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I would like to create wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in a room, to hold several thousand books. The shelves for the larger books is in a grid like this, with vertical columns like in this picture:

enter image description here

Since it is many books, some being heavy, it needs to be strong, but as lots of material is needed, it should be cheap. It will be covered with paint and mounted directly to the wall framing. It shouldn't be as cheap a solution as found in this question What is the cheapest/easiest way to make bookshelves?, as it still needs to look like wooden panels covered in paint.

The 3 ft-wide bookshelf in my workplace collapsed as that was made of particle board, while supporting 30 three-hundred page textbooks, so I think this material might be unsuited.

What is a strong cheap wood or product that if painted looks like a plank of wood, that is really cheap, yet strong enough for holding a large quantity of books and won't bow?

  • planks of wood, properly supported. Thicker planks, supports further apart, thinner then supports closer together. – Solar Mike Nov 22 '19 at 18:37
  • Products like MDF and Plywood do not have nice looking cut edges (the front face of the board that will be most visible). Are you ok with not having smooth, attractive front faces? – JPhi1618 Nov 22 '19 at 19:38
  • It depends completely on your design. There's no clear answer to this question. – isherwood Nov 22 '19 at 21:29
  • Do not use particle board or OSB, they have very low modulus ( stiffness) compared to wood. – blacksmith37 Nov 22 '19 at 22:15
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The most important factor is the unsupported length of your shelf.

This represents a beam of length L supported at both ends (A,B) with a force applied in the middle (F):

enter image description here

The lowercase "f" represents how much your shelf will bend, ie, how ugly it'll look once books are placed on it.

With uniform load (fixed amount of weight per unit of shelf length), f is proportional to L^4, ie the fourth power of L. This means, for a fixed material and thickness, a shelf that is twice as long, loaded with twice as many books since it is double the length, will bend 16 times more !

This is why a short shelf, like about 40cm as pictured in your question, can be made of pretty much anything, even the cheapest 18mm thick particle board, OSB, whatever. It will stay straight.

But a 80cm shelf, like in IKEA BILLY, has a 16x times harder job... And 80cm IKEA shelves, which are made mostly of as much air as possible, and as little sawdust and glue as they can get away with... they do bend. For a 80cm shelf loaded with heavy books I'd definitely not recommend particle board. The IKEA BILLY one in my living room looks quite bendy. I'll probably replace it with plywood some day.

In summary, don't blame particle board for your 3 ft shelf collapsing, instead blame a wrong use of particle board. 3 ft is too long. It would be fine for storing clothes, but not tightly packed books.

If you want to make a shelf like in your photo, with "boxes" about 40-50cm wide, which is about half as long as 3 ft, then... you can use pretty much any material you want and the deciding factor will be cost and how easy it is to make a nice finish. If you want a 3 ft shelf which can carry heavy books, then the deciding factor will be material strength, and you'll likely end up with 20mm plywood.

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  • I wouldn't use plywood. Half the plies are going in the wrong direction. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Nov 23 '19 at 2:55
  • The ply on the bottom does all the work so it should be in the right direction... that said this type of wood would be even better but I have no idea what it's called. "edge glued wood" maybe? Probably cheaper than plywood too, and the edge looks nicer & easier to finish – bobflux Nov 23 '19 at 11:30
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Any 3/4" solid board (or 3/4" plywood) will work, as long as it's supported properly. I can't tell you what the cheapest wood is, because that varies by location (where I live, that would be knotty pine).

Plywood is usually cheaper than solid boards, but it's a little more work. It comes in large sheets, so the first thing you have to do is cut it into planks of the right width. And most people don't like having the exposed plywood edge right in front, so they put a thin piece of edging over it. This is not required, it's purely an aesthetic decision; if you want more of an industrial look, you can leave the plywood edge as it is.

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You can use 1/2" sanded plywood for the shelves, then trim the edges with a suitable looking 1x2 to look nice and add strength. This should work up to about 3ft wide. If you want to be even more sure it holds, shorten your distance between supports to 18-24".

As an example, here's a pic of a 36"x12" kitchen cabinet with a 1/4" thick shelf filled with 50+ lbs of glassware.
cabinet filed with glassware

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