The 6 Best Woods for Shelving (Which is Best?)

dark wood shelving idea

Shelving is clearly a handy and practical thing to have in your home. However, not every type of wood makes for suitable shelving. Actually, choosing the wrong wood can lead to an absolute disaster happening.

That then opens up the question of which wood species you should focus on using if you plan to add some shelving anywhere in your home? A number of options are best ranging from the widely available pine, to white oak, mahogany, fir and cedar. Any of those will prove to be fantastic when it comes to shelving.

But with so many types of wood out there to choose from, I know it can become quite tricky and complex to work out what to do. So, I’m going to solve that problem for you, and it’s only going to take a few minutes for me to achieve this. 

I’m not going to make life complicated for you by giving you this massive list of wood that you can use for shelving. Instead, I will narrow down your options quite considerably, actually, to just six different options for this basic project.

I know some people may argue against the six I have chosen, but I feel they represent the best options regarding durability, strength, and also price. Let’s face it, you don’t always want to spend a fortune when it comes to something as basic as this. However, there’s also a time when the appearance of the wood shelving also has to fit in with the rest of the decor in the room.

So, don’t worry because, in the course of the next few minutes, you will learn everything there is to know about the best shelving options.


pinewood shelving

I think that pinewood must be one of the most popular options when it comes to shelving, and I say this for several reasons.

First, it’s inexpensive, and that’s an excellent reason for using it. You can pick up some pinewood from any hardware store, and you will also have the opportunity to pick it up in various thicknesses. That does make people feel you can use pine for a range of projects. Also, how often do you see pine shelving for sale in stores? It happens all the time, so it makes sense you can then go ahead and use it yourself.

But that’s not the only reason why I love pine.

It’s also very easy to work with, so cutting the shelf to size will not be a problem. Also, if you intend to take it away from that pine coloring, then you will quickly discover that this wood is more than happy to absorb stain or paint to completely change its appearance.

However, this also means it’s easy to get pine to blend into your surroundings. Leaving it relatively plain will result in a lighter appearance, and one that is undoubtedly far more rustic in style, while you can paint it in any color you like for it to then blend it in.

And yet, pine is not foolproof. Instead, I need to remind you that pine is a softwood. It’s very easy to dent and scratch it, so its appearance can become tarnished in next to no time. 

Therefore, using it for heavy objects is perhaps not the best idea. Your shelves can quickly take on a tired look, and you may then need to contemplate changing them. 

Yet even though that’s a potential problem, I still feel that pine is one type of wood you need to consider using for shelving.


  • It’s inexpensive, and also very easy to get your hands on some
  • It absorbs paint or stain with ease, so you can change the color
  • It’s very easy to work with
  • It’s lightweight, so you don’t have to think about any special brackets


  • It’s softwood, so does show up dents and knocks quite easily
  • It may look tired quite quickly 

White Oak

oak shelving example

Even though I’ve picked white oak here, I feel that oak, in general, is a fantastic wood for shelving. It’s robust and solid, so you always get the impression it can handle more weight and is more resistant to bumps and dents. But remember it’s slightly harder to work with.

I know oak is more expensive to purchase than pine, but it does also look more expensive. So, if you plan on going for more of a refined look with your shelving, then this is certainly one material you should seriously consider.

But as with pine, oak is also fantastic when it comes to absorbing staining and transforming the coloring. I do prefer when this is an option as it opens up more ideas on what you can do with your shelving when you know you are not stuck with keeping it in its natural color.

Overall though, it’s the strength of oak that makes it a fantastic choice. You feel as if you can place anything on oak shelving, and it will be able to cope, and that sense of confidence you have in the material is a fantastic thing to have.

Also, oak works well if you plan on having more of a chunky and solid look to your shelving. It’s certainly not the species of wood I’d use if you are on the lookout for something delicate. Oak just doesn’t really do that type of thing.


  • It’s exceptionally strong making it a good wood for shelving
  • It absorbs stain with ease allowing you to change the color
  • It can cope with knocks and doesn’t dent so easily
  • It has more of an expensive look about it


  • It’s not the ideal choice if on a tight budget as it can be more expensive


cherry wood

I feel that cherry is a wood that is sometimes overlooked when it comes to shelving, and that’s a pity. Honestly, it looks expensive, even though that’s not always the case, and even though it’s a hardwood, it’s not the heaviest around.

I also view cherry as being relatively easy to work with. You will have no problem cutting it to size and sanding it down to make everything smooth. But I do also appreciate the coloring that comes with it. Cherry has a warmth to the wood that’s difficult to get with other kinds of wood, and the color is something that does evolve and improve over time.

For that reason, I would generally leave cherry alone and not stain or paint it. To me, you would be effectively destroying the wood by doing that, and it’s just such a gorgeous wood to look at that I think that would be a shame. 

But even though cherry is light, don’t make the mistake of thinking it must be weak. It’s not. 

Instead, it can work exceptionally well as shelving for books and a number of other items. However, I do admit that even though cherry is an excellent wood to work with, it does cost more than most of the other options you may look at.

That expense could be enough to put you off choosing this as an option. But honestly, I would give it some serious consideration if you are looking for something darker in style. However, if you would prefer to have lighter colored shelving, then cherry would not be your answer as it would then lose so much of its character if you tried to change the color too much.


  • It looks amazing with just its natural coloring
  • It’s stronger than you think
  • It’s very easy to work with
  • It sands down quite easily


  • It can be expensive to purchase
  • It’s not the best wood if you want a light color shelf


mahogany wood

I’m going to also guess that mahogany would have been a wood that would spring to mind when it comes to shelving, but that’s due to its popularity and most people being aware of it. Also, it’s just one of the easiest woods to get your hands on.

For me, mahogany has almost a regal sense about it. The wood itself is gorgeous, so please do not do anything to it where you effectively hide its beauty, and it adds a real sense of class to a room when mahogany is used.

But aside from its beauty, which you cannot dispute, I think it’s the durability and strength of this wood that makes it a fantastic choice. Because it’s so durable, it doesn’t scratch or dent too easily, and that means your shelving will continue to look as good as new for longer than you thought possible. Also,

But, just as with cherry, this wood species does come with a problem, and it’s the cost. People know mahogany is not a cheap wood, so it’s less of a surprise in that sense. However, it just looks so good in its natural state that I feel it’s worth the added expense if you do wish to go for that rich and regal look with your shelving.

But as with cherry, I wouldn’t use mahogany if I was wanting something light. It’s just not going to work, and it’s the depth of color that really makes mahogany stand out. 


  • It’s a beautiful wood to use for shelving
  • It’s very strong and highly durable
  • You won’t really scratch or dent the wood
  • It’s easier to work with than you expect


  • It can be expensive to purchase, so not good for those on a low budget

Douglas Fir

douglas fir wood

I love Douglas fir, even though it’s best used if you are looking for more lightweight shelving that won’t be required to hold too many heavy items. If that’s the case, then fir can be the perfect choice for you.

Douglas fir is highly versatile as a plank of wood and soaks up the stain with ease. That means you should have no problem changing its appearance, and you can then ultimately make it look similar to the likes of oak. The good news? It costs you a fraction of the price, which is excellent news.

I feel that this is a great option when you are perhaps a bit unsure as to what you want from shelving. The versatility and general strength of fir mean it can cope with a number of items placed on the shelving, and that earlier point about changing the appearance so easily does help.

Overall, I would place Douglas fir in the same bracket as pine for cost and effectiveness while going for the basic shelving option. It may not have the same grace as the likes of mahogany or cherry, but it’s still a highly functional kind of wood for this type of purpose.

Also, I see this as the perfect wood if you want to have something that has more of a rustic feel and look to it. For that, Douglas fir is the perfect solution, especially if you then plan on just giving it a light stain, or even leaving the wood in its natural state. 


  • It’s strong, so can hold a number of items on a single shelf
  • It’s very versatile as a wood
  • It stains easily, so you can certainly change the color
  • It looks like oak, but without the price


  • It’s not as smooth or as elegant as other woods, so expect more of a basic shelf


cedar wood

I think cedar is a great wood to use for a number of different projects, and shelving is no different. One thing I love is the fact that cedar wood is exceptionally strong. That means your shelving should be capable of holding a substantial amount of weight, but only if you have installed the correct brackets to help you out.

But cedar wood has more to it than simply strength. I see it as quite an attractive wood with a gorgeous grain, so your shelving will not look cheap and horrible either. Yet I do know a couple of key points you should consider if you do plan on using cedar wood regarding shelving.

Cedar wood can warp and crack. I would always ensure you keep the shelving relatively short in length from a single plank to eliminate that particular problem. It’s easier to install two individual shelves side by side to create a longer one rather than pushing out the length of the plank of cedar. In saying that, some basic tools will be enough to cut and shape as you need.

The other main thing to think about with cedar wood is that you often need to carry out more maintenance with this wood than you do with others. That means adding oil or sealant to help protect the wood, but how often you do this does depend on where the shelving is located.

But overall, I just feel that cedar is a strong and gorgeous option for shelving. Also, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.


  • It’s exceptionally strong
  • It looks expensive
  • It’s easy to work with
  • It’s a beautiful wood and will really make a statement


  • It’s best to keep cedar shelves short due to a risk of warping and cracking

Alder Wood

Alder wood is sometimes referred to as the “poor man’s cherry”, referring to the fact that it is a cheaper alternative to the similar cherry wood. 

It usually has a light tan to reddish brown color and no noticeable odor. It is considered easy to work with, including when it comes to cutting, staining, gluing, sanding, and finishing. It is also of low concern when it comes to sustainability.

When it comes to alder wood’s ease of use, the other side of that coin is that it is soft and easily dented.


Maple comes in “hard” and “soft” varieties, but make no mistake: neither of these is a soft wood material. 

Soft maple is just softer maple, packing less density, which makes it easier to work with and more lightweight than hard maple. 

Still, soft maple is nearly as tough and dense as black walnut. One disadvantage of maple is that it is difficult to stain. On the other hand, maple is relatively affordable.


The odd one out on this list, plywood isn’t a natural wood material, but rather a man-made composite material consisting of layers of wood glued together. 

These layers may have grains facing in different directions and can be made from many varieties of natural wood depending on the intended use of the material.

Plywood comes in countless varieties. Softwood, hardwood, tropical plywood, high-strength plywood, flexible plywood, and marine plywood are just a few of the options out there!

High-strength plywood was designed for use in aircraft, while marine plywood is designed to be exposed to the elements without rotting. Hard plywood is a great choice for shelving that will carry heavy loads.

In general, most plywood are cheap, durable material.

Red Oak

Red oak is similar in weight to hard maple but slightly less strong. Its color makes it look like a paler, redder version of the more olivey white oak. 

While white oak is quite suitable for outdoor furniture (being more resistant to the elements), red oak is more suitable for interior pieces. Compared to white oak, it is softer and lighter, but also cheaper.

Walnut wood

Walnut wood comes in many variations, including black, English, New Guinea, African Queensland, Bastogne, Claro, and Peruvian, with black walnut being the most popular variety. Most of these are very dark woods, but there are lighter variations. 

Many of these woods lighten slightly over time. They tend to be on the more expensive side but are also strong and durable yet easy to work with. 

They usually have a straight grain and a faint odor. People give mixed opinions on that odor, with some loving it, and some hating it.

How to Choose the Correct Wood

planks of wood for shelving

The six options I’ve listed above are all excellent in their own right when it comes to acting as shelving, but there’s a whole lot more to choosing material than just what looks good.

Instead, I have several key areas that I feel you need to concentrate on to get the best possible result. After all, I don’t want your shelving to fall down.

Floating or Brackets?

The first thing I need to talk about is floating shelves. Now, I know they still have a bracket, of sorts, that’s hidden away to create that image of it simply floating on the wall.

If you do plan on using a floating shelf, then you need to use some type of hardwood. The hardwood has the added strength that means the shelf is less likely to then warp or twist. Softwood is more likely to buckle when it doesn’t have that added support from a bracket extended out below the shelf.

The Weight

When I’m talking about weight, I’m actually referring to the weight of the objects or items you will be putting on the shelf. That alone will determine the thickness of the wood you should use to ensure everything gets the correct amount of support.

If you intend to place some heavy items on the shelf, then it must be a minimum of ¾” in thickness. Also, the brackets you then use to attach the shelf to the wall should be heavier to ensure it has a good enough grip on the wall and won’t fall off as soon as you apply any weight. For this, ensure you have the right drill to get the perfect holes in order to attach the brackets.

But this is where knowing your wood types becomes so important. Knowing the sort of weight it can hold without any problem is key, or your shelving will collapse in an instant. If you ever have any doubt, then I would go for hardwood as it does tend to be able to cope with a bit more weight than softwood. 


Generally, most softwood will require a bit more maintenance than hardwood, but this is not always something that’s too important. Wood such as cedar, for example, will require some oiling once in a while to keep the wood in perfect condition. Failure to do that may lead to the wood effectively drying out, and that can then lead to problems with either warping or cracking.

But overall, I would say you do not have to spend too much time working on the maintenance side of things when choosing wood for shelves. It’s just not that important. 

Natural Wood or Painted?

Some people want to either paint or stain the wood to help it blend in with the rest of their surroundings. Yet I just feel some kinds of wood are not intended to be altered in this way.

Just look at mahogany. The natural coloring and grain of the wood are something you really should leave alone. It has a beauty about it that’s destroyed when you go and put something else on top of it.

Now, I know people would think that they want the strength of mahogany but not the color. However, there are so many other species of wood out there that offer the same type of strength as mahogany but not as dark.

That is why you need to think carefully about the color of the wood and what you want for the room where the shelving will be located. You have the ability to pick and choose from a wide range of tones, from light wood through those with more of a yellow tinge to dark wood and everything in between.

Honestly, if you choose the natural wood correctly, then there will be no real need to do all of this staining and changing. Instead, you should merely enhance the wood, in my opinion. 

But overall, I feel the main thing you need to consider when choosing wood is making sure it’s capable of holding whatever you plan to use the shelving for and that it fits in with the rest of the decor in the room. As long as you get those two things correct, then I don’t foresee any real problems for you. 

Overall Conclusion

So that’s my list of the best woods you can use when it comes to shelving, and I think you will find that any of the six options will work exceptionally well. The main thing you will be looking for here is stability and strength. Without that, you have no real shelf to speak of.

But you need to know the right tools to get started, so I have these articles on the site that will make life significantly easier for you.


What is the best material for built-in shelves?

Most built-in shelves are indoor pieces, meaning you don’t need to worry too much about sensitivity to the elements. When it comes to functionality, most people go for a stronger wood that is less likely to flex over time. 

Plywood is a good cheap option. White and red oaks are pleasing light-coloured options, while black walnut is one pleasing darker option.

Is oak a good wood for shelves?

It is harder to work with than many woods, but it makes for shelving that is very strong and pleasant to look at.

What is a cheap strong wood for shelves?

Plywood is known for being strong, cheap, and very customizable when it comes to color. However, it is not ideal for creating a luxury aesthetic, and it usually looks unnatural.

What wood is best for making shelves?

It depends on many factors, such as whether the shelves are indoor or outdoor, your budget, and how much weight the shelves will carry. All woods on our list are good shelving materials for different situations.

What wood shelves won’t sag?

Hardwoods and engineered woods are the least likely to sag. Examples of hardwoods include oak, walnut, and maple. Plywood is a classic engineered wood.

Should I use plywood or MDF for shelves?

Plywood is better for carrying heavy loads – and even lots of small items can add up to a significant amount of weight. MDF is a little cheaper than plywood and easier to smooth out, although the difference is marginal. I would generally recommend plywood.

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Barry Gray

Hi, I’m Barry. I’ve loved woodworking and bringing things back to life for more years than I care to remember. I hope my passion for tools comes across loud and clear in everything you read here on The Tool Square.

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