Last Updated on November 25, 2020 by Dave Farquhar
I needed some shelves for my office. Most of the ready made shelves I could find wouldn’t fit in the space I had. So I made some myself using cheap wooden crates. Here’s how I make DIY wood crate shelves that are attractive, functional, and reasonably durable.
You can buy three wooden crates for $36 and they will make a shelf that’s equivalent to a $40 particle board shelf in terms of storage space. But the crates give you more options in terms of versatility, both in the way they look and the way they work. And while I wouldn’t call them super strong, they’re at least as durable as particle board.
Where to buy wood crates
The first question is where to get wood crates. Craft stores like Michaels sell them, and put them on sale fairly frequently. Home Depot also sells them. The crates from Home Depot are cheaper, at least when neither of them is on sale, but the quality control on them isn’t as good. That’s why they cost less. But they’re certainly usable. And they’re made in the USA, which is always good.
If you’re patient, you can use the 40% off coupon from Michaels and get their better crates at nearly the same price, but this strategy requires multiple trips, which extends the length of the project.
If you want a rough, rustic look, the Home Depot crates deliver. If you want better fit and finish, a more expensive crate may be a better choice. But if you’re willing to do some cleanup, either will work. If you buy at Home Depot, inspect each crate before buying them and pick out the nicest ones, since the crates do vary in quality, as you can see from my images.
How to arrange crates into shelves
You can arrange the crates however you like, but one option is to arrange them in fours to give yourself sections of varying sizes like the image above. You’ll get two wide shelves, two narrow and tall shelves, and a very small shelf in between. You can also just stack them to make a traditional looking bookcase like the one to the right.
If you go for the vertical route, it’s easy. You can stack the crates and might not even need to attach them, though I recommend you do. If you go for the less conventional route, you’ll need to attach the crates together so they stay in place.
Attaching wood crates to make them into DIY shelves
You have several options for attaching your wooden crates to turn them into DIY wood crate shelves. If you’re OK with a permanent arrangement, you can use glue. Titebond wood glue works really well. For indoor shelves, original Titebond is fine. You don’t need the more expensive Titebond 2 or 3, which are formulated for outdoor use. These crates won’t do well outdoors, so the only reason to use Titebond 2 or 3 on them is if you already have some on hand anyway.
I wouldn’t say there’s anything wrong with other types of wood glue, but a bottle of Elmer’s costs 3 cents less than a bottle of Titebond. I do think the difference is worth more than 3 cents. You can get Titebond at hardware and home improvement stores. Regular old-fashioned white Elmer’s Glue-All will also work and is cheaper, if money is a consideration.
If you use glue, it’s best to clamp the shelves unless gravity is helping you hold them in place. For a traditional arrangement that’s fine. For a more complex arrangement, you’ll probably want clamps, or use screws.
For a non-permanent attachment method, use screws. The advantage with screws is that you can take the shelves apart and rearrange them if you ever want to.
The slats on the Home Depot shelves are only 5/16 of an inch thick, so use half-inch wood screws to attach them. I would recommend two screws in the back and two screws near the front. Drive them far enough in to get them flush with the shelf surface.
Raising the shelves off the ground
This step is optional, but commercial shelves often have a toe plate so you don’t accidentally kick them, like a kitchen cabinet. You can make one out cheap regular lumber. They also raise the shelf off the ground a few inches, which is an advantage in a garage or basement where the floor may get wet. 2×3 lumber is considerably cheaper than 2×4, so if 2×3 lumber fits your space, buy that. If you don’t mind a slightly lighter-weight shelf, you can use 1×3 or 1×4 lumber. For extra savings, be sure to check the cull lumber pile in the back of the store.
Cut a length of lumber the full depth of your shelves. Then cut a second length of lumber three inches shorter than the full width of your shelves. Line up your lumber in an arrangement like the letter H, with the long length of lumber set an inch or two back from the front of your crates. Screw or glue the lumber together, then screw or glue the shelves to the lumber.
For extra strength, and to keep the shelves from being too top-heavy, you can cut additional lengths of lumber and place within this base for more support. Strictly speaking, the base only needs three sides but you can add a fourth side to the back and
Finishing the crates
The Home Depot crates are made of cheap wood (spruce, pine, or fir), but they’ll take stain or paint just fine. If you want to match other furniture in the same room, get the stain that most closely matches their finish. It may take two or more applications, but it will take stain.
For a nice appearance, sand the crates with 150 grit sandpaper and follow up with 220 grit. This will knock off any splinters and even out the grain.
The crates from Michaels come in a variety of designs, both finished and unfinished. The pre-finished crates are certainly easier, if they have a style to your liking. But the unfinished crates give you a blank slate.
If you stain them, consider using wood conditioner before applying stain. Wood conditioner helps you get a more consistent appearance.
The trick with stain is to apply some, let it sit a few minutes, then wipe off the excess. Glomming on a lot of stain may give you a darker finish, but it won’t give you the results you want. Apply a moderate coat, let it soak in, then wipe off the excess and let it dry. The instructions on the can will tell you how long to wait between applications. It varies between brands and types of stain.
If you paint the crates, you can use pretty much any kind of paint you want. Latex paint, like you use on walls, is usually the most economical choice. If you don’t need a gallon, you can buy a paint sample in the color you want, for a couple of dollars. It’s much cheaper per ounce than craft acrylic paint or paint in spray cans, and you can get whatever color you like. Plus, latex paint doesn’t give off fumes if you use it indoors.
It’s not strictly necessary, but I use primer when I paint much of anything, including wood. This makes the paint more durable. A can of primer adds a lot to the cost of this project, but you’ll use it again. Here’s my trick for keeping cans of paint and primer from drying out.
To make it look best, paint in the direction of the grain. You can lightly sand between coats to remove drips or brush marks. And one advantage to those cheap foam brushes is they don’t leave brush marks.
The secret to smooth wood surfaces
And if you want really smooth surfaces on your DIY wood crate shelves, apply sanding sealer to the crates. Sanding sealer fills in the gaps between the grains to make the wood smooth. Apply it before you apply paint or stain. Lightly sand it afterward, and apply another coat if it needs it. You can apply another coat after the stain if it’s not quite smooth enough for you.
Regardless of whether you painted or stained it, you can apply a topcoat of polyurethane after your paint or stain is dry. This gives a nice, even sheen of your choosing, and it also provides a layer of protection. Oil-based polyurethane is more durable, but you don’t want to use it indoors. Water-based polyurethane isn’t as durable but it’s perfectly safe to use indoors.
Attaching the shelf to the wall
For safety’s sake, you really should attach the shelf to the wall to keep it from toppling over. Before you put the shelf in place, locate 1-2 studs in the wall. Mark the location of the studs lightly with pencil. A narrow shelf of one row of crates only needs to be attached to one stud. A wider shelf should really be attached to two.
Move the shelf into place, and then drive a 1-inch screw (or longer) through the shelf into the wall. You can drive multiple screws into a single stud, but one screw through the crate on the top should be sufficient.
The cost of a DIY wood crate shelf project
You can build a simple three-shelf unit out of three crates for less than $40, especially if you have some of the supplies on hand. If you decide to paint or stain it and apply a topcoat, it can turn into a more expensive project. But the result is a versatile shelf that fits whatever space you want it to, and you can make it look however you want.
I built a set of shelves from crates in 2018 and finished them to match the woodwork and other furniture in the room. It’s hard to estimate the total cost of the project because I had some of the supplies on hand, but it would probably cost $60-$75 to replicate. A similar-looking unit from a furniture store would be higher quality, but probably would cost $200.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.