5 Step Tutorial for Painting a Plastic Shelving Unit:
I found this shelving unit at a second-hand store. I had been looking for a table, or small set of shelves, to go under a dark framed mirror in the family room. This one was made of rigid plastic, with an artificial looking wood grain finish but I liked the overall dimensions and clean lines. At $10 for the set of 3 stacking shelves, it was worth taking a chance that I could makeover plastic shelves to use while I continue looking for the right piece of furniture in solid wood. I mostly work on wood pieces so it was a good opportunity for me to work with a different material, in this case plastic. Here are the steps I took:
The key reason for needing paint designed for plastic is because plastic is more flexible than wood and I don’t want the paint to crack when the shelf is flexed. I used a semi-gloss black, and needed slightly more than one can.
3. Repair broken shelf
I clearly did not take a good look at the shelves while I was in the store because when I got home, I noticed one of the shelves had some very visible damage. Andy cut a rectangular piece of plywood to fit across the crack. I turned the shelf upside down, I snapped the cracked piece back in place. I used Gorilla glue and placed the piece of wood on top of the crack to reinforce it, and piled books on top to weight it down while it dried. After several hours the glue was set, but the top was not smooth. Andy suggested using medium grit sand-paper to try to level it out. This improved the shelf, but it was not perfect. I was not read to give up yet, although at this point it seems this section will likely always be the bottom shelf.
3. Repair bowed side
One side of one of the shelves was a bit bowed. Andy cut a stiff piece of wood that was stiff enough to hold the plastic. Using Gorilla glue, we attached the wood to the inside of the shelf. We used clamps to hold it in place and left it to dry for several hours.
When I bought this unit, as I was carrying the shelves to the check-out they fell into ~10 pieces. They were not broken, but it was clear the unit was not screwed or nailed together, it was just snapped together. This would be OK, except that the joints were very loose so it would be difficult to move them around. Still, I might at some point want to be able to take the legs off (say, if I was to move house or just wanted to put them into storage), so I did not want to glue them permanently. As a compromise, I used my kids’ craft glue to secure the 4 legs to each shelf. By not permanently gluing the shelves together I have the flexibility of switching them around changing top, bottom, middle, or at some time in the future I might want 2 shelves instead of one.
5. Spray paint the plastic shelves
I started by washing all surfaces of each shelf. Plastic can be difficult to paint due to a number of factors including the inherent flexibility as well as getting a good paint adhesion. I used a damp cloth dipped in warm water with a small amount of dish soap, followed by a thorough rinse with water to remove any soap.
When the unit was completely dry, I turned the shelves upside down and started by painting the legs and sides of the shelves, ensuring the bottom edge of the shelf was panted because it might be possible to see that angle from a seated position. I gave the legs each two light coats of spray paint, waiting 30 minutes between coats, then finished with a spot coat where I could see the old finish. After letting it dry completely, I turned them right-side-up and applied 2 coats of paint. That pretty much finished the can of paint, and the finish was not bad, but not great. The repair to the crack was still clearly visible.
Although the legs of the shelves looked good, the finish on the tops of the units was very uneven. I bought another can of spray paint and applied one more coat to the top of each shelf and this provided better coverage, but the sheen was uneven, and the repair of the crack was still clearly visible.
5. Apply a finishing coat by brushing on paint
I had a can of semi-gloss black paint on hand from another project, so I used that to brush 2 coats of paint only on the tops of the shelves, making sure to not have drips down the sides. I applied the paint generously and allowed it to dry overnight between coats. This covered the repair from the crack, as well as giving the unit a more even sheen. Because of the multiple steps, I did this over a weekend, but actual effort was probably close to 4 hours. The styling of what I put on the shelves needs some work, but I am pleased with how we were able to makeover plastic shelves.
You might want to go to the family room where this shelving unit is used.
UPDATE: Painted Plastic Shelves
When we updated my daughter’s bedroom, we moved the plastic shelves into my daughter’s room. They get a lot more use now, and I am happy to say that a year after I painted them black, they are still in great shape with no signs of the paint chipping or cracking – yay! They are paired with a simple armchair makeover which was painted black to go with the shelves, and re-upholstered in turquoise.