DIYdiy projects

diy project: susannah’s atlas-inspired shelves

by Grace Bonney

last weekend ac and i scooted up to williamsburg for burgers at dumont burger (yum) and some quick book browsing at spoonbill and sugartown (where i always end up buying a handful of new pancake and franks cards). while looking sifting through a table of incredible penguin books (and drooling over their covers), i looked up and caught a beautiful set of atlas shelves. as my mind starting mentally calculating how long it would take me to save up for a set of the real things i remembered that we had a fantastic diy-version of these shelves waiting to be posted! d*s reader susannah becket was a finalist in this year’s diy contest and was kind enough to send in the full instructions for her budget-friendly atlas-inspired shelving. if you’ve got a wall of books at home like we do, this project will certainly come in handy. click here for the full post, more pictures and instructions or just click “read more” below. thanks to susannah for sharing!

Susannah’s Atlas-Inspired Shelves


  • Minwax “English Chestnut” wood stain, or desired brand/color
  • Unfinished 1×10 pine board cut to size (more on sizes and quantity below)
  • Two IKEA “Broder” L-feet w/brace
  • Two IKEA “Broder” 80-inch posts
  • Twelve IKEA “Broder” brackets (Make sure you get the straight ones, not the angled ones!)
  • Box of #8 1 1/12-inch wood screws
  • Box of #8 1/2-inch wood screws
  • Paintbrush
  • White spray paint
  • Gloves
  • Mask
  • Plastic tarp
  • Paper towels


  • Power drill
  • Large clamp (I used one like this from Home Depot)
  • Drill bit
  • Screws
  • Helper-person (for the Broder assembly)


1. Assemble your Broder frame. It comes with instructions, but basically you just drop a post into each foot and secure with the provided screws. When you have your two posts-with-feet, put a brace
between them at the bottom and at the top and again secure with screws. Once you have your frame up, you can play around with it a bit, pulling it wider or narrower until you figure out exactly how wide you want/need it. This will help you determine how wide you want your shelves to be. Mine is about 36 inches wide, with six 48-inch shelves, and each shelf has two six-inch end pieces. You can make yours a bit narrower, or have your shelves not extend as far beyond the Broder frame, or have fewer shelves, or have the end pieces be bigger or smaller depending on your space and the look you want.

As you’re setting up your Broder, please also take into account where your wall studs are so that you can secure the frame to the wall and make the whole thing earthquake- and bump-proof. the Broder frame is not unstable by any means, but our floor was a little uneven and the shelves would shake a little bit every time we walked by it until I secured it to the wall.

Most importantly, learn from my mistakes and DON’T cut your wood until you’ve set up the Broder and figured out how wide you want everything to be!

2. Set out your tarp and spray paint the Broder frame and brackets white.

3. Lay out your wood and using an assembly-line method, stain all your pieces on all sides. Paint on, leave for a few minutes, then wipe off the excess with a paper towel. Minwax advertises itself as an all-in-one stainer/sealer, but If you really want to go the extra mile, follow up your staining with a coat of polyurethane.

4. Once you have your pieces stained, take one of the longer pieces and one of the 6-inch pieces and place the shorter piece perpendicular to the longer piece and clamp it on tightly.

(Once my wood was stained, I found that the stain had brought out really cool patterns and knots and stuff in the wood, so I played around a bit with the assembly of the shelves to make sure those features would be on the front of the shelves.)

5. Using your drill bit, drill a pilot hole into your wood where you want your screws to go. Do this on the top and the bottom, then switch out your bit for a Phillips head attachment and drill your longer wood screws into the holes you’ve made.

6. Repeat steps 4 & 5 for the end piece on the other side of your shelf.

7. Repeat steps 4, 5, & 6 for each of your shelves.

8. Attach your brackets to the shelves using the shorter wood screws.

9. Mount your shelves onto your Broder and step back to admire.

DIY BONUS! I originally cut my wood much too short, but using the same shelf construction method, I recycled the extra wood into modular shoe shelves for my closet. Just make the u-shaped shelf, flip it over and stack as necessary.

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  • I too have been lusting after the Atlas shelves.
    Unfortunately these look really bad.
    The beautifully finished wood, dovetail joinery and minimal brackets are what make the Atlas shelves special. Its all about the wood and craftsmanship. Don’t get me wrong, I think they are terribly overpriced, but these cheap looking imitations completely miss the essence of what makes the Atlas shelves beautiful.

  • I don’t think these look cheap at all for something made from hand on a small budget. I think if she had the money to make something look really, really nice she might have bought the Atlas shelves.

  • I LOVE these!!! I’m announcing the winner of my own bookshelf contest today, and these are an example of just how cool a simple bookcase can be when you add a touch of pizzaz. Bravo!
    xo Katherine aka. Urban Flea :)

  • Of course Atlas shelves have a certain craftsmanship and level of quality, and it’s those very things that make them out of most people’s price range. I admire Susannah’s ingenuity and work to recreate something she felt inspired by. I don’t think it’s missing the essence at all.

  • Oh, believe me, I don’t pretend these are even CLOSE to the loveliness/quality of the Atlas shelves. These cost $200 (for two sets) and were built in two days by someone with ZERO woodworking talent. NO comparison! I totes agree with Mr. Bourne in the supremacy of Atlas. All hail, Atlas shelving!

    But what *I* like about the Atlas shelves is the lightness, the “floatiness” of so much book storage. In pictures, at least, you see the BOOKS more than a big piece of furniture, a quality I just couldn’t find in an affordable, free-standing bookshelf. Having just moved to L.A., being unemployed and sans trust fund, it was either these or some bulky, disposable IKEA shelves (I need a LOT of storage because I have a LOT of books). I have been down the IKEA road many, many times before and I vowed that Billy and I were dunzo when I left NYC. So, compared with what I could have bought with my budget, I think these look GREAT! Not quite as floaty as Atlas, but close enough for me. And the (real, non laminate) wood really does look good in person. Maybe if everything in the apartment was fancy and expensive, these would stick out more than they do, but our place is a hodge-podge of DIY and refurbished thrift store/Craigslist/ebay finds, so these shelves fit right in. Actually, they sort of blend in to the wall and remove easily with minimal damage to the wall for when we move out, which is as good as it gets for security-deposit-lovers like myself.

    Someday, I will graduate to the Atlas version. Until then, I’m just happy my books are unpacked, I stayed away from Billy, and I didn’t blow all my unemployment checks on dovetail joinery.

  • Okay, I have never even seen the dovetail-tastic Atlas, but I have one suggestion that might not increase the cost so much: consider using something other than pine for the shelves. Home Depot usually has poplar, which is nice enough, or you could go all out for a hardwood. I think finer grain wood looks better when stained. Maybe this is just personal preference.

    I agree these look good, and fancier joints would be very hard to do without a specialized equipment. If you have a miter box or want to get one you could try that, but I think miters can be a pain and they aren’t very strong as joints go.

  • You know what part of the issue is? On the bottom shelf that shows in the second photo, the first book kinda looks like it’s part of the shelf! This book cover design has what looks like wood grain and nails, plus a photo stuck on that wood, and that image fools the eye initially. I agree that a higher grade wood on the ends might make the stained end pieces look a little nicer when viewed from the end, but 90% of the visual impact comes when a person standing in the room looks head-on at a wall of floating books. The edges, what you see when you view the shelves straight on, look pretty much like the edges of any wood shelves. I guess there’s some kind of veneer a person can stick on the edges if you want (I’ve seen it on HGTV) but would it make much difference here? Another thing I like here is the integrity of these shelves that are holding quite a bit of weight. Unlike my cheapo shelves, these don’t sag. I think Susannah has created a nifty design, very innovative, affordable and beautiful.

  • On the joints, I got inspired looking at projects like this to go take a woodworking class at my local community college. I’m not a consumate hand dovetailer yet, but it’s not as hard as people with massive amounts of power tools claim, and practice makes perfect!

    Give me 6 months and I hope to be posting my own bookshelves inspired by these – it’s a great project and I reckon we all have far more design books than shelf space to put them on.

    Although until that point the books will have to stay in their boxes :(

  • This just goes to show that you don’t need stuffy and expensive design to be happy. Contrary to popular belief, style has little to do with money and everything to do with intelligence, innovation, and creativity. In my opinion, the Atlas shelves lack (among other things) character. Susannah obviously did the best with what she had to work with and was willing to share her idea with others, (free of charge!) and for this she should be given high praises.

  • These shelves are too cool. My husband and I have a lot of books (some of which are currently being stored in an Ikea book case!! Which looks like it may fall to the floor at any moment) and I have been shopping for bookshelves. The only affordable ones I am able to find are of the laminated/ veneered particle board type, which may look alright at first, but I don’t trust that they will hold up for a very long time. I had been thinking about doing wall mounted shelves, and I really like how these shelves have end caps to hold the books in place. I think that these would look even prettier and more “floaty” if the wood was painted the same color as the wall (i.e. white). The paint would also mask the lower-grade wood, if that is the goal. However, the rustic look is really neat too.

  • I LOVE these, it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for! I too am a Billy victim – this is such an elegant solution. Brava!

  • I’m a bit late to the party, but I just wanted to thank you and Susannah for these wonderful instructions–I’m about to attempt this in my new apartment.
    This is a wonderful website!

  • I love these! I have tons of books and it takes full advantage of wall space, I can put one of these practically anywhere. Thank you for sharing!

  • I have a question, what size length were the ones you accidentally cut too short. I am planning on making these beautiful shelves, as well as the ones for the shoes; I’m running out of space for both.

    Been in love with this for so long and, after two years, I’m finally finding the time (and money) to make them. Thanks so much!