Introduction: Industrial-Style Pipe Wall Shelves

When my wife and I started looking into options for adding some shelving to our family room we only had two real requirements. They had to look good, and not break the bank. For us this meant none of those classic triangle shelf supports. My wife doesn't like the look and when your shelves are close they interfere with the shelf below. That seemed to leave hidden bracket style cantilever shelves, which are weak, or one of those obnoxiously expensive system style units. Because of this the project languished until we spotted a shelf at a local eatery using these industrial looking metal pipes.

Cut to a research montage.

Turns out by doing it all ourselves we could get the style we wanted for <$250 instead of the $1000+ of installing a system. It takes a little time but isn't overly complicated, only requires common shop tools, and turns out pretty good, if I don't say so myshelf.

Step 1: Materials

(All material sizes/quantities stated for my project. Adjust/customize as desired)

  • Shelf Boards (Select Pine, 1" x 8" x L) - I chose the economic route and went with pine, albeit the pricier "Select" quality, but if you want the added strength or aesthetics of a hardwood the method is the same.
  • *Wood Stain (Red Mahogany, 1 quart) - Color or omit as you see fit.
  • Interior Polyurethane Finish (Semi-Gloss, 1 quart) - Tint and sheen as you see fit.
  • Black Floor Flange (1/2", qty 12) - I chose the import versions which are cheaper but stamped with the size, country of origin (China), and manufacturer's mark. From what I've seen the domestic ones have less markings but that may not always be true.
  • Black Nipple (1/2" x 8", qty 12)
  • Black Pipe Cap (1/2", qty 12) - Of all the items the import stamping was most obvious here, stamped on the end. This might be the place to spend a little more to get the domestic versus import.
  • Sheetrock Screws (~1 1/2", qty 48) - Technically only half are structural but I thought it looked better with all four holes filled in each flange.

*Optional Item

Probably the biggest tip I can give in this guide is where to source your three fixture components. I did a bunch of comparisons, both online and locally, and found the best place to buy these items is Ideal True Value, of all places a brick and mortar hardware store in Arkansas. There were a few online suppliers that came close and I would highly suggest checking any local, independent, hardware stores or plumbing supply stores, but somehow this one random True Value beat them all for me. Whatever you do, do not even bother going into the big chain hardware stores where prices are at least 5x higher.

Most hardware/lumber stores sell wood like this by the foot. You may be tempted to have them cut the boards to your final size but unless you don't have a viable option for cutting at home I'd advise against this. Most places, and especially big box stores, won't take the time to assure a perpendicular cut or that they are getting the length exactly right. Often they're cuts are only "guaranteed" within 1/4 inch. Spend a tiny bit more to get a few inches excess on each board and the piece of mind of doing it yourself.

Step 2: Tools

  • Wood Saw - A power chop/miter saw is your best option but a table saw, circular saw, or hand saw and miter box will get the job done.
  • Sanding Tool - I used an electric palm sander for the wood and a sanding block for the finish. A belt or orbital sander may work but also might be overkill if you don't have a light touch.
  • Sand Paper - Medium grit (~100) for cleaning up the wood, pre-finish. Fine grit (~250+) for in between polyurethane coats.
  • "Fuzz" Free Rag - For applying stain.
  • Foam Brush - For applying polyurethane finish.
  • Level - Of the laser or extra long bubble variety.
  • Drill/Driver - Drilling is technically optional but piloting holes is strongly recommended.
  • Cleaning Supplies - The pipes come covered in cutting oil so any de-greaser will work well.
  • Safety First - Gloves are a decent idea when working with paint/stain/finish and a respirator is strongly recommended for those items with fumes and while sanding. Eye protection while using a power saw should be obvious, sort of like the one person without depth perception at a juggling contest.

Step 3: Preparations

There are a few things to take care of before diving into the meat of the project.

First you'll need to decide on exactly how much hardware you'll need and what sizes you want. You'll want to mount to as many studs as you can, without compromising your aesthetics. Mark the center of the stud locations now so you don't have to do it again later when you put up your hardware. If you have any flanges mounted off of a stud then make sure you have appropriately sized drywall anchors.

With your hardware ordered you should purchase your lumber. Remember to take into account that dimensional lumber sizes are not the actual dimensions. e.g. I used 8" pipe nipples and 8" dimensional boards which seems like it would clash once you account for threading the pipe in. In reality the board is only 7.25" wide and fits perfectly.

One additional step you can take is to "season" the wood by bringing it in to the room it will used and letting it adjust to the humidity and temperature. Unless there is a vast difference between your workspace and house and the fact that by the time you're done working the boards they will be readjusted to the workspace anyways means this is a totally optional step.

Finally, once your hardware comes in it will need cleaned, or more accurately the pipe lengths will need to be cleaned. I used Goo-gone to remove the label gunk and a standard de-greaser to remove the oil.

Step 4: Form a Shelf

Using your saw of choice start by cutting your board to length. With the medium grit sandpaper, sand every surface taking particular care to remove any blemishes you don't want to show. If there is a spot that requires significant work be sure to blend between the areas that get general sanding and the trouble area.

If you are really ambitious and have the tools you can go as far as planing the boards to get the closer to square. Unless you have an automatic planer or bought the cheaper, but dimensionaly less stable, common boards this is probably not worth your time.

Finally clean the board with a slightly damp rag. Once it's dust free and dry you're ready to...

Step 5: Stain a Shelf

Basically you're just following the instructions on the can. Use your rag to apply a liberal, but even, coat of stain on all sides. Waiting for the first face to dry before flipping to the bottom.

The cut edges will require special attention and lots of stain to get complete coverage. This is due to the rougher nature of the cuts and the exposed fiber ends sucking the stain into the wood. The overly ambitious can mitigate this to some extent by cutting with a high tooth count blade and then doing a lot of sanding with increasingly fine grit sand papers.

Once the first coat is dry you can move on to the next step if the color is dark enough or apply a second coat if it is not.

Step 6: Finish a Shelf

Once again you're pretty much following the directions on the can. You want specifics you say? Alright but only because you asked.

Apply two thin coats, three for lower shelves that will see more wear, of the polyurethane to one side and the edges of your board using a foam brush, allowing each coat to dry before applying the next. Before applying the final coat though lightly sand the entire surface with a fine grit sandpaper. This isn't technically necessary but the final finish goes out noticeably smoother if you do. This is an extra step I would highly recommend, just make sure you clean the surface before applying the last coat. When the first side is done and completely dry flip and repeat for the opposite face.

After the last coat, follow the products directions for drying before use.

Step 7: Mount Hardware

Since you have the studs marked from your prep, that only leaves marking the vertical position for each shelf. Along one stud choose where you want each shelf to be and mark it on your stud center-line. You have two main options for laying this out. You can mark the center of the fixture or the top/bottom of the fixture. Both will require a little math to make sure the shelf ends up where you want it but the disadvantage of marking the center is that you have to eyeball in each fixture. This could lead to an uneven shelf but most likely won't be an issue if you're careful.

With one position marked you can now use your level to transfer the spot to all the other places you plan on putting a flange. Once you have your positions marked you can start the installation process.

Holding a flange in position, mark the center of the two screw holes that will be going into the stud. Remove the flange and drill a pilot hole, approximately the size of your screw's minor diameter, on each mark. Replace the flange and drive screws through all four holes, starting with the ones going into the stud. An impact driver is very helpful for this. Repeat for all the remaining flanges.

After your flanges are all securely mounted it is a simple task to thread each pipe nipple into said flanges. They should be tightened as much as you can by hand. There will be exposed thread because pipe threads are tapered, so don't worry. If the pipe feels secure then it is threaded tight enough for our purposes. After the pipes are in the caps go on in much the same fashion.

Step 8: Assemble and Fill

If the finish on your shelves is cured then all that remains to be done is choosing the best looking faces and edges for each shelf and placing them on your freshly installed fixtures. That and, of course, loading them up with all your things found worthy of public display!

Thanks for reading. As always questions, comments, and pictures of your builds of this project are highly encouraged!

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