I'm planning on putting up 3 sets of shelves in our utility room but am uncertain whether I should put the shelves up with cleats or brackets.

I'm sure most of you will know what I mean but in case I am using the terms wrong here is what I mean by putting up the shelves with cleats:

Shelves with cleats
(Image from www.fourgenerationsoneroof.com)

and here is what I mean by putting up the shelves with brackets:

Shelves with brackets
(image from www.diy.com (expand the rustic shelves part))

In the past I have always used brackets but this is because the shelves were normally in the middle of a wall and not spanning it from one side of the room to the other. However, in this project the shelves will be just as pictured above although the length of each shelf will be greater. Also, I had never heard of cleats until now.

Here is a breakdown of what the shelves are likely to be made of:

  • Soft wood
  • 2 meters (6.5ft) long (this spans one side of the room to the other)
  • 0.3 meters (1ft) wide
  • 1cm (1/2") thick
  • Used for holding a couple of large bottles of detergent and then smaller odds and ends

Is this the correct usage of cleats and, assuming it is, are there advantages to using them that make them a better choice than using brackets?

  • A part of me thinks this is a question better suited to DIY for the specific answer on which I should use for this project however I feel Woodworking is better for gaining expert knowledge on the advantage of cleats over brackets (which is what I'm really interested in (give a man a fish and all that)), hence I've posted here. Feel free to comment if you feel otherwise or suggest edits. – RyanfaeScotland May 6 '16 at 11:29
  • I think it will depend on A) How much weight you're going to be putting on the shelf, and B) Whether or not you can support the end of the shelf. Since you say "Utility Room", I'm thinking esthetics aren't really a huge item, so you may want to go with something simple like this or even this for future adjustability. – FreeMan May 6 '16 at 12:20
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    Note that when my house was constructed, a hybrid approach was used in all the closets. A cleat is nailed to the back wall and the edges, but brackets are also used when the shelf is long (and for holding a closet rod). The hall closet is so small, no brackets are needed. – JPhi1618 May 6 '16 at 15:21
  • Regardless of method, the shelves should always be secured to the bracing near the wall. This prevents the shelf from sliding and flipping on you when you pull an item towards you. – Zach Mierzejewski May 6 '16 at 21:21

My comments were running long, so I figured I'd make an answer out of this.

If you have a nook that you're putting the shelf in, similar to your "cleats" link, then you should be able to use the cleat method, just like in that link. Since you're spanning from one side of the room to the other, you should be able to put your edge cleats on the side walls and fully support your shelf. The front rail of the shelf will help prevent bowing of the board, but for a 2m run, you'll end up with more than a bottle of detergent and a couple of odds-and-ends up there, and you'll need more support.

According to the Sagulator, your 2m x .3m x 1cm shelf in Eastern White Pine (just a random guess on the wood - you said softwood), with a 2.5cm x 5cm (1x2 inches) edging strip (along the front) and an evenly space 30 lbs (14-ish kg) per foot is going to give you .75cm of sag in the middle.

Doubling your shelf thickness to 2cm will reduce that sag to .46cm which they deem an acceptable amount.

Alternatively, you can use any manner of decorative wooden or metal brackets at stud spacing (18" (45cm) US) and you should have more than enough support. I went back to the 1cm thick board and increased the load to 45Kg per 30cm to get a 0.002" deflection.

What should you use? Whatever is most aesthetically pleasing to you, yet suitable to the load and situation.

If your shelf is not running wall-to-wall, there is no way a single cleat along the rear of the shelf will hold up the shelf itself, to say nothing of the load on it. You'll have to use brackets in that situation, just as you've done in the past.

  • 1 end will be unsupported - that means the shelf will go into a corner? All bets are off in that case. Even with the shelf screwed down to the 2 cleats and edge-banding all free edges (front & 1 side), I can't imagine it supporting much weight on the free hanging corner. If you're a normal human, you (or someone in the household) will forget and put a heavy item near that free corner, then... collapse. If even one end is not against a wall, I'd have to suggest brackets - at least at that end. – FreeMan May 6 '16 at 13:36
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    No, no. We're just getting further confused so forget all this talk about ends and sides and just rest assured I'm putting the shelf up like any sane person would! – RyanfaeScotland May 6 '16 at 14:41
  • +1 for sanity! It might help if you draw a quick sketch and edit it into your original post. – FreeMan May 6 '16 at 14:43
  • May look to add them in later when more time is available, for now the links I've posted show my end goal and I've removed my comments to prevent confusing others. :) – RyanfaeScotland May 6 '16 at 15:16
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    Sagulator, how cool is that! Thanks @FreeMan for linking this. – Stoppal May 23 '16 at 6:54

Weight of what you're supporting matters, as well as thickness of the wood. If the load can get heavy, use brackets, as they will lend more support to the middle of the shelf. Even though there is a cleat running the width of the back edge, you're depending upon the shelf's resistance to deflection under stress to support the front (middle) of the shelf. If there's any doubt, put in the brackets if you can. If the load is lighter, I'm sure cleats will be fine, and will make for a nicer looking installation.

  • Perhaps a hybrid approach if I can make it look appealing? Cleats as the main holder and a centre bracket for added support? – RyanfaeScotland May 6 '16 at 12:47
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    Matter of personal taste, Ryan. Support the load adequately, and after that it's all sugar :) – JeffM_A1 May 6 '16 at 13:25

For light utility use, I strongly prefer cleats:

(1) they're easier to install in most situation because your cleat is guaranteed to span a few studs (unless it's very short); (2) after the first screw but before the second is in, it's easy to use a level to guarantee that your finished shelves will be level.

Sometimes I use a bracket in the center of the shelf if I need the extra strength.

Using only brackets tends to be a pain in my experience, since my studs inevitably are in strange and ugly places on the wall.

  • Good point about the ease of leveling during installation, Scott. – JeffM_A1 May 10 '16 at 13:47

If you want to hang the shelf with cleats, you will need to have thicker shelves, as demonstrated by Freeman's sagulator calculations. However, note that you do not need a solid, thick shelf.

Floating shelves are commonly built as torsion boxes--essentially the same technique used in construction of hollow core doors, and even corrugated cardboard. In fact, the skins, or the top and bottom layers, only need to be thick enough to limit deflection between the walls of the underlying internal lattice. The overall resistance to deflection is determined by the thickness of the torsion box, not so much by the thickness of the top and bottom skins.

You could build a 12" deep torsion box that either is or isn't supported on the sides and can easily support 200 lbs in the middle, assuming you properly anchor your cleats to the wall and properly fix the shelf to the cleats. It will be easier if the torsion box rests on top of the cleats, but you can also use integral cleats which essentially serve as the back and side walls of the torsion box.

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