Installing Sweet Shelves in Your Straw Bale Home

Decorative Shelves

Finished shelves installed in the straw bale walls of our house

Installing shelves in the straw bale walls of your home requires a bit of forethought. With some advance planning, you can design some pretty sweet decorative shelves that are quite sturdy and can be adjusted over time. Here’s a relatively simple plan we came up with to build strong, attractive shelving in our house.

How to Build Decorative Shelves in Your Straw Bale Home

Before you put any plaster on the straw bales, you should consider where you’d like to position shelves. Think about it carefully, as it’s quite difficult to add them after the fact… and equally difficult to take them out completely. With this design, however, you can at least adjust the height of the shelves in the future without serious modifications.

Positioning and Driving Deadmen

Building shelves begins with driving deadmen into the wall (short, pointed 2x4s about 8-12″ long). For a set of shelves, you’ll want to drive several rows of deadmen. Too many can’t really hurt, as it’s easier to ignore the extras than to have to drive in more later. The idea here is that the deadmen follow a plumb line, so they can all support a vertical piece of wood. The distance between columns should be less than the final shelf width. Particularly wide shelves, or shelves intended to support a lot of weight could warrant a third column of deadmen.

Installing Shelves in a Straw Bale House

Two columns of deadmen are spaced less than the final width of the finished shelves

Installing Vertical Shelf Supports

Now, I haven’t decided if the best time to install the next component is before or after the base layer of plaster, but you can be the judge of that. I’m going to suggest before the base layer… but anyway, the next step is to choose your vertical shelf support and screw it into the deadmen. I chose some 1x oak boards, with corners rounded off. These are going to be visible, so you should take the time to plane or sand and oil the wood for a nice finish.

Installing these vertical supports can be tricky to get just right… and they need to be just that: flat, plumb, and square to each other. You might be able to observe below that I implemented a couple of wood shims to push out the bottoms of the supports to get them exactly plumb. To get them square to each other, I held up a level against the pair and tweaked the shims until they were perfect. I drove screws into four pairs of the deadmen, ensuring that the future load on the shelves would be evenly dispersed. These vertical pieces need to be unmoving, completely solid. As you can imagine, if you were planning a set of shelves for books or something similarly heavy, the more support you have, the better.

The other consideration is how much reveal you’d like to leave… that is, how much wood will stick out of the finish plastered wall plane. A little is better than none at all, so think about planning for 1/4″ of reveal or so, and add as much base coat plaster as necessary.

Vertical Shelf Supports

Vertical shelf supports and brackets installed, and wall ready for finish plaster

Brackets and Shelving

Finally, you can install your shelf brackets directly into the vertical supports. I found these half decent decorative brackets for a good price online, but my first choice would have been some sweet cast iron hardware. Beggars can’t be choosers, though. Next time we’ll go all out for some fancy pants brackets. Decide how tall you want your shelves to be, and install the brackets accordingly. Think about it carefully, as it’s preferable that you don’t go and put a bunch of holes in your support pieces right off the bat. Level each individual bracket and the total pair.

For the final personal touch, choose your material for the shelf itself. I scored some very nice, stable maple boards from a friend that we planed and oiled. If you use 1x wood, make sure the material is stable stuff — quartersawn lumber would be fantastic, as it won’t warp. Again, work with what you’ve got and what you’d like to see. Nice grain, or an interesting waney edge will make for a beautiful set of decorative shelves.

Getting these shelves just right takes a bit of effort, but the results are worth it!



One Comment

  • Adina says:

    This is an excellent post and it really helped me to understand what deadmen are and how they are used. Concerning the question of paster before or after shelving, I have only one thought that was not addressed. I have some weird water karma (maybe because I live in coastal Florida), and often I find things that should have been impermeable or dry have become wet, and that makes me think of something on that set of shelves leaving back into the wall and the mold problem that might then ensue. I think tipped forward shelving might be a mistake, but maybe a router channel at the back of the shelf to carry spilled water away from the wall? Maybe you have a better idea. Thanks again for this interesting post.