Q&A / 

Cheap Shelving

DEAR TIM: I just moved and need to build some cheap shelving. Money is tight because of the economy and the move drained most of my cash. Some of the things I need to store are heavy so the cheap shelves need to be strong. What’s the best way to make use of the limited space I have in my new home? Maureen S., Salem, MA

DEAR MAUREEN: I surely can relate to moving and the weight of accumulated possessions. I’m stunned by what a cubic foot of books weighs. It seems close to 30 pounds or more. Recently I moved a long distance and had the same problem as you now have. After looking around, I decided that I could create my own cheap shelving units with a few standard tools and very little time.

These strong wood shelves were built in less than an hour for less than $65.00 (2010 prices). PHOTO CREDIT:  Tim Carter

These strong wood shelves were built in less than an hour for less than $65.00 (2010 prices). PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Carter

The cheap wood shelves I constructed were made from just 2x3’s and inexpensive one-half-inch-thick CDX plywood. I only needed two pieces of plywood and thirteen 2x3x8’s to make 256 cubic feet of storage space. The best part is that I only spent $65.00 and it took one hour of my time.

If you look around, you’ll discover all sorts of shelving solutions. You may discover industrial shelving for sale on a classified-ad website or you may discover cheap storage shelves at a home center. Whatever you decide to do, be sure to do the calculation as to what the shelving costing you per cubic foot. In my case, it was only a little over 25 cents per cubic foot.

You determine cubic footage by multiplying the length times the width times the height of the shelving. I can only store up to 8 feet high in my garage attic, so I used that number. You may have a taller space in your new home, but realize that if you stack things higher than 30 inches on a shelf, they can become unstable and fall. This is why my cheap wood shelving is only 60-inches tall. That leaves me with 30 inches of space to stack things and still have 6 inches of space between my possessions and the ceiling.

I built my shelves using a drill, miter box saw and a screw gun. You can use a regular circular saw and a drill if you don’t have these specialized tools. The drill is used to bore pilot holes for the screws, but you can also insert a phillips driver bit into the drill transforming it into a crude screw gun sans a clutch.

The first step was to cut five of the 2x3’s creating ten pieces of lumber 45 inches long. Using these five pieces of lumber in between two full-length 2x3’s, I was able to build a frame that was 4-feet by 8-feet in size. The smaller 2x3’s were placed at 2-foot centers in the middle of the frame. Each of the 2x3’s acts like a small I-beam to support the plywood. I built two of these frames using 2.5-inch-long drywall screws to fasten all the lumber together.

I then cut the remaining four 2x3’s 60-inches long. These became the legs of the shelving system. I placed one shelf up 30 inches off the floor and the top one was flush with the top of the legs. The shelves were attached to the legs with 3-inch-long drywall screws. I used four screws where each leg touches the sides of the shelf frame.

To ensure the shelves don’t collapse, you have to stiffen them up with bracing material. I happened to have some 1-foot wide pieces of scrap plywood. I screwed these 30-inch-long pieces to the corners of the shelves. This extra wood makes it so the shelves don’t rock back and forth or side to side.

The vertical distance of 30 inches provides you with a generous amount of space between each shelf and the floor or the ceiling. Just about every box I have to store fits in or on the shelves. In many instances, smaller boxes are stacked on top of other boxes so no space is wasted.

I suggest you be very careful with the heavy items you want to store. Place those on the floor under the first shelf. If you have access to old pallets, consider using them to keep any of your possessions up off the floor. This is very important if you’re storing things where water might contact your valuables.

If you frequent construction sites, you may be able to build your cheap wooden shelves for next to nothing. Instead of using one large sheet of plywood for each shelf, you can often find scraps of plywood discarded by the carpenters. With a little bit of time, you can cut these to fit onto your 4x8 frame.

Even the framing lumber can be scavenged. You may not find 2x3’s, but you can always substitute the heavier 2x4’s which you’ll discover are abundant in and around construction sites. Always ask a supervisor at the site if you can have the material.

You can also use the online classified-ad websites to discover inexpensive or free building materials that can be used to build the shelves. I actually gave away free material at the house I moved from because it was too expensive to take it with me 1,000 miles. Be patient and you may be able to build your shelves for less than $10.00!

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