We asked two interior design experts and two complete DIY novices to try them out.
Sally Farmer, Director of Studies, Department of Interior Design at the London Institute; Paul Stead, managing director of design consultancy PSD Associates; Denise Slocombe, accountant; Emma Bagnall, graphic designer, the Independent.
The panel gave the units marks for how easy the instructions were to understand and carry out; the quality of the finish; how sturdy the structure was; and how attractive the design was. The marks were converted into a best-buy star rating.
***TEXAS BOSTON FIVE
Black ash-effect Melamine
180.5cm x 62cm x 24cm, pounds 19.99
Very basic, a lot of shelf
for your money
The instructions were easily understood and the panel didn't have much trouble putting the unit together, although Emma Bagnall found the size of it a bit overwhelming. 'It's a huge bookcase. Assembly would have been easier were I stronger (and male?) or working with someone else. It's very difficult to get things straight and at right angles on your own.' The bookcase, with its black ash effect, didn't get very high marks for its looks. 'I'd far rather have unfinished wood to paint or decorate as I please,' Emma Bagnall added.
Like all the units, apart from the B&Q steel shelves, the Texas Boston didn't seem terribly robust and one of the shelves was chipped. But if you don't want to spend much money and don't mind a very basic unit, this could be a good choice. Paul Stead said: 'Given the strength and performance limitations of chipboard, you wouldn't put your encyclopaedias on it, but if you bought the components yourself - chipboard, screws, glue and paint - and used your own sweat and toil, you couldn't make it cheaper.'
*B&Q SPUR HANDYMAN
Flat steel, five shelves
178cm x 91cm x 35cm, pounds 42.95
Robust shelves, no easy task
Our panel was unananimous in finding it very hard work putting this unit together - one tester even gave up in frustration and a technician who was helping Sally Farmer dismantle the unit cut his hand in the process. 'Needed a lot of brute force to put together. Leather gloves, a big mallet and an interest in Meccano would not go amiss,' said Paul Stead. 'Locating shelves into all keyholes was almost impossible. Metal was very soft and easily bent,' said Sally Farmer.
The shelves are designed for functional rather than decorative use and testers thought the unit - even the product's name - seemed targeted on a very macho market. The packaging is very butch - not aimed at the flowery curtains brigade. 'Whoever decided to put 'Spur Handyman' in big letters on the side should be shot. What if you are a not-very-handy woman?' asked Denise Slocombe. 'Unless you are into brutalist metal interiors, these are best left in the workshop,' said Emma Bagnall. A good point, however, was their sturdy construction.
Metal frame, four Melamine-faced
145cm x 61cm x 29cm, pounds 19.99
Dated looks and poor instructions
This unit is very similar to the Argos shelves and is pounds 5 cheaper. But it was rated much less highly because of its poor instructions, which meant people found it much more difficult to put together. The poor instructions may explain why the panel thought the unit was less sturdy when it was assembled. You also don't get the benefit of a customer help line if you get into trouble, as you do with Argos. The panel was not too keen on how it looked. 'Although very plain and inconspicuous, the shelves weren't to my taste. I could imagine them in a room with beige fitted carpets and a red, black and grey duvet cover. Someone would use them to store their Steve Winwood cassettes. Very Eighties,' said Emma Bagnall.
**IKEA IVAR SHELVING,
Unfinished pine, five shelves,
179cm x 83cm x 50cm, pounds 63
Top for design
This unit doesn't have instructions but the panel found assembly fairly straightforward. 'It was very easy to work out,' said Sally Farmer. The shelves did not score particularly highly on quality of finish - Sally Farmer found that the wood was beginning to chip - but their plain, unfinished appearance did not stop the unit winning hands down for looks. 'Because of the raw timber finish, it is equally at home in the garage or, with a lick of paint, the lounge.' Paul Stead also pointed out that the shelves are deep enough to take a hi-fi, and that you can fix the them at different heights. 'My favourites to look at, but a bit over- priced,' said Denise Slocombe.
**** ARGOS 5 TIER .TX.- SHELF UNIT
Black epoxy-coated frame with
black ash-effect Melamine shelves
71ins x 15ins x 11ins, pounds 24.99
The favourite for DIY dunces
You should be able to put this unit together even if you have never so much as touched a hammer and nail. It wins our test because the panel found it so easy to understand the instructions and assemble the unit. 'Excellent instructions, and extremely easy to put together,' said Denise Slocombe. 'The instructions booklet has very clear diagrams and is set out in a logical order. Simple to assemble with tool provided. No A-levels required.' Argos also has a customer service telephone hotline. It also scored well on its finish, but the panel wasn't so keen on its looks. 'A little dated,' said Sally Farmer. Paul Stead said: 'A tried and tested design equally at home in the lounge or bedroom. A good, work-a-day solution.'