French cleat system for closet

I replaced the single clothes rail and shelf in our bedroom closet with a bunch of moveable rails on French cleats. It almost doubles the available space for hanging, and lets us change the setup easily if we end up with different stuff or just need a change.

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The real challenge in designing these brackets was to find a balance between having a shape I liked and being strong enough. The Earth pulls the heavy clothes down, and that force all goes into trying to pull the cleats off the wall using the bracket as a lever. If I had made the brackets longer vertically, they would be stronger but not as nice visually. They remind me a little of bike frames, which makes me happy every morning because bike frames are great.

How to estimate if some design like this will be OK? Mostly intuition and a little bit of loose physics. What holds the brackets to the wall? Screws and some Liquid Nails, and the integrity of the wood in the cleats themselves. How much does a full rail of clothes way? Maybe 50 pounds. How much does the bracket help the Earth’s gravity help the clothes to pull the closet apart? Well, the diagonal struts are about twice as long as the ones in the back, and since the whole thing pivots on the lowest points, the force from clothes to cleats is multiplied by around two, to maybe a hundred pounds. So, asking if the brackets are OK is like asking, could I mount the cleats on the ceiling the same way and hang a hundred pounds off them with some initial bounce as things are put there (dynamic loading)? Sure, I’m confident about that. Did I try it? No. So while the whole enterprise is still built on the shaky foundation of my intuition about building materials, a little reasoning at least moved the question to a domain from one where I had no intuition to one where I had some.

I’m pretty happy about French cleats in general right now. I learned a couple of things I’ll do differently next time I make some. One is: check the thickness of your supposedly 3/4″ brackets versus your supposedly 3/4″ cleats, and plane them to match if needed. These are both softwoods, but from different sources, and the cleats are about 1/16″ thicker. This makes the friction connection less secure, because the back wall is not involved. I’ll probably replace the cleats… but not this year.

Another thing learned is: splurge on some nicer wood for the cleats. They have to be straight and free of twist. I spent a long time picking out the best pieces of pine from a big box store bin and couldn’t really get anything satisfying. I’d go straight to a good lumberyard and look for better quality wood, possibly hemlock, probably hardwood, next time. The brackets holding the rails are 1×3 clear fir from Compton Lumber. They are a no-nonsense lumberyard catering to the builder that I can recommend if you’re in Seattle.