Buyer's Guide To Choosing Shelves

Learn how to select decorative, medium-weight, and heavy-duty shelves that will fit your storage and display needs and suit your home decor.


To choose the shelves that best fit your needs, you'll need at least a general idea of what you plan to place on the shelf. If you're looking for a primarily decorative shelf and plan to use it for lightweight items such as curios and framed pictures, the shelf will have to be secure, but can be lightweight. In cases where the shelves will be used to support heavier items, construction and installation of the shelf becomes more important and the shelves should be at least medium weight. Medium-weight shelves work well for storing clothes and bedding in the closets, towels and toiletries in the bathroom, or for providing a display place for plants. If you need storage space for especially heavy items such as file boxes or car parts in the garage, then heavy-duty wire shelves or rivet shelves will be more appropriate.

Decorative and medium-weight shelves

Decorative shelves not only add interest to your home's decor, but provide storage space and a simple way to display mementos. For smaller spaces, wall sconces are one of the most versatile ways to add storage space. These shelves, which are attached directly to the wall, are ideal for families with small children, as the shelves can be installed well out of a toddler's reach. One of the most decorative types of shelves, sconces are typically designed with a sculpture, such as a cherub or abstract carving, forming the base of the sconce. Many wall scones do double duty: sconces fitted with candle holders keep burning candles safely out of the way and mirrored sconces add the appearance of space to the room while showing off collectibles from both front and back.

Ledge shelves, while usually plainer in design, are stronger and larger than wall sconces. The most common type of ledge shelf is a simple flat surface with crown molding trim along the top and bottom. Other ledge shelves are designed with a decorative carving running from shelf to the wall. Like sconces, ledge shelves are installed directly on the wall.

If your home's short on space, a corner shelf can help you squeeze out a few more inches of display and storage room. These shelves, which may be free standing or hanging, add dimension to a room and make use of otherwise neglected space. Freestanding corner shelves, also called corner racks, are typically three or four tiers. If you select a shelf with more than four tiers, be sure you have way to secure it to the wall to prevent the shelves from toppling. If the corner shelf will be placed in a high-traffic area, select a shelf whose lowest level is wider than its highest level for extra stability. Hanging corner shelves help you avoid toppling hazards altogether. These shelves are set against a corner bracket, which is usually decorated with carving or scrollwork that can be fit into the corner.

Another shelving type for limited space is the window ledge shelf or cornice board. A window ledge shelf is mounted over a window to provide storage and display space in a place that would otherwise be left empty. It's constructed as a four-sided box in which the wall forms the back of the box and the underside is left open to make a wooden valance with a top. For a personalized look, window ledge shelves can be painted or covered with fabric to match the curtains.

You don't have to choose between style and strength, of course. For elegant shelving that provides storage for all but the heaviest items, try clip shelves or cable shelves. These shelves are typically designed from glass and stainless steel or aluminum, which fit with any decor. Clip shelves consist of a narrow bracket that's attached to the wall and clips to the shelf. Cable shelves offer a unique look and are somewhat stronger that clip shelves. This type of shelf is supported by a bracket attached to the wall and cables extended down to outer edge of the shelf.

When choosing a decorative shelf, considering the style, color, and material will help you select shelving that will fit naturally with your home's decor. After all, that colorful art deco wall sconce that looks great in the catalogue photo will become an eyesore in a home with formal Queen Anne furniture. Likewise, when choosing a wooden shelf, look for wood of the same type and color as the wooden furniture in your home.

Storage shelves

If you're looking for shelves primarily to store heavy items and attractiveness isn't a concern, floating shelves, wire shelves, and rivet shelves can be used.

For adding storage space to closets, plank shelves that are slipped over bolts may be the most popular, but they aren't necessarily the best. However thick this type of shelf may be, its strength depends on the strength and placement of the bolts supporting it. Floating shelves provide a more stable alternative. A floating shelf is a flat hollow box attached to a cleat that mounts to the wall. Although it may seem these shelves can't support much weight, in reality a hollow-framed shelf has both sheering and compressing strength, making it stronger than a plank shelf. Because no part touches the floor, floating shelves are also the ideal solution for flood-prone basements.

If you plan to store items totaling up to eight hundred pounds, wire shelves make an affordable heavy-duty storage system for home offices or garages. These shelves are not only strong, but the open construction allows air circulation and prevents dust build-up, as well. Wire shelving units can be purchased as kits, usually consisting of four shelves, four posts, and sleeves to attach the shelves to the posts. If you need more space, add-on units can easily be joined to the main unit.

Another more expensive option for storing especially heavy items is rivet shelving. Also known as bulk rack or boltless shelving, single and double rivet shelving is versatile, stable, and easily accessible. Single rivet shelving provides maximum vertical space between each shelf, while double rivet shelving offer extra strength. Like wire shelving, rivet shelving is usually sold in kits and add-on units are available to add more storage space.

Shelf accessories and features

To increase the storage space of a set of shelves and divide the space the way that works best for you, a variety of accessories are available that can be added directly to the shelves. To contain small, loose objects, storage basket and sliding door assembly boxes can be attached to the shelves. Books can be stored in add-on bookshelves that snap onto the bottom of a shelf like a basket. Clothes hanger tubes or snap-on hooks provide ways to hang items from the shelves.

To get the right shelves for your needs, first decide what you plan to use the shelves for, and then look for a shelf style that will fit with the decor. Wall sconces and corner shelves provide an attractive way to display collectibles, ledge shelves provide more strength for heavier objects, and for heavy-duty storage needs, consider wire shelving or rivet shelving. Within these general categories, there are almost endless variations to fit any storage need.

© High Speed Ventures 2011