How to Remove Built-in Shelves

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Things You'll Need

  • Reciprocating saw

  • Rubber mallet

  • Diagonal pliers

  • Drill

  • Screw bits

  • Screwdriver

  • Hammer

  • Pry bar

Remove doors for better access to shelves.
Image Credit: AVAVA/iStock/Getty Images

Cabinets typically include a dado or channel on both sides to support shelves and lock them in place. Another type uses screw cleats to attach the shelf. Once the cabinet is assembled using either of these methods, it's almost impossible to remove the shelf in one piece. It's an issue that occurs when remodeling cabinets for microwaves, refrigerators, additional appliances or when redoing linen cabinets, closets and bookcases. Fixed or built-in shelf removal can be accomplished using a few hand tools.


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Dado Channel

Step 1

Open the doors or door on the cabinet. You don't need to remove the doors.

Step 2

Hold a reciprocating saw vertically, with the blade centered on the front of the shelf. Turn on the saw and cut through the shelf from front to back as close to the center of the shelf as possible. If the shelf has a center stile, cut on either side of the stile. You won't be able to cut completely through the shelf. Cut as far as possible or until the base of the saw prevents you from cutting any further.


Step 3

Tap upward on one side of the shelf with a rubber mallet. If the piece is stubborn and won't loosen, make another cut on the shelf from front to back placing the second cut 4 inches from the first, angling it back diagonally in a pie shape to intersect the first cut line.

Step 4

Tap on the pie-shaped section to break it off, if necessary, and remove it from the cabinet.

Step 5

Tap upward on the remaining sections on the left and right to loosen them. If they don't fall out, grasp them with your hands. Wiggle the sections up and down until they loosen and pull them out of the dado channels, and out through the front of the cabinet. Remove any nails or staples using diagonal pliers.


Cleat Method

Step 1

Remove 1 1/4-inch vertical screws from the top of the shelf around the perimeter with a drill or screwdriver. The screws secure the shelf to strips of lumber or cleats beneath it. Remove the shelf from the cabinet. If the shelf is too wide to fit through the cabinet opening, cut it in half with the reciprocating saw. If the shelf is nailed on, proceed to the next Step.

Step 2

Hammer the tip of a pry bar beneath the shelf between it and the cleat. Pry upward to loosen the shelf. Repeat along the length of the shelf and on both sides to free the shelf from the cleats. Remove the shelf from the cabinet.


Step 3

Remove 1 1/4-inch, horizontal screws from the 3/4-inch thick strips or cleats that were under the shelf using a drill or screwdriver. You will probably find four screws on each side, and screws along the back spaced about 8 inches apart. If there are no screws, the cleats are nailed on and require a different removal process.

Step 4

Insert the tip of a pry bar under the cleats on both sides between the cleat and the cabinet wall. Tap it upward slightly with a mallet. Pry the cleats away from the cabinet walls and remove them.


Evaluate the size of the shelf before doing any work. If it's obvious that it won't fit through the cabinet's door opening, cut it in half before loosening it.


Wear eye and breathing protection when working.

Apply caution when using a reciprocating saw, as it can bounce back if it hits a nail or screw. Reciprocating saws with the correct blade can cut through most nails and screws.


references & resources

Wade Shaddy

Specializing in hardwood furniture, trim carpentry, cabinets, home improvement and architectural millwork, Wade Shaddy has worked in homebuilding since 1972. Shaddy has also worked as a newspaper reporter and writer, and as a contributing writer for Bicycling Magazine. Shaddy began publishing in various magazines in 1992, and published a novel, “Dark Canyon,” in 2008.