Updated on 08.06.07

Frugal Garage Shelving: How To Build Sturdy Shelves In The Garage For Mere Pennies

Trent Hamm

My wife purchased a set of Gorilla z-beam shelving for $60 recently. We assembled this shelving unit and found it to be quite sturdy and able to hold a lot of stuff, but I couldn’t help but think that I could do a very similar job for much cheaper. So I set out to do just that!

What I wanted was a five shelf storage unit for the garage that would hold plenty of weight. I also wanted the shelves to be adjustable so that I could change the relative height of the shelves. I wasn’t too worried about appearance – they’re shelving units for the garage, after all – but I did want them to be sturdy.

First, I subscribed to my local Freecycle and to my local Craigslist posted several items I didn’t want. This was an ongoing thing, but it enabled me to get the connection to resources that I need.

Next, I jumped on the first opportunity for free cinder blocks. A person about an hour away had twenty cinder blocks that they wanted to get rid of, so I took him up on them. I stopped by that weekend in conjunction with other businesses and picked up the shelves.

I also asked around for wooden planks. I eventually found what I was looking for at a lumber liquidation sale, purchasing ten flat pieces of wood, about six inches wide, five feet long, and a half inch thick. Perfect shelves for pennies!

Construction was simple: two columns of cinder blocks, each ten blocks tall. Every two blocks, I would place two of the pieces of wood connecting the two towers, leaving a shelf in between. The final product was a five shelf storage unit that looks fine against the wall in the garage. It holds plenty of weight and cost about $55 less than the Gorilla shelves – even better, it was quicker to assemble.

Are they sturdy? Incredibly so. For a period, these shelves held nothing but books and held up just fine; in fact, the tools and other items I have on them now are much lighter than the books that were weighing it down.

Doesn’t it look tacky? It’s currently covered in tools and cans of WD-40 and such things – in other words, it fits right in in a garage intended to hold tools and other such materials. It actually fits right in. Even better, I’ve put nails into some of the boards to provide places for hammers and other tools to hang around the edges – highly utilitarian.

The next time you look at paying significant money for a utility item like this one, step back and see if you can’t find ways to assemble it yourself using free or very inexpensive items. You can sometimes save yourself a ton of money.

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  1. imelda says:

    Did you return the $60 shelves?

  2. I did this recently with free materials as well and was so pleased to find the huge space benefits of being able to store auto tools, cans, etc. above ground level.

  3. Kathy says:

    Awesome idea, thank you so much! If I ever get all my junk in the garage yardsaled so I can clean it out, I am going to do this.
    I wanted some shelves, but couldn’t think of any economical or easy means of doing it.
    Thanks for the inspiration, you are my hero!

  4. On Ask This Old House recently they helped a woman install an entire garage organization system. Doh! She paid huge amounts of money for her system and at least what the camera showed led me to believe that she needed to instead 1) get rid of clutter & junk and 2) Get a simple, less expensive shelving system.

  5. Eric says:

    This is a great idea. My wife and I are moving to a new home in a few weeks and I’ll have to give this a shot for our new walk-in.

  6. Ryan says:

    sounds good – how about posting a pic?

  7. ace says:

    They may seem sturdy, but if not somehow secured to the wall, they may not be child-safe.

  8. Aimee says:

    My company recently moved buildings, and in the process sold off a lot of their old conference room and office furniture. I picked up several banquet tables for a few dollars, as well as some very sturdy metal bookshelves that I put into our garage for the same purpose – they are the perfect size for holding paint, sprinkers, and other misc garage items, plus they are narrow enough front-to-back to fit in our tiny garage. As we grow into a new larger house, I can definitely see a need for more shelving. Thanks for the great idea!

  9. Lisa Knight says:

    Love freecycle, got my piano off of the local list.

    So fellow frugalist…lame, but I had to include your blog in my top 3 Frugal Subversive nominations! So the post is here Me Frugal Subversive

  10. Mik says:

    How stable it is? If for some reason your kid throwing the ball on one of those blocks the whole thing might fall…. how safe it is?


  11. Kevin says:

    I built a pretty elaborate shelving system with a work bench, built in space for a mini fridge and a few other features out of 2×4’s and ply-wood. I got most of it for free. Everything is screwed together and screwed to the wall so its not going anywhere. Each shelve has anywhere from 100-400 pounds on it and they are holding up great. I did this after seeing how ridiculous shelving units were and hw I was going to pay for something that didn’t really fit what I needed.

  12. vh says:

    Finally, after who can count how many years, I replaced my cinder-block-&-board system with inexpensive garage cabinets. Around here several franchise and independent companies compete to underprice each other, so you can get some pretty decent ceiling-to-floor custom-built particleboard cabinets with doors and masonite hanger boards for just a few hundred bucks. The blocks & boards went outside to the metal storage shed & gardening area, where they now house pots, pool supplies, frost coverings, and indispensable outdoor junk.

    Why replace them? I got mighty tired of all the dust they collect. And yup…they DO look tacky. I have to wash my laundry in that garage, and also the garage is the first thing I see when I get home. It’s worth a little cash outlay to have the place not be messy, dirty, and depressing.

    Besides, blocks take up so much space, you can get three times as much storage out of built shelving.

  13. Anna says:

    This must be a very young crowd. Not all that long ago, bookshelves made of cinder blocks and boards were what everyone started out with — in the living room and bedroom, mind you, not the garage. These shelves can actually look quite chic if you paint the cinder blocks. They don’t have to be “messy, dirty, and depressing” unless you let them get messy and dirty.

  14. belleandthecity says:

    I did this in college, but used them inside–we spray painted everything white and then put candles inside the holes in the centerblocks.

    It was a very nice effect, and very cheap!

  15. vh says:

    > @ Anna…you must live someplace other than the desert, where winds blow layers of dust into the garage all through the spring & summer.

    Yes, so true! In our first house (lit by gaslight…), our living room, TV room, and spare bedroom were furnished with blocks & boards. In those days, TV sets were bulky, heavy contraptions. I managed somehow to get a couple of two-inch-thick redwood boards (don’t ask how…I’d be surprised if they even manufacture such lumber anymore!), which I varnished & then set up across the CBs to support the television. It worked, and it actually LOOKED GOOD!

    In the living room, we had eight-foot bookcases and a sofa table that held an old aquarium for our goldfish. They weren’t quite so handsome, but they sure did the job. And in the spare bedroom (our office) I built a big desk and another set of bookcases. The beauty of brick-&-board bookcases is that they’re infinitely expandable–you can keep adding to them as you need more storage space.

    Painting the blocks helps a lot. So does staining and varnishing the boards…or just painting them a color that goes with your other bargain decor.

    You can also build a desk with good storage by stretching boards across two low file cabinets, which you often find in yard sales. Just be sure you’re getting two cabinets that are the same height. Another device, which doesn’t provide you any storage space but which looks kinda stylish, is to lay boards across a pair of sawhorses. You don’t see those in yard sales as much as file cabinets, but they’re pretty cheap at HD.

    Just now, my indoor bricks & boards are restricted to the closets in my home office & library (formerly a spare bedroom)–they fill up the interior of two long, narrow closets and provide a ton of space for linens, art & sewing supplies, Christmas wrap, wintertime table fan storage, small kitchen appliances & serving dishes that won’t fit in the small kitchen, tax records, computer gadgetry, and office supplies.

  16. Brett says:

    Grad school bookshelves, is what these are called.

  17. j0lt says:

    Just be careful that when your kids are older (more toddler age) that they don’t try to climb this. The disadvantage of this type of shelving is that because it relies on gravity to stay up, if someone tries to climb it or it gets strongly bumped into, it will come tumbling down. Shelving that is actually attached to the wall is more secure against toddler incursions.

  18. m360 says:

    Necesity is the mother of invention! That’s a great idea. Being frugal means being resourceful, using what you have available. When I moved into my apartment I needed a shelf so I made one out of the junk that was left behing by the previous tenants. I found a piece of plywood and wall brackets in the pile and pulled a bunch of screws out of the walls. I even hung it myself, and got it pretty straight. And I did it with a regular ol’ screwdriver.

    I guess sturdiness could be a problem at some point, but I’m sure the blocks could be cemented together or something. I would be more concerned about the structure colapsing on it’s own, over time anyway. Like j0lt said, gravity is holding it together and nobody can predict gravity. I would personally recomend a middle column of blocks to support the structure. Even a bunch of light items can cause it to buckle.

    If it were me, the garage would be off limits to small children in the 1st place. Kids are notorious for climbing things but that’s why parents set rules. It probably wouldn’t matter what the shelves are made of, a book case would tip and hanging shelves, even if they are really sturdy, might come off the wall along with their contents.

    I see a lot of parents giving their kids free range of the house. They either don’t care, are too busy to monitor them, or don’t consistantly enforce boundaries. They feel guilty, like they are being mean, give in then get frustrated when the kid pushes his limits so they give up. A child has no business climbing on furniture regardless of where it is anyway. That’s what toys and playgrounds are for.

  19. Mitch says:

    Cinderblocks, boards, milkcrates, and old-doors-as-desktops are traditional, but I found it easy to maneuver a single flat-pack box for a $20 bookcase into the apartment. The plus side would be customizing to your own need. A friend of mine inherited his dad’s old desk–door over two tallish wood tabarets and all painted green, with a coordinating swivel stool–most importantly, a desk that would fit the late gentleman’s 6’10” frame.

  20. Wendy says:

    Why are so many people letting their kids play in a garage full of tools and rusty nails???

  21. Chris says:

    I always have to remind myself when reading some of these posts that not everyone lives in california and has to think about earthquakes with every design decision :).

    I suppose gluing the cinderblocks to the wood then using a bracket to attach it to the wall would make it california safe though. A little extra work and cost but not much.

  22. Sharon says:

    “Like j0lt said, gravity is holding it together and nobody can predict gravity.”

    My what a crazy world you must live in…I can predict gravity…it pull things down. I think that what j0lt meant was, toddlers are unpredictable.

  23. Jack says:

    Wow… so many materialistic people. They only look tacky if you are a spoiled consumer.

  24. LittleElf says:


    I had forgotten about these kinds of shelves, but they are quite handy, especially when you are on a tight budget and can’t afford much.

    I have to point out a few things here.

    1 – My parents had these kinds of shelves in our living room for a while and then they were put in the garage and basement. I didn’t think they looked tacky, but instead genius….

    2 – Although we didn’t have much while I was growing up, we were happy. We often spent time in the garage, but we weren’t allowed to just do what we pleased. My parents did teach us girls, to work on cars, fix things and make things. So we were quite handy…. I spent many a happy hour helping my father, mother and granfather, in the workshop, cars and other assorted projects wtih rusty old nails and tools. I can even remember driving the lawn mower before I was 12.

    3 – Kids are of course unpredictable as always. Even more so now, because as parents, we are restricted on what we can and can’t do to them. So as always, you should be careful and not let them play on the shelves. That being said, the best thing, is to teach them and also to anchor them, if children might possibly be tempted to play on them. I would think you could “Glue the blocks together and that you could use a similar glue for the wood and block join. Adding an anchor should be pretty easy too, I’m sure they sell them, but you could drill a hole in each end of the plank at the top and then tie it into the wall with a bracket of sorts… Even better, for those in California and other earthquake areas, would be to tie each board into the wall… The bracket could be hidden, so as not to look tacky when looking at it. I would think that safety should be formost and never look tacky…

    4 – One resource that no one here has thought about for these cinder blocks is your local landfill or recycling facility. My husband works for a construction company and often, when he goes to the dump, he finds that other companies are throwing them away. He’s talked to the landfill or tranfer station manager and workers and they have let him take them away for free. By taking them away and repurposing them, he is helping the environment, saving us money, saving space in landfills and sometimes his saving his company money… I use the blocks for my beehive stands… I never thought about spraying them with color, so I will have to try that…

    5 – These shelves would be great in the basement, for storage of camping equiment, porcelain or ceramic molds, clothing storage, etc…. I’m going to have to try these out again….

  25. LittleElf says:

    Made some mistakes on 3, so thought I should revise some of my thoughts, as they are incomplete, I was being bombarded with input. LOL.

    3 – I think you should teach children about the dangers of climbing these shelves. Teaching is always better than assuming they know or will find out. These two things are often dangerous with kids if they choose to “Learn” when not supervised.

    When you drill the hole in each end of the board, you can take some nice rope, twine, cable, depending on what you have, feed it through each hole, making sure to knot the ends securely. Then you can add a bracket with the middle of the line secured by a bracket or sorts to the wall. You should make sure to take up the slack before the point where you are knotting each end.

    Finally, I don’t think safety is ever tacky and I don’t think anyone else should either. I think in California, they are probably used to a certain amount of tacky, with all the earthquakes they have, but then again, that is assuming people are prepared….

    Anyways, thanks for letting me update my post a bit. Sorry if there was any confusion about my previous post.

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