Milk Crate Furniture How-to

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This article was originally posted in Instructables and was reposted with permission from Will Holman.

Milk crates are the classic dorm-room, bachelor-pad, record-crating, ready-made storage. The logic is unassailable: They’re modular, stackable, sturdy and cheap.

But can they be elevated, aesthetically and practically? I tried before, and came up with a quick wall-mounted solution. Recently, I came into a trove of crates while demolishing an old building at work. I wanted to come up with a piece of free-standing milk crate furniture that didn’t look cheap.

This milk crate credenza is light, strong and handsome enough, reveling in rugged simplicity. A beautiful wood top contrasts with the cold, clean plastic while tying the crates together structurally. Made with little more than a drill and zip ties, it took about two hours to put together. 

Milk crates are not free for the taking from behind stores. Those stores, or the dairy companies, pay for the crates, and it hits the bottom line when they go missing. Be respectful. Ask. Shop owners may part with a few lightly damaged ones. New crates are available all over the Internet at dozens of sites. Thrift stores, record shops, and dumpsters are other solid sources. If a crate isn’t directly behind an establishment that sells or uses milk, then it’s probably abandoned to the world and available to take. Check out Milkcrate Digest for more information on legally acquiring crates.

Materials List

3-5 milk crates
1 piece of 1-by-12-inch material, about 4 feet long, or plywood, etc.
Zip ties
Wood finish of your choice

Tools List

Angle grinder, Dremel, or hacksaw
Circular saw or table saw
Needle-nose pliers
Wire nippers or scissors
Tape measure

Step 1: Toppin’ 

Strictly speaking this credenza doesn’t need a top. But a top helps unify the crates, prevent sagging, and provides a smooth top instead of the waffled surface of the plastic. If you can’t find any wood, or don’t care about the waffle effect, just skip to the next step.

Start with a 1-by-12, a piece of plywood, or several smaller planks that can be knit together. Use a circular saw or table saw to cut it to 11 inches wide, which is the height of a crate. Cut a few small strips (approximately 3/4-by-3/4-by-10-inch), and screw and glue them to the bottom of the top piece of wood, spaced to land in the center of each crate (approximately 13 inches on center). Cut the top to length. If using less than 4 crates, adjust accordingly. 

Drill 3 quarter-inch horizontal holes through each strip, about 2 inches in from each end and in the center. These will serve as mounting holes for threading through the zip ties. The main purpose of these strips is to provide a blind fastening system for the zip ties — a way to attach the top to the crates without the zip ties having to puncture the top. The top could be “sewn” directly to the crates by drilling holes through it, but then the zip ties show. Visually, the spacer strips also create a reveal between the crates and the top — a nice shadow line that articulates each piece.

The strips could also be used to attach several narrower boards together, creating a top out of smaller scraps.

Sand and apply a finish of your choice. I used a blend of boiled linseed oil, polyurethane and thinner, followed with paste wax.  

Step 2: Cratin’ 

Wash your crates. A hose works OK, but it’s better if you have a basin or sink big enough for the whole crate. Dunk each crate in hot soapy water and agitate, then rotate until all sides are clean. Rinse in clean, cold water.

The legs of the credenza are also made out of crates. I found that an angle grinder with a metal cutting blade sliced through the plastic like butter,
but a Dremel or a hacksaw would work equally well. I aimed for an eventual height of about 18 inches, so the credenza could act as a bench when removing or putting on my shoes. Cut your legs as high or low as you like; mine were about 5 inches.

Cut a crate as shown, severing a side and about 4 inches off the bottom. Since the crates in the credenza are turned sideways, and they are not perfect cubes, the legs will then have to contract about 2 inches to match the width of the eventual piece. Slice down the middle, cut away the gridding, then slide together, “sewing” in place with zip ties. Trim the zip tie excess with wire nippers. 

Step 3: Final Assembly 

Secure the crates together with spring clamps, aligning them with the side of a table or other straight edge so that they are coplanar. Drill through each at the front and back, then “sew” the zip ties through, pulling them tight with pliers and cutting off the excess with nippers.

Secure the feet in the same way, so that they are centered on the joint between the first and second crate and the third and fourth crate. The end crates will cantilever out.

Attach the top by fishing zip ties through the gridding and the horizontal holes in the strips on the bottom of the top piece.

Finally, place the milk crate credenza in your house and enjoy.

If you liked this project, be sure to check out my blog on sustainable design: Object Guerilla