How-To build a dealer display rack out of PVC

by M. Schmidt

After finishing a new & improved version of my PVC display rack that I use when I'm selling at shows, I figured it was about time I put together a little how-to detailing how it was done. It really isn't that hard, and even people with limited handyman-experience should be able to whip one of these out.

What you're building:

  • A free-standing comic book display rack made out 1 1/4" PVC pipe, easily found at any good hardware store (I bought everything from my local Lowes).
  • The rack will end up being a little over 7' tall, and will consist of two sections each holding six 4' wide shelves (12 shelves total).
  • The rack can easily be expanded with more sections, with each adding 4' to the width.
  • The rack takes about 15 minutes to set up & take down, and can be carried inside a ski-bag.
  • Total cost of materials for this rack is about $50-60, and it shouldn't take more than a weekend to build.

What you need - pipe & fittings:

Unless otherwise noted, all pipes & fittings are 1 1/4" - I tested it with 1" pipe which felt flimsy, and 1 1/2" pipe which added a lot of extra weight, so 1 1/4" seemed like a good compromise between weight & stability.

  • 3 pieces of 10' pipe, for front & back legs
  • 18 pieces of 5' pipe, for vertical pillars & horizontal shelves
  • 2 x 45º Elbow fittings
  • 13 x Tee fittings
  • 3 x Wye fittings
  • 6 x Cross fittings
  • 6 x Cap fittings
  • 3 x 22.5º Elbow fittings
    OR 3 x 22.5º Elbow fittings (1 1/2" size) AND 6 x 1.5"/1.25" reducer fittings.

(22.5º Elbows aren't common in the 1 1/4" size, so if you can't find them, get the larger size & reducers instead.)

Alternatively, you can also order all the fittings here:

What you need - tools:

1. Something to cut the pipe with. Hardware stores have ratcheting, hand-held pipe cutters for $15-20 - alternatively, you can also use a scroll or a band saw (remember to wear protection!)
2. PVC cement
3. Measuring tape & pen
4. Band saw, sawzall, hacksaw or something similar to cut the shelves with.
5. 3" hole saw & power drill.

A couple of tips:
- PVC cement dries very, very, very fast. Make sure you have fitted everything before gluing, and that you work fast when you are turning fittings to make them line up.
- Ratcheting pipe cutters come in a variety of sizes - if you buy one, make sure it can handle 1 1/4" pipe.
- Assemble the pillars before you glue them - that way you can correct misalignments, do small adjustments, etc, without having to discard an entire pillar.
- But if you do screw up, cut the pipe and use a coupler fitting to re-attach the pieces - I actually screwed up once during this project, and you can see a coupler fitting on the middle pillar.

How to build the rack:

1. Use the pipe cutter to cut the pieces you need for the first vertical pillar. My standard set-up is a rack with 5 regular-sized shelves and 1 CGC-sized shelf, and for that you need 5 pipe pieces that are 7 3/4" long and 1 piece that's 10" long.

The first vertical pillar I'll be building is the one that's going to be supporting the rack on the left - for that I need the six pipe pieces outlined above, six Tee fittings, one 45º Elbow fitting, and one Wye fitting. The pillar that will be supporting the rack on the right uses the exact same fittings - but make sure that when you build it, you face the fittings in the opposite direction. Think of it as a left & right shoe - it won't do you much good to end up with two left pillars.

2. Take one of the 7 3/4" pipe pieces and insert it into two Tee fittings. Make sure the piece is completely seated inside the Tee fittings, and measure 1" in from the lip of the Tee fitting on either side. Cut the piece at your marks, and replace the cut-out piece with a Wye fitting. This will be the 2nd shelf from the top of your rack, and will connect to the back leg that props up the rack.

3. Start from the bottom and work your way up the vertical pillar. Remember to add the piece with the Wye fitting as the 2nd piece from the top.

4. Repeat for the right pillar - remember that the fittings need to face in the opposite direction!

5. For the middle pillar, you need the same size pipe pieces you used above, but the fittings are now six Cross fittings, one Tee fitting, and one Wye fitting. Apart from that, the build is identical to what you've already done for the left & right pillar.

6. Cut a 2' piece of the pipe that will be used for the front leg, and add a Cap to the bottom of it. You should glue the Cap to the bottom of the pipe, but you do not want to glue the front leg to the pillar - by leaving the front leg detachable, you greatly increase the overall "carry-ability" of the rack.

7. Repeat for all 3 front legs.

8. Cut a 5 1/2' piece of the pipe that will be used for the back leg, and add a Cap to the bottom of it. Add two Reducers to either side of the 22.5º Elbow, and add that piece to the top of the back leg. Finally, cut a 3" piece of pipe and insert it into the open Reducer at the top of the back leg.

This piece will slide into the Wye fitting on the pillars, and will prop up the rack as it is standing. Again, you will want to glue all these small pieces together - but you do not want to glue the back leg to the pillar.

9. Repeat for all 3 back legs.

How to build the shelves:

1. For each section of the rack, you will need seven 4' pieces of pipe that will be used for the shelves - 6 of those will have a channel cut out which gives the books a place to stand, and 1 piece will be left as is & used as the top connecting piece. This is what the final result will end up looking like:

2. In order to accurately cut out the channel in the pipe, you'll need three things - a saw (I'm using a band saw, but any type of power saw with a small blade will work), a 3" hole saw that attaches to a power drill, and a wooden rig to hold the pipe in place & which can be used as a guide for the hole saw.

3. The wooden rig is actually a pretty simple box, made out of 1' x 1' squares of 3/4" thick wood with a channel inside that holds the pipe in place & also offsets the pipe so the hole saw can cut a nice half-circle hole in it. My very handy brother-in-law, Brandon, came up with the idea for this, and he was kind enough to draw up the detailed schematics I'm attaching below (they're PDF files).

4. Insert a piece of 4' pipe into the wooden box, and make sure that it's flush against the end. Use the hole saw to cut a half-circle hole in the pipe, flip the pipe over, and cut another half-circle hole at the other end - make sure both holes face the same way and that they line up. Use sandpaper to get rid of any excess pipe debris.

Here's a tip: when using a hole saw to cut PVC pipe, run the drill backwards - if you don't, it'll tear up the pipe.

5. Repeat for all 6 shelves.

6. Use your band saw (or sawzall, hacksaw, etc) to cut out half the pipe in between the two holes - I found that the easiest way to make sure you're cutting straight when running the pipe through the band saw was to clamp a piece of wood to the pipe. That way it wasn't turning as it was going through.

Again, use sandpaper to clean up the pipe after you've cut it and repeat for all 6 shelves.

7. Repeat for the 2nd section of the rack.

Put it all together:

Lay down the left & middle pillars on the floor, slide the front leg into each pillar, and connect the two pillars with the 6 shelves & the top connecting piece. Attach the other 6 shelves & top connector to the other side of the middle pillar, and slide the right pillar onto that. Slide the three back legs into the Wye connectors on the back of the pillars, raise the rack up, and give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done.

I usually do 6 comics pr. shelf which allows me to show off 60 books (and 10 CGC slabs) at the same time:

One of my favorite things about this rack is that it's easy to configure depending on how much booth space you have - here, for example, is what it looks like with just one section: