If you have no love for that cheap, laminate unit or well-made, solid wood hand-me-down, but can't get rid of it because of an ever-present need for storage, transform your ready-made bookshelves into a custom piece. You just need an idea, some inexpensive supplies and a free weekend; instead of plain, functional storage, you can create a worthy showcase for your collections of books, ornaments, framed photographs and display pieces.
The most obvious way to customize ready-made bookshelves is by painting them. The process is similar whether the shelves are laminate or solid wood: First sand the surfaces, then apply several coats of primer followed by several coats of paint. Use a power sander to make light work of the first step. Sand lightly if the shelves are laminate, aiming to just scuff up the surfaces enough for them to absorb paint. If you're not sure what kind of paint or primer to use, consult someone at the hardware store. The tools you use to apply paint come down to personal preference: paintbrushes, foam brushes and small rollers are all suitable, as is spray paint. Remember you are not limited to just one paint color. The shelf pieces could contrast with the back or sides, or you could paint each shelf a slightly lighter shade of the same color from top to bottom for an ombre effect. For a child's room, rainbow colors or blocks of primary colors give a cheerful and bold look.
With a little more time on your hands, create a decorative effect on the bookshelves by using stencils and one or more colors of paint. A modern, geometric pattern is achievable using nothing more than painter's tape and a ruler. Something as simple as vertical stripes in two similar hues can be subtle but effective; purchased or homemade adhesive stencils allow for more complex designs. Customize bookshelves for the kids' rooms with motifs from their favorite cartoons, comic books or story books. DIY stencils don't necessarily require artistic skill; you can trace or copy a motif from an illustrated book, gift wrap, birthday cards or websites. Look for images with a strong silhouette. Simply trace the outline onto contact paper and either cut out the middle part for a traditional stencil, or cut the outside part to make a reverse stencil, meaning that you paint the background instead of the shape. Peel the backing off the contact paper stencils, stick them on the bookshelf, and paint. Bear in mind how the bookshelves will look when they're in use; if they will be packed with books, the backing might not be visible, so place the stencils elsewhere so your handiwork will be on display.
A simple way to give plain bookshelves a "fancier" look is by applying narrow strips of decorative trim along its facade -- along the front edges of the shelves, and the upper, lower and side edges of the frame. Hardware stores generally have many types of trim available, which can be transformed with paint or stain. Apply the trim with wood glue or a nail gun, use a spirit level to be sure they're straight, and miter the corners where they join for a more professional finish.
If you're not fully committed to a color combination and want to try it out, consider a temporary customization using foam board inserts. Measure the backing sections between the shelves and cut out sheets of foam board to fit. Decorate these foam board inserts and stick them to the backs of the shelves with double-sided tape or adhesive foam squares. You can paint the boards, cover them with wallpaper or well-pressed fabric, or get creative with items such as bamboo place mats, burlap sacking material or paper maps. The benefit of this customization option is that it's easily replaceable -- good for pleasing children who change their favorite colors from week to week, and for equally fickle grownups -- as well as being cheap, quick and easy to execute.