Shelves vs Cabinets
If you are planning to organize your garage you may be wondering if you should get shelves or cabinets. There are certainly arguments to be made for both. Later in this article I drill down more about the different types of cabinets there are and how to choose the ones you want.
Generally, in my opinion anyway, shelves are preferable to cabinets for a number of reasons in most circumstances. Good quality shelving hanging from the wall like the Rhino DIY shelving, can hold tons of stuff. You can put larger items in bins, combine units and hang things underneath the shelving units. Shelves like these get things off the floor and are flexible in their application. You don’t have the constraints of doors and walls so unusual shapes and sizes can still be stored.
There are downsides to shelves. They lack security and if you are not organizing smaller things into bins the shelves can get cluttered. I would rather put dangerous chemicals in a locked cabinet so I can keep them away from children.
So cabinets are great for locking up and storing dangerous chemical items. They can also keep prying eyes from smaller valuable items and tools. They are also better than bins on shelves for organizing spray cans, bottles and other items that can tip over and leak.
Cabinets also tend to make the environment look neater since due to the doors. And help keep dust off of things and help protect more sensitive items.
All that neatness and security comes at a cost. There is limited space inside a cabinet and unlike shelves if something is too big there is no way to have it hang over the edge just a bit like with a shelf.
Cabinets are also more expensive than shelves of similar quality since there is just more material. Just like anything else, there are also some cheap and cheaply made cabinets consisting of inferior materials. You do tend to get what you pay for so keep your eyes open.
Measuring and planning
It helps to have a budget in mind when planning any kind of a project like this and to know your goals. Prices can vary greatly with cabinetry as can quality and appearance. You are probably going to need to make some compromises along the way depending on the size of your wallet.
Try to figure out what is more important to you and where you are willing to give up a little. Looks, materials and durability are the big three.
Know Your Environment
Also make sure the materials you choose are suitable to your environment. Extreme temperatures, huge temperature swings and extreme humidity can be problems for cheaper materials.
How Much Stuff Are You Storing?
Try to figure out in advance what kinds of things you are storing in your cabinets. Measure the tallest and widest items and be sure they will fit in the cabinet you purchase. Make sure you take into account internal dimensions and hardware like hinges.
Planning Your Layout
When you measure your garage space be sure to take into account your garage doors and other access points like attics and windows. You don’t want to suddenly find out you blocked something or a door won’t open properly. Window sills and door jams can prevent you from opening a cabinet properly if you get too close.
Don’t forget to account for your car door swing as well. Banging your car door against your newly installed cabinets can be a vexing experience. It damages both your car door and the cabinets. Give yourself enough room to get in and out of the car and remember you may be carrying things.
Planning For Your Needs
Be sure the shelves of your cabinets are strong enough to hold what you plan to store in them. Cheaper shelves will begin to buckle under a small load so don’t just assume you can store whatever you want in them.
What kinds of items will you be storing? Do you need to keep away from children? Are there valuables such as tools or important parts that need to be kept safe? Does the cabinet need to be fireproof? Do you store acids or other corrosive materials?
Workspace or Storage
Are you planning to create a space to do work or pursue a hobby? If so you might consider buying into a system that suits your needs. You don’t need to get it all at once if your time and budget doesn’t allow for that, but knowing that all the pieces will work well together can be a big plus.
Wall slat systems like Proslat and Gladiator have cabinet components that hang from their specially designed slats as well as other components to store or hang items on the walls. New Age Systems have larger workbench units and cabinets that combine together to form functional and attractive workshop areas.
If you go the eclectic route and combine disparate pieces just be prepared for the fact that some pieces may not work well together. This is particularly true of slat wall systems that have proprietary hooks and rails.
Individual vs Systems vs Specialty Cabinets vs Custom
One benefit of using a system over just an individual cabinet is that the slats or rails allow for you to precisely place your cabinet where along the wall you want it to be instead of where the studs happen to exist.
There is more than one way to go about doing this. You can get some lumber and build a rail to hang your cabinets. Just be sure you make a top and bottom rail so the cabinet hangs evenly and doesn’t pull away from the wall at the top. Be prepared for that home-made look if you go this route.
If you go with a system plan on sticking with it. So make sure it will meet your future needs in terms of hooks and attachments and baskets and whatnot. Most systems are proprietary and designed to keep you in their world for better or worse. If you like the system and it meets your needs this is great.
You may only need one or two cabinets for a specific purpose to supplement your shelving, like a chemicals cabinet with a lock or something to store smaller tools and such. In those cases it may not make sense to worry about integrating into a whole system.
A word about specialty items. Very often people, me included, get seduced by how clever and ingenious an idea is only to discover that we really don’t need this particular solution. Here is one from my personal history that is still around today. The little cabinet of tiny drawers to organize screws or small parts.
This is a great solution if you are a hobbyist or craftsperson or something and you actually have a bunch of small things you use regularly and need to organize and keep handy.
If you are a regular person that just has a random assortment of screws and washers and small replacement parts, you are infinitely better off getting some baby food jars or small plastic containers and separating things out into general categories.
Here is another example of seductive overkill.
The Drill Charging station
This is great if you have 5 drills and need to keep them charged.
Know thyself is all I’m saying.
Custom Cabinets are wonderful for DIYers or people with money that have a vision for a great garage. You get exactly what you want. Nothing more and nothing less. If you are so inclined you can get some free home design software and go to town.
Wall Mounted vs Stand Alone
To be honest when I picture cabinets the first image that comes to mind are wall mounted units. But there are stand alone cabinets that sit on the floor so we should discuss those as well.
The benefits of wall mounted units are of course that they keep things off the floor away from the dust and make the floor easier to clean. Mounting things on the walls just makes for more room and a less cluttered appearance.
Wall mounted shelves are also the proper height for getting things in and out. Eye level objects you need, less bending.
They are also more sturdy.
The downside is that they require installation, tools and are not easily moved around once they are attached.
Stand alone units tend to be taller allowing for storing longer items (provided they can be stored vertically) and they can also be moved with varying degrees of difficulty if need be.
Taller stand alone units on the other hand tend to wobble unless they are anchored to the wall. Anchoring takes away the benefit of movability.
Having a unit on the floor takes up valuable floor space and makes cleaning more difficult.
Storing things in the bottom of the unit requires bending and the bottom can become a small pile of clutter if you’re not careful. Small cabinets on the floor just become a pointless box of junk so don’t even bother.
Some cabinets have wheels which can seem like a good idea. Quality rolling tool boxes and the like can be a great way to bring things to exactly where you will need them. Other rolling units, as long as they are not overloaded, can be a great way to swap out seasonal storage and rearrange items.
All this awesome mobility depends on the quality of the wheels, how much weight is being rolled around and how smooth and clear the floor is.
Cheap wheels can become a weak spot in the cabinet system and when they break under load you will need a new one. Cheap wheels can turn a sturdy cabinet into one that cannot hold a proper load. Even small obstructions, like a twig or a pebble, can prevent a wheel from rolling and wheels can get gunked up and difficult to roll.
The promise of corner cabinets is that it will put to use otherwise wasted space. They might. If you have cabinets along two walls that go up to a corner there will be a blind spot where the cabinets meet. The obvious solution is to have a corner cabinet that goes all the way back to the wall in the corner to make use of that space.
This can create an overly large cabinet area that is too deep to be practical, requiring you to empty out half the cabinet to reach things in the back. This lead to the invention of things like Lazy Susans or swing out shelves. These solutions have their own problems. The lack of proper sides to prevent items from falling out or over.
You might want to plan alternative storage for your corners such as shelves or rails that are open, less expensive and more appropriate to the space.
If you are installing wall cabinets it is important that they be securely attached to the wall. This means anchoring the cabinet in one way or another to the studs or, if you have cement walls, anchoring the cabinets using appropriate masonry hardware. Under no circumstances should you try to screw your cabinets or shelves into the drywall. That is a recipe for disaster.
If you are using a wall system follow the instructions from the manufacturer to secure the slats or rails or what have you to the wall. If you are installing cabinets directly, make sure to measure your studs before you buy. In some older homes the studs are not standard distances apart. Also consider creating a mounting rail of your own using lumber that you mount onto the studs. This way you have more flexibility in locating your cabinets regardless of where the studs are.
Finding studs is usually easy in garages with drywall. Often the dents where the nails were hammered in are clearly visible. If not you can tap along the wall and listen for hollow sounding wall (no stud) and find the more dense and solid sound where studs are located. The standard distance is 16″ between studs measured center to center.
If you have aluminum studs, you may have issues with supporting weight. They are not nearly as strong as wood and the anchoring hardware may become loose and rip out.
Cabinets can be made from different materials: Steel, wood, composites and plastic. Each has their benefits and weaknesses.
Steel and Metal
Steal is generally strong and higher quality cabinets are powder coated to protect against corrosion. Cheaper cabinets can begin to rust and corrode and may be made from a thinner steel which might seem flimsy. Metal is generally considered a reactive material so it might not be appropriate for acids which might leak. But that depends entirely on the coating used. Steel is flexible so taller cabinets might wobble if they are not reenforced and are made of thinner gauge. They are generally fireproof or fire resistant (again depending on gauge).
Metal cabinets can be sold pre-assembled or ready to assemble (RTA). Pre-assembled is often higher quality as it allows the manufacturer to weld the cabinet together rather than having your screw them together.
When I say wood I mean either plywood or actual solid wood like pine planks. This material is rarely used except by DIYers because it is heavy and expensive. If you are building your own cabinets or hiring someone to do so then you will most likely be using wood. Wood can be a wonderful material since it is strong, easy to obtain and easy to work with. When properly cared for wood can last a lifetime. Wood needs to be painted or treated to prevent warping and rotting. If it is not properly treated it can get moldy and absorb odors as well. The good news is that most construction lumber is pressure treated so much of the work has been done for you.
Wood is flammable so if you are storing things that are considered a fire hazard opt for a more appropriate material. Keep in mind that wood can absorb oils and flammable liquids.
Wood is also heavy so add the weight of the wood cabinets when calculating how much weight you are hanging on your walls.
Composite materials include MDF (medium density fiber) and particleboard aka low density fiber. This material is much cheaper than wood and about as heavy. It is usually laminated with some kind of vinyl to give it the appearance of wood. MDF is the standard RTA (ready to assemble) material for non-metal cabinets.
These are often cheaply made and the pieces are often put together with lock connectors like Ikea furniture. Try to get as much information as you can before buying this type of cabinet. Quality varies greatly.
Particleboard is rarely used except in the most cheap products avoid it. Particleboard also tends to off gas formaldehyde.
Plastic was once considered the cheapest of all materials and derided as being of generally bad quality. Times have changed since my childhood as have the advancements in material sciences. HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) is an amazing material. It is strong, lightweight, doesn’t dent, Doesn’t cut easily and is non-reactive to inorganic acids and alkaline liquids (although it will be melted by benzene and acetone) and is relatively inexpensive. It is not fireproof but that’s about as bad as it gets.
If you are looking for lightweight but strong cabinets to lock up your belongings HDPE is a strong contender.
Using Old Kitchen Cabinets
Are you considering using your old kitchen cabinets in the garage? Maybe you found some at a construction site or a friend is offering them to you because they are redoing the kitchen. The idea behind recycling kitchen cabinets for use in the garage is honorable and tempting. You’re reusing old things and not being wasteful and you are saving money at the same time.
There are some downsides to consider though. Kitchen cabinets are built for the indoors. Garages are more out-doorsy than a kitchen ever will be and as such it exposes kitchen cabinetry to more of the harsh elements than they were designed to endure. Garages are prone to extreme temperatures, dust, debris, fumes and changes in humidity can cause kitchen cabinets to become damaged.
Kitchen cabinets are also not designed to hold as much weight as good garage cabinets. Which might make a difference. Also kitchen cabinets are generally heavier than their garage counterparts.
Think about your needs before going this route.
The first question is really how good does the cabinet need to be in order to suit your needs. You may not need to get the greatest cabinets if all you need is a place for a few things hanging from your wall. Even then you don’t want to get stuck overpaying for a cheaply made cabinet even if that is what you wanted.
If you want more a cheap cabinet you need to start looking at the materials and how the cabinet is constructed.
In general Pre-assembled cabinets will be better than RTA (ready to assemble). Mostly these are going to be welded steel cabinets or HDPE cabinets. These can be costly to ship once they get beyond a certain size so consider getting them from a store. Getting them in person has the added benefit of giving you the opportunity to see how the cabinet is made close up before you commit.
RTA steel cabinets are not necessarily bad but they do rely on your ability to put them together and the quality of how the manufacturer makes that possible. The more pieces fit together rather than relying or a screw or peg the more stable they are.
Look at the quality of the joinery if the cabinet is made of wood. Dovetail joints are superior to butted joints. Butted joints are simply the edge of one piece of wood nailed or screwed and glued into the side of another piece of wood.
This kind of butted joint is what gives RTA cabinets their cheap wobbly structure.
Ask yourself if the material seems cheap and flimsy compared to the price that is being asked for it.
How is the finish? Does it seem like the laminate will just peel off soon? Is there a powder coating if the cabinet is metal? Does the paint or coating stop at the seams or does it continue under. Is the material thick and strong? Is there good bracing to hold things upright and sturdy? How are the corners constructed? What is the return policy? Check for restocking fees or whether the return policy is open box, meaning you can open the box and try the cabinet to see how it is.
Generally you want to get a level of quality that suits your goals and your budget but so you don’t over buy or get something cheap for too much money.