Transform Old Milk Crates Into Bookshelves

A stack of old milk crates, ready to be repurposed.
What You'll Need
Sheet 5/8-inch plywood
Milk crates
1 1/4-inch screws
150 grit sandpaper
220 grit sandpaper
skill saw
8-foot straight edge
C-clamps or squeeze clamps
Driver bit
7/64-inch drill bit
Framing square
Shellac or laquer

Milk crates are the ultimate in cheap, easy, cool storage devices. Almost every apartment or studio has a towering stack of milk crates somewhere. Oftentimes you can find nice colors and arrange them accordingly. The trouble is they never stack as well as you'd like, many are beaten up on the sides, and they always look like... well, a stack of milk crates. This simple design is for a vertical stack of 3 crates; enough for a decent book collection, folded clothes, or anything else you can fit in there. This idea is made to expand upon and is nothing more than building boxes, so feel free to explore and expand dimensions and design!


The dimensions listed below are taken from a milk crate of my own, sizes and dimensions may vary which will alter the dimensions of the shelf. Please be sure to check the dimensions of your crate against mine and alter them accordingly.

Step 1 - Obtain Milk Crates

Obtain milk crates in a sneaky, legal way (how this gets done is up to you). Most milk crates are 13 inches high x 11 inches deep x 13 1/2-inches wide. Some vary in dimension such as steel banded crates--make sure that the type of crates you get are uniform in size.

Step 2 - Rip Verticals

Cutting plywood down to size: set up a straight edge and rip 2 pieces of plywood at 11 inches wide, then crosscut the pieces at 42 inches. These will be the verticals of your shelf. The 42-inch height accommodates 3 milk crates as well as the thickness of the bottom, top, and 2 shelves.

Step 3 - Cut Top, Bottom, and Shelf Dividers

The dimensions for your shelves, top, and bottom will be 13 1/2 x 11 inches. This is the interior dimension of the box leaving about an 1/8-inch play for sliding the crates in and out. Rip the plywood at 11 inches and then crosscut each piece at 13 1/2 inches. When making your crosscuts, measure and cut each line at a time, rather than marking all the lines then cutting them. If you do this you will end up short on your last cut because the saw cuts out 1/16-inch on each each cut (this is called the curf).

What you should have:

  • 2 verticals cut to 11x42
  • 4 pieces cut to 13 1/2x 11

Step 4 - Sand

If everything checked out it's time to move on to sand! First, fold the sandpaper in half and tear it lengthwise (also known as hot dog style). Next, cut a 4-inch strip of plywood and crosscut it as wide as the sandpaper, then wrap it around the block--this is a sanding block. Use this to sand the endgrain smooth and give a light round-over to the edges. Use the other sheet, folded over 3 times, to sand the faces, removing any burrs or rough spots.

Step 5 - Lay Out the Parts

Lay out your 3 milk crates in line on a flat table with the openings facing out. Next, lay your verticals on either side of the crates. Now, place the pieces designated 'top' and 'bottom' above and below the crates. It should appear that the shelf has been folded open like a cardboard box.

Step 6 - Clamp

Clamp the bottom piece of plywood to your milk crate--use one clamp right in the middle. If the clamp slips through the holes in the crate you may need to cut another piece of wood to span it. The piece should overhang about an 1/8-inch on either side.

Now, line one of your verticals up flush with the bottom piece of plywood and clamp it. Do the same to the other vertical. The milk crate should now be supporting the bottom and the verticals.

Now clamp the top piece to the crate the same as you did the bottom. You should be left with a rectangle measuring 42 inches long x 13 1/2 inches wide with one milkcrate clamped to the top and another to the bottom.

Step 7 - Screw Down the Top and Bottom

You are now going to screw the top and bottom pieces to the sides. Double check that all your edges are flush, use your framing square on the sides. Then drill 4 evenly spaced holes about 1/4-inch in from the end of the board using your 7/64-inch drill bit. Pre-drilling assures that you do not split the wood when screwing into it. Drive the screws through the pilot holes. Once you have both sides screwed up removed your clamps.

Step 8 - Space the Shelves

Put the other milk crate into the box and space them so you can fit the two shelving pieces between them. Using the crates as spacers assures you do not make an opening too big or too small. The spacing is correct when there is roughly an 1/8-inch of wiggle room around each crate.

Step 9 - Screw In the Shelves

Now, place your framing square across the center thickness of your shelf so the long end of the "L" is running down your vertical. Mark this line with a pencil and drill 4 evenly spaced holes identical to the ones at the top and bottom. Do this for all shelves and screw them in.

Step 10 - Address the Back

If you are going to have this shelf up against a wall you may not need a back. The shelf itself has enough structure. The only real reason to put a back on this piece is to keep the milk crates from sliding out of the back end. There are many ways to do this and you should feel free to make up your own. All you need is a small block or spanning piece across the opening to keep the crates from sliding. Here is a simple method:

Rip 2 pieces of plywood to 4-inches and crosscut them at 42 inches, the height of your shelf. Using the same pre-drill technique, screw them in flush with both right and left sides at the top, into the shelves, and the bottom. These two strips will keep crates in while preserving the light, airy look of the piece.

Extras Part 1 - Natural Wood Finishing Options

Look! You have a shelf! The only thing left to do is finish it. Remove the milk crates and, using 220 sand paper, give the piece an overall sand until everything is smooth. Now for a finish the options are many; an easy brush on finish is shellac. It will leave the wood looking about the same and it is durable. If you want to spray a finish, aerosol laqueur is a good option. This will require at least 3 coats with sanding in between, but leaves a fine sheen over the wood when you are done.

Extras Part 2 - Color Options

If you want to make the shelf fit a certain theme or just feel like painting it, here's what to do. First, sand the piece with 220 as noted above. If you want the piece to look completely seamless you can bondo all the screw holes, endgrain, and seams. This is a good amount of extra work but the result is worth it. Bondo is a filler used in auto body and boat work, it spreads on as a putty and becomes extremely hard when dry. Get a piece of cardboard to mix on and a good, clean palette knife about 2 to 3 inches wide. Follow the directions on the can as to how to properly mix the bondo with the catalyst. Go over the entire piece, filling holes and seams with the bondo, assuring to make each spot as smooth as possible and using as little bondo as possible. As soon as you feel the bondo start to harden, scrape it into the trash, clean your knife, and mix up a new batch. Once the entire piece is done go get lunch. After your hour-or-so lunch, go back over all the areas with a sanding block, smoothing out the filled spots until you can no longer feel them or see a seam. Blow your piece off or wipe it down, then paint it with your favorite brush on or spray paint. It will look amazing!