My first experience with this was in a newly constructed house I bought in 1998. I climbed through the attic opening in the master closet, and decided to crawl around the rafters, monkey bar style. I was blown away by how much empty space was up there.
I ended up cutting a different opening in the garage in that first home, and eventually was able to store more than 50 boxes of kids' clothing and Christmas decorations.
This is a view of one side of my current home's attic. My shelves are built on the other side, which looked almost identical prior to installing shelving.
When we moved into our current house a couple years ago, I was excited because the previous owners had installed a pull-down ladder leading up into the attic. Unfortunately, when I climbed upstairs I only found a couple of shelves built out, and still a bunch of wide open space.
I had to build my own catwalks and shelves, but it really isn't that difficult, and now I have more storage space than I've ever had.
I've built 3 different types of storage, depending on how much space is available and how the support beams are connected: Shelves, Platforms, and Hooks.
Shelves and Platforms are built in the upward, V-sections of the rafters, where the beams come together in a V (or a VI-type shape) and there is plenty of vertical space above. Hooks are great for wherever there is plenty of space below.
Type 1 - Shelves. When there is an extended section of rafters of similar pattern, I connected 2 x 4s to the existing beams, and then laid plywood over the top.
Either nails or screws will work fine. The trick is to get the 2 x 4s level, but they'll work just fine even if they're not exactly perfect.
My main shelf is about 12 feet long, with room to build another 10 feet-ish deep. Each 2-foot section can hold 6 tupperware-type storage containers.
To build the shelves, I attached crossbeams (2 x 4s) to the existing trusses, and laid plywood across the top.
This view from below shows there's not much involved.
Type 2 - Platforms. When there is a V in the existing beam with vertical space but not much horizontal space, I'll build a platform by driving a screw into the vertical post, and simply resting a piece of plywood across the beams. The plywood rests on the screws on one side and the angled V-beam on the other.
Type 3 - Hooks. It's also easy to drill or nail into any beam where there's space below it but where building a full shelf isn't feasable. This is perfect for hanging things that fit in bags. (or anything with handles, etc.) You can see one bag hanging from a hook in the last picture below.
Practical Application. Here is a pile of Christmas decorations, all packed up and sitting in the garage:
And here is that same pile of decorations, packed away nicely on a 4 x 8 plywood shelf, a small platform, and a few hooks:
Obviously not everything works well for attic storage. Anything that might melt, or that might get ruined in extreme heat, should be kept down below. Anything that you need frequent access to isn't a great candidate either, since getting up and down can be a pain in the butt.
I store things I expect we'll need once a year or less. Holiday decorations - Christmas, Easter, Fall (Halloween and Thanksgiving) - beachy things like boogie boards and sand toys, snow sleds, hand-me-down clothes from in-between the boys' sizes, extra chairs for those wild parties we throw every couple-few years... You know, that kind of stuff.
The most important thing to remember about walking and building in the attic is to watch your step. Only step on the 2x4 support beams, or the shelves-walks built on top of the 2x4 beams. DO NOT STEP IN BETWEEN THE SUPPORT BEAMS, as you're likely to end up falling through the attic into the house below!
Thanks for reading,
- Chris Butterworth