Solid wood features distinctive growth rings that run all the way through the board and are visible on the cut end. Due to its higher cost (compared with other shelving materials), solid wood probably isn't the best choice if the shelves will be painted. It's a good idea to use solid wood only for shelves that will be finished with stain and placed in a room where looks and quality count.
A second option is plywood. The end of a plywood board will exhibit several bands of wood; it's created for strength and can actually support more weight than solid wood. (It's also sold in wider widths, like the 4' x 8' sheets often used for shelving projects.) The disadvantage to using plywood is appearance. It's not attractive and usually requires two to three coats of paint to cover its many imperfections. Plywood shelves are better used in a "low-visibility" area like the garage or basement. Plywood sheets finished with a thin veneer of oak, mahogany or maple can also be found. Like standard plywood, the end of the board will reveal multiple bands of wood, but the surface features an attractive grain pattern.
As with solid wood, however, the issue is expense: if you're planning to paint the shelves, it's better to use a more economical material. Particleboard, yet another shelving option, has become more appealing in recent years, since it's now manufactured to have a fairly smooth, even surface (free of large chunks). And, like plywood, it's available in large 4' x 8' sheets that are ideal for shelving. The drawback here? Particleboard won't have an attractive, finished appearance unless it's painted.
Laminate, however, is a low-cost option that doesn't require the hassle of painting. Laminate is actually finished particleboard that boasts a smooth white surface. It's sold in the shelving section of most home-improvement centers (along with solid wood, plywood, etc.), and it's fairly economical.
When using laminate for shelving, the first priority will be to cut the material properly. A common problem with cutting laminate is a rough, chipped edge, which is usually caused by a dull saw blade or the use of a saber saw. Using a sharp, carbide-tipped blade (preferably on a table saw) is the best bet for a smooth edge. And the more teeth, the better: the blade used here has 64 teeth, and some fine-toothed blades have as many as 100. To make the cut, position the board carefully in place on the surface and run it smoothly through the blade. The result will be a clean, even cut without even the slightest jag along the edge.
Now all that's left is finishing off the cut edge. When purchasing laminate shelving, look for matching laminate tape in the same section of the home-improvement center. This tape is preglued and easy to apply: Simply place the cut length of laminate in a vise to hold it steady, roll out a length of the tape along the edge of the board and cut off the tape at the ends, leaving just an inch or two extra on each side. After making sure the tape is even along the edges, use an iron heated to the highest setting to activate the glue and bond the tape to the surface (Image 1).
Although the tape needs to be held at certain points while working, be sure to keep your fingers far from the edges of the iron and use only the tip to press the tape in place. To avoid scorching the tape, be sure to continuously move the iron back and forth; don't allow it to rest at any one point. Once the entire length of the tape is ironed, use a small roller (Image 2) to help the softened glue adhere to the surface beneath.
For those who prefer a more finished, custom look, a small strip of wood can be used instead of laminate tape. Simply cut the right length (on a table saw), then apply a bead of glue along the edge of the laminate board.
Carefully press the wood strip in place, making sure the edges are even. Then use a few small pieces of masking tape to hold the strip in place while the glue dries.
Note: Keep in mind that you can also glue a wood strip directly over the laminate tape if you decide to add this detail after the tape has already been attached.
If the shelves will benefit from having a slightly raised edge or "lip," cut the strip slightly thicker than the wood; for example, a 3/4" piece of laminate could be edged with a 1" strip.