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How To Build an Ammo Can Rack (a.k.a the Overbuilt Shelf Project)

I’m getting a late start on my Spring cleaning but at least it’s in progress.  Shortly after beginning my effort to reduce, condense and catalog I realized that I had stashed ammo cans throughout the house in various closets, cabinets, etc.  As I began to gather them all in one place it became obvious that while it’s nice to have them neatly stacked and orderly, the chances are that whichever can you need at any given moment is usually the one on the bottom and on the second row back.   What I needed were shelves, very sturdy shelves.  Shelves that could hold several .50 cal cans full of nothing but lead (if need be – I bought bullets for a penny a piece from a caster that went out of business a while back and still have a few cans full).  I first looked at commercially available heavy duty shelving units from the Orange and Blue big box hardware stores but none were even close to the specific size I needed so I decided to build my own.  [Keep reading there will be lots of pictures a bit farther down]

Let me first explain that both of my grandfathers were of the opinion that “If one will do, five (or more) will do better.”  My paternal grandpa worked at the Carswell AFB machine shop building and fixing B-29’s, B-36’s, and B-52’s.  I have fishing lures of his that he made in the 50’s using spare titanium airplane engine shims.  Still no rust on those!  My maternal grandpa was a craftsman as well and the lake house he built has 3 times as much wood as any other house in the same subdivision.  I can personally verify that, as I had difficulty boring holes for wiring because the studs were so close together.  The lady that lives in that house now said all of her neighbors seek shelter there when the occasional hurricane blows through.  So with a double helping of the ‘overbuild’ gene, a few tools and measurements and some wood, I was ready to start.

I recalled reading a blog post of a similar project at Walls of the City a while back and found it again with a quick search.  My shelves were built based off that plan but with slightly altered measurements: they are 13″ deep and the space below the first shelf is slightly taller (9 1/2″) to accommodate cases of Winchester AA shotgun shells, MTM Dry Boxes, or the odd “Saw Box/Fat 50″ ammo can.  The remaining shelves are 8″ tall for standard .50 and .30 cal ammo cans and the overall width is 29” which allows four “.50’s” per shelf with a little wiggle room.  Also, I did not include a center support.  I used 1/2″ plywood (instead of Linoge’s 3/4″) partly because it was cheaper and partly because it made the math easier.   About seven hand picked white wood (fir) 2′ x 4′ x 8′ studs were picked for the frame – looking for the straightest I could find.  For screws, I decided to try Spax #8 Construction (wood to wood) Screws in 2 1/2″ length.  They use a Torx-type bit to drive them (included in the box), were priced competitively and advertise “no pre-drilling required”.  My experience is that the ‘no pre-drilling’ claim is bona fide; I did not have any split boards and the screws finished nicely.  However, this project needed 140 screws* and the one pound box of screws said “approx. 130 screws”, so I made up the difference with some 3″ #10 coated deck screws on the back side to secure the shelves to the frame.  Those I pre-drilled with a countersink bit.

[*requires lots of screwing]

Tools used were:

  • Makita 10″ mitre saw w/ stand (for the 2×4’s)
  • 7″ Skilsaw circular saw (for plywood)
  • Craftsman industrial hand drill, corded
  • Speed square
  • Tape measure
  • Pencil
  • Wood glue, 1 medium bottle
  • 5″ Flexible bit holder (to attach shelves)

Rather than re-write Linoge’s post, I will instead post some pictures of the various stages and include a few notes along with them.

Beginning notes:

  1. Be safe – wear goggles when cutting, keep fingers that you want to retain away from spinning blades, etc.
  2. Remember the thickness of the saw blade and which side of the line to cut.
  3. Measure at least twice as often as you cut.
  4. Consider that when using a circular saw the best cut edge is on the bottom.
  5. Remember the thickness of the plywood when figuring shelf heights.
  6. Even though I used studs and plywood I still considered ‘presentation’ when assembling the shelves so that most ink stamps and knots were on the inside, underside or back of the finished work.
  7. Pictures shown here were taken with a cell phone so the distortion evident is due to the camera lens and angle of the shots, not due to haphazard construction
  8. There is no such thing as ‘straight wood’.
  9. Do not attempt this project if you live in California.

"Warning: This product may generate wood dust, a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer"

Everything causes cancer in California.

Alright, here we go.

Set up to cut up

Preparing to build 'ladders' (note temporary spacers between 61" legs)

The long boards will be the vertical supports (legs) of the shelves.  I used 3″ spacers to keep the boards parallel.  Finished 2 x 4’s are actually 1.5″ x 3.5″ so a 3″ spacer makes a 10″ wide “ladder”; with the external horizontal supports in place the depth overall becomes 13″.

Adding 10" shelf supports (rungs), note spacer still in place. Every joint "Glued & Screwed"

Starting to build the ladders.  Use a straight edge to true the bottom edges to each other.  Do the top and bottom shelf supports (rungs) first, then add the other rungs shelf supports.  Work on as level a surface as you can.

A matched set of "ladders"

OK, I forgot to take a picture of the basics of the next step – but again I cut matched 26″ spacers for top and bottom that indexed against the vertical supports (legs) and the upper and lower most shelf supports (rungs) when laid on the ground.  This assisted me, working alone, to maintain parallel from top to bottom.  They also served as minor bracing to aid with assembly.  I attached the top and bottom exterior horizontal shelf supports (stringers) then worked on the middle ones.  I did one complete side (all glued and screwed), flipped the project and did the other side.

Horizontal supports ("Stringers"?) added. Spacers not shown.

Next, cut shelves from plywood using the circular saw.  My Skilsaw cuts a better edge on the underside, so I made sure the face of plywood I wanted to show on the top of the shelf was on the underside when I cut it.  Also I cut the top shelf larger to completely cover the top edges of the vertical supports.  Here’s another reason I used ‘half inch plywood’:

Thickness .453" --> That's right, it's .45 caliber plywood

Handy tip: Cut your own wood.  Don’t think you can get any kind of accuracy from the giant table saw at the big box hardware stores.  The complimentary cuts they offer are only good for fitting your purchase in your car.

Shelves added, secured with screws using flexible bit holder (and more glue)

So, how did it turn out?  Well, Spax says the shear load of each screw is 350 lbs maximum and I used six at each corner of each shelf but only four actually insert into the vertical supports so we’ll only count those.  So, in theory each shelf can hold at least 2.8 tons (glue strength is not factored in) and with 5 shelves that makes for a total of 14 tons of capacity… I’d say that’s fairly stout.  Then again maybe later I’ll add some more screws, you know, just to be sure.  Stay tuned for the action shot.

 “]Final notes:

  1. That was a lot of screwing.
  2. I plan to add some method of securing it to the wall. It would take a serious bump to knock it over but I tend to err on the side of safety.
  3. Now that I have most of my ammo cans together in one spot, my stuff is easier to find, sort, tally and also I’m re-discovering some neat stuff I forgot I had.  Like a pristine box of .357 Black Talons, for instance.

23 Responses

  1. Probably a bit late but I’m pretty sure you can get small straps made out of material which you connect from the shelving to the wall and will secure them and prevent toppling, I’ve seen them called tie straps in some places…

  2. Thanks for the photos and post. I took your design and made my own yesterday. The only changes I made were that in my area (Virginia) the Home Depot’s stock 2×3’s in addition to 2×4’s. I used 1/2″ sanded plywood for the shelves and 2×3’s for the braces. My shelf dims were 14″ deep by 45″ wide. I the spacing between the 2×3 braces was raised to 11″ so I could tuck the ammo cans under the brace on each side vs. losing that space. I ended up with 5 shelves in addition to the bottom shelf which was high enough to tuck ammo cans under (resting on floor).

    I was able to get ~14 .30 caliber ammo cans across on my shelves. Love the look and its a good functional design. Thanks again.

    • I, too, plan on using 2x3s for the stringers and the braces. Has your rack held up under the weight? And have you any pix? Thanks.

      • It’s rock solid and will remain so in perpetuity. Pix other than the ones in the article?

      • Did you drill the holes for the spax screws or did the 2x3s take the screws without drilling and without splitting? And thanks for the response. The 2×3 cross members will save vertical space.

      • I did not pre-drill the holes, only marked them with an awl. The Spax screws don’t need it; although you can see how far from the edges I secured them to avoid splitting. A flexible bit extension helped a lot when securing the shelves to the frame. Going back, the only thing I would have changed would be to make it larger. Like a safe, you always need more space than you think (even though I did purposely make to fit a specific space).

      • Roger on the “never big enough” phenomenon. Mine (I’m building two) will be 70″Hx35″Wx15″D with 6 shelves each. The bottom shelf will rest on cross members that will rest on the floor with an additional center shelf support . This so as to support spam cans on the bottom shelves of the two racks. Those heavy spam cans will surely anchor the racks in, as you said, “perpetuity.” Thanks again. If you think of something else I should consider please don’t hesitate to holler. And, BTW, Merry Christmas!

  3. FWIW, I I have found the following cuts to be the best:

    This will require 7 full 2×4’s and 1 10″ piece that you might have laying around.

  4. Hi,
    Thanks for the update. Though as yet unbuilt, my dimensions are 70″H x 35″W x 15″D. However, with the price of ammo what it is these days, I may build a rack(s) that will fit inside a safe to facilitate both security and accessibility.

  5. Great project. Only thing I would do differently is put two 2×4’s flat along the bottom to help distribute the load across the floor. Right now, you have a lot of weight on only a few square inches.

    There is just one thing I do not like about it….
    I don’t have one yet. 8=P
    Seriously though, I think this is really cool!
    I would need a wider one, or maybe build 2 or 3 of these & glue & screw them all together as 1 unit…..
    Attaching this to the wall just may be overkill, but like you, better safe than sorry.

    I never heard of someone getting hurt/killed because of too much safety…..

  7. If you really wanted to overkill this, you could use a single 2×10 for each vertical support. Or maybe a 2×12 notched to receive the horizontal stringers. Make the wood carry all the weight and then the fasteners just serve to keep the joints together.

    But yeah, in my garage these cans tend to multiply like rabbits. I’ll definitely have to build me one of these.

  8. 1 w/Bullet,
    As luck would have it, fate intervened and I relocated twice in three years precluding my plans to construct the racks. I finally have the time and place to proceed. How have your 2×3 racks held up thus far?

  9. Great Idea. I just started to re-organize my basement / man cave / reloading room last night. I couldn’t be leave how many ammo cans I have down there stuck under a table. I even have some of the JUMBO sized ones that I use for powder & primers. Those will go on the bottom. Thanks for the great idea.

  10. […] How To Build an Ammo Can Rack (aka the. – 1 With A Bullet – Jul 14, 2011. I'm getting a late start on my Spring cleaning but at least it's in progress. Shortly after beginning my effort to reduce, condense and catalog I realized that I had stashed ammo cans throughout the house in various closets, cabinets, etc. As I began to gather them all in one place it became obvious that… […]

  11. I like these but i think instead of screwing id prefer to bolt the supports in. Thanks!

  12. Could you send me the specs on this ammo can rack.

  13. Awesome project details my friend! I plan on doing this same ( or pretty darn close! ) woodworking project myself, as I have a ton of those pesky ammo cans lying around myself? Thanks for your very detailed build, it was a great help my friend!!😀

  14. Very well written: instructions and directions are clear and easy to follow. On a side note, the blog intertwines familial “overbuild gene” stories with solid steps to the build. Well done 1withabullet!

  15. Certainly stout enough as is but a simple way to greatly increase shear strength would be to add 2x2s vertically between the shelf supports. Glue and screw them to the edges of the uprights snugly between shelf supports. Less fussing than notching the supports into the uprights.

  16. Sketching it out now. I’m going to have a 23″ wide by 51.5″ tall section, with a side section of 18″ wide by 32.5″ tall to fit in a closet under the eaves of my 110 year old house (right next to the gun safe). It’s a weirdly shaped closet but this will be perfect. I’ll post a link to my pictures when I’m done.

    Thanks for the detailed instructions and sorry it took me eight years to find this.

  17. […] These are harder to find online and, due to shipping weight, are probably cheaper purchased at a store. You could also build your own out of 2x4s and plywood. […]

  18. I really love the simplicity of the design. Planning on building one to supplement the old locker I have been using.

    Only thing I am going to do different is add an outer skin and put doors on the front.

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