Track Shelving in the Living Room

Dr. Punita RiceStyle

Track shelving in the living room - the first setup

A couple months ago, we installed track shelving in the living room in our home. Here, I’m sharing the inspiration, how I planned the project, and a brief how-to in case you’d like to do the same, if you’d like to see…

Inspiration for our track shelving

On the wall next to the stairs in our living room, we’ve had a whole lot of nothing for a while. What I really wanted was to use that space to display art/photos/books. In an ideal world, we would have done built-in shelving in our living room, but the wall we’d have build the shelves into wasn’t deep enough to go that route, so I knew we’d have to do shelves that stuck out of the wall.

I wanted to do faux built-ins (à la Jenny Komenda), and even planned out how to do it. But then I scrapped that idea when I realized it would look better on a full wall that didn’t have an angle (or stairs)… so that plan is tabled for now. So then, I started thinking about approaches to installing shelving that would allow me to work around the stairs. And that led me to look at track-shelving. I started Googling photos of track shelving in the living room, and three images stood out the most to me (below)…

Inspiration for our Living Room Shelves - Punlearning

Inspiration for our Living Room Shelves – Punlearning.Clockwise from top (1) The Dodge Voice, (2) Almost Makes Perfect, (3) Geekarilla

I loved the open, airiness of the shelves, which are open from the sides, and I loved the industrial look of the mounted tracks. Most of all, I loved that since track shelving is meant to be customized to your space, I’d be able to work around the angle of our stairs. With my newfound inspiration, I decided to start sketching out a plan.

Planning and preparing for track shelving in the living room

The absolute simplest setup for our track shelving in the living room would be to do a single set of shelves, on two twin-track uprights, like so (below):

Our Living Room Shelves - First Mockup - Punlearning

A first-draft mockup for the shelves, with a single column of shelving.

This would be the easiest setup: We’d just need two track uprights, and six 36″-48″ boards for a single shelving unit. But wasn’t what I wanted, because it wouldn’t follow the angle of the stairs (which is the reason I threw out the faux built-ins idea).

Since I wanted something that would be built around the stairs, I resigned myself to the fact that it couldn’t be that simple. So I did a second mockup:

Living Room Shelves - Second mockup

Second draft: extending the track shelving around the stairs.

This was way more on the right track (lulz). And after sketching it out, it didn’t seem too complicated. For the first “column” (the narrowest shelves), we’d still need two long tracks, and only four short boards. For the lower two shelves, we’d need two different lengths of board, and two shorter tracks.

After doing this mockup, I decided to take some measurements, and found that I’d have to make a few changes. Taking the actual real-world location of the stairs and their angle into account, I found the second-from-the-bottom shelf could extended further. So here was my new mockup, with actual shelf measurements:

Track shelving in the living room - Actual measurements

The four “narrow” shelves could be 36″ wide, the second from the bottom shelf could be 72″ wide, and the lowest shelf could be 84″ wide.

And here’s what made sense for the uprights:

Track shelving in the living room - Actual measurements for the uprights

The two long uprights needed to be about 70″ long, and the shorter ones could be about 24-25″ long.

Preparing to install track shelving in the living room

After doing the mockup, I ran out to Home Depot for supplies (everything is also available from Amazon). I bought a few extras of things, but this is a list of everything we kept and used)…

Supplies you’ll likely need to buy for track shelving in the living room:

Note about the 36″ shelves: We used 7 of the 36″ shelves, but two of those were for connecting together to make one long 72″ shelf. That’s because our local Home Depot didn’t have any 72″ shelves in stock in the color I wanted. If you’re using our setup, and if you can find it in stock, it would be better to get 5 of the 36″ shelves, and one 72″ shelf.

Other stuff you might already have on hand, that you’ll probably need…

  • A second set of hands / person to help you
  • Measuring tape to figure out the right heights
  • A pencil
  • A level
  • A studfinder (and anchors if you’re not drilling into studs)
  • Hardware – if you’re drilling only into studs, then the right screws; if you’re not, you’ll also need anchors. We used these hardware packs (x6 – we used 2 packs for each 70″ upright and between 1 and 2 packs for the 25″ uprights)
  • L-brackets to reinforce the lowest shelves (like these)
  • Optional: Paint that matches your walls to help conceal the L-brackets

How to install track shelving in the living room

To actually install the track shelving, the simple instructions are: (1) Locate the studs (2) Mount the uprights (3) Attach the brackets and shelves. If you’re not mounting your uprights into wall studs, you’ll need to use heavy duty drywall anchors, but other than that, the steps are the same. For those of you who like super specific details, read on.

Steps for installing track shelving:

  1. Measure and mark the 70″ uprights – Figure out how high you want your uprights (and shelves) to be. Sketching on paper helps. I had my husband hold the first 70″ upright on the wall until I figured out how high I wanted it. Then, while he held it in place, I measured (from the ground up) how high up it was and marked the wall. Then, I stepped back to figure out how I wanted the two 70″ uprights to be spaced, and once we decided that, we marked both spots.
  2. Repeat for the 25″ uprights – Repeat the above steps to measure and mark where the short uprights will go. These were the ones that were going under the angle of the stairs.
  3. Mount the uprights – One person should hold the first 70″ upright in the correct, marked spot, then use a level to make sure it’s straight. If you’re mounting to a stud, the second person can just drill into the upright in four different locations (for the 70″ uprights. For the 25″ uprights, I think you only install it using 2-3 screws). If you’re not mounting to a stud, you now need to mark the spots you’ll need to drill (through the upright holes), and then put the upright down in order to install your toggle anchors in. Then, put the upright back into the correct spot and install it. Repeat for the remaining three uprights.
  4. Install your first four shelves – Figure out where you want your shelves to go (how high up), and put the brackets into the uprights at the heights you want. Then put the shelves on top. Once you have them exactly where you want them, you’ll probably want to reinforce them by drilling up through the brackets with screws to hold the shelves in place.
  5. Install the second-from-the-bottom shelf – So our second-from-the-bottom shelf is 72″ long, but it’s actually two 36″ shelves side by side. If you were able to get a single 72″ shelf, then just make sure the left side aligns with the top four shelves. If you’re doing what we did, and putting two 36″ shelves next to one another, you’ll still want to install the first one so it aligns with the four you already installed. Then reinforce the shelf by drilling up into the brackets.
  6. Install the bottom shelf – Same instructions as above. To get an 84″ long shelf, we installed the 36″ one first (again, aligned with all the other 36″ shelves), and then installed the 48″ shelf next to it. In order to further support the shelf on the right side, we installed a heavy L-bracket underneath.
  7. Reinforce the bottom shelf – To further reinforce the entire bottom shelf (since it’s toddler height), we added more L-brackets along the bottom. (We may go back and add L-brackets to the second-from-the-bottom shelf too, since it’s accessible from the sofa which now lives in front of the shelves).
  8. Optional: Paint the L-brackets – We painted the L-brackets to match our walls to help them blend in (not that they were very visible anyway).

If my style of giving directions doesn’t suit you, here are two tutorials that were super helpful in planning this project: this tutorial (from The Dodge Voice), and this one (from Almost Makes Perfect).

A couple things we might have done differently…

First, we used 11.5″ brackets and 12″ shelves, but after the fact, my husband said he wished we’d gone with slightly shallower shelves and brackets.

Second, while we love the shelves, we might replace the laminate shelves with real wood shelves at some point / when we get around to it / never. While this would really elevate the look, it would also be a solid amount of work, so it’s not high on the priority list. Plus, they look pretty great as-is.

Punlearning - track shelving in the living room

Rearranging furniture around the shelves

Having a toddler means a million variables you’ve never before considered must now be considered in every decision you make going forward, from where to eat, when to poop, and at what height to install track shelving in the living room. So I thought very carefully about where I wanted the lowest shelf to be; I wanted it to be low enough that our son could easily reach it, so he could get his own books.

Track shelving in the living room - the first setup

Track shelving in the living room – the first setup, with a reading chair in front of the shelves, and a wicker trunk underneath the shelves.

Track shelving in the living room, before moving the sofa back in front of the shelves

Family photoshoot with our new track shelving, prior to moving our sofa in front of the shelves. You can see the wicker trunk underneath the shelving, to help protect our son in case he went running toward the shelves.

I loved the way it looked, but having the lowest shelf at a toddler-friendly height presented a new problem: he could (and undoubtedly, would) run into it if we didn’t have something blocking that from happening. For a while, I had a wicker trunk underneath the shelves to sort of stop him from running face first into the shelves. But there was still a lot of space for potential injury… so even while we loved the look of this setup, and I loved having a cozy reading chair there, we ended up moving our sofa back in front of it, where it used to be.

Ultimately, it made sense to put our sofa in front of the shelving. Now that we’ve had our sofa in front of it for a while, I’ve grown to love how it looks, and even more, I love that it feels safer. We also added a heavy, low end-table to the side of the sofa (otherwise there would have still been space that would have been open that our son would have been able to run into).

Final Look - Track Shelving in the Living Room

The new setup in our living room after installing track shelving. The sofa is now in front of the shelves, and my son’s books are still at the perfect height for him to reach them, but there’s an end-table below the lowest shelf, so he can’t run face first into the shelves (the end table would block him).

So is open shelving unsafe for toddlers? I don’t know. But we have a really active toddler, and I like the idea of our home being a place where he can run around. So…

For us, it we found open shelving unsafe for our toddler.

If you’re interested in how we’ve styled out our shelves keep reading…. (also, if you’re into this kind of thing, here’s a link that has a bunch of the items we have in this space and sources for where you can buy them.)

Styling Shelves

Above/behind the sofa, I didn’t want anything dangerous or heavy within reaching-distance from the couch, so that was a big factor in how the track shelving in the living room was styled. Above/behind the sofa, I didn’t want anything dangerous or heavy within reaching-distance from the couch, so that was a big factor in how the track shelving in the living room was styled.

How we styled our track shelving

So here’s what we have on our shelves…

Lowest shelf (toddler friendly height shelf)

Second shelf from the bottom (too high for toddler to reach)

  • Ukelele (similar)
  • Candles
  • Books
  • The switch for the sconce (and here’s another gorgeous one)
  • Basket full of fingerpuppets (ours were gifted by my brother, but similar here)
  • Art framed by Framebridge

Third shelf from the bottom

Fourth shelf from the bottom

  • More books (including the Twilight books. #notsorry)
  • A narrow coffee table book on India (gift from my Bua)
  • This frame

Second shelf from the top (fifth shelf from the bottom)

  • Even more books
  • An unframed painting (which I’ve had since high school?)
  • Mercury glass hurricane (similar look here)

Top shelf

  • First stack – coffee table books (with a toddler, we don’t get to leave out coffee table books… or have a coffee table for that matter). Specifically, Styled by Emily Henderson, and I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence by Amy Sedaris, which was a gift from Anuja (which I really want to pull down and flip through again), and a wooden bowl (similar)
  • Second stack – My dissertation, and empty boxes in nice colors

Do you have shelving in your main living space? (Also, have you ever installed track shelving in the living room, or elsewhere? What are your best tips?) AND, bonus, what’s on your shelving?

P.S. – Here’s the story of our leather sofa, and how we came to own it (it’s another story about the weird intersection of parenting and home decor). Mockups in this post were made on my phone using Google Keep; photos taken by my Google Pixel, and/or from my Instagram.