How to Build Shelves From Dowels

I needed a way to clear the clutter off my desk, so I came up with a shelving system made from dowels and scrap wood.

1/2-inch dowels form the shelves

This shelving system was inexpensive and easy to build, and it looks much better than some store-bought, plastic contraption.

The design doesn’t require a lot of materials: four oak boards, twelve 1/2-in. dowels, one 1/8-in. dowel and an oak 1×2. I started out using 3/4-in. divider boards, but the proportions looked a little goofy, so I ripped them down with my band saw to about 3/8 in. I think 1/4-in. plywood would work fine, but you might want to cap the ends with solid wood if you go that route. The materials cost me about $65.

After you cut the boards to size, it works best to clamp them all together and then drill the 1/2-in. holes through all of them at the same time with a Forstner bit. If the holes are the exact size as the dowels, you’ll end up fighting every dowel during assembly. I enlarged the holes a bit using a 3/8-in. dowel wrapped in rough sandpaper.

The 1/2-in. dowels are pinned in place with 1/8-in. dowels on both sides of the two end divider boards. Each dowel has only one pin at each end. I alternated the dowels so one has a pin on the inside of the end divider board and the dowel next to it has one on the outside. There are no pins needed on any of the middle divider boards.

Each divider board is separated at the top with one 1×2 at the front and one at the back. I secured the shelf by screwing down into the 1x2s from inside the cabinet. It’s easiest to finish all the pieces before you assemble them. I drilled 1/2-in. holes in a scrap piece of wood to hold the dowels in place while I brushed on the polyurethane.

The whole project took only a few hours of cutting and assembly, and a couple more of finishing and installation. I was concerned that individual papers might slip through the dowels, but that hasn’t been a problem. This was one of those projects that worked out even better than I envisioned—which isn’t always the case.

— Mark Petersen, Contributing Editor

For more shelving tips and ideas, check out these other stories:

Bookcase and Shelving Tips

Leaning Shelves

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