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Can You Use Plywood For Shelves? (How To)

In almost any room in the home, we use shelves to our benefit. They may be built from various materials, but can you make them from plywood?

Plywood shelves are an excellent option to save money and produce sturdy shelving units that will last a long time. As long as you choose an appropriate plywood thickness, you can store light and heavy items without concern.

Wooden plywood shelves

As a contractor, I was often asked to add shelving in areas of homes that had limited storage. Invariably, I suggest using plywood because it works well and can save the homeowner money.

Some people would jump at using plywood, but others would want a more solid option. I would always go with the recommendation of the homeowner, but if you are considering using plywood, it’s a great idea.

Before we jump into the ins and outs of using plywood for shelves, it’s good to consider the different available options. Selecting the right type of plywood will help you to save money without compromising quality.

Grade A: This grade is best if you want a shelving unit with minimal work. You won’t see the seams easily, but you must inspect the boards because they won’t be perfect.

Grade B: Some minor repairs may be necessary to patch scrapes and scratches. There may also be a few knots that are better avoided but can work well to add some personality to finished shelves.

Grade C: You will likely have to discard a considerable amount of this grade if you are not painting it. You will find a few flaws, but it’s still a good option, primarily if you use it for shelving in the garage or another out-of-the-way area.

Grade D: The lowest grade plywood is expected to have significant flaws and large knot holes. You can use it, but you must work around the deficiencies in many cases.

Exterior: There is no issue with using exterior plywood for exterior shelving. It’s better not to use this inside of the home because of the chemicals used to treat the plywood. Off-gassing will be a significant issue.

Along with selecting the grade of plywood, it’s also important to consider what you are storing and how much it will weigh. You also want to think about the bracing, as that will also make a difference.

Even thick plywood can sag if you have a long distance between the support system. It’s best to hit a happy medium, opting for thicker plywood and keeping the supports closer together.

The most common size of plywood I used for any shelving project was three-quarter inches. Thick plywood works well for general shelving, built-in units, cabinetry, and standalone shelving.

In some cases, and only if exceptionally light items were being stored, I would use 1/2 inch. The only reason I would use 1/4 inch is if it was not supporting anything. For example, it may be used as a cover on the back of the cabinet.

Should You Use Plywood For Shelves?

Wooden plywood shelves

As we discussed, some issues are associated with using plywood for shelves. These issues will appear long after you finish the project, so it’s good to consider them in advance.

Sagging: One of the biggest problems with plywood shelving is for the shelf to sag. Many people tend to pile things on the shelf over time.

You may start by storing a few books, but eventually, you could have a lot of extra weight on the shelf. It could result in sagging if it isn’t thick enough or appropriately supported.

Generally, you should never use less than three-quarter inch plywood for shelving. You should also use more support than you consider necessary at first.

Off gassing: Most plywood is treated with formaldehyde. Chemicals are used in the treatment of both regular plywood and exterior plywood. It is there to help protect the wood, but it also causes problems with off-gassing.

If you are installing plywood shelving in your home, you have to expect that it will off-gas for quite some time. Some people have had to remove the plywood because they were getting sick.

On the other hand, you may be able to handle a little off gassing in the home. Most things you install, from carpeting to ceiling tiles, are going to off-gas to a certain extent.

Another issue with formaldehyde comes when you are cutting the plywood. Take extra precautions and wear a respirator to avoid breathing in the dust.

Splintering: It is practically impossible to cut plywood without some form of splintering. It can be minimized, but it is likely to still be a problem.

Cut the plywood on a table saw with the finished side up to minimize splintering. Use painter’s tape to cover the future cut to help lower splintering. Always use a fine-toothed saw blade.

After the plywood has been cut, you can sand it to a certain extent to help minimize the splintering along the cut edge.

Another option is to use some wood putty on the splintering edge before painting the plywood shelf. If you’re going to paint the shelf, this is an option that can make it look flawless.

Cost: Most people choose plywood for shelving because it is less expensive than other types of wood. You need to consider all of the costs involved, including stain or paint.

In some cases, upgrading to a prefinished shelf is worth the extra price.

What Preparations Do You Need To Use Plywood For Shelves?

Wooden plywood shelves

If you decide to move forward with your shelving project, you must do things properly. This would include the preparation, which we will discuss here.

1. Prepare the Area: It is always beneficial to prepare the area where you will install the shelves before you begin working. Preparing in advance would give you enough room to work in the area without getting in your own way.

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2. Minimize Splintering: There are several methods that can be used to minimize splintering. You can use painter’s tape and cover the area that will be cut, or you can use a utility knife to score the cut line in advance.

Another option is always using a saw blade with the most teeth possible. The saw blade should be new or as sharp as possible to cut the plywood without ripping through it.

3. Prepare for Your Safety: it is essential to consider your safety when doing any DIY project. When working with plywood, you should wear a respirator while cutting and safety glasses at all times.

The appropriate gloves can help save you from some nasty splinters and hearing protection is good while you are operating in the power tools.

4. Acclimate: Another thing to consider is acclimating the plywood before starting work. Plywood will expand and contract as the temperature and humidity change.

Have the plywood in the area where the shelving will be installed at least 48 hours before doing any work. You should also ensure that the plywood is completely dry before cutting it.

How To Use Plywood For Shelves

Wooden plywood shelves

You can use plywood in a variety of ways for shelving. Some people make open shelves with it; others include shelves inside cabinets.

Since plywood is strong, it can hold a lot of weight, but you still need to use the appropriate thickness.

As a contractor, I always used at least a three-quarter-inch thickness for shelving. There were rare instances when I used 1/2 inch, but that was if it was the only option.

Plywood can also be made into shelving of various widths. Sometimes, a relatively narrow shelf may be best for your use. In other cases, it will be wider.

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Regardless of the width, make sure you are using an appropriate brace. You want to support the entire shelf rather than just part of it.

When installing plywood shelving, it is also best to use any studs that are in the area. Using studs may require a stud finder to locate them in advance.

PRO TIP: If you don’t have a stud finder, you can find the studs using a small nail and checking every half-inch. Strike a line in the center of the future shelf on the wall and use that line so the holes will be covered.

Putting plywood shelves inside of a cabinet will offer more strength to the shelves. It will also protect anything you are storing in the area. You can then decide whether to include doors or not.

Finally, finish the shelves. A finish will always be of benefit, regardless of whether you are covering them with polyurethane or paint. It helps to finish off the job and to protect them for use.

Plywood is an excellent choice for building shelves. It is affordable and offers options for thickness and shelf width. As long as you cut the shelf properly to avoid splintering and finish the shelf, you will have a unit that will last a long time and hold a lot of weight.

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ReadyToDIY is the owner of this article. This post was published on May 15, 2023.

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