Build Your Own Custom Grow Light Stand : A Budget-Friendly DIY Guide
Grow light kits from garden specialty brands are way too expensive. With a few basic parts from the hardware store (and no tools or special skills), you can build your own grow light stand and grow up to 720 beautiful transplants for this spring’s garden.
I grow a large garden with very diverse and specialized plants. I successfully raise almost all the seedlings for my garden organically in a single corner of my spare bedroom using a 5-tier grow stand that I created out of a wire utility shelf and some standard shop lights.
What You Need
Feel free to customize these parts to fit your space and your needs. Shop around, as different hardware stores may have different items available. Just make sure you keep with the same basic dimensions across all your parts.
The Shelf System
I use a metal wire multi-tier utility shelf as the framework for my grow light system. The coated metal is rugged, easy to clean, and easy to hang lights from. I have this five tier shelf, which is currently priced at $109. If you choose to use a different shelving system, make sure the shelves are tall enough to accommodate lights and seedlings. My unit has shelves spaced at varying heights ranging from 15″ – 19″, and I find that works perfectly for the plants that I grow.
Feel free to use your creativity to build a custom system that is right for you! I built my first two-tier grow light system using a folding table instead of a utility shelf. I placed my cell flats on the floor underneath the table, and drilled hooks into the bottom of the table from which to hang my lights. When I ran out of space on the floor, I hung a second set of lights from the ceiling and placed another row of plants on top of the table. Since you’re the one building it, you are free to choose whatever materials work best for you! I do suggest avoiding wooden furniture, since it would likely become damaged from exposure to light and moisture.
You don’t need special grow lights to raise healthy seedlings. I combine warm and cool colors of standard T8 bulbs to create broad spectrum lighting at a lower price. I’ve been doing it this way for years, and my plants thrive.
You’ll need two shop lights for each growing level. I have a 5-tier grow stand, so I purchased 10 light fixtures. Look for the kind that takes two interchangeable T8 bulbs. This style of shop light has become slightly less ubiquitous in recent years as integrated LED shop lights gain popularity. The exact model I’m using is no longer available, but I found this similar one for you, which is available for about $22. If you choose a different model, make sure you get a light that can be suspended from a chain and plugs into a regular electrical outlet. Avoid the shop lights that are meant to be hard-wired into the ceiling.
**2024 Update: Unfortunately the light fixture in the link above is now suffering from low availability. There seems to be a trend towards integrated bulb light fixtures instead of this tried and true replaceable bulb style shop light. If you can’t access the original model, check your local listings for a used model or try this more expensive version.
Fit each shop light fixture with one warm colored T8 bulb and one cool colored T8 bulb. T8 is the skinny style of tube light, compared to the thicker T12 tube lights. If you can’t find T8 bulbs or fixtures, T12 is also fine to use. In the olden times I used fluorescent T8 bulbs, but now I buy the new LED version of standard T8 bulbs. Both kinds of light work very well for the plants, but LED lighting uses even less power and avoids the toxic mercury that fluorescent lights contain. You will need one cool bulb and one warm bulb for each light fixture.
Cool colored lights have a blue hue to them, and have higher color temperature numbers. These bulbs might be labeled with names like “Cool White 4000K”, “Sunshine 5000K”, “Daylight 6500K”. The larger the K number, the bluer the bulb. Fun fact: the K stands for Kelvin, the scientific temperature scale based around absolute zero. I don’t think it matters a great deal which K number you get, as long as it’s between 4000K and 6500K. I am currently using Daylight (6500K). Here’s an example of one such bulb, available for about $12 per pack of 2. You’ll need one of these bulbs for each shop light fixture, so get half as many packs of cool light bulbs as shop lights. In my case, I have a 5-tier grow stand with 10 shop light fixtures, so I purchased 5 packs of daylight colored light bulbs.
Warm White bulbs have a yellow hue to them, and lower color temperature numbers. The most common warm white color temperature is 3000K. Here’s an example of one such bulb, available for about $12 per pack of two. You’ll need one of these bulbs for each shop light fixture that you’re buying, so get half as many packs of warm light bulbs as shop lights. In my case, I have a 5-tier grow stand with 10 shop light fixtures, so I purchased 5 packs of warm white light bulbs.
What about those new purple colored grow lights? I don’t like them. I tried them, and I don’t like to be around them. They mess with my eyes and make the room where my plants are growing unusable for any other purpose. I make my home office in another corner of the same spare bedroom where my plants grow, and sometimes I have visitors who sleep in this room. The style of lighting I use in my multi-tier grow system makes for a bright and cheerful room, good for plants and people alike (and cats!). I don’t find that my plants grow any better under blue/red/purple lighting. Plus, this style of lights is more expensive and they often do not have replaceable bulbs. That means when your light bulb burns out, you have to buy a whole new fixture.
A Few Other Pieces
Mini S-Biner hooks: to suspend lights from wire shelves. One side of the S attaches to the wire shelf, and the other side attaches to the chain on the light fixture. You’ll need 2 S-Biners for each light fixture. Since I have 10 shop light fixtures in my 5 tier grow system, I need 20 S-Biners, or 4 packs of 5. You can currently get a pack of 5 for about $12. If you’re not using a wire shelf, you might need to use your creativity to find a different way to suspend the chain. Leave a comment on this post, and I’ll help you brainstorm ideas!
Heat mat: (optional, but good for germinating heat-loving seeds such as peppers if your grow room isn’t very warm). You’ll also need a matching thermostat. I only have one heat mat in my setup. Since I’m growing plants in the living space of my home, the ambient temperature is warm enough to germinate most seeds, and to grow all plants after they’ve germinated. I only place certain seeds temporarily on the grow mat to help them germinate, so I don’t need a heat mat for every tier of my grow stand. These items may cost about $60 for the set. Warning: may attract cats.
Power strip: you may need one if you’re building a multi-tiered grow setup like mine to allow you to plug in all your shop lights and your heat mats at the same time. These usually cost about $15-$35.
Extension cords: you may need one or more to help your highest lights reach your power outlet. I’m using one 6′ extension cord that has space to plug in two power cords, just for the pair of shop lights that I mounted on the ceiling. This kind of cable costs about $10.
Wall Anchors: You should consider anchoring the top of your utility shelf to the wall to guard against tipping. If your utility shelf doesn’t come with a kit to attach it to the wall, you may need to purchase one or more of these separately. Price: about $5 each (buy 2). You might also need drywall anchors if you can’t mount it directly to the studs. You will need a power drill if you’re attaching your shelf to the wall.
Timer: optional, but nice. You can program a timer to automatically run your lights for 16 hours a day (or however long you want). If you don’t have a timer, you’ll have to remember to plug in your lights every morning and unplug them every night. Price: about $10.
Ceiling Hooks: only if you’re mounting an extra set of lights on the ceiling, like I did. Get two for each shop light you’ll be mounting on the ceiling (so probably 4 total). And get some drywall anchors if you won’t be mounting the hooks directly into studs. Price: about $1.50 each. If you’re using ceiling hooks, you will need a power drill to install them.
For a 5-tier 2’x4′ grow system like mine, the total cost comes to about $568. You’ll pay considerably less if you’re building a smaller system with fewer light fixtures. By comparison, a smaller grow system from Gardeners Supply with only 3 tiers of grow space will cost you more than double this amount. Additionally, that expensive system still requires assembly, and it won’t come with any of the extras like the heat mat, power strip, and timer. The parts in the expensive system are not standard, so it might be more difficult (or more expensive) to replace the lights when they eventually burn out.
Step 1: Unpackage and assemble your utility shelf according to the instructions that come with your unit. Attach it to the wall for safety, if you choose to do so. If you’re planning to hang lights from the ceiling, go ahead and install your ceiling hooks at this time. Mount them using drywall anchors if your desired positioning doesn’t align with the studs. You can use a stud finder to determine where the studs are, or you can drill a pilot hole in each position where you plan to install a hook. If the drill bit goes in very easily and doesn’t hit a stud, then you need to come back with a drywall anchor in that spot. If you feel your drill bit hit a stud, you can go ahead and install your hook there without an anchor.
Step 2: Unpackage and assemble two of your shop lights according to the instructions that come with the lights you chose. Some shop lights require a Philips head screwdriver for assembly, while others do not.
Step 3: Unpackage two of your cool T8 light bulbs and two of your warm T8 light bulbs. Install one warm bulb and one cool bulb into each of your two shop light fixtures. The bulbs usually slide in and then twist for installation. Alternate the bulbs so that when you hang the pair of light fixtures side-by-side, the bulbs will be warm-cool-warm-cool, or cool-warm-cool-warm rather than warm-cool-cool-warm or cool-warm-warm-cool. Plug in each light fixture to test before mounting your lights. Make sure both bulbs in each fixture light up.
Step 4: Use your S-Biners to hang the two assembled shop lights from the bottom of the second tier of your utility shelf.
Step 5: Repeat steps 2-4 for as many tiers as you have in your system.
Step 6: Set up any extra goodies that you’re using, such as heat mat, timer, and power strip.
The Fun Part
That’s it! Plant some seeds and watch the magic unfold. My 5-tiered grow system has the capacity to grow 720 plants at a time. If I bought 720 plants for about $3 each, that would cost me $2,160. Although there are some additional costs involved in growing plants from seed (seeds, potting soil, grow trays), this system pays for itself very quickly.
Last year I was very motivated and I actually filled this system up three times. I grew an extra-early crop of cold hardy veggies and herbs beginning in January, and moved those outside in March to make room to start the tomatoes and peppers. As the plants grew, I continuously transitioned them outside to make more room in the grow system. Even if it was too early to plant them outside, I could still bring them outside most days to soak up some sun and then carry the trays back indoors on the cool nights. That worked well, but it took up a lot of my time ferrying plants back and forth. During the summer when I’m not using this system to start seeds, I use it to grow specialty microgreens varieties that don’t perform well in window light, or I use it as a shelf to store some of my products and market supplies. Use your creativity to get the most from your grow system. The possibilities are endless!
Do you grow your own plants from seed? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments!