SOME PRETTY SHIT THAT LOOKS GOOD IN MAGAZINES.)

The house is home to twin boys and their nanny has nice classical music playing and has just gotten the boys down for a morning nap. So HM and I tiptoe around as he whispers orders: “Empty the top shelf of the twins’ closet.” I promptly pull a load of empty gift boxes and plastic drawers onto my face. Don’t worry: I am okay.

Next, I have to help HM make hatch marks on the walls where we will install the shelves.

He holds the laser level to project a red line onto the wall. “Get your head out of the light!” he barks. I duck my head and once he gives me the OK. I draw half-inch pencil lines in the middle of the laser line – “about an inch from each corner, and then about 8 inches away….You need two points to make a line,” he says, with a touch of impatience.  Duh. If someone had told me that we were making a line maybe I would have figured out where to put the marks myself. Was he born knowing not to dangle a participle?

Once I understand the task, we find our groove. He holds the laser, I move the step ladder, nimbly climb to the top, pencil my line, pirouette down the ladder, move it to the other side. Repeat. He has always said that new people who work for him (aka SMART DUMMIES) need to get the job into their body. “Have you ever seen cooks in a restaurant kitchen? It is an intricate ballet of working in confined spaces. THEY NEVER EVEN RUB ASSES. You have to be aware of what you’re doing and have a sixth sense about the people and environment around you.”

HM disappears and I jump to my laptop to record our progress. I don’t want him to see me multi-tasking because he likes my undivided attention. I jump up when he returns with the sticks for the shelves.

“CLEATS. NOT STICKS,” he informs me.  He has pre-cut and pre-painted the CLEATS (the pieces of wood that will hold up the shelves) to the proper length. I point out that this is like on cooking shows when they have already chopped all the vegetables. I thought he would be pleased with the continuation of the chef analogy. He is not.

The HM takes measurements, demonstrating the ballet of confined spaces.

The HM takes measurements, demonstrating the ballet of confined spaces.

He uses a caulk gun to draw "wiggly" lines of construction adhesive along the back of the cleats. (I am informed that the wiggly technique provides better glue coverage than drawing straight lines.) He presses the cleats onto the wall, lining them up with the top of my excellent hatch marks and then...

“That’s an awfully writerly term,” he complains.

“What do you call them?”

“HASH marks.”

“That’s a way to prepare a potato.”


I do.

As I was saying: Next he “shoots the cleats,” into the drywall using his nail gun. He is not trying to hit studs. When dry, the adhesive will hold. “With this technique it’s really the glue holding these. The nails are just extra protection.”

"What if you don't have a nail gun?" I ask. He sighs. "That's a whole other technique. Then you must locate the studs and screw the cleats into those, in which case you don't need to use the glue.  I use the screw-stud method for shelves that are going to hold really heavy things like books. But this is a faster, easier method for clothes closets and smaller shelves."

I am proud of myself for probing to ask the tough questions. Because they reveal important details like THIS.

So, to continue in the nail-gun-glue technique: Next he spackles the nail holes and does a quick paint job to smooth over the spackled holes.

Now it’s time to prep the shelves themselves. He has bought pre-painted shelving that must be cut to fit exactly on top of the cleats. The first step is to determine if the angles in the closet are square (they usually aren’t). He takes the L-shaped ruler (aka “framing square”) and slides it into the corner of the closet, to see if it fits perfectly. It doesn’t.  Even in this new construction, the angles are not completely square, indicating we will have to do some FINAGLING.

When we measure, we learn that the back side of the shelf needs to be 72 inches, and the front side, 72 1/4 inches. But you can’t just leave one side square and bevel one side in by an 1/4 of an inch. You have to bevel the cut of each side of the shelf by a 1/8th of an inch. (I made this up because I spaced out while he was measuring and cutting. But I am test smart so I am gamble on being right, and it turns out I AM.)

After HM has measured and re-measured where the shelves are to go in the closet, we head outside to cut. (Recall we are in a home with infant twins. “It’s all part of the job. Sometimes you have to work around PEOPLE. So you have to do your LOUD WORK outside.”  I refrain from any comments about what he defines as LOUD.)

There is more measuring and re-measuring outside. It seems like carpentry is a lot of measuring, and checking your measurements. And then checking them again. Which is to say it requires patience. I come from a long line of people who like to “wing it.” Which may explain why the house my father built had a six-inch slope on the ground floor and backwards hot and cold water faucets.

It also may explain why I am hungry and wondering when lunch is.

Once he measures, he draws the line using the framing square. Then comes my part of the job. I have to stand on the board to keep it steady while he measures and cuts.

The writer weighs in with her skill set.

The writer weighs in with her skill set.

He asks for the pencil he gave me earlier. I panic, but then realize I have put it in my back pocket. And sat on it. So there is no longer a point. He sighs and takes the pencil and whips out his utility knife and starts shaving the point.

“What am I doing?” he asks in that tone that makes me know I will be wrong.

I am weak with hunger. I don’t even try: “Sharpening a pencil?”


What?”  I have been with HM a long time and this a new on one me. “What is the derivation of that?”

“Log cabins, candle light, homework. You know.”

“Is that a real thing? Or did you make that up?”

“It’s just an expression: ABE LINCOLN THAT BAD BOY.”

He smiles, proud. And draws the line with his newly Abe-Lincolned pencil.  

And then he takes his jig saw and turns it upside down. This is HM’s trick. “Most people cut it the other way, and have trouble following the line. But this way, I can see where I want to go.”

I have to admit, that is really using the old noggin.

Above: ABE LINCOLN THAT BAD BOY. Below: HM's signature reverse jig-saw technique.

We head back upstairs to the closets. Finally, after all of the cutting and measuring,  he lays the now-perfectly fitting shelf in. …

Wait. What’s that cussing?

Even HM gets measurements wrong sometimes. He has to recut one of the shelves. Guess it’s not quite like that cooking show after all.

I decide this is a perfect time for this smart dummy to fetch lunch. HM requests McDonald’s. Since I have moved more in the past few hours than I usually do sitting on my butt writing all day I agree that I have earned a fast-food lunch. But I do opt for the artisanal chicken sandwich with my fries.

When I get back, HM has decided that the wide shelves need extra support. So he has added one small vertical cleat in the middle. Then he screwed one metal shelf-bracket onto the vertical cleat and the underside of the shelf and the cleat.

HM adds a shelf-bracket to support a wide shelf that will hold heavy items. (Note the caulk gun used to "wiggle" the construction adhesive onto the cleats before shooting them on.)

HM adds a shelf-bracket to support a wide shelf that will hold heavy items. (Note the caulk gun used to "wiggle" the construction adhesive onto the cleats before shooting them on.)

Now that the shelves are done, we are ready for another task I am capable of at my apprentice level: I wipe them down and re-load the closet.

It kills me to admit this to HM, because I suspect I will never hear the end of it: But I have to admit that I have a greater sense of satisfaction from the day’s work than I usually have. Shelves have been built, a closet has been improved, a homeowner’s life made easier. No one is going to give me notes or ask for a 7th draft. No one is going to tell me he likes my voice but wonders if I have enough followers. Someone is just going to be really happy she has a place to put her winter sweaters and breast pump.

“THAT’S WHAT GETS ME OUTTA BED,” says HM. “And it’s always something different.”

My eyes light up. Because I realize: We will never run out of material.

Note the shorter top shelf. And VOILA BABY: A more functional closet. An honest day's work.

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