The Dos and Don’ts of Decorating Built-In Shelves

We get a lot of compliments on living room our built-ins, but get even more questions about what process we use for decorating built-in shelves. The truth is, we’ve never stopped to identify the exact “formula” we use to style these shelves.

Decorating built-in shelves can be difficult. Read these tips to improve your home decor styling

But when we finally did, we quickly found out that both of us use a similar strategy and do have some key tips and tricks that we try to abide by as we work and re-work these shelves until they’re “perfect”.

Tips for Decorating Built-In Shelves

Decorating built-in shelves can be challenging. Here are our tips to create gorgeous styled shelves

So today is all about exploring those tips and tricks with the Dos and Don’ts of decorating built-in shelves (or any shelf or bookcase for that matter). Following these simple steps is an easy way to showcase your personal style and take your home to the next level.

Do – Start from Scratch

The first step, take everything off your shelves. Both of us always start decorating built-in bookcases by clearing them off completely… every single time! As much as it may seem daunting to start from nothing, it’s helpful for us to take everything off and slowly tackle this job (even if we are just re-working them for a new season).

Getting everything off allows us to focus on one shelf at a time, without being distracted by all the other clutter. Getting all of the shelf accessories together in a pile helps us take inventory of what we have.

Also, it’s nice to get these items off the shelf because we find that when we keep items on the shelf from the start, we get tunnel vision. We automatically think this accessory needs to be paired with that accessory and often times that results in us missing other pairings that work better together.

Oh, and it’s the best time to dust everything. This is my favorite wood cleaner (smells amazing!) to do just that.

Don’t – Force or Rush the Process

Our new temporary home office setup

Decorating built-ins takes a bit of time so we recommend you tackle this project when you aren’t feeling rushed (or distracted!). We actually enjoy the process of working and re-working our accessories until we find the “winning combo”, but have found that if we are tight on time or aren’t okay with the mess that comes with taking everything off the shelves, then the process quickly turns stressful.

Be sure to block out enough time, pour yourself a cup of coffee (or a glass of wine!), turn on the music, and embrace the process… messy floor and all!

Do – Shop Your Home for AccessoriesA navy guest room with a gallery wall of frames.

We are constantly “shopping our homes” for accessories we already own that may look better on the built-in bookshelves. You would be surprised at how often we are stealing these items from other rooms of our homes and falling so much more in love with them after seeing them on the built-ins.

This process usually happens towards the end of the decorating process. We’ll get the shelves 90% decorated and will then be on the hunt for “something short” or “something gold or brass” etc. We shop around our homes and magically we find an item that works perfectly!

Don’t – Buy, Buy, Buy!

It’s okay to buy some new pieces, especially ones that you absolutely LOVE, but don’t feel like you need to buy everything new for your built-ins. Finding accessories around your home and breathing new life into them by pairing them with other items is half the fun for us.

It’s a challenge we look forward to each time we restyle our shelves. And if you are buying new accessories, be sure to read this post first so you shop with intention. Plus, here’s a post with ideas to add only meaningful decor to your home.

Do – Add BooksBlack books and a plant are well styled on this built-in shelf

When decorating built-in shelves, put a vase on top of books for added height

Built-in shelves + books = duh, right?! We don’t love to overdo it in the book department, but adding some books is a must. They add color and texture, fill space on the cheap, and are also perfect for adding different heights to certain accessories.

I opted to use all neutral-colored books when styling these shelves, but this is a personal preference. If you don’t have neutral books, you can always turn the spines backward to make them appear neutral, but this has been a hot topic in the blogosphere lately (some people are NOT a fan of apparently?!).

Don’t – Spend Too Much on These BooksAdd hardcover books throughout your built-in shelves.

If you’re collecting coffee table books just to accessorize your built-ins, be sure not to spend too much on these decor staples. We usually hit up garage sales, estate sales, local thrift stores, or even local libraries to buy ours.

We expect to pay 50 cents to a dollar and that’s the perfect price point. Hardcover books can be more expensive, so we hold out until we find those low prices. And then we are mindful of what color spines the old books have (and sometimes even their titles!) so they look good while styling. Be sure to remove the jackets too, to see what color the spines really are.

You can turn the colored spines of the books around so your built-in shelves are more neutral.

We’re not afraid of displaying books we’ve already read, but sometimes we need more depending on the space! Plus, we read a lot of our books on Kindles, so we’re not always buying new hardcovered books.

Do – Add Greenery

You guys know we are all about pops of greenery and decorating built-ins is no exception. We both incorporate greenery and aren’t afraid to use real and faux plants. When you mix the real stuff and the fake stuff, your guests will assume it’s all real… and we’re definitely okay with that. It’ll be our little secret. See all of the plants on B’s built-ins here? Only the bottom right-hand corner is real, the rest are all fake!

Here’s a list of the indoor plants I have around our house and how I keep them alive. If faux greenery is more your style, I recommend this jade plant, this trio of faux plants, or this drapey plant.

Don’t – Water the Greenery on the ShelvesReal plants are always a great addition when decorating built-in shelves.

We don’t advise you to water the greenery while sitting on the shelf, especially if your built-ins are made of real wood. This is a lesson we learned the hard way… unfortunately.

We encourage you to remove all of the greenery, water it, allow it to dry, and then place it back on the shelf. This will ensure you don’t have any permanent water spots on your gorgeous shelves.

Do – Vary Height, Texture, and Decorative ObjectsHow to style built-in shelves and bookcases in your home.

It’s all about mixing and matching vases, decorative boxes, candlesticks, frames, trays, plants, and small objects to create the layered shelf look that we love. You don’t want to decorate with all frames, but you also don’t want to decorate with all small vases. Too much of one thing isn’t good, but a little bit of all of these things is perfect.

Layer frames in the back of your shelves

And while you’re mixing and matching items, you also want to vary the heights of these items. We typically like to group in threes (odd numbers look better), but all three of these items should have varying heights. But if you love two vases together and their height is too similar, add stacks of books under one of the vases, and magically you’ve created varying heights. Books are usually our secret weapon to add height whenever possible.

Don’t – Go Matchy-MatchyThink outside the box with quirky objects when decorating your built-in shelves

You can display all kinds of objects on your built-in shelves.

Mixing and matching is the name of the game in decorating built-ins. Matt jokes that some of the pieces I have on our built-ins (like this wood hand I thrifted a few years ago) are so “weird”, but it’s these quirky pieces that make the styling interesting and they’re my favorite things!

So don’t be afraid to think outside of the box and add something a bit quirky or items you think don’t necessarily “match”. The more mixed and matched the items look, the more layered the shelf will appear… and that’s a great thing!

Do- Add Meaningful DecorAdd photo booth strips to a pencil holder to decorate your built-in shelves.

You don’t need to fill up all of your shelves with family heirlooms, especially if these special pieces don’t match your style. BUT, incorporating some of these pieces here and there will make your built-ins not only look good but be meaningful to you and your family too.

On this shelf, I added photo strips of Matt and me (such fun memories!) and also framed my favorite hand-written recipe from my Gram. These tiny details are so special to me and make me love the shelf decor so much more!

This blog post gives more inexpensive art ideas to fill your shelves, while this one offers 10 bookshelf decor ideas that are all sentimental.

Don’t- Stick with Generic Items

It’s okay to buy accessories for your built-ins (I mean let’s be honest, who can resist the amazing shelfie accessories at Target?!) but not everything should be from a big box store. Some… of course!! All… not so much!

Again, it’s okay to shop your home, add pieces that are important to you and your family, and even thrift for some one-of-a-kind items. I have found a lot of beautiful bowls, large baskets (great for extra storage!), and trinkets from vintage stores and thrift shops over the years.

Do – Layer In Frames

My best tips for buying home accessories

Whenever I’m choosing bookcase decor, I always like to display a few family photos and art prints throughout. The wall of built-ins in my office has a variety of gold frames and wood frames scattered throughout. These add height and visual interest to the negative space on each shelf.

Decorating Built-In Shelves – My Fave Items

My favorite items for decorating built-in shelves

Gold Frame // Wood Beads // My Fave Candle // Planter //  Gray Box // Wood Platter // Picture Frames // Faux Plant Trio // Vase // Marble Bookends // Stylish Books

Tips and tricks when it comes to decorating your built-in shelves with ease!

So there are our easy tips & tricks for shelf styling! The best advice we can offer is to embrace the process. Our built-ins are always a work in progress… and that’s okay (that’s the fun part actually!).

As long as you come up with a mixed and matched look you love, then you’re doing it right because there is no “one” answer.2021 home goals to organize our office built-ins

P.S. Want to DIY your own built-ins? You can see how we made these for our home office right here, plus more tips on how we styled them in this blog post.


The Year of Casey

Hey there!

I’m Casey Finn, the voice behind The DIY Playbook. I’m a Chicago gal teaching you how to design, DIY, and maintain your home…by yourself! Learn more about me right here.

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