After doing some research, I selected Easy Closets as the vendor for new, better shelves. They offer an online computer design service, and their shelves are designed to support 1200 pounds, which sounded good to me. They even offer double rod units where I can hang two rows of shirts, just what I need to accomodate the collection of clothes that had occupied three closets at the previous house. They also offer free shipping. I wasn't able to quite get the layout to match the double-door closet I had, and I realized the height didn't match the default height in the design tool. I therefore accepted the “free design review” option, and a friendly representative called the next day to discuss it. He was able to adjust the layout to match reality, tweak the dimensions in some ways I hadn't been able to with the online tool, and modify the height to match what I had available. I got an email with a link to the new design, no sales pressure whatsoever. It was up to me to order it, modify it further, or just ignore it.
I chose to go ahead and order it. The finished order shipped out the next day. I'm guessing they have a computer controlled production line that cranks these things out directly from the specifications. I got a shipment notification that eight boxes, totalling nearly 200 pounds, were on their way to me.
I started going through the PDFs describing how to install the shelves. They mentioned that the back of the closet needed to be straight, or the support rail would have to be shimmed. This is when I noticed that there was a big bulge in the back of my closet. Not just a hump, but a flat piece sticking out, beveled on each end, about half an inch thick. I didn't really want to shim it that far. I considered carving a groove in the bulge, but I didn't like that idea, and thought it might interfere with the rest of the structure.
I poked a couple of holes in it, and determined that it was a sheet of drywall tacked on top of the original (plaster) wall. Why was it there? What was behind it? I thought of old ghost stories where people would pull away things like this and reveal a cache of infant bones and a rattle or something even more disturbing. The house had been around since at least 1886, so there had been plenty of time for odd occurrences to accumulate.
I carefully started to remove the drywall panel by hand, both because I was wary of what might be behind it, and because I wanted to keep the plaster intact as much as practical.
Chunk by chunk, I revealed what was underneath: a section of unfinished plaster, a vertical gap of bare lath, and a segment of fairly homely wallpaper.
It became apparent that there had once been a perpendicular wall here, and a previous owner had apparently not wanted to deal with plaster patching, and instead elected to just cover it up, add spackle bevels to the panel, and even go to the trouble to miter the baseboards and floor moulding around it. Bizarre.
While I've done a little plaster patching in my time, this was a bigger job than I was comfortable with, so I started calling plaster contractors in the area. After a few days of no returned calls, I started expanding my scope, and toying with the idea of attempting to fix it myself. During this time, I was basically wearing whatever shirt was on top of the stack. In the meantime, I worked over the wall, carving out any loose or weak plaster and sanding off the remains of the bevels and any other high spots.
I finally got a callback from Bob Siljetovic from BSP Plastering in Alexandria, an hour and a half away. He said it sounded like a straightforward fix, something he could probably do in ten minutes, but he was loathe to spend three hours on the road to do so. So he explained that I could do it myself. Over the course of the next 15-20 minutes, he told me what materials and tools I would need, how to prepare the surface, and apply and finish the plaster! He did explain that it would take me a lot longer, as I was inexperienced. He even invited me to call him back if I had more questions or concerns, and said he'd trek out to fix it if I totally bungled it!
Armed with that knowledge and reassurance, I went out and bought the supplies, mixed up a little plaster, and worked it into place with a putty knife. The next day it had hardened, and I showed it to fizzygeek who observed that it looked fine to her, and (as she put it), "You got this." Over the next few days, I worked my way up the wall, alternately applying and sanding plaster as I proceeded. Amusingly, at this point, one of the other contractors finally got back in touch, and said they could do the work — for $700. Once I had it pretty much filled, I concentrated on smoothing out the surface and filling the holes from the previous shelves and other assorted dents and dings.
In the process, I ended up removing the rest of the baseboard along the back wall, as the mitered overlaps for the previous drywall patch simply weren't going to mesh with the new, flat wall properly.
The house had come with cans of paint for the various colors used, so once I had the wall repaired, I masked and repainted the closet interior.
Then I installed new baseboards and moulding, and the closet finally looked nice again.
Then it was time to install the new shelves. The instructions said to install the back rail a particular distance below the top of the shelves. However, I didn't know where the top of the shelves was supposed to be! It gave the rail height for a standard closet, but not for mine. I figured mine was an inch shorter than a standard closet, so I measured it for an inch below that. The rail came in standard six-foot lengths, intended to be cut down so the screw holes would line up with the studs. I worked out a nice arrangement that would give me two screws per stud, which involved cutting both ends off of both rails. The rails are heavy gauge steel, but a fresh hacksaw blade and a little elbow grease made short work of them.
I mounted the rails, which still involved a little shimming, as the old plaster wasn't perfectly flat (to be honest, neither was the new plaster). Then I tried to mount the uprights, which would have fit, but there wasn't enough clearance above them to maneuver them into place! I made some more measurements, did some thinking, and ended up re-mounting the rail an inch and a half lower. Then the job consisted of alternately hanging vertical pieces and attaching the connecting shelves between them. A fiddly business, but not too tough. However, the last one didn't fit, horizontally or vertically. It turns out that not only was the closet even less square than I had allowed for, but there was a little ridge at one end making it shorter. I thought it over, and decided to shift things to minimize the number of pieces that would have to be modified. In the end, I had to shorten one upright (to clear that pesky ridge), two horizontal shelves, and a rod. The upright, I simply chopped down with a circular saw. I figured I'd cut the rod with a pipe cutter, but I didn't have a large enough one, so I used the hacksaw. The horizontal shelves were a problem, they had specific openings cut into them to accomodate the fasteners. I emailed Easy Closets to see if I could buy two more shelves, and they said they'd make and ship them to me for free, as a one-time offer. When they showed up, everything assembled nicely. I ended up stealing a little space from the top shelf to make the "tall clothes" rod higher, so certain long items would clear the floor.