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My lovely wife, a.k.a. the chief cook and bottle washer, has been “asking”* me to add an extra, and wider (for less-frequently used bigger things), shelf in the top of the pantry. Our pantry, in a SW corner of the kitchen with a door at 45°, has a 9′ ceiling, and there’s plenty of space above the existing top shelf. The current shelves, on the wider 48″ South and West walls of the pantry, are 3/4″ thick MDF about 11-1/4” deep supported by 1×2’s attached to the walls. It’s basically L-shaped, but two separate pieces with the shorter West wall pieces butted up against the longer South wall pieces. The South wall pieces are supported on three edges by the 1×2’s, but the West wall pieces have 1×2 support on just two edges, and not much support where they butt up against the South wall piece (they may be toenailed). I did not like the minimal support for this edge, and thought there must be something better.

I considered cutting a single L-shaped piece out of MDF, but wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of maneuvering it through the door and up around the other shelves. I also considered mending plates on the bottom where the shelves meet. Then I remembered seeing somewhere (magazine? web site?) a technique using a rabbet, or lip, on the short side of one shelf that would fit into a stopped rabbet in the top end of the long side of the other shelf, and that’s what I wound up doing. A few 1×2’s, some MDF, a bit of router and chisel work, a handful of drywall screws, a little paint, and my significant other is happy with her new pantry shelves.

The above picture is from my SketchUp drawing of the South shelf piece, showing the 1″×14″ stopped rabbet in its top where the 1″ lip of the West shelf fits.

Have any other Toolmongers used this technique? Does anyone recall where it was published? Am I alone here?

*In a remarkable coincidence, the last time she “asked” me, the word of the day on my desk calendar was “importune” (\ˌim-pər-‘tün\v: to urge or beg with troublesome persistence), and I could not resist — I know I’m going to pay for this — pointing it out.

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11 Responses to Shelves At Right Angles

  1. Dot says:

    You are not alone here. Thank you for the beautiful job. Further importuning to follow.

  2. Mrten says:

    I’ve been wary of this kind of jointery because I’ve always thought that you’ve basically halved the thickness of the wood and therefore halved (or worse) the strength of the wood. Aren’t you afraid the MDF will tear out along the rabbet when your significant other has placed a lot of heavy items on the old shelf?

    Though I guess it’s better that the old situation.

  3. Ross says:

    I have used pocket screws to connect intersecting shelves. You’ll have to be sure that they intersect at a right angle or adjust your cross cut.

  4. fred says:

    I’m not a big fan of MDF for shelving that needs to carry any substantial load. While products like MDF, particleboard, plywood and melamine are used for shelving, my experience is that hardwood (maple and oak as examples) provide better strength and sag resistance for equivalent thickness. Adding a glued/screwed-on support member or cleat at the rear – and an edging at the front of the shelf will improve rigidity. Even a ¾ inch high (more is naturally better) piece of hardwood with grain orientation 90 degrees to the shelf laid on as an under-shelf support at the front of a shelf will beef up the structure. With this scheme – you are building something akin to a “channel iron” which has greater structural strength a piece of bar stock. The front and back pieces of wood – will also act as beams supporting the shelf.

  5. Gordon DeWitte says:

    @ Mrten: I haven’t tried testing to failure, or seeing how much weight it will hold, but, in reaching up and pulling down on the new shelf’s intersection point, it does seem much sturdier than the other shelves. In any case, none of the items stored up there are very heavy.

    @ Ross: I did use a pocket screw to pull the rabbeted joint together. Got a chance to try my new Kreg Micro Pocket Guide.

  6. Gordon DeWitte says:

    I guess that should be “none of the items…is very heavy”

  7. MeasureOnceCutTwice says:

    I agree with Mrten & Fred – seems scary over time. I stopped using plain mdf or particle board for structural things because they always seem to warp over time.

    As to splitting the thickness, some manufactured sheet goods seem to get less dense, and weaker in the middle. Most of the strength comes from the outer surfaces; the center is used mostly to keep the outer surfaces apart.

    My solution in that situation is to run both shelves full length – full overlap in the corner. If the uneven surface is undesirable, fill in the low part with another sheet.

    I admit I often go for the overkill approach, but I’d rather that than wimpy shelves overhead.

  8. ambush says:

    I don’t see what all the complaining is about, its stronger than the other shelves. I can see the point about using plywood, But Maple? If I were to use something like than in a pantry I wouldn’t need to make my own shelves.

  9. aaron says:

    another option is to simply reinforce the MDF shelving sag is going to be problem. Either with a thicker hardwood cleat along the front edge, or by supporting it more frequently to the wall. not a big deal, easy to do.

  10. fred says:

    I think Gordon’s clarification post says it all. If the shelf is just carrying a small load (something like boxes of cereal etc.) then everything should be OK. If this were a kitchen cabinet where you were going to pile up heavy dishes – or a completely different sort of application (like a long corner bookshelf) – then I would repeat my recommendation about hardwood.

  11. Bill says:

    This is an old-time method of supporting intersecting shelves, I’ve seen it in housees dating back to the 20s and earlier. I’m not crazy about using it with MDF, although you can beef up MDF pretty well by flooding the rabbet with water-thin CA glue, and just plasticize the layers together.

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