Wood shelves are a popular option for homeowners that want to spruce up their hallways with photos and decorations or just want to have a few more storage options in the shed. Using real wood for shelves can make for a particularly useful investment—as properly treated wood will last for years, if not decades, to come.
The thing is, there are many different types of wood to pick from when it comes time to get to crafting. Choosing to build your shelves as opposed to picking up pre-built shelves is already quite the decision. Trying to determine the right type of wood, however, can be even more difficult.
Not all wood types are equal, and some will prove to be more sturdy and reliable than others when it comes to the needs and use of shelves. That’s why we’ve taken a closer look at the different types of wood available to determine the best kinds of wood for use in wooden shelves.
We’ll be breaking down what you need to look for in wood, including information on location, popularity, grades, and so much more. After we’ve gone over our favorite types of wood, stick around—because we’ll also be breaking down what you need to know about wood before committing to the type that’s right for you.
What to Look For In Wood
Wood is one of the most commonly used building materials and has been for millennia. So it should be relatively easy to head to the store, pick up some 2x4s, and get started on that shelving project, right?
Unfortunately, it simply isn’t that simple.
Depending on where you live, gaining access to specific types of wood is going to be rather difficult. While there are several different options in North America, for instance, you’d have an easier time picking up new pine on the West coast than you would in Kansas.
Generally speaking, however, you need to look for the following when it comes to wood types that are ripe for your next building project:
- High-grade wood
- Solid wood (no particle boards)
- Hardwood (or high-quality softwood)
- Non-defective wood (no loose knots)
If you’re not familiar with the terminology behind lumber, let’s break down what each of these means for you point-by-point.
First of all, it’s important to remember that wood is graded based on the quality of the cut and three that the wood was sourced from.
Wood that is graded is also typically hardwood—meaning that it was sourced from specific trees that lend themselves to more dense lumber. While softwood can be graded for different types of creations, it is most often hardwood that is discussed and is preferable for making shelves with.
The reason? Hardwood has denser wood fibers than softwood. If you were looking to paint your shelves, doing so with softwood may be more difficult as the paint would seep into the wood itself.
This is also the primary reason why checking into the grading of your hardwood is going to be important.
The naming of wood grades can be confusing, but for building shelves, we recommend sticking with No. 1 common. This grade is most often recommended for furniture creation, and is more than capable of becoming a quality shelf. Other good grades include Selects, One Face, and Firsts and Seconds. These will increase linearly in price as well.
Finally, checking in to make sure the wood you’ve purchased isn’t defective is key. The problem is, most people aren’t sure what defective means when it comes to wood.The main goal here is to look for poorly graded sides. These are sides of the wood that are far rougher or seem more difficult to paint. Common defects include knots, which may be prone to seeping sap or even falling out entirely. Not ideal when placing objects on a shelf, that’s for sure.
If you’re not going to be painting your shelves, the aesthetic of the wood itself is going to be important. Certain wood types lend themselves better to visual style—such as redwood, Douglas fir, or walnut. Still, others will remind your guests of the hardware store more than modern elegance so that a paint job will be in order.
How We’ve Chosen Wood Types
We’ve made careful consideration of our chosen wood types and wanted to pick the best options for the broadest range of people. That means that, while every wood type below is perfect for shelves, they may not be perfect for your shelves specifically.
The reason? Different types of shelves are going to need different types of wood. Sticking with softwood for shelving in sheds, for instance, is more economically feasible than utilizing high-grade redwood.
Nevertheless, we made sure only to pick wood that’s not only recommended for shelves but are graded and built to last far longer than any particle wood picked up at a local furniture outlet. And if you’re still not sure which type of wood is right for you, be sure to check out our Buyer’s Guide for more information.
That being said, let’s take a closer look at just five of the available wood types that can make for excellent shelves.
Top 5 Kinds of Wood For Wood Shelves
Western Red Cedar
Anyone who’s taken a road trip through the Pacific Northwest will most likely be intimately familiar with the western red cedar.
Popular all across Washington, Oregon, and elsewhere in the region, the western red cedar is a commanding three that produces some excellent softwood lumber. While we’ve been quick to recommend hardwood over softwood, the growth pattern of the western red cedar can make it a valuable asset for shelving both inside the home and elsewhere.
We like the soft red tint of this wood type, which is distinct from redwood but still a shade all its own. Cutting into this type of lumber should not be an issue, due to the softwood status, and painting is equally simple.
We recommend the western red cedar for those who want a sturdy softwood option, wood that can be used for both elegance and stress, or for those who want a little piece of the Pacific Northwest in their home.
From the east coast to the west, the pine tree is one of the staples of North America. And as such, they can easily be found in your local hardware store no matter which part of the country you may find yourself in.
Pine is another softwood type that’s popular for its versatility and affordability. You can almost always pick up pine in just about any size and grade you may want. While people tend not to stick with untreated pine, straining and coloring this wood type won’t be difficult at all.
However, pine is a softwood—and even softer than the western red cedar. We don’t recommend pulling out pine for a storage shed or for shelves that are going to have a serious amount of load on them.
We think pine is the best option for those who need to build shelves on a budget and have light objects that they feel would look best on display.
Taking a step back from soft woods for a moment, if you need wood with a serious statement, we recommend going for walnut.
Walnut is a classic hardwood option that needs no treatment or paints to look its best. Walnut is not going to be the easiest to find, or for a low price, but provided you’re willing to put up the cost, walnut has a depth and grain all its own.
Building shelves for your shed or another storage project would probably be best served with a different type—as walnut isn’t cost-effective enough to use for such projects. However, walnut has little give, can handle a serious amount of weight, and can take quite the beating.
If you need sturdy shelves that can look their best for years to come, a high-grade walnut should give you want you’re looking for.
Another type that can bring out memories of the Pacific Northwest is the Douglas fir.
Douglas fir has the distinction of not being a “true fir,” and can only be found either on the west coast or eastern Asia. Douglas fir is also a commonly sought-after building material and is typically not hard to find across the country.
Douglas fir paints well, but the best use of douglas fir is in staining—which will bring out the natural beauty of this type and provide all of the elegance of a dark hardwood at a fraction of the cost.
Douglas fir is also one of the more dependable of the softwoods, so use in the shed, or the inside of the home is not only possible but recommended.
We think the Douglas fir is a good option for those who aren’t sure what type of shelves they need, or just one want type of wood that can be used for shelves, tables, building projects, and more.
Famous for their grand size and epic beauty, the redwood is perhaps most popularized for being the tree so big, in some parts of the country, you can drive your car through it.
Redwoods are a surprisingly common softwood that is only marginally more expensive than the standard Douglas fir or pine. They are known for their weather resistance, which makes them a common option for those who need to repair or replace their back decks.
Redwoods can be treated, painted, or left untouched, and redwood shelves can add a splash of industrial color to any modern home. We recommend pairing redwood with black steel brackets to bring out the color and balance study craftsmanship with beauty.
If you’re still not sure which of the types above are going to be best for your wood shelves, we recommend taking some time to consider where your shelves are going to be used for, in what way, and if you plan on altering them in any way.
It’s always best to rely on wood that’s as minimally altered if possible. For instance, using plywood or particle board is just not going to provide the integrity that we’re looking for in shelves. If possible, stick with a wood type that you can simply cut to size, stain, and place on the wall.
Likewise, keep in mind any budgetary concerns you may have. While you may be able to afford the wood, the process of staining and painting can also eat up some important funds. Likewise, these processes take time, and if you’ve gone for low-grade wood, you may need to go back and touch up parts of your work over time.
Generally speaking, we think that you should rely on softwood for shelves you plan to paint or keep in the shed, or hardwood that you plan to stain, leave as-is, or use as a focal point. Of course, exceptions to the rule always exist, so be sure to talk to your local professional or contact a hardware store for more information that’s specific to your region.
Different climates yield different types of weather, so make sure any shelves you hang outdoors are treated and ready for whatever storm may come their way.
We hope that you take the time to consider these wood types when attempting to build your wood shelves. Remember that’s it’s never a waste of time to make sure that you’re using the right type of wood and working in the right type of way, so talking to a contractor may help set you on a path to success.
Remember to always measure twice and cut once, install properly, and enjoy the fruits (and shelves) of your labor!