How To Make Built-In Pantry Shelves

Although they’re still TBP (to be painted), I’m so excited to share how we built pantry shelving for our beach house. They’re surprisingly straightforward to construct – they’re made entirely of two things: MDF sheets and 1 x 2″ boards – and the process can easily be adapted to just about any space where you want to add some custom storage (bedrooms, playrooms, living rooms, etc). In other words, think beyond the pantry. And if you scroll to the bottom of this post, there’s a video of some of the steps in action that might help you too – so even if you’re a beginner, you can do this. Seriously.

DIY pantry shelves built around a refrigerator

In fact, the technique I used to build these is one I’ve already used twice in our own home – first in our son’s room and later for our living room built-ins (shown below). Call me a creature of habit, but I’ve found that it’s easy to execute and we’ve always been really happy with the finished look.

white built-in bookshelves around a doorway in living room

The Evolution Of A Pantry

First, let me catch everyone up to speed on the pantry story. We went into more detail in Episode #74 of our podcast, but we originally planned to use this room as a breakfast nook. We even started setting it up as one when we first moved furniture in a few months ago (see below) but quickly realized it’d be a pretty tight eating area AND we already have plenty of seating in the adjacent kitchen/dining room, which has a table for eight and an island that seats four more.

small breakfast nook with chairs before converting to pantry

So we eventually decided the room would better serve us as a pantry. We briefly mourned the opportunity to create a photogenic little breakfast nook, but quickly got excited about making an uber-functional pantry space. It also gave us the opportunity to get a larger fridge than our main kitchen area would accommodate, so this counter-depth puppy became the starting place for our pantry plan (you can read how we got a great deal on it too). And yes, those are two freezer drawers instead of one big drawer where everything gets piled on top of each other and is harder to find. And yes we love it and kinda wish we had one at our own house now.

apartment size refrigerator in walk in pantry before shelves

Planning The Shelves & Buying Materials

The fridge could only go on to one wall in there without a door or window and it couldn’t go in either corner of that wall because it would overlap the door frame or the window frame (the fridge is about 27″ deep, but the door molding starts at 21″). That same door molding also meant the max depth we could build our pantry shelves was 21″, but that tuned out to be plenty deep. So with room measurements in hand, I Picasso’d sketched an idea of what we wanted to create so that I could determine how much material to buy. We originally planned a skinny vertical cubby for the broom/mop/vacuum situation but later nixed it (there’s a great spot for that in the mudroom) so ignore the long skinny cubby that’s labeled “G” below:

notebook with sketches of pantry shelves with materials outlined

Those rectangles I sketched at the bottom of the page are me figuring out how many 4′ x 8′ sheets of 3/4″ MDF I would need to buy. I learned that I liked working with MDF for projects like these because it’s cheaper and it finishes smoother than plywood. But MDF has to be painted, so obviously use plywood if you want a stained wood look for your project.

My plan was to get each sheet cut into 20-inch-wide boards at the store to make them easier to transport (the big saw at Home Depot can make those cuts MUCH faster and more consistently than I can at home – and they do it for free!). You want your boards cut 3/4″ shorter than whatever you want the final depth of your pantry shelves to be (you’ll be adding a facing piece of wood later – I’ll explain that more in a bit). Again, my shortest wall was 21″ to the door frame, so I rounded mine down to 20 inches just to be safe. I also picked up a bunch of 1 x 2″ pine boards, screws, wood glue, and my shopping was complete! I think my grand total was less than $200. That’s not me or Sherry in my picture below (hence my use of the “privacy emoji”) but that confident sunglass-wearing icon pretty much sums up how I was feeling after collecting all of my materials.

cart full of MDF and wood pieces for pantry shelf project

Prepping The Pantry

Once everything was hauled to the beach house (yes, we drove two and a half hours with all that MDF packed into our Highlander), our first step was prying off the existing baseboard. You’ll want to save this to put back on later, so try not to damage it in the process. Easier said than done when you forget your crowbar back in Richmond (whoops) but we eventually got it done.

hammer prying off baseboard molding in pantry

Attaching The Vertical Panels

We started with the verticals pieces, having cut them to the right length outside with our circular saw (more on that in a bit). I should add that we used some scrap pieces to make the panels next to the fridge a little deeper than 20″ so it covered the sides of the fridge better. We went into this knowing the fridge was deeper than 20″ but figured we wouldn’t mind if it stuck out a little bit. Spoiler: we did mind, so we adjusted our plan so the center section would bump out a little further around the fridge, which ended up looking even more custom in the end. You can see that a little later in the post.

large MDF pieces added vertically against fridge in pantry

The panels against the walls get screwed directly into the wall studs in several spots, so they’re easy to attach (this is the stud finder we use). You can see one of those vertical side panels secured to the wall behind the fridge in the photo above.

The vertical panels that “float” next to the fridge were a little trickier, since you (a) can’t screw directly into your refrigerator – well, I guess you could, but it would be a pretty terrible idea and (b) you want to leave enough gap around the fridge so that it easily slides in and out and has some side ventilation. Sherry and I held each panel where we wanted it to sit (using a level to keep it straight) and then we marked the wall and floor. Then we screwed these skinny brace pieces into the wall and floor, giving us a secure place to attach the MDF panel.

thing pieces of wood installed near fridge on wall and floor

The brace pieces, if you’re wondering, are just 1 x 2″ pine boards that I ripped in half on my table saw (back in Richmond before we left), effectively turning them into smaller square strips. You can buy these pre-cut if you don’t have a saw to make your own, but it’s a little more expensive that way. And we use a fair amount of them in this project (you can see another long brace piece above my head in the shot below – providing support for the big shelf across the back wall) so for us it was worth the trouble to cut our own. We always put the cut edge against the wall so the visible sides aren’t raw.

John drilling vertical MDF panel into wood already placed near fridge in pantry

Adding The Top Pieces

With all four vertical pieces secured, we could start adding the horizontal shelving pieces. The very top shelf rested on the two vertical wall pieces on each end and across the horizontal brace piece on the back wall. The shelf across the top of the fridge rested on the vertical fridge panels and on brace pieces that we added to the back and side walls. Screwing the shelf down into the top of the fridge panels also added a lot of stability to the arrangement.

two long horizontal pantry shelves added on top of vertical pieces

You can see the bracing a bit better from this angle, which is pretty fast and easy to add. Once it’s cut to length, I hold it in place with a level and then fire a nail or two in with my nail gun. Once a few nails were in it to hold it steady, we followed up with screws spaced around 16″ apart for a better long-term hold. We always go into studs when we can, but one pro to screwing those side wall MDF panels into studs is that it makes the entire panel really firmly attached and secure, so you can pretty much screw brace pieces into that panel anywhere for a nice strong hold (and feel confident that they’re not going to pull out or sag over time).

front view of pantry shelves with top shelves already added

Cutting & Adding The Shelves

From here it was just about repeating that process for all of the smaller pantry shelves down each side. We cut all of our shelves first, using our circular saw outside (ours is an old hand-me-down from my dad, but here’s a similar one). If you can, try to double up your boards (like I’ve done below) so you can get two shelves out of each cut. Just be sure to clamp them together firmly first so they don’t shift while you saw (I love these trigger clamps).

John cutting MDF panels outside

There was certainly a fair amount of time spent obsessing over shelf heights. After lots of googling and bringing actual objects into the pantry (like cans, storage bins, and those jumbo cereal boxes and chip bags) we landed on a combination of mostly 8″ and 14″ high shelves, plus some larger ones at the bottom to accommodate things like a beach cooler. Once we measured and marked each shelf, we leveled/nailed/screwed all of our brace pieces along each side. Just remember that you want your brace piece to be attached 3/4″ lower than the top of your final shelf height (since you’ll be resting the 3/4″ MDF shelf piece on top of each brace).

thin brace pieces added where pantry shelves will rest

Then we got to slide each of our shelves into place and secure them in each corner with short screws. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but it keeps your shelving from being wobbly in case any of your brace pieces ended up being slightly unlevel or your MDF is a smidge warped.

pantry shelves added on side of walk-in pantry

Finishing The Shelf Fronts

The last step was adding some face pieces across each exposed edge (these are more 1 x 2″ pine boards, just not cut in half like the brace pieces). You can see in the shot below how much of a difference these facing boards make (the top shelf has it already while the other two under it don’t). They’re basically triple threats: (1) they cover the rough MDF’s cut edge, (2) they hide the brace piece under it and (3) they make the shelf look thicker and more substantial. Win-win-win.

1x2 wood pieces attached to front of shelves to make them look thicker

Since we didn’t want big screw heads messing up the look of the finished front, we just attached these with some wood glue on the back and some finish nails. The little nail holes will need to be filled with spackle later, but that’s really quick to do.

John nailing face pieces onto pantry shelves

And then you’re done. Tada! Well, maybe I should save my “tada!” for when they’re finally primed and painted (we’re going to use Stone Isle by Sherwin Williams which is the same gray color we have on all the trim downstairs). Note: Since our only outlet on that wall is behind the fridge, I just drilled a 1 1/4″ hole in the side of the microwave shelf so we could snake the plug through there, behind the fridge, and into the other outlet back there. 

left side of built in pantry shelving with all face pieces installed

Priming & Painting The Shelves

In the past, we’ve primed and painted one coat on everything BEFORE we constructed it because it’s easier to paint everything laid out on a drop cloth, but we don’t have a big garage/workroom/shed to spread out for painting at the beach house – plus we always have to prime and paint things again after construction (to cover up caulk, spackle, and any scuffing made when we assembled things), so it’s not too bad to do it all at once at the end. We did get our primer tinted to match the gray paint so that’ll hopefully make things go a little faster.

UPDATE: Since publishing this post we finished painting the pantry (SW Stone Isle) so before continuing, I wanted to interrupt with an updated photo.

after photo of built in pantry shelving project painted gray with baskets on shelves

But even lack of paint couldn’t hold Sherry back from playing around with our new pantry shelving. She calls it “figuring out what baskets and bins I’ll need,” but I think we can all see what’s really going on. Shelves are Sherry’s decorating playground, and we basically just built her a new jungle gym.


unpainted pantry shelves with baskets and accessories added

In the end, we probably won’t have as many baskets on each shelf, and we’ll leave the ones that we keep in there more flexible (read: empty) for whatever our weekly renters want to toss into them. We don’t imagine it’ll only store food either. It’ll probably end up being a combination of food, kitchen accessory storage (small appliances like a toaster and blender, mixing bowls, dishtowels, that beach cooler we mentioned, etc), and even some non-kitcheny things (like a basket full of basic cleaning supplies).

side view of fridge in pantry with shelves build all around it still unpainted

There’s also the other side of the room to contend with. Which, as you can see from this super flattering and spectacularly graceful photo of me trying to get the photo above, is pretty much empty at the moment. #bloggeryoga

John leaning awkwardly against wall trying to take a photo of pantry shelves

We originally planned to build some smaller shallower shelves that ran under the window – but we think it might become shelving overkill so we’re leaning towards having an actual counter / “landing spot” instead. That way someone could set down a milk jug they pull out of the fridge or put down grocery bags as they unpack them onto the pantry shelves. One option that we like most so far is the idea of extending the kitchen cabinetry and butcher block counters that run along that same back wall in the adjoining kitchen into the pantry. They’d only be 15″ deep, just like the ones that run across the back wall of the kitchen – so they’ll just look like they continued into the pantry (without sticking out into the space too much).

back staircase in beach house with cabinets next to it

But I think we’ll leave the wall blank for a little while. Just to be sure that’s the most helpful thing to add. You know, let’s let a clear need arise and then build something to accommodate it. Maybe a spot to hang or lean folding chairs for extra seating will end up being more functional? Or empty floor space for setting down some item we can’t even think of right now. So for the time being… Sherry added a fake plant and more baskets.

wall opposite pantry shelves empty with baskets on floor

I have a lot of questions, but the main one is: if Sherry could bring just one object to a desert island, would it be a pillow or a basket?

Video Updates From Our Pantry Build

In case you missed the live updates we were posting on Instagram as we built these, I’ve compiled all of Sherry’s InstaStories into one video below. In them she shows some of these steps in action, and describes a bit more about our thinking behind what goes where. My only warning is that this was shot before Sherry resolved to make 2018 her year of filming smoother and “less flail-y” videos, so please forgive the shaky camera work. Note: If you’re viewing this in a reader, you may have to click through to our website to see the video, or you can watch it here on YouTube.

And if you still want some more detail to help execute this on your own, the tutorial we did for our son’s built-in shelves was even more thorough. Plus, in that post and the one about our living room built-ins, you can see how we included some closed drawer/cabinet storage into the plans as well. They’re both still some of my favorite DIY projects to date, they’re holding up really well, and they’re extremely functional for our family. And now this pantry is about to be welcomed to the club.

PS: If you want to see another pantry makeover project we did, check out how we made over our old kitchen pantry by adding some smarter organization (and lots of paint!).

closet pantry makeover with paint new shelving door organization

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