Tips and guides on getting the most out of the attic storage space
Attic shelving will not only make your attic space easier to use but also safer to use. Without some sort of organisation a pile is created at the far end of the attic and it grows until it reaches the trapdoor. The stuff is left in the middle of the attic space, the area under eaves is underutilised because it’s hard to access.
The good thing about attic storage is it doesn’t need to look pretty, it just needs to be practical. Although an organised attic is going to look aesthetically pleasing compared to a messy one.
We will start with storage and shelving products on the market that are specifically for attic spaces or suited for attic spaces, but later we will talk about DIY options. The shape of the attic space rules out a lot of standard shelving that’s available in any store. To properly utilise the attic space we need something that fits into the eaves.
The most basic step to take is to buy some plastic boxes and containers. Go for plastic over cardboard, they’re going to be more expensive but they will last longer and protect whatever goes into them from dampness and other weathering effects they might suffer in the attic. Plastic boxes are also stackable for easy organisation.
There is only major thing you need to look out for when buying boxes, make sure they fit in the space between your rafters. Most modern roof rafters are spaced every 22 or 24 inches (55cm or 60cm) so make sure any box you buy has a width or length dimension smaller than this so you can push the box right into the eaves out of the way. Note: Same rafters have narrower gaps like 18”, so make sure to measure the distance between your rafters before buying anything.
Now that you’ve got your boxes you may run into the first problem trying to utilise that space under the eaves. No floor! If there is no floor and you see just the insulation you can’t leave a box on it, it could fall through to the room below. Even people who have got they’re attic floored when fitting their loft ladder may have only got the useable space in the middle floored so it could be walked on. It makes sense to do this, there isn’t a huge advantage to use expensive flooring in an area you can’t walk on. But we don’t need to use expensive flooring in this area, we just need to support a box.
The most basic way to make that space under the eaves suitable for holding boxes is to lie or fix some planks of wood over the joists, ideally fix the plank in place or they’ll slip off moving the boxes. This will give a surface to leave the boxes on.
These types of shelves are self-contained and require no additional support. Part of the shelf is fixed directly to the rafter and the other end is supported by a strap that drops from the rafter. Another benefit of these shelves is they all fix to the same rafter. Being supported by a strap however means they can’t support more than about 20kg. Hanging shelves will fit into most attics where other types wouldn’t.
These are larger shelves that require more than one mounting rafter. They are much more robust and can carry more weight than the hanging shelves. These are ideal for the bottom shelf. They are slightly harder to install as you need to make sure you get the measurements right so you don’t have an uneven shelf.
These shelves roll into and out of the eave space, this can make accessing the items on the shelf much easier. Boxes can essentially do the same thing as these shelves however if the pitch of your roof is low then rolling shelves can make utilising that space much easier. They are more complicated to install and require a clear walkway to open into.
Of course, if you’re handy with a saw and a screw driver you can put together some simple shelving very easily. As with the off the shelf. Shelves. You can either hang the shelves from the rafters or build them up from the floor, and again the hanging shelf is the easiest to make while the one built up from the floor is much more robust.
Below are links to some of the better how to guides for attic shelving.
Hanging shelves are very straight forward to install
Built from the ground up.
This is the easiest most straightforward guide I’ve found on making ground up shelving for the attic. Attic Storage Shelf Plans
For flat walls at the gable end of the attic there is the option to install a shelling system like smart storage. These shelves are intended for under the stairs but would work well in an attic too.
The attic is a fantastic storage space, but it can be all too easy to forget you’re in a room with a big hole in the ground, you might see old photos of friends not seen in years, school books and little clothes of now grown children, the shoes you wore on that holiday, your mothers old collection of.. now, what was I talking about again? Oh yeah, don’t get distracted while in the attic. It’s not just about the safety of the person in the attic either, but also the safety of people down below, pushing boxes around could push something into the hole falling on whoever is below.
The first and easiest way to reduce risk in the attic is to install lights. It’s an often-overlooked thing to do. Even if you have windows in the attic that allow daylight in there should be a light, once winter comes the window won’t be very helpful.
The first option is, get an electrician to wire in a standard lightbulb and switch. Bar during a power cut this will give you a dependable light source in the attic. You will need to get a professional electrician in to do the work though. Attics are often quite large, yet we often depend on just one small light bulb, if you’re getting one bulb put in consider getting two at either end of the space. There can be many obstacles in the attic like water tanks, chimney stacks, joists, these could obstruct light when you’re at the far end of the attic if you have just one light bulb.
The next option would be to put in battery operated LED lights. These are cheap and effective, available in many places, it’s also easy to put in as many of them as you want and they are easy to mount. The disadvantage is they don’t produce a lot of light and they require batteries but LED bulbs don’t use a lot of power and the batteries have a useful life around 5 years. With these light sources, it’s also a good idea to install two if not three due to the poor light. As the light requires batteries having more than one also means if the battery goes in one light you can still use the attic without having to find batteries there and then.
The next way to reduce the risks in attics is to install a railing around the opening. This at the very least highlights the position of the attic hatch, a proper railing will allow people to hold onto it in the attic and stop them walking into the hole. It will also prevent larger items from falling into the hole if it has additional railing halfway down.
Most manufacturers of loft ladders/attic stairs provide an optional railing that can be purchased when buying the loft ladder. The advantage of these railings is that they are often very close to the size of the frame size of the loft ladder they came with, this means you won’t lose any additional attic floor space. The disadvantage can depend on the manufacturer, the railings can seem somewhat expensive, or sometimes a bit flimsy. At the very least check that the railings have an additional railing half way down. The higher the bar is the easier it would be to have a foot get in under it and slip into the hole.
There are also grabrails that attach to the floor of the attic but are solely intended to be used as a handrail to aid using the ladder. They do not surround the opening. However sometimes a full railing isn’t an option, the structure of an attic and its utilitarian uses means compromises have to be made. When using these types of grabrails some extra caution needs to be practiced and I will talk about keeping cleared walkways and landing areas as a safety measure later.
The final option is a custom-made railing. If you are making the railing yourself it can be an economical option and provide the best railing for your attic. The one thing to ensure is that any posts that will be pulled on as a handrail or could be leaned on should be fixed to the joists, not just to the chipboard floor. The chipboard floor will not provide a solid fixture for a railing and it’s likely that screws could rip through the relatively weak chipboard.
This can be the difficult part and will require some organisation, we have another article on ways to organise your attic and get neater ways to store what’s in the attic that you can find here. It is vitally important that the landing space (where you step off the ladder into the attic) is kept clear, you can’t enter or exit the attic safely without this area being clear. It would also be a good idea to generally keep the area around the opening clear. This means not leaving boxes and items next to the opening (even at the side of the opening) as moving items in the attic, could push those items into the opening.
If possible, you should keep the centre of the attic free to allow you to move up and down the attic space. Try to get as much stuff off to the side under the slanting roof as possible. This can be awkward because of the sloping roof so ideally a sliding shelf system should be used to utilise the space efficiently. More information on shelving here.