In my quest to create a play nook for the Trikester, I decided to build him a Montessori style toy shelf. I looked at a lot of ready-made options, but since I enjoy building things, I figured this would be a perfect nap time carpentry project. Here’s the finished product:

Shelf #1 for a play zone in the living room.


Shelf #2 for the dining room play nook.

I love to build stuff. In my opinion, the best off-registry wedding present we received was a contractor grade power drill. For the last few years, I’ve been all about building furniture. I’ve made deck chairs, a buffet, floating shelves, and a mantle.

DIY deck chairs were my very first project.

Building furniture is so satisfying because the things I create have a permanence and usefulness that’s difficult to match with my other creative pursuits. I like saving tons of money by building name-brand knock offs (check out Ana White for amazing inspiration), and I like creating a quality product of real wood and customizing finishes, etc., to match our décor. It’s also fun to have a hobby that’s traditionally seen as a “guy thing.”

I understand that this kind of DIY may seem out of your wheelhouse – but trust me, it’s not that hard! If you’ve never built anything before, these shelves are a great place to start. The techniques are all suitable for beginners and the shelves can be adapted to your needs by changing the dimensions. If you’re up for the challenge, here’s how to build two of these simple toddler-height shelves.


The first thing you’ll need to do is buy your materials.  You can use a soft wood like pine, or a harder wood like oak. You should choose your wood based on the type of finish you want to apply. This site provides great examples of stain and paint treatments. Also, when selecting your boards, it is so important to ensure that they aren’t warped. To check your lumber, hold it on its edge and look down the length of it at eye level — if it’s not straight, put it back and look for a better one. Here’s a list of the supplies you’ll need:

  • 1 – 8” x 8’ board
  • 3 – 8” x 6’ boards
  • 2 – 4’ x 2’ luan project panels
  • Box of 1 ¼” Kreg jig screws (coarse if you’re using a soft wood like pine, fine if you’re using a hard wood like oak)
  • Small box of 1” finishing nails or brads
  • 400 grit sand paper
  • Wood glue
  • Paint or stain

You’ll need to have your lumber cut for you. Most home improvement stores will do it for you for free. At my Lowes, there’s a sign posted saying cuts are $.25 each, but they always do it for free. Here’s the cut diagram for the lumber:


You will need some basic tools to complete this project. In my mind, everyone should own a power drill – I think it’s the most useful tool in the universe. I put my shelves together with a technique called “pocket joinery” using a Kreg jig. A Kreg jig is kind of like the chevron of the DIY furniture world. Here’s the list of tools:

  • Power drill
  • Kreg Jig (this is the one I have, but there are 4 or 5 different kits that more or less do the same thing)
  • Hammer
  • Clamps (at least one)

Building the Shelves

Step #1: Sand all sides and faces of each board with a fine grit sandpaper.

Step #2: Lay out your boards on the floor to form each of the two shelves (see image one above). Take care to “hide” the less attractive boards – ones with knots, big dings, etc – on the bottom or interior of the shelf. Using a pencil, mark each board so you know which is the “good” side, making it easy to drill and re-assemble.

Step #3: Mark the locations for future screws. You’ll be drilling into the top and bottom of the left and right boards and the left and right underside of the middle shelf board (see image two above).

Step #4: After adjusting your drill and Kreg jig for your boards (see the directions that come with the jig),  use the jig and a clamp to drill the pocket holes in the locations you marked in Step #3 (see image three above).  This video provides a good tutorial on using a Kreg jig. Basically, the jig is a metal tunnel that guides your drill bit into the wood at a special angle and to a specific depth based on the thickness of your board.

Step #5: After drilling all your holes, it’s time to start assembling the shelf. This is the MOST satisfying part! Begin by attaching the left side to the bottom of the shelf (see image four above). You’ll want to apply a very thinline of wood glue to the bottom of the left side board before putting it into position. Make sure to wipe off any glue that oozes out because it’s almost impossible to sand off when it’s dried. Using the Kreg screw bit and the Kreg screws, screw together the two boards using the holes you drilled with the jig. Note: When you attach two boards, they may not be flush – that is, one board might seem wider than another. If this happens, make all the boards equal at the front of the shelf, and don’t worry if they aren’t flush at the back. After attaching the left side, attach the right side to the bottom board. Next, attach the top of the shelf (note, you’ll have to apply glue to both “tops” of the left and right board before you start screwing in the top of the shelf).

Step 6: Now that you’ve built a cube, it’s time to decide on the height for the middle shelf. Mine is about 11 inches from the underside of the top board. Measure down from the underside of the top shelf, and mark level lines on the interior of both the left and right shelf boards. Insert your middle shelf (you won’t be able to glue this one) and tap it into place so it aligns with the lines you’ve just drawn. Screw this shelf into place.

Step 7: Stand back and admire! You’ve just built a shelf! Before attaching the back, you’ll want to apply a finish to your shelves. I used a food grade oil stain for one (like you’d apply to a cutting board), and a regular furniture stain for another. You’ll also want to paint one side of the luan panels. Apply as many coats of paint and stain as needed to achieve your desired look.

Attach the luan panel to the back of the shelf with small brads or finishing nails.

Step 8: Once everything is dry, it’s time to attach the back panel to the shelf. Flip the shelf onto its face, and center the luan panel over the back of the shelf with the painted side facing down. Using your finishing nails or brads, nail around the edge of the luan panel every 8” or so to attach it to the shelf (see image above).

Step 9: You’ll need to find a way to secure the shelf to the wall so it doesn’t tip over if your toddler uses it to pull-up. I haven’t done this step yet, but I plan to use these Safety-First Furniture Wall Straps.

Have you ever built anything?