So, from time to time (definitely not every Thursday), I’m going to do a Throwback Thursday post, revisiting an old build or idea from before I started this blog. I’ll probably source the photos and whatnot from Instagram, but I’ll be able to flesh out the text-content quite a bit.

As you can see from the photo above, this first throwback is definitely from Instagram. I went a little overboard to make the first photo so that people wouldn’t just scroll past it, thinking it was just a photo of my models. But the photo still serves as a good eye-catcher, so I’m keeping it in this post.

Why DIY?

So why did I make my own shelf? And why did I make a post about how to make one? Well, to answer the first question, because I needed something light-weight, but could also display a lot of models. As to the second question, well, because people kept asking about it.

I had a lot of models, and I was running out of room to display them (a dilemma many builders find themselves in). I also display my models at work, because my child- and animal-filled home is not a safe environment. So I decided I needed to add a shelf to my cubicle. Unfortunately, the manufacturer of the cubicle decided to use non-standard spacing for the mounting slots on the walls. So I had to cough up a lot of money, or design my own shelf mounts. I chose the latter, designing and 3D-printing my own supports that locked into the slots.

I knew that 3D-printed objects were not super-strong, so I needed the shelf to be light-weight, but still sturdy. That way, I wouldn’t be adding much weight on top of the weight of the models themselves. I originally considered some pre-fabricated acrylic spice rack shelves, but I didn’t like them. So I struck upon the idea of using Styrofoam sheets instead. Or maybe the idea struck me. Anyways, that makes it super-light, which is great. Unfortunately, as it turns out, not light enough. But that’s a story for another Thursday.

Anyways, I ended up posting photos of my models on these shelves (yeah, I ended up making more than one) from time to time. And every once in a while, someone would ask about them. So I decided that the next time I made one (bringing the total to 3), I would “document” the process and share it. Unfortunately, the 2000 character caption limit on Instagram made it a bit challenging, but now I get to improve on that.


This is what you’ll need to build one of these shelves yourself (complete with visual list of supplies, because Instagram!):

  • 2 or 3 sheets of Smoothfoam / Craft Foam, 2″ x 12″ x 48″ – depending on how many tiers your want on your shelf. That’s 5x30x120cm for anyone where they use a logical measurement system. You can also adjust the longest measurement to fit your needs.
  • Black Latex Paint – you don’t need a lot, but you definitely do not want to use spray paint, because the accelerants in spray paint melt Styrofoam.
  • X-Acto Knife, Hobby Knife or Box Cutter – basically something sharp and precise.
  • Rubber Cement – you’ll need a liberal amount of this.
  • 2 Shelf Brackets, 8″ (optional) – this is for if you want to mount it directly to a vertical surface. You can also just place it on an existing horizontal surface. (20cm for logical measurement)
  • A Ruler – or measuring tape and a straight edge of some sort.
  • Marker – I used a sharpie.
  • Paint Brush – because paint.
  • Vacuum / Broom – because mess.

Step 1: Measure Twice

The way I designed this shelf, you cut one of the foam sheets into two sections, and then stack them up on the third section. However, if you want a shelf with a shallower depth and only two tiers, you can skip the second sheet and just stack the two pieces. To achieve an evenly tiered shelf, I cut off a third of the sheet, resulting in one section that is 1/3 size, one section that is 2/3 size, and one full sheet.

So the first step is to measure out and mark the line that I’m going to cut. Using a ruler, I measured out and marked out ticks 4″ (or 10cm) from the edge at regular intervals along the length of the foam sheet. Unsuprisingly, the ticks should also be 8″ (or 20cm) from the other side. I then used a long straight edge to draw a line connectng the ticks. I repeated the process on the back, and then connected the two lines with lines on either end.

Step 2: Cut Once

Surprise! The next step is cutting the sheet in half! Okay, silliness aside, I found it worked best to start off by cutting a shallow, carefully controlled cut all the way around the sheet (including the ends). After that, I went back over the line I already cut and deepened it with a few more strokes of the knife. Unfortunately, being 2″ thick, my hobby knife was not long enough to cut all the way through. I tried using a box cutter with an extendable blade, but the blade becomes too flexible when extended far enough. So you end up moving on to the next step…

Step 3: Divide and Subdue

Time to break that foam sheet! I gently bent the sheet along the line I cut until it snapped apart. Unfortunately, this left a rather rough section where the break occurred, with small mountains and valleys spread throughout. I didn’t like this much, so I attempted to do something about it – well, about the mountains at least, not much to do about the valleys. At first, I tried to cut the mountains off with the hobby knife, but ended up just using the ruler to “scrape” it off, foam bead by foam bead. You can see the before and after above (I really wish I had planned that photo better, the shadow across the cleaned up one is really distracting).

Step 4: Clean Up Time

Okay, so it’s a little silly to put in a step about cleaning up, I know. But the last step creates a huge mess, so I think it’s worth mentioning. It also doesn’t help that all the little foam beads are really static-y and cling to every surface. That can be very problematic in subsequent steps, so it’s just a good idea to take a break and clean everything up at this point. And remember to run your hands along the cleaned up surfaces and dislodge any remaining loose foam balls.

Step 5: Registration Time

So, I didn’t really know about the term “registration marks” until hearing it used on various DIY / Build channels on YouTube. But I loved the concept right away. Registration marks are lines or dots used to help you keep things lined up when you are constructing things, but have to keep separating the elements your working on during the process. In this case I used two registration mark methods.

First, I stacked up the pieces of foam sheet into the tiered shelf, and then spent some time figuring out how I wanted it to be aligned (the back edge is just not going to be perfect). Then, while holding the stack firmly together, I traced a line along the two “inside” corners where the tiers connected. This registration mark would help me keep the front-to-back alignment. I then added a few lines perpendicular to those lines, at various points along the length of the shelf. By that, I mean a line that starts on the vertical face of one tier, then goes down and comes out a little ways on the horizontal surface of the tier below it.

Then I carefully unstacked the tiers, labeling the top and bottom of each tier. I also labeled the sections where one tier had been flush with another as “glue this section.” Maybe that second set of labels is overkill, but you’ll probably want to do the first, because the alignment might not work if one of the sheets is upside down.

Step 6: Getting Sticky

Next up, you get to apply the glue. I recommend a liberal amount of rubber cement applied to both the bottom of one tier, and the top of the tier you are going to attach it to. But don’t join them immediately! It will actually affix faster if you let the glue air for about 30 seconds.

Step 7: Stick the Landing

Using the registration marks, line up the tiers and press firmly together. Let this sit for a few minutes, and then repeat with the third tier (if you are making a three-tiered shelf, that is).

Step 8: Put a Coat On

Finally, I put two coats of black latex paint on the whole thing. I chose black because I thought it would provide the best contrast for the mostly silver collection of models that I had at the time. But you can go with whatever color you want, or even line it with something like contact paper or fabric.

If you do choose to paint it, though, be sure to not use spray paint. Almost all spray paints contain accelerants that will actually melt the Styrofoam, destroying the fruits of all you hard work. Another thing to keep in mind when painting the shelf is that you’ll probably need to check it over closely after the second coat, there are a bunch of tiny cracks and holes that can be hard to detect while painting it, and you probably won’t see them until the paint has had time to dry.

Step 9: Mount It?

Finally, you can add standard shelf brackets to mount this to a wall, or you can just place it on an existing flat surface. If you do go the route of mounting it, I recommend some long wood screws or deck screws gentle screwed into the foam to hold it in place. No need to drill out or anything, you want it to have a tight grip.

Step 10: Make It Your Own?

This is your shelf, so you don’t have to build it just like mine. I’ve tried to point out a few things along the way where you can do things differently to meet your own particular needs. But you can also add nifty-cool features that you dream up. I’ve looked back and thought that it would be great to use magnetic sheets as a surface for the top of each tier, thinking it would help stabilize the models. Or possibly adding some LED lighting along the front of each tier, at and angle towards the models to give them some nice lighting. If you have any great ideas, or if you end up building one of these, comment below and let me know! I’d love to see what you create with this tutorial as an inspiration.