How do you take a piece of furniture and make it better? Make it a built-in. It is the proverbial cherry on top. Built-ins fit the space perfectly, offering increased functionality and aesthetics. In a small home with limited square footage, every inch counts, even vertical space, so custom built furniture that maximizes utility that is also visually minimalist is perfect. The only downside is that the item is pretty much a part of the house now, so it probably ain’t coming with you if/when you move.
I particularly like built-ins as a solution to the “baseboard problem.” Baseboards are a pretty necessary part of most homes, but they have the annoying habit of pushing furnishings an inch or more off the wall. This isn’t normally a major issue for most spaces, but every know and then you find yourself in a situation where you really wish that large, inanimate mass of wood furniture would just get itself all the way back up against the wall. But it can’t. Because, well, it is made of wood and is not a sentient being. And also because the baseboard won’t let it. It just won’t give an inch. Neither the baseboard or the furniture are willing to work with you on this problem, so you’re going to need to mediate and get everyone to play nice and move towards an amicable solution.
One such item of furniture that I’ve twice had to deal with the “baseboard problem” was a set of solid wood bookcases that my wife has had for many years. Her father bought them in NYC back in the 70s and they eventually found their way into my wife’s possession. These are well-built and sturdy with dovetail joints for the shelves. Simple but built to last forever. In the first tiny studio apartment we lived in together in Brooklyn they served as a sort of divider between the kitchen/living room and a “bedroom.” When we moved a few blocks away to a proper one-bedroom, the bookcases came with us. This is the first time we encountered the “baseboard problem.” There really wasn’t a good place in the apartment for the bookcases – not enough wall space except in a small passageway of sorts but the shelves were deep and made the passageway a bit narrower than ideal with them in it. When you’re living small, every inch counts, so one logical solution was to cut away the baseboards to match the width of the bookcases and then nest them directly against the wall. Simple. This being new construction, the walls and the floor were actually quite flat as these things go, so a bit of painter’s caulk and presto: built-in bookcases.
Of course, this doesn’t really count as a built-in in my book, but it is a nifty trick that requires very little skill, a tape measure and an oscillating multi-tool. At some point, you’ll need to repair the baseboard should you ever move and want to take your bookcases with you, which is what we did after living in that apartment for seven years, so you obviously want to plan ahead for that contingency and know that you can replace the baseboard when the time comes (it’s also quite easy).
When we moved into our next Brooklyn apartment (a pre-war 950sf two-bedroom) we wanted to bring the bookcases with us. The logical place for them was along a large wall, but this being a building built in 1939 the floors and walls were anything but square. You wouldn’t guess it looking at them, but place a bookcase up against that wall and you could see them almost pitching forward away from the wall. And given the orientation of the room, it meant that the gap would be very visible. My baseboard and caulk trick wasn’t going to work in this application. Time for the varsity and a proper fix this time.
I had seen a few tutorials about turning Ikea bookcases into built-ins and followed the same basic principles here. I started by removing the baseboards and then framing out a 2×6 base for the bookcases to rest on. This step confers a few advantages. One, shimming the base of the bookcases, to get them level, is going to be simplified. Get a level base and the shelves themselves will be level. I was also able to ensure that the bookcases were secured to the wall by driving several screws through the base and into studs in the wall. The back panel on the bookcases is a thin plywood which I wouldn’t trust to hold. I did drive some screws through the very top of the bookcases later, but the sturdy 2×6 base helped to really lock the shelves in place against the wall. I also planned to wrap the baseboard trim around them once installed so I needed to add some additional height to account for the tall baseboards. At any rate, those were my design consideations and this step was pretty simple.
With the second of the two bookcases secured to the wall, I needed to then make them look like a single, built-in unit. I used some MH Ready Patch to caulk the gaps between the two bookcases and between the back corner of each unit and the wall, although this latter gap was pretty small. Then I installed some crown molding around the top and reinstalled the baseboard, wrapping it around the front of the bookcases for a finished and built-in look.
As much I like the outcome, there are two things that have bugged me a little. First, I should have run some wiring to add additional light. I know it could be done after the fact by getting into the chase that runs around the whole room for the existing down lights so I didn’t bother to do it when putting these in, but it does create a bit of a dark void above the top of the bookcases. That leads me to the second complaint. I was tempted to figure out a way to get the top of the cases flush with the chase, but the bookcases were a few inches deeper, so it would have made for a weird and out of balance installation. If I were building totally from scratch and could set the shelf depth to whatever I wanted, that would have been the way to go.