25-odd years ago, I was a mostly feral child playing in the fields behind our home in Kansas while my parents were running a small mail-order business out of a small outbuilding on the property. With hundreds of small products to stock, my father devised a cheap way to build storage shelves designed for highly compact, highly organized storage. Although the original form of these cheap storage shelves (and still the cheapest way to build them) doesn’t result in the nicest to look at shelves, this storage system will store thousands of small items in a very small footprint for a very small investment. It’s perfect for machine parts, computer components, craft supplies, and so much more.
When I started my first retail business at 22 these were the storage shelves I built to hold products as my online business grew. When, at 29, I moved my business out of my basement and into a “real” retail space, I rebuilt a version of these shelves that- with just a bit more time and money invested- created storage that was cheap, dense, and not at all too rough to look at (This second-gen shelving is the see black & white warehouse shelving, below).
First-Generation Storage Shelves I Built:
How to Build These Shelves:
- Choose supplies. These shelves are highly variable. For the cheapest shelves, use thin plywood and basic 2×4″ lumber. Your shelves will be functional but may sag if the weight of the items you store is too heavy. Higher quality plywood resists sagging when storing heavier items. Thinner supports, (example: 1×4″ lumber) are more expensive but tidy up the appearance and increase the amount of space available for storage.
- Calculate lumber needed. Plywood always cuts from a 4×8 foot sheet, so you’ll be able to get 3 strips of 16″ deep shelves out of each sheet of plywood. You’ll need a support piece at each end and 3 in the middle. (you can use less supports, if you use a thicker, sag-resistant plywood to build your storage shelves). So each 16″ deep shelf will need 80″ worth of of supports (Either 2×4’s or higher grade 1x lumber in 4″, 6″, or 8″ tall, depending on how tall you want each shelf) When calculating lumber needed to reach the desired height, remember lumber name dimensions are not actual dimensions, eg a 2×4 is actually 1 1⁄2 x 3 1⁄2 etc
- Cut. If possible, have your home supply store cut the plywood strips for you. If you plan to paint your shelves, do it before construction- while you can still paint large sections with a roller.
- Stack & Build. Alternate supports and plywood, using exact measurements so each support beam is screwed directly over the support beam on the shelf beneath it. Supports placed askew will make shelves sag and possibly even fall.
- Place shelving units one on top of another and add a support board at each end to secure each shelf in place. Finally, add earthquake straps to secure the storage shelves to the wall.
Worth noting: this style of building cheap storage shelves is highly variable. When storing heavy products (hardware, metal parts, etc) you’ll need many more supports and/or thicker plywood than if you plant to only store light-weight items.
These cheap storage shelves make quick work of organizing a small store of product inventory. It works great in a workshop to organize small tools and hardware items- I even set the up in the lawnmower shed at Hawk Hill to organize hand tools, screws, seeds, and small lawn tools.
Built with 1×6’s, painted, trimmed, and with white bin boxes added, these shelves can be elevated to a retail grade display.
These shelves helped provide cheap storage while my previous retail business (now sold, as I’m off on new adventures) grew from a fledgling side business -when looks didn’t matter- to a larger retail business in its own brick and mortar shop. At the latter location, we dressed these shelves up by adding spacer boards, trim to the top, and painting them to match the wall color. Trim and paint really helped these shelves look like they were professional built-in shelving.
In the photos of the black shelving, you’ll notice we switched from scavenged free “beer flats” to white bin boxes. Initially a not-small investment for the thousands of boxes shown in this picture, we were really pleased with the professional look of the black shelves and white boxes.
Additionally, the corrugated bin boxes ended up being much more durable than the beer flats we initially used. When pulling parts or inventory for orders, it’s natural to pull the box by the front lip. For drink flats this often meant the front lip broke on popular or particularly heavy items within weeks, but with the bin boxes there’s more reinforcement on a narrower section of the box, so the bin boxes look newer, longer. In fact, in the 3 or 4 years, we used bin boxes, I can only think of a few occasions when a bin box needed to be replaced.
TIP: It’s helpful to decide what kind of boxes you will use BEFORE you build your storage shelves. You can use the boxes as guides to help you determine where to place supports. Remember to add more supports (for example, every 12 inches instead of every 24 inches) if the items you will be storing are heavy.
Small Business Storage Shelf Organization Tips:
In the photo above you can see that we use a visual organization system rather than text labels. I learned with time and experimentation, that employees were less likely to miss-ship orders when shelves were labeled this way. When items were labeled with words rather than images, incorrect items were pulled from shelves more often.
Our highest accuracy at pulling the right item from storage every time came when we paired consistent organization with visual labeling.
My consistent organization consisted of:
- Like products shelved together (for example, all clothing in one section, all hardware in another)
- BUT very, very similar products (that could easily be confused for one another) shelved distant from each other. (i.e. an American flag dog collar being shelved far from a “stars and stripes” pattern dog collar – so order-pickers had a body-based memory, over time, directing them to be able to pick the correct item even on autopilot)
- Larges always at the top, smalls at the bottom, with descending sizes in between.
- Visual Labels (such as a snippet of the pattern) on the box, instead of word tags.
For most of the time I owned this business, each time I hired a new employee to help with shipping I’d begin apologetically adding text labels to product shelves. Inevitably, however, they’d memorize the geography of the warehouse before I’d finish!
These cheap storage shelves are easy to scale down for tucking away a yarn stash with an extreme level of organization or scale up to build cheap storage for an entire warehouse, like pictured here. If you build these shelves, drop a comment below or email a photo- I’d love to use your image, with your permission, to inspire more readers to consider ways these storage shelves could accommodate their storage needs on a budget.