Published Aug 9, 2023
As any busy potter or ceramic artist knows, shelf space in the studio can be a scarce commodity–especially in a busy community pottery studio or cooperative. But store-bought shelving units are usually either low in quality or high in price.
Today, ceramic artist Leo Rosik, shares how resourceful artists can make great, durable shelving from wood pallets discarded by warehouses. And it keeps those pallets out of the landfill. Brilliant! Thanks Leo! - Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor
One thing that potters never seem to have enough of is shelf space. While store-bought units are generally flimsy or expensive, inexpensive strong high-capacity shelving can be built quite easily from common, cheap (often free) wood pallets. One can often obtain many pallets of the same dimensions just by offering to haul them away. When you do find pallets stacked by dumpsters or loading docks, their location usually implies they’re being discarded, so all you need to do is ask. And if there is a charge, it’s minimal.
Pallets come in a variety of sizes and are usually made with two to four 2X4 frame members with slats nailed to the top (and oftentimes the bottom) that don’t extend past the edges of the frame. A common pallet size is approximately 37 inches square with 6 to 8 slats on both the top and bottom. The three dimensional “thickness” of the pallet as a shelf, as opposed to a single board, adds greatly to the strength of the unit. The slatted nature of the pallet allows for airflow up and down through the shelves, not just over the shelf, making them especially well suited for drying ware or molds.
Note: Pallets larger than 40X54 inches should not be used in the manner described here, but can be cut to give more desirable dimensions.
One of the shortcomings of commercial shelving is the lack of shelf depth. With pallets as your shelves, you can have as much depth as you have room for or need. The 30-inch square or 30X34-inch pallet provides a 30-inch shelf depth and are ideal for lining a wall. The 37-inch square and larger sizes work well as units out in the middle of a room where the shelf can be accessed from more than one side. In both cases, multiple units with the same shelf spacing placed side by side or in a row offers an extremely versatile storage solution.
Shelf SpacingYou can also choose whatever kind of shelf spacing (vertical distance between shelves) you need for the kind of work you do (i.e. if you do plates or tiles you can have many closely spaced shelves, for sculpture, space the shelves out more). I usually make the first shelf spacing from the bottom quite large, 18-24 inches (for larger, heavier items), then a couple of 12-16-inch shelves, two or three shelves that are narrower at approximately shoulder level, then one or two taller shelves on top. When planning shelf spacing, be sure to take the thickness of the pallets into consideration.
ProcessInspect pallets for stray nails and staples before cutting or drilling. The wood in pallets is often quite hard, so use sharp bits and a good electric drill for pilot holes. Pilot holes are a necessity for lag bolts (and helpful for nails too); they keep the wood from splitting and allow the fasteners to be completely driven into the wood.
Work on a hard flat level surface. Lay the first pallet on the floor and brace it on two sides with something heavy such as a box of clay. Successively stand each 2×4 upright at the corners of the pallet and loosely clamp each in place (figure 1). Tap each upright into place so that it is flush with the end of the pallet 2×4 and vertical by the level, tighten the clamp. Drill pilot holes through the upright and pallet. Use at least two lag bolts with washers per joint (figure 2).
Note: If only one is used, the single fastener acts as a pivot point, and the whole unit can fold like a drying rack.
Remove the clamps. Set a cardboard box with the dimension of the desired shelf spacing in the center of the pallet (figure 3). Place the next pallet into the uprights and onto the box. Lift each corner of the pallet approximately ¼−½ inch off the box (this allows for easier removal of the box after the shelf is fastened) and loosely clamp (figure 4). Using a level on each side of the shelf, tap the shelf into level and tighten the clamps. Drill and bolt then remove clamps and box. Repeat these steps with desired shelf spacing until you get to the next to the top shelf. You can top it with a pallet or by nailing a piece of plywood across the ends of the uprights if the load on the top shelf will be light.
Go back and tighten all the bolts. You can add one or two 1×2 or 1×4 diagonal braces to the sides of the unit that do not have the uprights on them for added stability.