Build Your Own Mid-Century Modern Shelving Unit

I fell in love when I first discovered the modern shelving units common in mid-century homes. Don’t they make you want to grab a book and sit down for a read…or just curl up in a blanket and gawk at the beautiful books and shelves all morning long?

If your home doesn’t come with a modern wall unit built into it, you have a couple of options. You can purchase a ready-made shelving system like this. It is easier and the units are lovely, but it will cost you more.

Your other option is to go the DIY route, save money and build something that’s unique to your house. After shopping around, this is what Eric and I decided to do. Follow this guide to create your own mid-century modern shelving unit.

DIY mid-century modern bookshelves

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Find the Wall Studs

First you need to use a stud finder to locate the studs in the wall where you want to hang your shelving unit. Mark the stud locations with a pencil. Your studs will provide the strongest support for installing the vertical metal tracks to hold your bookshelves.

Plan Your Shelving Unit Design

When you find your studs, run painter’s tape over them vertically to help visualize and plan your shelving unit. Decide how many metal tracks and which studs you want to use. Then run tape horizontally to plan how many bookshelves you want and where you want them.

Planning a mid-century modern wall unit layout

We originally planned to center our unit on the wall, but after seeing the location of our studs we realized that wouldn’t work. We decided to align the unit to the left instead, leaving room for seating on the right side.

Gather Materials

Now that you have an idea of how many shelves and tracks you want to use, order your materials. You will need:

The metal tracks should be long enough to run nearly floor-to-ceiling in each stud you’re using. We used two 39-inch tracks in each stud, one on top of the other, to reach our desired length and avoid having to ship the extra-long 70-inch tracks.

Mid-century modern shelving unit and reading corner

You might want to order extra brackets so you can try different layouts. You’ll need one bracket for each track that each shelf crosses. If you want to have a long shelf that spans four tracks, you’ll need four brackets for it.

It’s a good idea to purchase extra wood, too. We used raw cherry wood that Eric found on Craigslist and planed to 11.5 inches deep and 0.75 of an inch thick. Mid-century modern shelving units are often made with teak or maple wood, which are good options if you can find them.

Install the Tracks

Once you have your materials, use wall mounting screws to install the tracks first. Make sure each track is level and parallel with the other tracks. Drill holes and screw each track directly into a wall stud.

Try Different Layouts

Next you will need to finalize your layout before cutting your wood to fit. Do you want to make the most of your space and have a lot of long bookshelves? Do you want your shelves equally spaced apart or staggered vertically?

Trying different layouts for a DIY bookshelf wall unit

Some mid-century shelving units have shelves staggered at different levels like this. I love the look of staggered shelves, but I wanted to maximize my shelving space to hold my book collection.

My wall unit has one long shelf, two medium shelves and four short shelves, with 16 inches of vertical space in between each row. I split up the shelves on the top so I could hang this clock and give the unit some extra mid-century modern flair.

Measure the lengths between your tracks and figure out how long you need to cut your bookshelves.

Mid-century modern shelving unit filled with books

Cut, Sand and Stain Your Bookshelves

If the wood you picked was not pre-cut and prepared, now’s the time to get it ready.

  1. Use a benchtop planer to plane each board repeatedly until they are 0.75 of an inch thick, or your desired thickness.
  2. Hand plane the sides of each board until they are 11.5 inches deep, or your desired depth.
  3. Hand plane the ends square to your desired lengths.
  4. Patch any holes with wood putty.
  5. Sand each board.
  6. Finish the boards with your favorite shade of Danish oil. This unit is finished with a medium walnut natural Danish oil.

Install Brackets

Hardware for building mid-century modern wall unit

Hang the brackets and shelves where you want them on the unit. Use a pencil to mark through the holes of the brackets onto the shelves. Remove one shelf at a time and screw the corresponding brackets into place with your shelf mounting screws. Then hang everything back on the tracks.

Fill Your Mid-Century Modern Shelving Unit

It’s almost time to stand back and gawk at your shelving unit. But first let’s fill it up with everything you love.

If you’re filling your shelves with books, it will be straightforward. I like to lay a few books flat and add decor items where I can squeeze them in. You can opt for fun bookends that express your personality, go for a modern industrial look or keep it simple.

I was very close to getting the cat bookends but decided on these simple black bookends instead. They disappear on the shelves and keep the focus on the pretty cherry wood and books.

Bookends on DIY wall unit

If you’re not displaying so many books but more decor items, you have a lot of room to be creative with your layout. Here are some ideas for styling your bookshelves and adding book toppers.

I hope you take the DIY route and build a custom shelving unit for your home. Send me pics of your creation!

You might also like these mid-century modern decor ideas:

DIY Shelving Unit


8 thoughts on “Build Your Own Mid-Century Modern Shelving Unit”

  1. You guys did an awesome job on the shelving! Love it!! After planning, figuring out and doing..your teamwork made it happen and it turned out great! (P.S…Lovin’ the titles on your books!)

    • Thanks Lexie, I’m so glad this helped! We wanted a shelving unit at our place and had a hard time finding all the pieces, so hopefully this makes it easier for people. 🙂

  2. Mmm, what if you’re building these on a wall which may not have studs? Like a closet wall that projects out into the bedroom…


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