Got old drawers? How to repurpose old drawers into a shelving unit

In our last post, Rita told you all about why we decided to make a wall shelf out of old drawers. Today  I’ll focus more on how we did it.

This (sorta) Old Life: How to build a drawer shelf

I had a few things in mind right away. I didn’t want to mount the drawer’s bottom side against the wall. Doing some research we saw quite a few like this.

Drawer shelves from Shades of Grey

These are cool shelves made from drawers that you can find on Shades of Grey. (Clicking on the image will take you to the site.)

Our problem with these are that the shelves are too shallow. Although they look nice, none of the ones we saw in this orientation would be deep enough to hold the items we wanted to store in them. I didn’t want to sacrifice function just to have something that looks cool.

I was also set on keeping the drawer orientation just the way they’d sit in a dresser. Something about keeping the integrity of the drawer, you know?

This (sorta) Old LIfe: Drawers for drawer-shelf

The challenge was to create a shelf from the drawers that:

1. Provides the storage we need.

2. Could stay up on the wall (and not tear the wall down).

3. Looks good and keeps the drawer (primarily) a drawer.

Read on to see how we solved it.

Step 1: Measure to see if this idea’s even workable.

This (sorta) Old LIfe: Measuring height and depth for drawer shelf

Figuring out just the right height and depth for our over-the-toilet shelves made from old drawers.

We took the drawers up to the bathroom and held them in place where we wanted them to go. The width was perfect but they were too deep.

We wanted them to hold towels, t.p., soap, and other such supplies. We wanted the shelving unit to sit over the toilet tank. And we didn’t want to hit our heads on it while taking care of bathroom business.

Since I’m the tallest one using this bathroom, I sat on the toilet and held up a piece of scrap wood to mark the height, and then we used a ruler to determine the maximum depth we could go.

This (sorta) Old Life: Measuring for drawer shelf

Next, we did a dry fit of sorts. We put a towel in the drawer and measured its width to see if it would fit in the depth of shelf we came up with in the previous step.

This (sorta) Old Life: Measuring drawer shelf

This was a go, so it was on to the next step.

Step 2: Create the design.

Once we knew we could get the function we wanted, the next big challenge was figuring out how to build some structural integrity into the drawers so that they could hold weight. After a couple of glasses of wine, a nice dinner and some pencil sketches we had it worked out.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the sketches to share, but that’s OK. You’ll see how it all played out in the next steps.

Step 3:  Cut the drawers down.

The first order of business was to cut the drawers down. They were too deep. My first thought was to hike the blade up way high on my table saw and just cut the back off. After examining the drawers more closely, though, it looked like the best way was going to be taking the drawers apart and cutting the pieces down individually before reassembling them again.

First we took the drawer front and sides off:

This (sorta) Old Life: Disassembly for drawer shelf

During the design stage, we decided it would be great if the drawer front could fold down. That way we wouldn’t have to strain to get things into and out of the high top drawer, and we wouldn’t put more weight on the shelf by pushing things down into it. Since we had to take the drawer apart to cut it down, it wouldn’t be that much more work to create a hinged door.

That meant I first had to cut off of the front the groove that the drawer bottom fit into. (Those grooves are called rabbets, if you want to get technical.) That’s so I could attach hinges that would let the drawer front fold down.

This (sorta) Old Life:  Drawer shelves

This (sorta) Old Life:  Drawer shelves rabbet

Then I ran the drawer bottom through the table saw:

This (sorta) Old Life:  Drawer shelves cutting down the bottom

I probably reduced the depth about 5 inches or so. This was deep enough to hold quite a bit of stuff but shallow enough that they wouldn’t stick way out from the wall.

Step 4: Making it structurally sound

The next thing to deal with was making the shelf structurally sound when attached to the wall. I decided to use a thick piece of plywood between the two drawers and attach them from the rear with pocket screws. This would make the two drawers into a solid one piece unit.

This (sorta) Old Life: Drawer shelf attached to back piece

Here are the two drawers with the piece of plywood between them.

My thinking was that the downward force of heavy objects in the drawer would be absorbed by the whole unit this way. If I had simply drilled holes in the back of the drawers and attached them to the wall with wall anchors, it would be tough to put anything heavy in them without putting a lot of stress on the wall anchors. I don’t think it would be a solution that would hold up over time.

This (sorta) Old Life: Drawer shelf attached to back piece

Here you can see the pocket screws connecting the plywood to the bottom drawer. These don’t show because this is the back of the unit.

Aesthetically I liked the idea of a one piece unit. It made the drawers more of a piece of furniture. The size and shape were proportionally just right for the space. So, I measured out a piece of plywood from some scrap I had lying around from a previous project and cut it to fit. I left enough room between the drawers to comfortably fit tall items but not so much that the top drawer would be too tall. I wanted to be able to put tall shampoo bottles and a stack of folded towels in the bottom drawer and still have enough room to make them easy to grab.

This (sorta) Old Life: Drawer shelf attached to back piece

This is what it looked like from the side with both drawers attached to the plywood.

Step 5: Re-attach the drawer fronts

While I was working on attaching the drawers to the plywood, Rita was giving the drawer fronts a good sanding. We left a bit of the original gold paint on the edges of them, but we put a clear poly on the sanded surface. We liked the warm tones of the wood.

This (sorta) Old Life: Drawer shelf sanding the drawer front

Once that was done, we were ready to re-attach them. Aside from weight issues, we thought the unit would function better with drawer fronts that open out. It gives us easy access to the shelf. It’s easier to clean, and with the drawer front open we can easily see the contents. Thankfully the drawer fronts were nailed on with a couple of finish nails instead of dovetailed with a complex joint. It was easy enough to pull out the nails and remove it.

We made a trip over to the Depot for small hinges and cabinet door catches to hold the doors in place when closed. It was pretty simple to measure everything, drill some pilot holes, and install all the hardware.

This (sorta) Old Life: Drawer shelf with drawer front opened

Here you can see the drawer front folded down. We used simple piano hinges at the bottom of the drawer front. The cabinet door catch at the top of the front holds it in place when it’s in the up position.

This (sorta) Old Life: Drawer shelf with drawer front closed

Here’s how the catch looks when the drawer front is closed.

Step 6: Add finishing touches

While we were at the Depot I got some flat corner braces to reinforce the corners at the bottom of both drawers.

This (sorta) Old Life: Drawer shelf with corner braces

I didn’t think this was totally necessary, but a little extra support sure can’t hurt.

Then I added some trim  around all the edges to clean up the look a bit. Also not a necessary step but I like the way it turned out.

This (sorta) Old Life: Drawer shelf with trim added

The piece was finished simply with a coat of clear poly. The natural wood gives a warm earthy feel to the bathroom that we really like.

The final finishing touch was to spray paint the original drawer handles. We thought about trying to find some cool new ones, but we didn’t want to go to the extra expense or trouble. We painted them with some oil-rubbed bronze paint that we already had.

This (sorta) Old Life: handles ready for spray paint

Sticking the screws of the handles into an old piece of styrofoam made painting easy.

And that’s it

The drawer shelf has been working really well for us. It has quite a bit of storage and is super easy to access. The weight of the contents is no problem at all even though it’s attached with only 2 wall anchors. The structure of the unit is solid and should stand up to years of use.

This (sorta) Old Life: Side view of drawer shelf

If you’ve got any questions we didn’t answer here, feel free to leave a comment or email them to us.

And just for fun, here’s a before/after of the toilet area. The drawer shelf isn’t the only reason this part of the bathroom is better, but it sure helped a lot!

This (sorta) Old Life: toilet before after

Sharing at Funky Junk Interiors, where you can see all kinds of cool repurposed projects.

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