Making shelves - wood advice

I’m thinking of filling our playroom with bookshelves, which I will make myself using sheet wood cut to size and screws. Some advice please…

Firstly, what wood? My first thought is 18mm birch ply. However, MDF generally has a cleaner cut. Most of the shelves will be about 400mm wide, so strength should not be much of an issue.

Secondly, what finish? I think that a simple glossy white would work best. Is there any one-coat magic stuff, or is it still primer, undercoat and gloss? I’m planning to paint them after they’re installed.

Finally, attaching the shelves to the verticals - I’m planning simply to drill countersunk holes and screwing into pre-drilled holes with 40mm screws, with dowels in the (very few) cases where there are shelves both sides of a vertical. Is there a better way?

MDF is a good choice. Face finish is good with paint. But the edges look shit. I’ve made book cases with MDF and then used the iron on edging. Results are good IMV.

I still prefer to prime then top coat, not sure if it’s totally necessary.

I bought a dismantled Ikea Kallax 4x4 from Gumtree on Saturday. £30 and took about 30 minutes to assemble.

Not sure I could be arsed to make something less good from scratch. Certainly not for kids’ room storage.


I have some IKEA in there already. But there is a radiator in the way on one wall, and generally the IKEA stuff doesn’t fit that well into the space we have.

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It used to be the case (maybe it still is ?) that the surface of MDF retains some of the mould release compound which is needed to allow it to come cleanly out of the press in which it’s made. The job of this stuff is essentially to be non-stick. Unsurprisingly it tends to prevent paint from sticking to it as well as it does to other wood products. You could (can ?) get MDF primer which did (does ?) stick.

The edges of MDF do tend to look poor though. As an alternative to iron-on edging you can glue stripwood on, if you don’t mind the extra faff.


I’ve seen MDF primer around, nice to understand the difference!

I’ll investigate the edging. Can they be painted, to match with the rest of the shelf? Would that be the best overall solution?

Stripwood can certainly be painted (it’s just wood, cut neatly into thin strips and then sold for more than it’s really worth). I don’t know much about the iron-on edging. I’ve only ever used it on fitted kitchen chipboard and that wasn’t meant to be painted. It’s some sort of laminate product, not wood.


Oh OK so just glue on a 6mm thick piece of pine, I see. Might be a faff given the number of cuts, and a few aren’t 90 degrees.

I’m looking forward to the ‘crimes against woodworking’ blog. :popcorn:


we have two walls of this

choose appropriate brackets and shelving materials. We used contiboard with iron on edging

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I think if I wanted to use stripwood I’d glue it onto the edge of a long length of MDF before cutting that into smaller pieces. Then the cuts would be no more difficult with MDF+stripwood than they would be with the MDF on its own. You’re right, it’s certainly not zero faff though.


Most edging I’ve seen and used has a glossy finish so no painting. But there are real wood types, a narrow veneer really, that will take a paint.

Saying that MDF and/or time primer would almost certainly work on the glossy finish

We have the shiny version of that stuff. If you can get them on sale its not bad value, easy to fit and flexible to move around.

I’ve usually diluted pva with water & painted that onto mdf to seal it.


That’s all the primer is really

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Yep, no need for edging on MDF if you’re only painting - dilute the PVA and add some fine polyfilla, then work it into the edge. rub down with some fine glasspaper when dry and the finish will be as good as the faces of the MDF.


apparently I have that to look forward to tonight


Really, sounds a bit painful…:grimacing:

I use spur twinlock shelving , its easily fitted and adjustable

then lots of kiln dried timber to make a shelf , with gaps between . easy no mess , no dust from cutting mdf and you can just varnish easily

I see what you did there :wink:.

His mustard seed collection would fall down the gaps though.


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