Wood for pantry shelves

As a landlord, one common thing I run into when rehabbing a house is questionable pantries. You don’ t have to use expensive wood for pantry shelves, but if you use the wrong lumber, or the wrong design, you can end up with a shelf crashing down. And that’s no good.

You can use nominal one-inch pine boards for pantry shelves, or 1/2 inch plywood, as long as you don’t make it excessively long. Particle board and OSB are not ideal, and reinforcement on all four sides is absolutely necessary with those. Pantry shelves need to be fairly strong, as canned goods can be fairly heavy. Having lots of pantry storage so you can take advantage of sales is one of the best reasons to have a house. So you want to make sure the pantry is put together pretty well.

Wood vs metal for pantry shelves

wood for pantry shelves
In the old days, we knew how to build a pantry. Note the supports on the wal, visible on the far right,l and how the shelf is braced with a 1×2 across the front in the center of the photo. The right design is just as essential as choosing the right wood for pantry shelves.

Replacing existing pantry shelves with metal wire is a popular option, because metal gives equivalent strength with less thickness, and the mesh design improves visibility. But you don’t have to replace wood with metal, and I’ve even gone the other way, replacing improperly installed metal shelves with wood. Some people prefer the look of wire, but when wooden shelves are well put together, clean, and in good condition, they look at least as good.

Wood is strong enough for the job. And even if the wood you have in the existing pantry is sagging, you may be able to correct it. Some boards may be too far gone, and in that case, replace those, but you may be surprise what you can salvage once you correct the design.

And besides being stronger than people give it credit for, wood is timeless.

Selecting wood for pantry shelves

The only reason to use expensive lumber for pantry shelves is appearance. If utility is all you’re after, pine is perfectly capable of supporting canned goods and anything else you’ll store in a pantry. So is 1/2-inch plywood. The home center will cut a 4×8 sheet of plywood into strips for shelves for you. Plywood will usually be less expensive than pine, and you can dress it up with a 1×2 across the front to make it look like solid wood, while also adding strength.

Generally speaking, you’ll want to keep your pantry shelves to a span of less than 30 inches wide. If you need to make them wider, just reinforce them. By putting supports every 30 inches, you can make the shelf wider. The supports can be 1×2 pine. 1×2 pine screwed to the center of your shelves greatly increases what they can support.

You can also use 1×2 pine along the wall to support the shelves. I recommend supporting on three sides, including the back, not just on the two short sides. Attaching the shelves to the supports greatly reduces sag.

Reinforcing shelves

To reinforce shelves, attach a length of 1×2 across the front of the shelf. Pine is adequate for this, but don’t use particle board. For a better appearance, use that the home centers call 1×2 common boards, rather than the cheaper furring strips. Common boards have squared-off edges that look better, a smoother finish, and fewer knots.

You can either go across the front, or underneath the front. Across the front looks better, especially if the shelf itself is plywood. Use a good grade of wood glue, such a Titebond, and clamp to it. You can add some finish nails if you want, but as long as you clamp the parts together and leave them clamped until it dries, the glue will be more than adequate. A securely glued joint is just as strong as the wood.

To split a span into sections of 30 inches or less, attach a length of 1×2 across the front, vertically. For best appearance, you can glue it in place, then attach it with finishing nails to hold it until the glue dries.

Attaching supports

Your supports not only need to be the right wood, but they need to be attached to studs in the wall to have adequate strength to support your shelves. A stud finder is invaluable for this. Here are some tips for finding the studs. If you absolutely, positively can’t find studs, use heavy-duty wall anchors. But ideally, each support should be attached to two studs so it can support the weight.

Attach supports on all three walls. Supporting along the back, as well as the sides, improves the shelves’ ability to support the weight of your canned goods.

Correcting sagging shelves

If the shelves are already sagging, it may be possible to correct them. Attach a length of 1×2 across the front of the shelf using a good grade of wood glue. When a piece is sagging pretty badly, I’ve generally had to attach the board with about three clamps, then put several wood screws in to hold it. A badly warped board may need 5-7 screws. After the glue dries, you can remove the screws and patch the holes.

Adding a 1×2 across the front does a lot to improve poorly chosen wood pantry shelves, but sometimes I also have to screw the shelves into the supports. Usually I do this whether the shelf is sagging or not, as it will make the shelf much less prone to future sagging.

Also, if your pantry doesn’t have supports along all three walls, add sufficient supports, screwing them into studs.

Finishing

You can either paint or stain the wood when you’re done. Unless you used appearance-grade boards, painting will probably look better than staining. For a durable finish, use a primer, then follow up with a coat or two of semi-gloss paint. Semi-gloss paint is more durable and easier to keep clean. If you stain the boards, follow up with a couple of coats of polyurethane to give it a durable finish.

If you had to hold the boards together with screws while glue dried, you can remove the screws and patch the holes to improve the shelves’ appearance. Or you can paint the screws to more closely match your finish. If you use a paint matching app on your smartphone to find a match for the finished wood, it’s surprising how well the screws can blend in to your pantry shelves.

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