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How to Paint Closely Spaced Closet Shelves

Updated on April 16, 2012
Newly Painted Linen Closet
Newly Painted Linen Closet

In a closet having many fairly closely spaced shelves such as the linen closet shown at left; it can be very tedious to paint all the shelves in place. In most closets of this sort with wooden or particleboard shelves, the shelves can be removed fairly easily. This hub describes a painting technique for two types of closet shelves. The first type is relatively shallow, but wide as in the linen closet shown. The second type (from a bathroom closet) is deep, but relatively narrow. The hub suggests removing the shelves from the closet and painting them in a convenient location. It also describes a technique that allows both sides of the shelves to be painted quickly and efficiently in a single session. With the shelves removed it is also much easier to paint the interior walls of the closet.

Tools and materials needed

  • Paint
  • Scrap wood
  • Paint roller(s)
  • Paintbrush
  • Drop cloth
  • Hammer
  • 2 to 2.5 inch nails
  • Large pliers
  • Sharp knife or Carton knife
  • Marking Pen

Remove Shelves

Determine if shelves are attached to their supports or just lift out. First try lifting on the edge of the shelf with moderate force. If that does not work then look on the top of the shelf for nail heads or tops of screws. It is likely that screws or nails, if present, are not too large or numerous. If there are screws then remove them before proceeding. If the shelves have been previously painted in place, they may also be glued down a bit by the paint. Try cutting through the paint along the seam between the shelf and the support with a sharp knife or carton knife. At this point place a small block of wood near the support under the shelf and close to nailed points if nails are present. Tap upward with a hammer on the block to avoid marring the shelf material. The block also spreads the hammer impact to minimize chances of cracking particleboard. If there are nails or the shelf is stuck down a bit, work back and forth along the supports with the hammer and block, freeing it a bit at a time on all sides. Use a marking pen to label each shelf (on a non-visible edge) to record its position in the closet. Once the shelves are out of the closet, remove nails if any and clean up any caked paint at points of support with a scraper or carton knife. Also clean up any caked paint along supports in the closet. If the shelves were difficult to remove simply because they were very tightly fitted, you may want to consider trimming about 1/8 inch off one of the tight ends.

Select a painting area

Select an area for painting the shelves. A basement or garage area works well if it is available because there is less concern about spilling or dripping paint on finished floors or carpeting. Supporting the shelves while drying is also simpler in such areas. The process will involve two sub-areas: 1) a small area where one shelf at a time is painted, and 2) a slightly larger area to which the newly painted shelf is moved to dry.

Shelves Prepared for Painting
Shelves Prepared for Painting

Prepare shelves

The picture shows how the shelves are prepared for painting. Basically temporary support nails are driven into edges that will be hidden when the shelves are reinstalled. The nails should be sturdy enough to support the shelf, but not so large that they split the shelf material. The type shelf on the left (from the linen closet) has a finished edge on the right or left vertical side, while the type on the right (from the bathroom closet) has a finished edge on the top. Clearly support nails should not be driven into a finished edge that will show when the shelf is reinstalled. As shown, two nails support the bottom of each type. Be sure to drive the nails in equally, that is, so that each projects the same from the shelf edge. In the picture a thin scrap of wood has been nailed to an old workshop cabinet to support the tops of the shelves. The shelf on the left has a single nail at the top, while the one on the left has a bent nail on each side near the top to avoid driving a support nail into the visible finished edge. The bottom nails should be driven in enough to support the shelf’s weight. The top nail or nails should be driven in enough that the shelf can be carried by the top nail or nails after painting. If the shelves need any sanding or patching, this is best done before installing the nails.

Top-nail Shelves Supported While Drying
Top-nail Shelves Supported While Drying

Begin painting shelves

Set up paint supplies and a drop cloth and move a shelf to your painting area. Be sure you can carry the shelf by the top nail or nails without the nail pulling out. A small sheet of cardboard or scrap plywood to rest the bottom nails on while painting avoids tangling the nails in the drop cloth. Paint the top and bottom surface of a shelf with a roller and then paint the edges that will be visible with a brush. Paint one side and then turn the shelf around using the top or side nails as required and let those nails hold the painted side away from your support while you paint the other side and exposed edges. It is not necessary to paint the edges that will be hidden. However, if you do want to paint them, don’t paint over your location marks. Also keep the amount of paint on these edges light so they do not make the shelf tighter when you reinstall it. Check for drips, runs, etc and then using the top or side nails carry the painted shelf to the drying area. Five drying shallow, but wide shelves are shown in the picture with the bottom nails resting on a concrete floor and the top nails resting on a piece of wood nailed to the support posts of a workbench. If you are starting with unpainted shelves such as those shown in above, the shelves will need both a primer coat and a finish coat. If you are in a hurry you can use a product like KILZ or “Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3” for priming. In good temperature and humidity conditions, these will dry for recoating in 45 minutes to one hour. They are also very good stain sealers.

Side-nail Shelves Supported While Drying
Side-nail Shelves Supported While Drying

Supporting painted bathroom closet shelves

The picture here shows how narrow, but deep shelves with two top nails can be simply supported against a vertical surface such as the old workshop cabinet shown. (There are small scraps of white paper under the top nails to make them more visible against the dark cabinet surface.) A blank wall could also be used to lean the shelves against.

Paint closet interior

While the shelves are drying, paint the interior walls of the closet, remembering to patch holes and prime any previously unfinished areas. Allow closet and shelves at least a couple of days to dry separately if possible since fresh paint on shelves may stick to fresh paint on closet supports.

Shelves Reinstalled
Shelves Reinstalled

Reinstall Shelves

Remove the support nails from the shelves. A large pair of pliers works well for this - grip the nail near the wood and twist. If you need to get the shelves back in quickly, make a number of approximately 1 inch by 2 inch spacers from light cardboard (e.g., from cereal or other food containers). Then, reinstall the shelves with these spacers to prevent direct contact between the shelves and their supports. Return objects you normally store in the closet and reattach the closet door if it has been removed like the one in the picture at right. Remove the spacers after a week or so, but continue to lift the front edge of the shelves a bit occasionally over the first few weeks to minimize sticking to the supports.

Additional Tips

  • Use disposable rollers and paint tray liners to simplify clean-up

  • The technique of supporting objects with nails into hidden surfaces also works well for painting both sides of removable double hung windows and separated bi-fold closet door panels

  • Be careful nails are not so large that they split shelves, particularly with older particle board shelves. For a 3/4 inch thick shelf use an 8d or smaller nail and stay well away from corners.


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