Tips for Making Cheap Shelving Look Stylish

by Reader Contributors

Tips for Making Cheap Shelving Look Stylish photo

Get the look of a pricier shelving unit without the costly price tag. Our creative, frugal readers share tips for making cheap shelving look stylish.

Dear Dollar Stretcher,
We would like to upgrade the look of our den, which is so mismatched and unorganized that we have started calling it “The Room of Doom.”

We were given some particle board bookshelves, the type with the fake, plastic wood grain finish, which has helped us with our storage problems. We can’t afford to replace the bookshelves and we don’t want to get rid of all of our books and items stored on the shelves.

Does anyone know of a way that we can paint or refinish these shelves so they don’t look so cheap and ugly?

A Little Fix-Up Work

Particle board shelving units are easily fixed up. Before doing anything else to them, wash them down and dry them well. Then consider the following suggestions:

  1. One of the telltale signs of cheap shelving units is the inset area (usually about 4″ high) at the bottom front of the unit. Get a piece of lumber that fits into this area; glue and nail or screw it to bring the base even with the rest of the unit. Fill spaces with wood putty. Then, apply some baseboard molding, mitered at the corners, to the bottom of the front and both sides of the unit.
  2. If you really want to dress it up and feel like spending a little extra, add some decorative molding to the front surface of the sides and top of the unit. Get something wider than the front surface, and mount it so the extra width extends over the inside of the shelves and the molding is flush with the outside. Again, fill in any spaces.
  3. Depending on what’s exposed to the rest of the room, you can dress up the side surfaces by adding molding, which simulates the panels on a door; four pieces, which are mitered at the corners, to form a “picture frame” effect.
  4. Paint every surface of particle board, inside and out, with a primer which is made to help additional coats of paint adhere to the surface. To make it easier to paint, first, take out any removable shelves.
  5. Paint the particle board. It can be very attractive to paint the interior a contrasting color or a different shade of the same color. Several thin coats are always better than one thick one. Seal with a few coats of an appropriate sealer.
  6. If you have several short units which are the same width, consider stacking them. They must be well secured to each other and the spaces between the two units filled in. Then, treat it as one unit. From a decorating standpoint, a tall piece looks more like “real” furniture.

Linda in NYC

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Shelf Paper Could Help

There are several very strong shelf papers that could be used to resurface and improve the look of the bookshelves. They come in all kinds of grades and variances. If you like a pattern, then use a pattern. If you want wood grain, dark or light, those are available, too.

It is hard to make cheap shelves look like anything but what they are — cheap shelves — but you can make them look like NEW cheap shelves and that may be enough.
Pat J. of Lynnwood, WA

Paint Particle Board Shelves

It depends a lot on the look you are going for. In our den, which is still overstuffed with books, we went for a clean look. As clean as we could get it anyway. That involved two gallons of bright white paint. We painted all of our bookshelves white, and since some are hung on the wall with wooden brackets and some are stacked on various bricks, we painted those white too. The result for us was a sort of pulled-together look of disparate materials.

In addition, I grouped our books by color and size. You know how those encyclopedia and Time Life series books look so neat? Well, it looks pretty good to have all the similar books, and those with similar colors or families of colors and shapes together, too. The eye sees them as a whole and not a pile. Some of my books I have begun to sort through to get rid of but I am saving some of those books because I saw a great lamp idea using old books as a base.

A Stylish Painting Technique for Particle Board Shelving

Years ago, when my dear hubby and I were married, we bought one of those cheap-looking entertainment centers that are the particle board type. After many years of the military moving us, the particle board started coming off at strips on the bottom of the unit. I was tired of this looking SO cheap!

I had a friend of mine tell me that they took that paint stuff that looks like flecks and spray painted theirs. “No way could it look nice,” I thought to myself — until I saw it. Needless to say, I went out and purchased a few cans of it and started on my entertainment center. I sanded the whole entertainment center to get the shine off and then just started spraying. I got the color where it is a light ivory-tan with gray-green flecks in it. It looks great. Very inexpensive and fast way to perk up those shelves and make them look more expensive.

Camouflage With a Little Nature

How about if, instead of painting those shelves, you use plants (real or silk)? Most of the shelf is covered by the books. The appearance of the rest of the shelf can be enhanced with plants such as ferns or ivy (I am not really a plant person and thus am not completely sure what plants to suggest). Anything leafy or with long flowing branches can hang over those shelves and also brighten the room.

Not too much, though. The idea is to take the emphasis off those ugly shelves, not to look like a greenhouse.
Tim W.

Molding Can Make the Difference

Rather than try to refinish the shelves, add trim to the front to make them look better. If you have several shelving units that are the same size, put them next to each other and then add molding to cover the seams. By the time you’re done, it should look like one classy unit instead of several inexpensive ones.

At the home improvement store, look in the molding aisle. Pick out a small one with a flat back to cover the vertical seams. To really upgrade the look, invest in a nice piece of crown molding that will go across the top of the whole unit. If you don’t want to go to the trouble of finishing wood molding, pre-finished types are available. To make the project even simpler, you can attach the molding with an epoxy (such as Liquid Nails) instead of finish nails. Talk to someone at the do-it-yourself store to find out exactly what you need.

Reviewed December 2023

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