Build Hungarian Shelves

Who couldn’t use more storage space, especially in the kitchen? This flexible design, dubbed Hungarian shelving, is easy to build and fits all kinds of spaces.

Nobody is quite sure where the name “Hungarian shelves” comes from; the popular story is that an Eastern European physicist created the original design. But we do know that in this streamlined design, form follows function. And once the shelves are fully assembled, all fasteners are hidden from view.

This project is broken down into two parts: making the shelves and installing them. For a refined, high-end look, we paired mahogany uprights with edge-banded maple plywood shelves. The ample, 11-1/4-in.-deep shelves provide room for cookbooks, small appliances, dishes and anything else you would like to display or need easy access to.

Cutting the Parts
You can buy precut and sized hardwood for the uprights and precut shelving pieces, but you’ll pay a premium for the convenience. We purchased about 6 board. ft. of rough-cut mahogany from a lumberyard (to allow for waste — the final size is about 4 board ft.) and used a jointer, planer and table saw to dimension and prep the stock before cutting it to size (see cutting list, in PDF below). Once you’ve cut the uprights, use a circular saw and straightedge to cut the plywood shelves. (With 4x8-ft. sheets, this approach is easier than using a table saw.) Next, lay out the notches in the uprights to accommodate the shelves. You’ll cut the notches using a circular saw and a simple jig (see “Circular Saw Jig,” below). Be sure to measure the exact thickness of the shelves, as most 3/4-in. plywood is slightly undersize.

Circular Saw Jig

We devised a jig that provides a straight edge to guide the circular saw on both sides of the cut. Just line it up with your marks, clamp it on and cut away. A few extra passes with the saw and a chisel clean out the waste. Click here to download the plans.

To make the cuts, first clamp the uprights together, lining up the ends and faces. Set the depth of the blade (1-3/4 in. plus the thickness of the jig). Cut both sides of the notches first; then go back through, removing the waste with the circular saw (photo 1). While the uprights are still clamped together, use a chisel to clean up the cuts (photo 2).

Clamp the uprights together and cut the notches. Because most plywood is undersize, the notches won’t be a full 3/4 in. wide. This jig (see above) makes repeatable notches along the length of the uprights.

Use a chisel to clean up the notches, and then lightly sand any rough edges.

For a custom look, cut a 45-degree chamfer on the top of each upright using a miter saw; then use a 1/8-in. roundover bit and a router on all of the front-facing edges. (As an alternative, you could simply ease the edges with sandpaper.) Cut notches at the bottom of the uprights with a jigsaw to make room for the baseboard when mounting the shelves. Take this opportunity to drill pilot and countersink screw holes in the middle of each notch (photo 3).

Drill pilot and countersink holes for attaching the uprights to the wall.

Next, lay out and cut the matching notches in the shelves. We planned to install the uprights 16 in. OC and marked each shelf accordingly (photo 4). The notches measure 1-7/8 in. wide (the width of an upright) x 1-3/4 in. deep. Be careful to make all of the notches identical on each shelf. After laying out one shelf, use it as a template to mark the remaining shelves. Carefully cut out the notches using a jigsaw with a fine-tooth blade (photo 5).

Lay out the notches for the shelves. Cut the notches in one shelf and use it as a template for the others.

Use a fine-tooth blade and a jigsaw to cut out the notches in the shelves; then clean up the edges with sandpaper.

Edge-Banding and Finishing
Cut the maple veneer tape slightly oversize and apply it to the front and side plywood edges of each shelf with a household iron (photo 6). Once the tape is set (after about an hour), trim away the excess with a utility knife (photo 7) and use a rasp (or sandpaper) to make it flush.

Use a hot, dry iron to attach veneer tape to the outside edges of the plywood.

Once the glue sets, trim the excess with a utility knife.

Finish the parts before installation. We used Danish oil because it brings out the beauty of the grain and gives the wood a warm, natural look while offering excellent protection — and it’s nearly foolproof to apply (photo 8).

Sand and finish the shelves and uprights. A few coats of Danish oil provide a warm, lasting finish.

Partially assemble the shelves on the floor in front of the wall. Lay out the uprights; then fit a top shelf and a bottom shelf in the notches. With a partner, lift the unit into place. Align the uprights with the wall studs and secure them directly to the studs with 3-in. screws, using a level to ensure they are plumb (photo 9).

Partially assemble the shelves on the ground. Insert shelves near the top and bottom, and then lift the assembly into place with a partner. Screw the uprights to the wall, making sure you hit the studs behind the drywall.

Screw through the notches and install the rest of the shelves; then remove the top and bottom shelves and screw through those notches (photo 10). If the joints are a little tight, sand the edges to widen them; if they are a little loose, use some scrap shims to wedge the shelf in place and then drive a couple of 1-1/4-in. screws through the shelves and into the outer uprights to secure the shelves to the wall.

Slide the rest of the shelves into place and check that everything is square.

Once the shelves are installed, marvel at the amount of extra storage this simple project has provided, and think about how you can use this same design for shelves all over your home.

Want more?
Learn about cool ways to use kitchen cabinets here.
Paint your cabinets and transform your kitchen here.