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DIY Mason Jar shelving unit

Dear friends, neighbors and readers.  Let’s talk about a bit of a design challenge i had recently (as in January).  One that stumped me, had me up at night, made me space out whilst watching ‘The Lucky One’.  Poor Zach Ephron. He and his blue eyes deserve all my attention and adoration but instead i was thinking about this shelving unit my clients bought prior to hiring me:

Great shelving unit, for sure. But the thing about shelving units is that unless you can fill them properly then you are setting yourself up for failure.  Whenever any clients ask for open shelving, i get scared.  They proceed to show me pictures of beautiful libraries from Elle Decor where the shelves are full of art books and sculptures and all sorts of fancy objét.  I love them, too, don’t get me wrong but shelving doesn’t fill itself and pretty art books are VERY expensive. You can’t just fill them with bitsy novels, they have too much importance in your room now to do that.  

I needed to fill this shelving unit in a way that was colorful without being busy, full without being expensive and with objects of different sizes because the pockets are different sizes.  It was a total challenge.

We thought about different colored balls, but couldn’t find the right combination that would work.  We thought about blocks of fabric or paper, but that could get damaged really easily and could look super low budget.  Obviously we thought about collections of things but they had to be colorful things and no matter what you are collecting, the good pieces are expensive and you don’t want a collection of crappy stuff.

PLUS inside those pockets its really dark so we needed something that brought color and light over there, and yes possibly even reflection.  Mirrors? No, too disco.  Painting the inside of the boxes? Never, i don’t have the balls for that, plus it would still look empty.  

But then i had the perfect idea: paint the inside of many, many mason jars, in a gradient of the same color.

Here’s the logic behind it.  

1. Mason jars are cheap.  The smallish ones are around $1 a piece and the larger ones are $2 or so. They vary, obviously in size and price and there are a lot of places you can get them in bulk.  I bought mine from Smart and Final because they were the cheapest and they had a lot in stock.  

Ball® 64oz Wide Mouth Mason Jars (68100) - 6 Pack - Ace Hardware

But Ace hardware online has them. Most ‘general stores’ have them as well.  Sometimes home depot has them, sometimes grocery stores have them.  You know where to get them…..Ask your grandma for leftover jars from canning days and i bet she’ll have a bunch.  

2. Mason jars are classic and work in this modern farmhouse. They are totally utilitarian and aren’t trying to be fancy by nature, so they are like a blank canvas for dressing them up and making them more modern. 

3. I had total control of the colors.  I didn’t need to search for 45 of anything in our color palette – i could control it, making the installation look way more intentional and perfect by finding the write shades of aqua and teal. 

4. Mason jars come in all different sizes so I could calculate what size goes in what pocket.  Let me be clear:  me and math are like Kanye West and Chris Humphreys – we have a bad history and will probably never get along. We may not physically brawl, but we are emotionally and mentally at odds with each other.  I don’t wish ‘Math’ any unwell, i understand it is responsible for amazing architecutre that i love, but if it disappeared from my life i’d be psyched.  


But this situation called for math.  So, i mocked up the shelving unit with all the dimensions of each shelf. Then i looked up all the measurements of the mason jars.  It took me hours and hours and hours to figure it out.  There are a ton of different sizes and brands and they are all slightly different so finding the closest to perfect combination was very difficult.  I’m sure a normal person could figure it out quicker, but i mean, look at all those squiggles.  

Once i figured it out, i calculated the cost and realized that it would cost around $250 for the jars. That is not a bad art installation.  

I thought about arranging them in a pattern:  stripes, chevron or a something totally random, but ultimately i wanted it to feel cleaner and quieter than that.  There was a lot happening in that room, a yellow and white stripe rug, a gallery wall of kids art, and it was open to the living room and family room so it really didn’t need to be the star.  It needed to be a great transition area in an open layout house. 

So i decided to keep it really simple and not try to pick out 7 different colors of blue, but instead to take one paint swatch card and get all the paint colors mixed into quarts.  I knew the colors would look good together, there was no chance of them clashing and it saved hours in decision making.  

So here’s what you do: 

1. Pour a bit of paint on the inside of the jars and use a brush to paint the inside.  Get flat paint because it dries the fastest and no matter what it will look high gloss because the glass is glossy.  Move the paint around with the brush and then let dry for a couple hours before applying a second coat. 


2. Paint a second or third coat.  You kinda just have to test it out, but its at least 2 coats, if not three.  And don’t screw the tops on before they are dry so they can dry faster. 

Instead of cleaning the brushes between colors, we left the paint on the brush so a lot of the jars have a marbling effect tht is really beautiful, but subtle. So don’t be too precious about it, mix tones of the same color for more depth and texture.  

Oh, hey, Orlando. Do you always travel around with that big ‘E’?  I get it, you like me, and I you, but its just not necessary to carry my initial around constantly. How very cumbersome, yet flattering.  

3. Spray paint the lids.  The lids come in silver and gold, but we couldn’t find any gold the day we needed to paint, so we had to spray paint the lids gold, which actually looked way better than buying the original gold lids.  It pops a lot more and it feels more consistent and more like an art installation.  


4. Once everything is dry, screw on the lids.  It’s a complicated last step, i know.  Also you should remember to breathe and start your day with a well rounded breakfast of whole grains.  

I chose to do arrange the jars darker on the bottom to lighter near the top.  I didn’t want it to feel too heavy and make the room feel kinda upside down.  It made the cielings feel higher, in a weird way.   

The whole project cost around $500 including all the jars, lids, paint and materials to paint.  Plus we had to use some shims on some of the shelves to lift them higher above a lip so you can see more of the jar.  

I have to admit, it is a total success. Sure, i could have found colorful vintage toys at $30 a pop and spent $5000.  But for $500 this installation made a massive impact in the space.  The homeowners plan on using eventually for wine storage, but they have a small child now and wanted a temporary solution that looked pretty, engaged the space and added color and life to a bunch of empty pocket shelves without spending a ton of money.  Done and done.  

What do you guys think?

The rug is from Dwell Studio, of course, Citrine draper stripe, $495 HERE.  

Beautiful ‘after’ photographs by Bethany Nauert

Architecture by Eric Olsen

This post is in partnership with smartwater. simplicity is delicious.  click here to learn more.  


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