Adjusting Shelves Like It’s 1899

A blue cabinet. Inside, along the front and back are wooden sawteeth holding a cleat. On the cleat sits the shelf itself.

In most modern homes, any adjustable shelves or cabinets have metal shelf pins set inside conveniently spaced holes. Before the accoutrements of modern life, like easily replicated metal parts, you may have found a sawtooth shelf doing the same job with just wood.

The system comprises three parts: a series of “sawteeth” running up and down the front and back edge of a cabinet, a cleat to sit between the teeth, and a shelf with notched corners that can then be set down on the cleats on either side.

While not as convenient as running a drill through a shelf pin jig, this method has a certain charm and sturdiness that isn’t present in more modern methods of making adjustable shelves. We can see this being particularly useful for restoration projects of homes from the 19th Century or earlier where you want some of those aforementioned accoutrements without things looking too anachronistic.

If you want some shelving that’s decidedly more 21st Century, check out this MP3 Player Shelf or this Smart Shelf with Serious Functionality.

39 thoughts on “Adjusting Shelves Like It’s 1899

    1. If you’re referring to the “accouterment” instead of “accoutrement,” it’s been corrected. It may have been a bug in my muscle memory since “-ter” is something I use much more often than “-tre.” Thanks!

      If there’s something else, let us know! I do use spellcheck when writing these articles, but I find it does miss things occasionally.

    2. They also filter replies and either don’t display them at all, take hours to do so or make the grammar or spelling fix and then don’t mention it or let your comment even show up. Is it terrible? Not hugely but it’s still frustrating.

  1. Old is new again. I have a 1920’s oak library cabinet that employs a similar setup. Instead of sawteeth the shelf supports are rounded at each end and they mount in “half moon” cutouts on each side of the cabinet. While this new take on an old idea has more shelf positions mine predates this by about a 100 years and this idea probably is far older.

  2. I read this one to my wife. She immediately said, “That’s the bookcase in the front hall!” We are not sure whether her grandfather made it, or it came into his home from somewhere else. The technique works extremely well, no tippy shelves. However, it does require a high degree of precision and repetition, as the cleats have to fit very precisely in each pair of sawteeth. Further, ideally the cleat should be reversible (either end fits the front or the back) and the two cleats should be interchangeable. The full interchangeability is the case with this bookshelf. Better work that I could ever do. The corner notches accommodate the sawtooth “columns” in the corners.

    1. Gang cut all the posts at the same time. You still need to make each one up and down the posts the same, but a making template and a go/no-go gauge would work well.

      For the cleats, same thing, gang cut and plane so they are all the same.

      I might just try this, we need some new book shelves in our living room.

    2. Well, using either a 3D printer or laser cutter could offer alternatives to woodworking precision. No longer having any cabinet-making-quality tools, and both unable, let alone unwilling, to re-acquire those tools, I’m happy to make such an adjustable system and “antique” the parts. I do like the concept as the step interval can be tuned to the basic need, and fine-tuned on installation depending on the chosen resolution. Very cool to be reminded of useful options.

        1. Furniture makers and jointers used to have tons and tons of specialty tools specifically around that time – usually hand planes – that were designed to cut patterns. If you pick up an old catalog, there’s hundreds of them to buy.

          Making a custom plane out of a block of wood was also extremely common. You’d buy a blank piece of tool steel and file away at it until you had the right shape, then fix it to a block of wood. For a cross-grain plane you also needed a second blade called the “nicker” that cuts the fibers ahead of the plane iron.

          This guy makes just such a plane:

          It’s a sliding dovetail plane for making dovetails around the edges of a board, but the same principle applies. You can shape the bottom of the plane to key into the previous cut and repeat the pattern indefinitely. That’s how they did it.

  3. Interesting mechanism. It’d be fun to do some math and stress-testing to figure out the optimal geometry of the triangular notches for a given wood species and shelf load.

  4. I can see using a CNC mill/router to make the “sawtooth” parts very precisely, smaller (for finer granularity of shelf placement), and also more decorative (who says it has to be a simple, triangular notch?)
    Definitely filing this one away for later.

        1. I don’t know if that would be wise. Something on the site is rapidly and repeatedly refreshing the page, but I can’t see what because it’s bogging the whole thing down to the point that all I can do is kill the process.

  5. Someone does not know that the Industrial Revolution is about 260 years old. And the Victorian period starts when the Industrial Revolution is already 70 years old.

    I like this design a lot with one objection. The shelf ends have two lengths and a slim book can disappear. I would probably use a slab of wood on each end that fit the pockets.

  6. This is an old design for a bookcase: how is it a hack? Maybe it was a hack 3 or 400 years ago, but now it’s an antique, not unique. At least include a “how-its-made” portion… This literally just highlights antique furniture, without even discussing making it. hashtag disappointing.

          1. I can complain about _anything_.

            Try me. Post a subject, I’ll complain about it. (schtick stolen from Adam Carola).

            If I don’t get to your subject quick enough, feel free to complain about it.

    1. The round ones are easier to make if you have a large forsner drill bit (1.5″-2″), I wouldn’t want to use a hole saw to drill dozens of large holes.

      Also, the holes cannot be placed as close together since you need some material to carry the load. So you end up with about half as many shelf positions as the sawtooth.

      I have a variation on the drilled rails that uses a 3/8″ or 1/2″ hole spaced on 1″ centers. Essentially you have half holes on the rails and the shelf support.. then glue a dowel into one of the two. Obviously it’s easier to put the dowel on the shelf supports, but contrasting dowels glued in every half hole on the rails looks really sharp if it’s a stain grade piece… And makes sanding much easier (sanding the inside of all those half holes is a chore)

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