A how (not) to guide to DIY alcove shelves

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Let me just make something very clear from the start. This is no tutorial. This is not a “How To” guide. If anything, this is a “How Not To” guide. DIY or any kind of hard labour is not my strong point and I’m the first to admit that. I’m organised, I’m creative, I get s**t done, but I do this by developing design ideas then efficiently coordinating others to do it. In my profession as an interior design project manager, I rely on the skills of others to make things look beautiful and bring my ideas to reality rather than subject my clients to the work of my own fair hands. When it comes to getting my hands dirty or any kind of physical effort, you probably don’t want me on your team. However, what I do have in spades is a can-do positive attitude! So think of this more as a demonstration that if I can do it, anyone can do it.

Bespoke joinery can be a wonderful thing and I love using it in my projects. It gives a distinctive feel to a space and can work wonders creating stunning features and smart storage solutions. However, I know that the budget doesn’t always stretch to custom made options and so this post is about how to achieve a unique look without calling in the pros.

Surbiton Contemporary Media Furniture and Bookcase
Contemporary style alcove shelves by Brayer Design

Check out these super smart alcove shelves. This requires someone with skill, experience and good quality materials. I can design something like this and project manage someone else to build you shelves like these but, like most of us, I lack the knowledge or expertise to know how to do it myself.

Bespoke joinery like this is the dream and is absolutely worth the money if your budget allows. However, I’m a firm believer of spending within your means and sticking to your budget so if it’s not for you then that’s ok. But what is one to do with an empty alcove? Leave it vacant, wasting space, while all your junk belongings pile up on the floor? I don’t think so.

In my opinion, there’s no point trying to recreate something that you know will fall short of the original idea. A better idea is to go in a completely different direction and make it your own. I’ve taken a simple alcove and come up with a neat, (fairly) easy and pretty inexpensive idea to create your own unique alcove storage that looks good and saves those pennies.

Before and after:

Not bad for a rookie! Here’s what I did…

1. Shopping!

First you’ll need your shelves. My first thought was the IKEA Lack floating shelves but my nearest IKEA is about an hour away whereas Homebase is just around the corner, so Homebase wins. I bought three white 60cm floating shelves for £16.99 each. I also bought some Ronseal All Surface Primer which was £12.99 for 750ml. Total spend so far = £63.96.

2. Writing on the wall

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESNow you need to mark up where you want to position your shelves. I’ve picked three as it’s a visually pleasing number and I can arrange them evenly but it depends on your space. You’ll need a spirit level, tape measure and your trusty pencil. Pop it behind you ear to show people you really know what you’re doing.

Using your tape measure, mark up where you want to fit your shelves. I positioned the first one about 40cm up from the base cupboard, the next about 25cm above and same again for the top one.

FYI – I am holding it straight, the camera is wonky.

Now hold a shelf up at the level you want it with the spirit level on top and adjust until it’s level. Use the pencil to draw a line under the shelf. If you can get someone to help you, this makes it much easier. Or you can do what I did and stubbornly refuse anyone’s help and drop the damn thing a few times before getting it right.

Now measure the distance between the end of the shelf and the bracket then mark that distance from the edge of the alcove. Hold up the bracket and draw little circles where the screws need to go.

Repeat for the other shelves.

3. It’s drilling time

So…drilling into the solid walls of a Victorian house is harder than it looks. Each bracket had 10 holes which meant I had to drill 30 holes. I’ve watched tradesmen drilling into walls countless times and they make it look so easy. I couldn’t see any reason why I wouldn’t be able to do it. I knew what I had to do, use a small drill bit to make a small hole then gradually increase the size without putting too much pressure. Sounds so simple.SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

After much shouting and swearing (apologies to my neighbours) my husband came in to see what the hell was going on. “The walls hate me” I declared. He backed out of the room.

Eventually, I did manage to get the first bracket up. It wasn’t perfect but the shelf covers the mess I made with the drill.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESIt’s pretty much level. The bubbles are within the lines so I’m counting that as a win.

I then moved on to the next two brackets and thats when things went from bad to worse. Two broken drill bits and more shouting and swearing later, I had still not managed to put them up. To make matters worse, I had slammed the drill into the wall when one of the drill bits broke and there was now a big dent in the plaster. With the the third shelf, all the holes seemed fine but when I tightened the screws into them, plaster began buckling and falling off. This time, the mess was too big to be concealed by the shelves. I won’t show you the pictures to save you from having to gasp in horror. Tantrums were thrown, sulking ensued and I went to bed feeling defeated. That pencil behind my ear wasn’t fooling anyone.

The next morning I awoke with a new found confidence. I don’t know where it came from but I was determined that I would be able to do this. I filled in the craters in the wall from the day before and patched up the paintwork. Somehow, I managed to get all three brackets up in (more or less) the right positions. Hurrah!

4. Paint party

With the shelf brackets (finally) up, I moved on to painting. Firstly, I covered the shelves with a layer of the Ronseal primer. It’s pretty useful as it claims to stick to anything, even plastic and glass, making it ready for painting. Does it work? Time will tell, but so far so good.

I had the shelves up on their sides so that I could reach all sides at once but had a bit of trouble with the newspaper sticking to them as the paint dried. My solution was to rest each shelf on two wooden disposable chopsticks which lifts them off the paper but remains fairly stable. You’re welcome for that one.

Once the primer was dry, it was time to add some colour. I used Farrow & Ball Peignoir simply because I’ve been trying to find an excuse to use it since it ever since I laid eyes on it earlier this year. I also painted the middle shelf Farrow & Ball Strong White to match the picture rail, and just to mix things up a bit. I already had the Strong White so just bought the Peignoir. A 750ml tin cost me £22.00 but if you’re trying to keep costs down then you don’t have to use a designer paint. Total spend = £85.96.

My advice (in a “do as I say, not as I do” kinda way) is to keep the coats thin to avoid drip marks. I globbed it on and paid the price which meant I had to sand down drip marks in between coats, thus creating more work for myself. *sigh*

5. Assembling and styling

With the shelves painted, I popped them onto the brackets and fixed them on with the little screws. These come with little white stickers to conceal the screws on the underside so I stuck these on and painted over them, giving the shelves a final coat in situ.

And we’re done! The top one’s a little wonky and there’s a gap at the side but I don’t think it’s that noticeable really. The staggered effect gets over the fact that I couldn’t get an off-the-rack floating shelf in exactly the right size and gives it a quirky look. The combination of paint colours also helps to give it a more unique, customised style. The quality isn’t as good as the bespoke route, not being wood and all, but it works perfectly well as a budget option.

You could try having them all on one side with a tall plant filling the space, and it would work really well with bright colours or an ombre effect. There’s no reason why it has to be in an alcove either. And the best thing is, you can say you did it yourself!

Now all you have to do is style them up and snap your very own DIY shelfie. Please excuse my terrible photography skills.

Whether you can relate or think I’m a complete idiot, I hope you found this post either useful or entertaining (or maybe both). If you’ve been contemplating your own DIY shelving project, I think I’ve shown that if I can do it, anyone can!

Perhaps I’ll do another DIY post once I’ve recovered, but for now, I think I’ll have a lie down.

J x

2 Replies to “A how (not) to guide to DIY alcove shelves”

  1. Chopsticks are so useful and versatile! ‘A’ for effort on this one, well done. I guess this means I have no excuse not to sort out my alcove then!

    Liked by 1 person

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