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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DIY Shelving Unit

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 installed 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 we 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 Watco’s medium walnut 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.

Style Your Mid-Century Modern Shelving Unit

Before you stand back and gawk at your shelving unit, let’s fill it up with everything you love.

If you’re filling your shelves with books, it will be straightforward. You can add bookends to hold the books up, or lay a few books flat for variety. I used these simple black bookends.

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:

18 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…

  3. What a great job! Can I ask you what it cost you to build it yourselves in materials? I really like this one I’ve seen online
    but I think I would need 2 of them for all of my stuff so then it starts to get a bit pricey. Would it be a lot cheaper to follow your lead? I like the idea of the staggered shelves to give is a more MCM feel. And wondering if I could do shallow shelves at the top and slope out to deeper shelves at the bottom. all advice welcome as my husband isn’t the best at DIY! Thanks again for the article!

    • Thanks, Kate! The cost mostly depends on whether you can find a deal on lumber (which has gotten expensive lately). Back in the day, we got these cherry planks in bulk on Craigslist for around $100, but we had to plane and sand them down. And the tracks and shelf brackets are pretty affordable, so overall this did not cost very much…maybe a couple hundred dollars.

      That vintage shelf set you linked to is beautiful and seems like a good price. So I could see that being a good deal even for two of them, saving you the time of planing, sanding and installing a DIY version.

      If you go the DIY route, you can have different shallow and deeper shelves. The shelf brackets come in different depth sizes, so you can mix and match.

      I like the staggered shelf look, too. I’ve been thinking about downsizing my book collection so I have more room to rearrange and style the shelves one of these days!

    • Or you might be able to find a deal on wood shelves that are already planed and sanded. That’s a good option that could be affordable and a pretty simple DIY to install the tracks and arrange the shelves. Lumber cost has been tough lately but I think it’s coming back down.

      I didn’t mean to discourage you from DIY, I just liked that shelf set you sent, and it was more affordable than a lot of the other wall units for sale. 😊 But DIY is definitely possible, too, and the cheapest option once you find the lumber.

  4. I’m just curious about the danish oil. Does that completely dry or do you have to seal it with something so the bottom of the books don’t get oil on them?

    • Hi Jennifer, we didn’t put any sealant over the Danish oil. It will dry completely but you might want to give it extra drying time, like a week, to let it fully dry before setting books on it.

  5. Thank you for writing this up.
    I ordered everything from Menards as you listed it and I really like the bronze finish on the John Sterling Dual-Trak standards and shelf brackets.
    One problem I ran into is that the mounting screws you linked to are for the single track standard. I discovered this when I saw that the heads are much smaller than the four mounting holes in the dual-trak standard.
    I checked the Menards website and could not find any mounting screws for the dual-trak system. Any tips on how you made these small screws work with the larger holes?


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