Introduction: Lighted Pipe-supported Shelves

About: Professional Engineer with The Vecino Group.

In updating from some Walmart style particle board and veneer type shelving units to something more durable and interesting, I decided on the industrial design appearance of shelves made using steel pipe and fittings as the supports. The internet is crowded with photos of this style, but I wanted mine a little different and made them lighted with a little steampunk vibe. I also used my water valve light switch, which is an Instructables featured project you'll find here. I recommend doing this using 12V lighting to avoid safety issues, but remember that the wattage capacity of the switch at 12V is reduced. At 12 volts the switch is rated for 5 amps, so that's a maximum of 60 watts. At 120 volts the switch is rated for 3 amps, so that's a maximum of 360 watts. At 120 volts, as this project is, I'm not comfortable going over 150W because of the small gauge wiring used. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any 12 volt vintage bulbs.

After having built this using 1/2" pipe and fittings, I highly recommend doing any sections that require wiring to run through them to be 3/4". It was verify difficult to pull the 16ga wire through the 1/2" pipe and fittings I used and also have room for wire nuts to make connections. If I were doing this project again, I'd use 3/4" throughout.

Step 1: Plan, Plan, Plan

Decide where you're wanting the shelves to be mounted and investigate what kind of support is available. If you have sheetrock walls, you'll need your pipe supports mounted to studs and possible supported at the floor if you don't have carpet. I had carpet so opted to support them entirely from the wall.

Using a stud finder, locate the studs as best you can and mark them with painter's tape. Also check the top of the wall at the ceiling and try to determine if there is a single horizontal stud or double horizontal stud. Here's a link to an awesome stud finder I highly recommend at Because it has multiple indicator lights, you don't need to slide it along to try to find the edges of studs. It simply shows lights anywhere a stud is located.

Decide what height you want your shelves at and if you want a support at each stud (usually 16" spacings) or every other stud. Don't try to span a shelf longer than 32".

If you are going to be doing the wiring part of this instructable, I also recommend locating the cross pipe differently than I did. If it were located above the level of the highest shelf, assembly would have been much easier than having it below the top shelf.

You'll be building your supports out of either 1/2" or 3/4" pipe so visit Lowes or Home Depot (L and HD) to see what lengths of pipe they stock, or visit and see what lengths they stock. Zoro will be significantly less expensive than either L and HD. Anything under 14" or so will be referred to as a "nipple" and can usually be found from 1/2" long to 12-14 in one or two inch increments. Knowing what they have in stock, plan out your shelf spacing. Also keep in mind that you lose length when you thread a pipe into a fitting. A 1/2"-8" long nipple is 8" total length, but each end will thread into a fitting about 0.3" hand tight and 1/2" with a wrench. There are resources online to tell you the thread engagement lengths for 3/4" pipe. At the store, measure a tee and an elbow to see how much space they take up, too. Measure, measure, measure.

Step 2: Purchase and Clean the Pipe

For the purposes of the rest of these instructions I'll be talking about 1/2" pipe, which is what I chose to use, and wall mounting the entire thing. I'll say again that if I were doing this again, I'd choose 3/4" for anything with wiring in it.

For each support, as a start*, you'll need:

  • Two floor flanges, both of which will mount to the wall.
  • One tee, one 6" nipple, and one 90 elbow at each shelf (except for the cross pipe shelf).
  • One 1.5" nipple and one cap at each end support shelf. Optional at others. These will help hold the shelf more firmly in case there are minor differences in height due to inexact measuring or mounting.
  • At the cross pipe shelf, One tee, one 3" nipple, one 1.5" nipple, one 90 elbow, and a cross at interior brackets or tee at end brackets.
  • Two 10" nipples and two 90 elbows, which will be the top and bottom supports.
  • Each of the spotlight light arms was a tee, 10" nipple, 90 elbow, and 45degree street fitting
  • The vintage light arm was a tee, 10" nipple, 90 elbow, and 1/4" to 1/2" bushing which holds the bulb socket.
  • Whatever lengths you've chosen to achieve the vertical spacing desired.
  • For each spotlight I found a socket with long attached leads at a lighting store that I could plug a MR16 type bi-pin bulb into that fit inside the 1/2" street fitting. (Satco 90-1590 round porcelain halogen socket) I went with 20W MR16 bulbs with a GX5.3 base. You can get a similar socket at Amazon..
  • For the vintage light, I got a standard keyless lampholder and 40W vintage style bulb at Lowes, and ordered a wire cage online.

* L or HD will both custom cut and thread pieces for you at no charge. If you can get them to do it, this is sometimes cheaper than buying a bunch of shorter nipples. Watch as they're cutting them and make sure they clean off any sharp burrs.

Optionally, you'll also want a flat steel washer for every location where a pipe goes through one of the boards to give the boards a little more to rest on than just the lip of the tee fittings. You can get 7/8" washers at L or HD for $1.23 each, or from Grainger for $1.50 for a package of 10. Literally. The big box markup for these small parts must be tremendous.

When you get your pipe, it is coated in an oil to prevent rusting and is filthy. Mix 1/2 cup of TSP (Trisodium Phosphate, a powerful detergent available at L or HD in the cleaning products area) in a gallon of water and let your fittings and pipe soak for a couple of minutes. Use a kitchen scrubber pad to clean everything. Longer custom cut pieces from L and HD have a black paint-like coating that the TSP will remove as well. Be careful of sharp threads, and use rubber gloves to protect your hands from the TSP.

Once it's clean and dry, give it a coat of whatever paint you'd like. Painting is advisable because without some protection, it could rust simply from humidity.

Step 3: Temporary Mounting and Measuring

Assemble your pipe brackets and temporarily mount them to the wall. Don't tighten them too tight or you'll find that you need to use a wrench to get them loose later, which may mar the paint.

I recommend mounting your brackets high enough so that the top 2 screws of the top flange can go into the horizontal top stud and one of the bottom screws goes into the vertical stud. Use a plumb line or level to mark the location for the bottom flange. At the bottom, you'll only be able to use two screw holes mounted vertically to hit a stud. I also used the type of drywall anchor that grips the back side of the drywall for the screws that weren't hitting studs.

Tighten everything down enough that it's not moving around and get a good measurement from center of one bracket to the center of the next. You'll be using these measurements to mark where to drill through each shelf board. Also measure from the center of the vertical pipes to the center of the rear elbow that holds the back side of the shelf. At a minimum, you'll want to drill a hole at that point also, so you can put a 1.5" nipple and cap through as a hold down for the shelf board.

In order to string lighting between brackets you'll need cross pipes connecting between each bracket as well. I suggest not attempting to buy those pieces until you've reached this stage when you know a firm distance from one bracket to the next. You'll also need a union at each spanning piece*, which takes up about 1" of the total distance (for 1/2" pipe). Keep that in mind when measuring and getting your pipe cut. Buy the pipe at L or HD and they'll cut and thread it to the exact length you need for free.

* The unions are necessary because due to the nature of the threading, without it you won't actually be able to get these pipes screwed into the fitting at each bracket (i.e. tightening at one end results in loosening at the other.)

Step 4: Purchase the Wood Shelving

Once you have your supports temporarily mounted, figure out the size and length of shelves. I wanted a 12" deep shelf and figured 3/4" thickness would be adequate to span 32". I could have gone with solid wood, but for this particular project that would have totaled more than $300 just in wood cost. I chose to go with 4'x8' 3/4" birch plywood, ripped into 12" widths for free at Home Depot, at a cost of about $90. The plywood will be less prone to warping as well. Also pick up however many rolls of edge banding you need to cover the exposed edges of the plywood.

Step 5: Drill Holes in the Shelving for Pipe Supports

CAREFULLY, mark your shelves where holes need to be drilled for the pipes to pass through. Ideally, use a drill press and 1" spade bit to drill the holes for 1/2" pipe. You could do it with a hand drill, but it will be more difficult. Tip: Drill far enough through the boards so just the point of the spade bit starts to go through. Turn the boards over and finish the hole from the other side. This will help keep the plywood from splintering.

A 1/2" pipe is 0.84" in outside diameter, so with a 1" hole, there's not much margin for error. Be careful with your measurements. A bigger hole would absolutely require the washers mentioned earlier.

Step 6: Apply Edge Banding and Sand Smooth

With a household iron set to the "cotton" setting, cut the edge banding to length and apply it following the manufacturer's instructions. The brand we used said to cut the banding 1/2" longer than needed, but after doing a couple, we saw no advantage to that and started cutting it to the exact length needed.

With a 200 grit sandpaper, give the boards and edges a light sanding. You want to remove any scuffs, dirt, or markings, but no so much that you go through the veneer. Work up to finer grits to get the smoothness you want.

Step 7: Stain the Boards

With whatever stain you prefer, stain the boards and finish them however you choose. We used a natural stain and three coats of gloss polyurethane, with a light sanding using 400 grit between poly coats.

Hopefully you have a dry, dust-free, well ventilated space where you can do this because, depending on the size of the job, it's going to take a few days to let each coat dry, and it stinks. If you have a gas appliance of any kind in that space though, please contact your fire department to get advice on how to safely proceed. Fumes around anything with an open flame or spark can be deadly.

Also, the little plastic pyramids L and HD sell for supporting painting products came in handy. You can do one side, flip the board and do the other side without worrying about marring the fresh coat.

Step 8: Here, There Be Swearing

Take your temporarily mounted brackets down and start mounting them again beginning at the bottom, piece by piece, up the the level of the lowest shelf. Position the shelf with a washer between the board and tee, and fit the next vertical pipe through the shelf hole and screw it firmly into the tee fitting below.

Continue upward at each bracket until you get to the section with the switch.

At this point, we've reached the section that at one end has the light switch valve (see my other instructable). Set that in position with the wiring upward.

Cut a length of wire that will reach from the top of the switch bracket through the piping and out of the top mounting flange with enough spare to work with. You'll need 16 gauge lamp cord and the blue wire nuts that are suitable for three 16ga wires, for connections. Anything bigger than that will not fit inside the 1/2" pipe. Various sources indicate that 16 ga wire is safe for loads under 10 amps. The maximum I'm running is 100 watts, or 100W ÷ 120V = 0.83 amps. The switch is only rated for 3 amps, so don't exceed that. If you're building out of 3/4" pipe you'll have better options.

On lamp cord, there's usually a smooth side and a ribbed side. The convention is for the smooth side to be the hot wire. That's the side that you'll want to go to the switch and to the brass connector at the bulb socket. For the MR16s, it doesn't matter which of the two leads is which.

We're wiring this in a parallel fashion so all the lights will be the same brightness. This means that each bulb requires two wire nuts and each wire nut will connect 3 wires (except for the last one which will just be 2.)

As you continue screwing pipe together and mounting shelves, work your way upward threading wire through the pipe as you go and trying your best not to twist the wire as you connect fittings. When you get to 90 degree turns, there's really no way to avoid twisting it, but do your best.

Two recommendations. First, color code the ends of the wiring with some tape so you can keep track of which end comes from the previous bracket and which end is going to the next bracket. And second, position the cross pipe above the level of the highest shelf. I didn't do that, and think it would have been easier if I wasn't trying to thread wiring and position shelves at the same time.

There's no feasible way to be able to thread wiring through the pipe after it's been assembled. The pipe is simply too small and corners too sharp to do it. With regular electrical conduit, elbows make longer sweeping turns.

With 1/2" pipe, there simply isn't much room to be able to work with long leads and shove them into the pipe after connecting them. You'll have to work with short lengths and it can be frustrating. Wrap each wirenut and it's wires with a bit of electrical tape to help prevent them coming undone when you shove them into the pipe and fittings and inevitably twist them, as you're screwing things together. To get the MR16 bases to fit snugly into the 1/2" street fittings, I wrapped them with a couple of layers of electrical tape.

Step 9: Connecting to Power

At the top of the bracket with the switch you should have enough wire to make your connections to house wiring.

In my case, because I had the double horizontal top stud, I had to drill a hole, upward at an angle so I could extend romex wiring (your typical residential style concealed wiring), from the attic through the top stud and out the wall where I made my connections to the fixture wiring using butt splice connectors so everything would fit in the pipe. It's at this point also, that you'll want to connect the bare ground wire to the fixture in case there were ever a short in the fixture. The easiest way to do that is to connect it at one of the four mounting screws before you connect everything tight to the wall. (Not required for 12V systems with remote transformers.)

I brought the romex wiring into a new junction box in the attic and connected another switch. The switch really wasn't necessary, but I had one so I used it. It's not every day I need to wear my hard hat around the house, but considering what was above where I was crouched working, it came in handy.

If you're using 12V, this is where you'd want to mount a transformer connected to a nearby power circuit.

Step 10: Power It On

Because the 45degree street fittings can swivel a bit, you'll be able to aim your lights back toward the shelves.

Because of the shape of my shelves, you'll notice one bracket is done differently than the other and doesn't have a light coming out of it. I didn't care for how it was going to look if done the same as the rest, so made it different.

Also, I asked a local fire sprinkler guy if he could spare a damaged sprinkler head and mounted that in an unused fitting just as a point of visual interest. I also chose one location for a standard bulb in a vintage-style cage instead of the MR16 floods. A person could really easily design in additional locations for fittings. Harbor Freight has some cheap pneumatic tool kits that include a pressure gauge that I considered adding at one time.

I think my next project will be some bookends made from various tools and other objects.

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