Lessons Learned with DIY Industrial Pipe Shelves

More often than not, home improvement shows on HGTV and the DIY network give a false sense of ease that “small” home projects are a one-afternoon wonder. On these shows, they’ll spend about 26 seconds assembling the final product, while completely neglecting the screw ups, the sixth trip to the hardware store, the meticulous planning, and the quiet sob you suppress when everything feels hopeless and you’re contemplating burning your house down for the insurance money.

Yes, I understand that’s what television always does. It doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

When we set out to build trendy industrial pipe shelves, we honestly thought it was going to be easy. “These pipes will screw in like puzzle pieces,” I said.

Oh, how naive one-month-ago me was.

Right away we figured that these shelves were going to be a bit more of a challenge. They were replacing store-bought book shelves that had essentially expired after several moves across county lines. These bookshelves held a lot of sheet music and books, meaning that their replacement had to be heavy duty and capable of holding a lot of weight.

An example of the Chip and Joanna Gaines special, the Industrial Pipe Shelf

Something I started to notice was that every example photo of these style of shelves (like above) is that you seldom — if ever — see them loaded up with heavy stuff. They presented as decorative, not functional. To make them functional, we abandoned the idea of suspending them from the ceiling so that the brunt of the weight could rest on the floor.

In addition, we were placing these shelves next to a desk that likely isn’t ever going to move. The shelves had to be symmetrical, meaning they may not be able to use studs.

All of this made me very nervous, but we pressed on.

Rather than show you the step by step instructions — which honestly you probably don’t need — let me just tell you the valuable lessons we learned that we never saw anywhere else.

Lesson 1 – When planning the size of your shelf, don’t forget to account for the length of the joints and flanges.

This is probably the biggest “duh” moment we had the entire project.

We wanted the shelves to extended from the floor almost all the way to the ceiling. We measured the ceiling at exactly nine feet, or 108 inches. The first shelf was to be eighteen inches from the ground, then each shelf after that to be twelve inches from the last shelf. Some simple math tells you that gives us seven shelves total with about eighteen inches of clearance for the top-most shelf — 108 – 18 – (12*6) = 18

Nooooope. The flanges add an inch, and the T-joints add another three inches each, not to mention the pipes don’t even fully screw in to the joints and flanges; only about half of the thread goes in by hand. We wound up having to reduce the number of shelves on each side to six, after (of course) we had already bought the materials.

Lesson 2 – The pipes are greasy.

Once we started to unbox or unwrap our newly purchased black steel pipes, we quickly noticed that they were not clean. I’m not sure why they’re manufactured greasy, but they are.

If you’re spray-painting them (which I highly recommend for color consistency) you can probably get away with rubbing the grease off with shop paper towels prior to painting. If you’re using iron pipes, avoid washing them with water.

Lesson 3 – Do NOT pre-assemble the whole thing!

These pipes are heavy. And they get even heavier when they’re all connected. Resist the temptation to “save time” by pre-assembling the whole structure prior to mounting it in its final destination. Rather, just assemble what’s needed as you move upwards like a sky-scraper.

There is one exception though. I found it easiest to assemble the bottom two shelf pipes (the horizontal ones). Once the flanges were flush to the wall and floor, the leveling almost took care of itself.

It’s a lot easier to assemble as you move upward.

Lesson 4 – Sometimes you just aren’t going to be able to use a stud.

And if you’re building shelves that will be holding a lot of weight like we were, this can be nerve-racking. In our case, the placements of the pipes were non-negotiable. The width of the room vs the width of the desk gave us no margin to shift side-to-side and find a stud.

Thus, we had to resort to drywall anchors. But not just any anchors, these bad boys:

Best ever drywall anchors (not sponsored)

These insert in a pre-drilled hole in the drywall, then a plunger is inserted into the screw hole, forcing the butterfly wings behind the drywall to permanently snap outwards, creating a very strong hold.

Each anchor can support 80 pounds, and I used four anchors for every flange that didn’t align with a stud.

“But Tim, drywall can’t possibly hold up these heavy shelves, especially loaded!”

Ah ha! Normally that’s a justifiable concern, but these shelves aren’t hanging from the wall, they’re leaning against it. If you were simply suspending the full weight of the shelves using those anchors, they would pull right out of the wall. But that’s not what we did:

The flange resting on the floor is acting as a pivot point. From there, gravity wants the shelf to tip towards the wall. The shelf is slightly pushing in on the drywall, exerting more downward, compressing forces towards the floor, ie, the direction the drywall is the strongest!

But still use a stud if you can.

Lesson 5 – Measure and level. Then do it again. Now do it one more time.

Do not — and I cannot stress this enough — do not mark and drill your screw holes before measuring multiple times, checking your levels, then measuring again. The anguish of realizing that you had one of the flanges mounted to the wall one inch further to the right than the rest is… unimaginable.

Speaking of measuring, always measure from the same point. It might be tempting to measure from the shelf below the one you’re working on, but if that one was slightly off, you’re now compounding bad measurements. Measure from the floor or the ceiling to keep things consistent.

Lesson 6 – However long you think it’s going to take you to complete this project, double it. Now add four hours.

This is true for every home project, but it definitely was the case for these shelves. By my best estimates:

  • Sanding and painting the shelves: 3 afternoons
  • Cleaning the pipes: 3 hours
  • Painting the pipes: 5 hours†
  • Cumulative trips to hardware stores: 4 hours
  • Installing the first shelf: 6 hours
  • Installing the second shelf: 5 hours
  • Fixing mistakes: 1 hour

†The spray paint we used (like most) could not be applied until the temperature rose to 50ºF (10ºC), so add another three weeks of simply waiting for warm, dry weather.

Lesson 7 – There’s a fairly large manufacturing tolerance with these pipes.

This took a while to figure and was the most relentless source of frustration. Remember, these pipes aren’t meant to be shelves, they’re meant to be… well, pipes. The threading on one pipe might allow it to screw into a T-joint one-half inch deep, but the next pipe may only screw in one-third inch.

When you’re dealing with relatively small measurements, a one-quarter inch difference can prevent the structure from being square, and can really cause alignment problems. If you come across something like this, it’s okay to slightly unscrew pipes/joints to help things line up. Once it’s all screwed in and locked into place, it’ll be plenty sturdy.

This frustrating gap was the result of one set of threads being narrower than the rest at the tip.

Lesson 8 – Be patient.

Most DIY projects involve learning as you go. You’re going to get frustrated, wish you had never had attempted it, or that you hired a contractor to do it, or that whole burn-the-house-down thing mentioned above…

Or maybe that’s just me.

But once it’s all done, it truly is a great piece to have in your home.