A Simple, Durable, and Cheap Shelving Solution for the Pottery Studio

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.

Many Sizes

Cheap, sturdy shelves made of discarded pallets.

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.


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Shelf Spacing

You 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.

steps1-4

Process

Inspect 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.

**First published in 2012
Comments
  • This is a very novel idea. This also saves on the space and the selves can be dismantled and put aside to make more space area whenever required. Leo Rosik certainly innovating the ideas as a part of necessity. Thanks to him.

  • Wow! This is great I Love it..why didn’t I think of that!

  • Genevieve N.

    another great way to keep the pallets out of landfills is to burn them in a wood firing kiln!
    I often do.

  • Mary Jo B.

    WE as a potter group in the 90’s used some of these pallets which are made for delivery. We stripped the old oak board off the pallets and made some throwing ribs with these. Because it was such poor grade oak slabs the tools tended to not withstand the water stress of being submerged so we had warping and twisting of the wood. I wish you well in the shelving attempt since it doesn’t have to undergo the water test. Big iseas are not always big ideas. Thanks Marjo

  • Just a teensy note of caution to Genevieve – you might have to be a little bit careful burning pallets, because they can be treated with some fairly horrible chemicals (or at least they are in Australia, where termites are a problem !)

    Mind you, given some of the other poisonous chemicals that get thrown into kilns, maybe wood preservative is the least of your worries !

  • Good idea, I’d recommend adding diagonal braces to stabilise the frame though, especially as it’s likely to have heavy loads and possible sideways forces applied when moving stuff on and off the shelves, risking the whole thing shearing and collapsing as you state. I’d want more than just the two-bolt method of stiffening the frame, given the loading and the variable qualiy of this kind of timber.
    Pallets are very useful though and I always hate to see them just thown away or burnt.

  • Ricardo R.

    Ótimas idéias fazem as pessoas raciocinarem e obterem novas idéias. Gostei de todos comentários. Fico feliz, pois estou aposentado e decidido planejar um estúdio de artes, incluindo cerâmica. Boa sorte a todos amigos artistas.

  • Donald B.

    Like the addition of wheels idea to this eco-friendly shelf project.

  • Heidi B.

    This is perfect. I had a roommate build a lofted bedroom out of pallets! I’ve looking for a good way to do just this for my studio. Casters are a great idea too…Thank you!

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