When we moved into our home last year (September 2020), we knew our project list was endless. But the one that really got our feet wet and helped us gain our DIY confidence was our custom built-in dresser Ikea hack.
The previous owners left an office full of Ikea Billy bookshelves. As-is, they made the room claustrophobic and dated. And while I had dreams of turning them into a built-in office desk (which we eventually did!), that project had to wait for a few others to happen first. But we also have an awkward hallway in our master bedroom that leads to our closet and bathroom that didn’t fit furniture well and felt like a waste of space.
Even before we moved in, I knew I wanted to turn this space into a sort of walk-through closet, to maximize storage and also to display some of my favorite accessories. (I may have a slight weakness for purses.) I originally thought we could utilize the Ikea Pax system, which is Ikea’s closet organization line, which would have been a pretty easy project since the system includes drawers, but it was too deep for the space (meaning it would have butted into our doorways). The beauty (and sometimes downside) of the Billy shelves is that they’re only 11 inches deep, and so a lightbulb went off in my head after realizing the Pax furniture wouldn’t work. What if we tried a similar set up with the Ikea bookshelves in our office?! We measured the hallway, realized we had about a 13 inch clearance, and then Robert and I dragged a few Billys up the stairs to dry fit them. (That very day, because I have no patience.)
And now, because my technical knowledge of this whole process isn’t the best, I’ve asked Robert to guest-write this post. (I have ideas, he makes them happen!) He’ll take you through the how-to details so that you, too, can be a proficient Ikea hacker.
Hi, everyone. Robert here. When starting a project, Callie and I go back and forth to figure out what can (or can’t) be done. She wanted the functionality and storage, but only if it was pretty. Sometimes I have to bring down the design, which is okay, and we work out obstacles of the project. MOST of the time she gets what she wants which makes me very happy.
- Measuring Tape
- Miter Saw
- Circular Saw or Table Saw
- Brad nailer
- Air compressor
- Clamps – trigger clamps or C-clamps
- Levels – I used a 4’, 2’, and torpedo level
- Cabinet screws
- 2” Screws
- Brad nails
- Safety Glasses
- Paint supplies
The length of the wall is 78 inches, and we wanted room on both ends of the bookcases to clear the entryway and the closet door. We dry fitted three Billy bookcases in the space, one 31 ½” Billy in the middle and one 15 ¼” Billy bookcases on each side, to make sure they fit in the space well. We chose this configuration because Callie wanted to have a vanity set up in the middle with a mirror and a place for jewelry and things, but you can use any combination of Billys you like that fit your space.
I didn’t want to install directly onto carpet, so I carefully cut the carpet away for the install. Now I don’t recommend installing directly on carpet, but it can be done. However, at this time, we knew we were installing new carpet on the second floor anyway, so I didn’t have to use exact cuts. It was easier for me to cut the carpet out so the bookcases could sit directly on the subfloor. If Callie made me (“made me”?? Wow. -C.) install when the carpet wasn’t going to be replaced, I would have measured the installed space of the dresser, and given myself +2 inches of carpet around the finished dresser so it can either be stretched when finished or use the fold over method and nailed down.
With the workspace cleared to the subfloor and the area prepped for install, I next prepared the bookshelves to be installed to the wall. I removed the cardboard backing for all three bookcases and had to decide how to secure it to the wall. We ended up installing a piece of ¼” birch plywood with screws to the back of the bookshelves, which gave us a smooth finish. You can see from the picture that I left the bottom 36” of the middle open because we knew we were installing drawers in this section.
The bookcases are prepped and we were ready to install the first one. I started with the 31 ½” Billy in the middle and leveled the unit with shims. I didn’t have to use many because the subfloor was very level but in older houses, that may not be the case. Deciding where your 2” screws will go is important because here in a couple of steps, I added an additional piece of ¾” wood (I’ll talk about his more in a little bit) that will hide the visibility of the screws. I screwed two 2” screws below the top shelf of the bookcase and two below the fixed bookshelf.
Once the middle unit is squared and secured, it gets a little easier from here. Attaching the 15 ¼” Billy is a matter of clamping the adjoining side with C-clamps or trigger clamps to make sure the face is squared with the middle Billy. I screwed one cabinet screw from the middle bookcase to the new one under the top shelf and below the fixed shelf. At this point I took four screws and secured it to the wall. It may have been overkill, but I didn’t want the attached unit shifting at all. I repeated the same steps to attach the remaining bookcase.
Success! We have technically a built-in dresser now. It still needs some work but you can really see the project coming along. One obstacle I addressed at this stage was that because I installed a ¼” plywood to the backing, I had about a ¼” gap that was visible on some of the bookshelves. I didn’t want to see any gaps, so I added pieces of ¾” pine board and screwed from the direction that wasn’t visible. My goal was to minimize the visible screws from the finished dresser. The reason I used ¾” pine board was because the shelves on the Billy are ¾” and there happens to be a lot of trim finish trim pieces available at 1 ½”. So not only did this help to clean up the gaps, but it made it a lot easier to nail the finish trim on.
Crown can be a scary process and there are lots of options available. We chose a smaller 3” crown that matched the 5” crown detail that is in our master bedroom. Here’s the trick: add an additional ¾” pine board to the top shelf to give yourself plenty of room to install and support the crown. I also installed the backer blocks for the crown and attached to the top of the Billy’s with the nail gun and compressor. Take your time with the crown. I attached the c-clamps where I wanted the crown to be installed because it was easier to hold up when I was working by myself. Attach with crown staples or brad nails.
My plan was to add matching baseboard to the built-in to finish it off. The Billy’s have a sort of “leg” at the bottom, which made this slightly more complicated. So to add baseboards, I added a backer board to install the new piece of baseboard. I cut a 1×3 to size and drilled pocket holes to hide the screws. Then I added the baseboard, which gave the dresser a clean, custom look.
Now for the final trim pieces. I added 1 ½” pine trim pieces to adjoining sides of the bookcases and added a corner trim on the ¾” sides. There are a lot of options for trim work and it’s up to you how ornate you want to take it. I quickly installed the trim with 1” brad nails.
Callie wanted pull out drawers in the middle section and was considering cabinet doors on the small Billy’s (Just an FYI, when your spouse says she is “considering” something…she’s really telling you she’s made the decision and you have to get it done.) (NOT TRUE. But I’m glad you built cabinet doors! -C.) Callie also decided she wanted four drawers total, with one small one for jewelry. I had to do a little math to have three equal drawer sizes and one small one and fill with 1 3/16” pine spacers. I installed them with pocket holes, and the openings measured 30×8 ½” and 30 x 4 ½”. I wanted 1/8” space in between each gap for the drawers to slide smoothly.
There are a lot of options on how to customize the bookcases. You can leave the bookshelves as is, or you can build individual drawers like we did, or add cabinet doors. We chose to install custom drawers in the center and inset cabinet doors to match the drawer height. A separate blog post about building custom drawers and custom cabinet doors is coming soon, so be on the lookout for that. As a side note, Ikea does sell doors you can attach to the Billy shelves, but because we added custom trim to ours, they wouldn’t fit here. (And I wanted a thicker shaker trim anyway. -C.)
Prep for Paint
Before priming and painting, we needed to fill in the all of the holes and gaps. This is a cumbersome job, but it will pay off. The Billys come pre-drilled with holes for different shelf heights and filling in the holes is up to you. We chose to fill in all of the holes in the middle bookcase but left the small Billys open. Callie wasn’t sure how she was going to style the shelves and it gives us options in the future to change the height of the shelves.
We used lightweight spackle to fill in the shelf holes and the indented line in the back of the Billys where the cardboard was. I used a 2” putty knife for the application and smoothed it all out. Let the spackle dry completely before attempting to sand it because if it’s not dry, you will end up having to reapply the spackle.
Caulking is an awful, but necessary step for this project. It can be frustrating because you have the excitement of building a custom bookcase or dresser, and all you want to do is prime and paint. Do not skip this step! You will need to caulk all of the visible seams where the wood meets so you have a smooth, cohesive finish. Caulking is messy and can take some time getting used to. I find the easiest method is having a wet rag or sponge to help wipe up the excess caulk, and to use a popsicle stick for all of the corners. After everything dries, give the whole unit a rough sand to prep for the primer.
Primer and Paint
If you do any internet research, it will tell you that the Billy shelves do not take paint well. But, if primed appropriately, they will be good to go! Callie read that KILZ primer was best, so that’s what we used. Give everything a rough sand with a medium grit sandpaper to help the primer stick. We applied two coats of primer. Is this a necessary step? Maybe? When we applied the first coat, it didn’t look like the primer took very well, but you can see what a second coat does. It’s a quick-drying primer that shouldn’t take more than a couple hours to dry, and we think the second coat really made paint go on well.
We chose to paint with Sherwin Williams Accessible Beige SW 7036 Emerald at 75% saturation. (Thank you, Chris Loves Julia, for the inspiration! -C.) We applied two coats of paint and did not sand in between coats. The Emerald Urethane Trim paint has a self-leveler and is very easy to apply even for the novice painter. (I’ll be honest. After the first coat of primer, I was scared. But these shelves ended up looking GREAT after the paint dried! -C.)
Callie being Callie, we weren’t done there. She found a wallpaper she loved from Rifle Paper Co. and wanted to wallpaper the backs of the shelves for added detailing. (It’s peel and stick! Easy-peasy! -C.) We probably used less than half of a roll here. Lining up the pattern wasn’t complicated either; in between shelves, we just gave it our best guess.
Like I already mentioned, Callie’s goal was to use the middle upper shelf as a vanity, so we didn’t install any shelving and instead hung a mirror in this space. (A very pretty, very reasonably priced mirror, at that. -C.)
Honestly, the finished built-in turned out even than expected. Look out for part two of this post, where I’ll discuss building drawers and cabinet fronts, and installing hardware to finish this project! But what was a totally underutilized space in our home became a beautiful, functional dresser. Customizing Billy bookshelves are a great, affordable way to achieve a high-end look with a small-time budget. We hope this brings inspiration to you and future projects!
Questions or thoughts? Let me know in the comments! And if you want to pin this and save it for later, just pin the image below!