Like so many others on a budget, my family stocks up on nonperishable food items when they go on sale. However, my biggest frustration with bringing my groceries home is in trying to keep everything rotated so the closest expiration dates are to the front of the shelf. Most of the time, this means taking all the cans off the shelf and re-stacking them with my most recent purchases to the back–a tedious and time-consuming process. I decided to see if I could make a can rotator out of cardboard, which is generally free.

I began by calling a local appliance store to see if the owners would allow me to come and get some large boxes. They were all too happy to let me have some and even gave me a refrigerator box with double-corrugated walls! It was perfect! I grabbed a pencil, a ruler with a metal edge, a box cutter, and a craft knife with replacement blades (the cardboard is hard on blades, so you will need quite a few extras).

The first thing I needed to do was to take some measurements. I measured the height and depth of my pantry shelf and the height of the can that I wanted to go in the rotator. I used these measurements to trace a large rectangle on the box. The height was determined by the height of my shelf. The width was determined by adding the shelf depth measurement, then the height of the can (plus a 1/4″), then the shelf depth measurement again, then the height of the can again. (See the photo for clarification.) I cut out the rectangle and then divided it into the four sections described in the last sentence, using my craft knife to lightly score along each line before I bent the cardboard to form a box. I did not tape the edges closed yet. I just put in all the folds needed to form a box. I made four of these boxes because that is what would fit in my space, but you can make as many as you need.

The next thing that I wanted to do was to make a stencil to mark where I would be cutting shelf holes in each box. For this I cut a piece of posterboard (it can be the back of a previous project) the same size as the height and depth measurements of my shelf (the same size as one of the large squarish portions of one of my boxes). I spread one of the boxes out flat, placed the posterboard down on one of the square sections and began placing the cans in a zig-zag pattern on top. Because my pantry shelf was about thirteen and a quarter inches in height, I was able to attempt making a rotator that would hold thirteen or fourteen cans. I would not suggest trying this design with less than that amount of space; more (fifteen inches) would have been better! If your shelf is only a foot high, I would recommend that you only make a two-level rotator that would rotate seven or eight cans (if your depth is also a foot). My goal at this point was to have some idea of the amount of space there was to work with and note where to put the ramps and slides.

In order to make an appropriate stencil, I had to know the thickness of my cardboard. The cardboard that I was working with was a double thickness so I had to allow for a full quarter inch in my measurements and planning. This is where I had to make a judgment call. I could have used a standard piece of cardboard and had more room in my overall design to have a steeper pitch to my slides, but knowing the weight of the cans would be substantial, I went ahead and used the heavier cardboard. This meant that I had to give as much angle to the slides as I could while still allowing for the cans to drop at the ends and pass under the level above. This photo shows what my stencil looked like when I was finished.

With the stencil finished, I moved on to tracing the marks onto my boxes and cutting the marks out to form slots in the boxes. This was the tedious part! (Please note that when you are tracing your stencil, you will be doing this two times for each box; one on each large square section. They need to be mirror images of each other. Be sure that your stencil is lined up with the sides and bottom of each of the large sections before you begin tracing so that the slots will all line up when the boxes are place in a row. See the photo for details.) After the slots were all traced, I began cutting them out. In addition to the slots in the sides I also removed a portion of the smaller center section of the box that would become the front of my rotator when it was on the shelf. I removed the entire section above the top slide and cut out a square that began just below the lower ramp and ended half an inch from the bottom. Again, consult the photo for clarification.

After the slots were cut, I had to cut the shelves that go into the slots. To do this, I had to cut pieces of cardboard that were the length of each slot and a little wider than the width of all the boxes that I wanted to be in a single row. If the shelf included a ramp and a slide, I had to score the cardboard at the appropriate place and bend it to form the ramp. After all the shelves were cut, I taped all my box shapes closed and beginning with the two center ramps, I slid the shelves through the slots in each box until it came out the other side. As I added the shelves, I used a can to insure that each box retained the proper interior spacing. Because the shelves were being pushed through each box, the sides were generally pushed out of shape, and I had to size them as I went. By starting with the two center shelves, I could reshape each section without having to move around the other the top and bottom shelves. After all the shelves were in place I took some cans and began refining the interiors of the boxes by rolling cans through each one until all the tight spaces were eased and allowed the cans to roll without sticking. Because my space did not allow for me to make steep drops on my slides, there was a tendency for the cans to get hung up on the section directly behind the cardboard front which I could not reach after the unit was in place. To combat this problem, I pierced a small hole in the face of each section, through which I could insert a dowel to push any cans that lacked the gravitational pull to continue downward. If you have the space in your design to have steeper slides, this will not likely be a factor for you.

My finished can rotator was not the most beautiful thing I had ever seen (I even cut one front wrong, and there was a slit along its face!), but it did function fairly well. Since each section accepted fourteen cans, it rotated fifty-six cans through a 13 1/4″h x 20″w x 12″d space! Additionally, since there was no glue involved in this project, the entire unit can be taken apart and flattened–an important consideration if regular moves are a part of your life! It also made the project very inexpensive. The only expenditures were some tape for the boxes and some blades for the craft knife.

I admit that this project was not the most fun thing that I have ever done. It was meant to serve one purpose–to save time in the long run. It did not require any of my decorative talents, nor did it call for any highly-specialized techniques. It did require endurance. I had to keep my focus on the joy I would experience when I would come home with my next load of sale items and not have to re-stack each section of cans! Keeping our eyes on our future joy is what helps us get through so many life events: school, learning a language or instrument, working to buy our first car or house, enduring labor and delivery to give birth to a child. In this we follow the pattern of our Savior. I could not help thinking of Hebrews 12:2 “Looking unto Jesus…who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross….” I am so glad that He kept His eyes on His future joy–and endured the cross for me! Near the end of his life, the apostle Paul counsels Timothy, “But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions…” (2 Timothy 4:5a), and then he tells Timothy the goal that he should set his eyes on, “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but to all them also that love his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8). Does your life seem dull, mundane, or full of afflictions? Hold onto this promise and claim it as your own! There will be future joy!

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  1. Judi says:

    Thank you very much for this! Question, though: Did you put a bottom on yours?

  2. B Kerr says:

    I have looked at a lot of cardboard designs and yours is one of the best!

  3. l binning says:

    how can i get the full instructions with exact measurement wriiten down for me . i need one like you make bad.

    • I am glad that you like my design, however I don’t think that I can give you exact measurements because the unit that I made is sized to fit my specific cabinet shelves. My posting can hopefully be used as a guide to help you make a rotator that is based on the measurements of your own shelves.

      • Sadly, the shelf dimensions are not the only variable. The size of the cans you intend to store and the thickness of the cardboard you will be using all play a part. It requires taking the materials and working with them on the floor, and this takes some time. I regret that my commitments will not allow me the time to work out the exact dimensions you will need.

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