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What is a Floating Shelf?

Single floating shelf installed on a wall

Do you love clean, contemporary lines in your décor? Minimalism is one of the hallmarks of modern design. But minimal doesn’t mean nothing at all. Even enthusiasts of contemporary design like to add that personal touch with visible accessories. And there’s also the matter of convenience. Everyone needs a place to put things. Floating shelves are one way to bridge the gap between a modern aesthetic and practical storage. But exactly what is a floating shelf? Read on for a better understanding and get ideas on how to use floating shelves in your own home.

A floating shelf is any shelf that cantilevers out from the wall with no visible support. Because you don’t see any braces or stanchions to hold them up, the shelves appear to be “floating” against the wall — hence the name. However, don’t be fooled. All floating shelves are supported by hidden brackets. The type of bracket used and the way it is installed determine how much weight a floating shelf will hold.

Floating shelf construction.

Floating shelf usd as a plant shelf
This floating shelf is used to support heavy houseplants in clay pots.

The secret to floating shelves lies in their construction. Although the shelf appears to be a solid piece of wood, it is usually a veneer or laminate product using ¾-inch particle board for the core. It is also hollow. They are designed this way to allow hidden brackets to support the shelves. The brackets are mounted to the wall and the shelf slips over them like a sleeve, completely hiding the bracket.

Floating shelf diagram
This diagram shows how the floating shelf is hollow and the bracket slips inside to support the shelf and anchor it invisibly to the wall.

Floating shelf brackets.

The type and number of brackets used on a floating shelf, in addition to the way it is installed, will determine how much weight a floating shelf can hold. Steel brackets mounted through drywall into a home’s studs offer the strongest support. The best ones are rated to support up to 75-pounds per bracket. However, weight ratings will vary by manufacturer. A minimum of two brackets for each 48-inches of shelf are always recommended, but you can place a bracket into every stud and space them every 16-inches if you like. The more brackets you use, the sturdier the shelf.

Diagram of a steel floating shelf bracket
Steel floating shelf brackets that are anchored to the home's studs hold the most weight. Use two brackets per shelf on shelves 48-inches and shorter. Shelves over 48-inches require four brackets to support the shelf. With optimal installation, the shelf should hold up to 75-pounds for each bracket used. Be sure to use a lot of brackets if the floating shelf is intended to hold books or other similarly heavy items. You can place one bracket into every wall stud (16-inches apart) if needed.

Another way to bracket a floating shelf is with a custom MDF or wooden bracket that you make yourself. Expect shelves supported with a homemade bracket to support up to 20-pounds. In comparison, the steel brackets hold considerably more weight. That's why they are the recommended way to go.

How to hang a floating shelf without studs.

If you have a hollow wall or metal studs covered by painted drywall, you can still have a floating shelf. Modify your installation slightly by using toggle bolts and anchors in place of the studs for support. Be sure to use steel brackets rather than MDF or wood for best success. Place toggle bolts on the top hole of the bracket and a smaller anchor for the bottom hole. To be on the safe side, increase the number of brackets used to support the shelf when installing on a wall without studs.

Snap toggle bolt
Use a snap toggle bolt like this one for strength in areas where there are no studs to support your bracket.

How to level a floating shelf.

When you use two or more steel brackets to support your floating shelf, the shelf can be leveled by adjusting the brackets up or down slightly after they are mounted to the studs. Floating shelves that use an MDF or wood bracket can’t be adjusted after installation, so make sure you install the bracket perfectly level on your first try.

Floating shelf dimensions.

There aren’t any hard and fast rules on how big a floating shelf can be, but you don’t want the depth to exceed the size of the bracket, or you’ll lose your strength. Ten-inches is a standard depth for most floating shelves. 2-5/16-inches height allows for two pieces of ¾-inch laminate or veneer to make up the top, bottom, and sides of the shelf with enough empty space in between to accept a bracket(s). The length is not important if you provide bracketed support a minimum of every 48-inches. Floating shelves can be as long as the wall they’re mounted to. However, standard lengths are the same as for other shelves. Look for ready-made floating shelves in lengths of 18, 24, 36, and 48-inches.

Where to use a floating shelf.

Floating shelves are decorative as well as practical. They are also a little more expensive than other types of shelves. That’s why you’ll want to put them where you can see them. Other than that, there really are no limits to their use. Use floating shelves in any visible area where you need storage. That way, you’ll get the most impact from your investment. Storage for living rooms & family rooms, the home office, laundry areas, and even kitchens can all benefit from floating shelves. Small rooms can especially benefit from this type of storage. Their weightless quality makes a room appear more open, even when your shelves are heavily weighted down. But don’t limit yourself. Use floating shelves anywhere you want a streamlined, minimalist look. You can even use one as a simple mantel over a fireplace. They are certain to make a practical and stylish addition to your home or office.

Kitchen with Floating Shelves

floating shelves in the pantry
Floating shelves can even be used for heavy items like those in a typical pantry if a steel bracket rated to support 75-pounds is installed in each stud every 16-inches.

Living Room Before and After Floating Shelves

Living room with empty wall marked for floating shelves installationfloating shelves in the living room
Floating shelves are a great way to add storage to the living room or family room. The clean lines and unobtrusive nature of the shelf allows it to function as a design element as well as storage. Check out these pics of a before and after floating shelves installation.