Introduction: Quick and Easy Shelves for Shipping Container

Picture of Quick and Easy Shelves for Shipping Container

Build your own shelving for a shipping container.
They are very strong and can be used as regular shelves or as stock racks.
You can even use them for workbenches if you put them at the right height.

The uprights are "unistrut" u-channel that hang from the container's upper tiedown rings.
The shelf support brackets are as simple as possible, just a flat plate or board with two holes in one end.
They bolt onto "springnuts" a.k.a. "diamond nuts" inserted in the unistrut.

Here's how to get the wood for your shelves very cheap.

In this photo Michael Kearney puts freshly linseeded boards up.

The brackets must be bolted firmly. When the wood dries and shrinks the bolts must be tightened again. Otherwise these shelves are a deadly time-bomb booby trap.

Step 1: Shelves of Death

Picture of Shelves of Death

A year later, I found out a potential danger of these shelves.

After about a year they tended to sag a little bit. The bolts gripping the brackets slipped a bit because the wood shrank. I didn't think much of it.
Then the end-grain wood failed and the brackets collapsed, dumping everything into the middle of the container. Damn. I'm glad I wasn't standing under that stuff.

So then I went around tightening the bolts on the remaining brackets. It would be good to add some kind of a cheek plate to the brackets so they couldn't fail in this way.

Check out this collection of other dumb mistakes I've made.

Step 2: Brackets

Picture of Brackets

The brackets consist of a board with two holes in the end.
We bandsawed these from ash wood and drilled the holes with a drill press.
We rested the board on a piece of scrapwood to minimize the "exit wound" from drilling.

Moana applies linseed oil to the brackets.

Step 3: Bracket Version 2

Picture of Bracket Version 2

This improved bracket has lip or hook at the end.
That's to keep the shelf boards from sliding off in an earthquake.
We waterjet cut a whole lot of these in different lengths.

Step 4: Uprights

Picture of Uprights

The unistrut faces sideways to make the bracket design simple.
Michael shapes the top end with an air wheel.
The upright hangs from the container's upper tiedown ring by a u-bolt.
The u-bolt goes through the two holes revealed by the cutout Michael is making.
We scribed, centerpunched, and then drilled the holes on a drillpress.

Stuff tends to get stacked against container walls up to about waist height, so you can saw off the bottom half of your upright and not lose much use.

We used the square channel, but the flat channel would probably work too.

Step 5: Boards Boards Boards

Picture of Boards Boards Boards

Marc Lander sands cherry boards using a drum floorsander tied to a table.
Then we brushed them with linseed oil and set them in the shade. If you leave them in the sun it will set too quick and you'll get "orangepeel" on the surface.

Cherry is overkill, but I got a deal on a couple of bundles of "rustic" cherry. A customer had returned them for being too rustic (spits, knots, and rotted spots).
I ask the lumberman what he's tired of having. He's happy to forklift all his infested wood and returns on my truck's lumber rack and bottom my springs out for a couple of twenties. He's a good businessman and maximizes inventory turns. He wants me gone quickly cuz his partners slept through that class.

Step 6: Diamond Nuts A.k.a. Spring Nuts

Picture of Diamond Nuts A.k.a. Spring Nuts

These little beauties snap into the unistrut channel.
The ones with the plastic retaining wings are the easiest to use.
We ran out so we water-jetted a bunch and tapped (cut threads) them with a "two-flute gun tap" which is a type of tap that pushes the chips down into the hole. You can use it in a power drill without breaking it.

Then we put up the uprights, brackets, and shelves. At the back of the container we put boards all the way across the container and rested them on the side shelves. That made a deep shelf at the back for large objects.


NathanDavidson (author)2016-04-23

Shelves are perfect at creating that additional storage you require around the house by maximizing space. I have always been building them regardless of the location – be it the kitchen, living room, or even the bathroom. However, the downside of this solution is that you would have to arrange your items neatly in order not to create a clutter.

Weissensteinburg (author)2008-01-20

It's funny you post this..i've been thinking lately how much I want to make a shipping container home when i'm older. Where'd you get yours?

ha you understand the calling then, Already own two 40' containers, fully sealed, dry with good boards on the floor, they hold our family's stuff at the minute but someday they weill be my house/workshop where I may build my more ambitious and dangerous contraptions, if I get the better job I'll be making enough to have money for what I suspect could be a real world first, rmember the JATO stories...

Where'd you get them from?

Compass Container at the Port of Oakland. These are 24' Matsons, 9' high. Jim Mason at has a couple to sell if you're near Berkeley CA.

Well I currently live in Home of the Old People and Snowbirds (Florida)...but who knows where i'll be come house raising time!

dchall8 (author)Weissensteinburg2008-01-21

Do a search on 'Gypsy Wagon' to get some ideas. The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) folks are reasonably expert in compact living. For more ideas you can search 'private railroad cars.' These people customize old private train cars in every way imaginable. If you live in the Florida Panhandle, you might look in the Mobile area. Or your closest shipping port.

Weissensteinburg (author)dchall82008-01-21

Well when I build a house, I plan for it to be full size - using maybe four containers. Big enough for a family =]

dchall8 (author)Weissensteinburg2008-01-21

The standard 45 foot size (there are other standard sizes) has an interior area of about 345 square feet without walls or insulation. If you put a minimal 4 inches of insulation and Sheetrock on the walls the area drops to 310 square feet. The problem with decorating one is the max width interior is 7 feet (with walls). Certainly a family could live in one, but there would be compromises versus what we are used to. Of course I have a friend who lives in a camper so a container would be a major upgrade for him. There are a lot of abandoned rail cars around the southwest. Transportation is the problem with them as the trucks deteriorate with time. They would probably have to be moved on a flatbed.

We used one in a testing project back in the 80s and found it possible to punch holes in the aluminum skin if you were careless. It is much more sturdy than normal housing siding - just not impervious to puncture.

Wikipedia on shipping container architecture

woodman22 (author)dchall82013-10-25

What about insulating with straw-bales outside the container, then you don't lose interior space?

Weissensteinburg (author)dchall82008-01-21

yes...but when four are connected, you get 1200+ square feet, which is a normal. I've been doing research on them, reading plenty of articles on homes and apartments made out of them.

My dad owned a tyre fitting business in the harbour and we used hacked u containers as workshops, a depot and an ol insulated one as a room for bulletproofing tyres, It's form of solid filling with liquis polyurethane so keeping it hot makes it run much faster... Those two were simply for shipping 800 quid for two and we did the guys tyres on his car and I fixed a hole in his exhaust... So I actually know a bit about this subject, my plan is two 40' containers on top of eachother with stairs, kitchen behind them room upstairs and a big room downstairs... and yes the empty whiskey bottle, engine parts and odd mechanical junk lying around count as furniture lol

randofo (author)Weissensteinburg2008-01-20

Fell off the back of a truck.

GorillazMiko (author)randofo2008-01-20

That was my truck.

shooby (author)2008-07-03

This is my dream container, as a house addition. It's only a 20 foot, but it'd make a great study/reading room to be placed on top of a 40' container.

zholy (author)shooby2011-10-02

Actually ... you MUST NOT place a 20f on a 40f container - unless you modify the 40f to support the 20f. The roof would not withstand the pressure of the 20f.

You can stack 20 on 20 ... and 40 on 40 only !!!

woodman22 (author)zholy2013-10-25

I think you can also stack a 40' on a 53' as long as you center it.

shooby (author)zholy2011-10-02

Of course....corner to corner only.

akgooseman (author)2011-03-07

Saw a guy with eight containers stacked two high in two parallel rows about 40' apart. He placed trusses over the containers and roofed it in and closed off the open ends. Cut a couple holes in the sides for easy access to the inside of several containers, build steps. Made a great shop area. Very sturdy, quite inexpensive. He tied it all to the ground with steel cable and deep pilings so it wouldn't blow away.

adam_francese (author)2010-07-25

Wow, great project... but I don't know how quick or easy this would be for someone who is not a wood worker. Also you make a little more work for yourself by having to modify the container (to hold the bracket) and also risk rust and weak points. There is actually a product for this.. visit Look for "Storage Container Shelving" The only wood working involved is cutting the length of the shelf and the brackets latch to the existing interior latch holes along the top of most steel storage containers. Not to mention they are super easy to install just add more brackets to increase capacity! Out-back Storage is also a great source for purchasing and renting containers in New England.

corradini (author)2008-09-24

Speaking as a guy who spent a good chunk yesterday and today mounting channel strut to the walls of a shipping container (seriously)... ...AND who's done rather a lot of woodworking... I don't think wood "shrinkage" is the problem. When you put a load on these wooden shelf brackets, you're putting the lower bolt-hole in compression (against rather a lot of wood) and the upper bolt-hole in tension. Put more simply -- you've just created a simple lever that's trying to pivot around the bottom bolt, and use the torque of the length of the shelf support as a 'force multiplier', to rip through the wood along the grain-line -- and you've only got roughly (1.675" - (.375 bolts?) / 2), or 0.675" of wood at the top bolt to support your load. For a gang with a waterjet cutter, who make your own strut-nuts? -- DANG! You should check out basic statics, fulcrum loading, stuff like that! >;-) (I get to kid -- I have ZERO engineering training, and my degrees are both in business -- I'm self-taught, and recently.) More practically: use side plates. Home Depot sells 2-hole straight plates, right under the unistrut, for cheap. Or - use the waterjet., make yer own. Even way mo-betta-mo-smahtah? USE STRUT FOR THE HORIZONTALS! ;-) Cool project though. Where do you get a waterjet?

bumpus (author)2008-03-01

how much does the average shipping container cost, im thinking about an underground bunker...

nedfunnell (author)bumpus2008-03-18

You can get them in Dallas for $1850-2000, but it's as-is where-is. You'll need a friend with a truck and 40' trailer. Also, this is for not-the-greatest-quality containers, not inspected or warranted. That doesn't mean that they're terrible, just not perfect.

stasterisk (author)2008-01-21

Do you have pictures of the finished shelves? Is step 1 what "sealing" looks like? Why are spring nuts good?

TimAnderson (author)stasterisk2008-01-21

Hmm. The finished shelves sure have a lot of stuff on them.... I sort of put them up as I needed them, so there wasn't really a time when they were empty. I'll see if I can take a photo that captures the grand structure of this terraced basketball court I call "shelves". The springnut goodness can go any height in the channel, so you don't have to decide and drill holes for them. Then you can slide the bracket up and down before tightening the bolts. Also you can assemble your springnuts on your bracket before slapping it into place. Tightening the bolt will rotate them into the "grab-the-channel" position (with a little help from a finger usually). I'm just using linseed, there are products intended as "sealers" that you paint or spray on as in step 1. I haven't actually tested the linseed to see what porosity remains. Epoxy is a very good sealer. In the realm of paint-type sealers, for car bodywork you can tell a big difference between "sealer primer" and regular. If you don't seal your bondo it just drinks paint, more coats don't make it shiny and it never stops smelling like paint. "Quick drying sandable primer" is usually a decent sealer also. Some primers are just bad grey spraypaint that takes days to dry and then clogs your sandpaper.

0.775volts (author)2008-01-20

If you look into shipping containers and the like, you may find some with E-rail in them. these manifest themselves as strips of rectangular slots attached securely to the walls at different intervals. this is a strapping system for securing goods to the walls via straps and load bars. I would recommend that you find a container with e-rail if possible, as it makes the inside an (even more) modular playground.

About This Instructable



Bio: Tim Anderson is the author of the "Heirloom Technology" column in Make Magazine. He is co-founder of, manufacturers of "3D Printer" output ... More »
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