Painting built-in shelves to match the surrounding walls can help make a room appear larger.

Painting Wall-High Built-In Shelves

by Jennifer Blair

Built-in bookshelves and cabinets are a striking architectural feature that can add character -- and valuable storage -- to your home. When it comes to painting wall-high built-in shelves, though, you may face a bit of a challenge. While the process is similar to painting the walls in your home, choosing the right paint shade and correctly preparing the shelves for painting can sometimes be tricky.

Choosing Color

Before picking up a brush, you must choose a paint color for your built-in shelves. For a subtle look, paint your built-in the same color as the surrounding wall. Using a single color for the wall and built-in shelves can help the entire room feel more spacious, too. You may also opt for a color that’s from the same family as the wall paint but a shade darker or lighter. For example, if your walls are painted a mid-tone gold, try a soft butter color for the built-in. You may want to highlight your built-in shelves, since they can be a striking architectural feature in a room. To draw attention to the shelves, paint them in a shade that contrasts with the wall. You can go with a light/dark contrast, such as an ivory shade on the walls and a rich chocolate shade for the built-in, or create a complementary pairing by choosing shades that are opposite one another on the color wheel, such as a blue gray shade on the walls and a burnt orange shade for the shelves.

Get Prepared

As with any painting project, you must properly prepare your built-in shelves before you paint. The prep work is especially important with a built-in, since you may not necessarily be painting it the same color as the wall. Start by clearing the shelves and cleaning the surface. If you’re painting your built-in shelves in a different color than the wall, you must also line the edges of the sides, top and bottom of the unit with painter’s tape to protect the wall from splatter. You don’t necessarily have to use a primer on your built-in shelves, but if you’re worried about the paint adhering properly or you’re painting a light color over a dark, apply primer in an even coat.

Apply Paint

For built-in shelves, a semigloss or satin finish paint is usually best, since they tend to show less wear and tear. They’re also easy to wipe clean. Use a brush or roller to apply the paint, and start with the inside of the built-in and move outward. For the smoothest finish, make horizontal strokes. If you’re using a light color, a single coat may be enough. However, with a darker shade, it may take two or more coats for a smooth, opaque finish. Let each coat dry completely before applying the next.

Get Creative

While painting the entire unit in a single color is the traditional approach, you may want to get creative with your wall-high built-in shelves. It's an ideal spot to add color to a room to help spice it up. You can paint the inside of the built-in behind the shelves in a bold, bright color such as tangerine, turquoise or lime, or use stencils to fill the back with a striking pattern such as a chevron or lattice. If that look is too dramatic for your tastes, paint the shelves themselves in a vibrant shade such as red or purple to help dress up your built-in.

About the Author

Based in New York City, Jennifer Blair has been covering all things home and garden since 2001. Her writing has appeared on, World Lifestyle, and House Logic. Blair holds a Bachelor of Arts in Writing Seminars from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Photo Credits

  • Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images