How to Hang a Shelf

Jesse Steinbach

Illustration:    Samantha Silverman

Illustration: Samantha Silverman

When I moved into my own apartment in August, I didn’t know the difference between a bolt and a screw. I didn’t know why some screws had flat heads and others rounded. I owned a drill, but I’d never used it. This isn’t to say I wasn’t resourceful. I’ve picked locks with hangers, used a knife to pry open a can of black beans, and deftly placed a dime-size of peanut butter in a mouse trap. But the dusty bin of Ikea tools beneath my couch represented my limited knowledge of putting things together properly.

Once the last of my moving boxes was broken down and recycled, I stood in my new studio, frightened by the expanse of white walls and open windows hungry for AC units. Whatever odd tasks I could complete using a pair of scissors wouldn’t cut it here. I needed to be the kind of guy with drywall-dusted hair, that dude who exclusively wears paint-smeared button-downs and is never seen without a pencil behind his ear. A real man, or whatever bullshit those military movie dads preach to their sensitive, fashion-forward sons. 

I didn’t grow up around those kinds of people. And as a gay kid living in a conservative suburb of Philadelphia, I feared men who were handy, assuming they were older versions of the jocks in P.E. who called me a fag. On the rare occasion that my father used a screwdriver, he had to recite righty tighty, lefty loosey out loud or else he’d turn the instrument the wrong way for a very, very long time.This led my mother, who believed these tasks were a “man’s job,” to outsource any chores that required a tool box to various carpenters—men with dirty fingernails and dark stubble who intrigued her in how radically opposite they were from my father. This is all to say I had a miseducation about how things worked, hung, or supported weight without crumbling. I was also dubious that straight men who did have that education could, miraculously, not hate gay people. 

Now faced with an apartment to call my own but no idea how to make it so, I had to learn how to hang a shelf.

1. Survey, measure, do—math?

This wasn’t your standard, white laminate Ikea shelf installation. I was aiming to build three custom shelves to fit beneath a narrow, mini-staircase that led up to a sleeping loft. To complicate the project further, the three custom shelves would need to fit around a vertical heating pipe. This meant I’d have to cut wood.

It’s essential that an honest unhandy person recognizes his limits. Cutting wood is one of my limits. This required me to call in support, i.e. Tommy, my straight but lovely brother-in-law who’s a professional furniture maker and, in defiance of my childhood prejudice, a wonderful ally (I recently taught him when to appropriately say shade—it’s cute!). He would advise me throughout the project, which began by measuring for depth, length, and height, and doing math, a process that, like Latin, isn’t quite dead but should be. He helped calculate the dimensions around the heating pipe and left my house promising to find scrap pieces of wood at work and cut them with an industrial saw. I mumbled an out-of-character “thanks, bro” and locked the door behind him.

Day one of the project had left me a bit salty. I couldn’t do this alone, however much that hurt my pride to acknowledge. I needed to be taught.


2. Buy supplies (and learn what a washer is)

With detailed instructions from Tommy on what supplies to purchase, I proceeded to spill an entire case of washers on the floor at the hardware store. I felt so bad that I bought them, even though they were the wrong size. The mishap also gave me the opportunity to learn what a washer was: a circular piece of metal that goes between a screw and a surface, and helps to distribute weight. Also purchased: white paint, a roller, a plastic tarp, and brackets. I executed the trip successfully and alone, which made me feel a semblance of handy independence. I got home and put a pencil behind my ear.


3. Paint it, white

Continuing the legacy of many gays before me, I was quite good at art class growing up. I spread the plastic tarp across my kitchen floor, and was confident that I could roll on the Benjamin Moore high-gloss white evenly and without drips. I laid down the wood Tommy had delivered the night before and I thought through the process carefully: one coat on the front and sides, dry; second coat on the front and sides, dry; two coats on the back. The process took me 36 hours to complete and left me with three pieces of smoothly painted wood, a few accidental splatters on my kitchen cabinets, and a pair of black shorts smeared in white. I texted Tommy: “I am a butch warrior.”

4. Drill me: a humbling attempt at independence 

(Note: If, for whatever reason, you are using this article as a practical guide, skip this step.)

Tommy couldn’t come by to install for a few more days and, impatient, I found myself holding my cheap drill and placing a screw into a bracket hole. Aligned with the pencil marks I’d made, I pulled the trigger and watched the screw disappear into the drywall. When something I expect to be difficult turns out to be easy, I assume I’ve made an idiotic mistake. I stepped back. Observed. It looked okay.

I moved onto the second bracket on the top shelf and repeated the process of aligning the bracket and screw with my marking. I pulled the trigger and felt the drill vibrate in my grip before it jumped from the screw head and violently stabbed the wall. A chip of drywall fell to the floor. I kicked it beneath the heating grate and, like Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People, pretended nothing had happened.  

Take two: The drill continued to ram into the screw head without turning. I pushed harder, imagining red sparks flying from the colliding metals. I stopped, let the drill fall to my side, and examined the screw; its cross indentation had been warped into an uneven circle. I then proceeded, for the next half hour, to try to pry the half-screwed-in screw from the wall until my thumb and index finger were pink and raw. I threw the drill to the ground, abandoned my butch warrior shorts in favor off black jeans, and left my apartment in search of a properly hung shelf with liquor.


5. Assemble your shelf, disassemble your shit 

I’m not good at waiting. But for two days I had to look at my damaged bracket and screw—insufferable proof of my failure—before Tommy was able to come over. He brought a special tool to remove the screw and a wireless drill that allowed for greater mobility. A past version of myself would have watched Tommy from afar as he remedied my mistake and proceeded to seamlessly install the other shelves. But I felt older now. I’d taken the expensive leap to live alone in New York City. I’d worked hard to save for everything in my new home. And I felt there was an unwritten law that required me to have a hand in what I owned. 

There’s the age-old trope of the damsel in distress and the man who must save her. It’s an insulting myth, one women are actively fighting today. As I reflected on that myth, I saw a different one that troubles gays like me: Many of us were taunted by straight men growing up, so we’re relegated to an adulthood in which we cannot ask for their help. I’ve been haunted by this notion all my life. It’s made me judgmental toward good and interesting people. It’s made my world smaller and more narrow. It’s made me lonely.

But now, with the shelves before me, I saw how to dismantle it.

“Give me the drill,” I told Tommy. “I want you stand over my shoulder and tell me exactly what to do.”

Jesse Steinbach is the special projects editor at Logo TV and former digital managing editor of Out magazine. He recently hung his own gallery wall.