Our bedroom project had been on hold for months due to job commitments, and the looks coming from Mrs W were getting worse, so when work finally calmed down I figured I needed to win back some brownie points. This led to ‘the wardrobe project’.
The freestanding full depth wardrobe we had before made the room feel small, so in order to maximise floor space and storage space at the same time, I convinced Mrs W that a shallow fitted wardrobe would best meet our needs. We both like the traditional bespoke hand painted look but to commission a 3.6meter stretch of handmade wardrobes would have cost a fortune so I decided to tackle this project myself, with the help of Ikea and PAX.
I spent some time researching what it was about the expensive wardrobes that made us like them, and realised that they had some key features:
- Raised base with a moulded skirting.
- Wardrobe sections ‘framed’ by solid wood borders.
- A solid looking cornice or top moulding.
- Sections with different depths rather than a completely straight run.
- Combination of shelving and cupboards.
- Panelled doors, some with mirrors.
- Good use of LED lighting.
- Hand painted eggshell/satin finish.
I used this list to work out how I could build custom parts around PAX frames to achieve the look we desired. After a lot of sketches I began to figure out what might work.
The first step was to build a platform to lift the wardrobe further off the floor and achieve that traditional quality look. I used CLS timber for this purpose, laid flat, cut using a mitre saw and simply screwed together. It was important the platform was perfect since all the other pieces would be referenced to it. I spent a lot of time ensuring the sections were the right distance from the rear wall and making sure all the angles were perfectly square:
Small squares of 3mm plywood came in handy to level it, and quite a few were needed because the gripper rods under the carpet at the back made that part higher. I used metal brackets to screw the platform to the chipboard floor, through the carpet. The whole idea was that if we decided we didn’t like it in five years’ time, the whole thing could be removed without much impact on the room. Cutting chipboard to size to cover the top was trickier than I thought due to the different depths of the sections, but once that was done it was screwed over the top. It’s important during this step to ensure that the edges of the chipboard are perfectly in-line with the edges of the CLS, or the skirting board later would not be square:
Now the platform was perfectly level and perfectly sized it was time for the next stage of the project: the PAX frames. The carcass is formed by one 210 x 100 x 35 and five 210 x 50 x 35 white stained oak frames. With hindsight, two of the narrow frames should have been the plain white finish as they were to be painted white later, and Zinsser primer sticks better to flat than the grained effect melamine. I purchased all the internal fittings at the same time. Again, with hindsight I would have chosen plain white shelves for the far right and far left frames to make them easier to paint later.
When building the standard PAX frames I needed to make two modifications. The first is quite subtle and took me a while to figure out when I was designing the whole thing initially. But if this is done correctly it will avoid a long narrow gap existing at the bottom of all the wardrobes when it’s finished. The sketch below shows a side view of the normal PAX wardrobe construction:
As you can see, the kickboard is set back from the sides of the frame, which makes sense normally, but for this hack we need it to lie flush with the edges of the sides. If it is not flush then the gap marked ‘PROBLEM’ will result in a gap behind the filler pieces we will add later. This wouldn’t look great. The sketch below shows how the kickboard position is moved such that it is flush with the edge of the sides:
The parts drawn in pink are the extra pieces to be added later – the CLS platform, a skirting board and a filler piece. You can see that by moving the kickboard flush, the filler can run across the fonts of the wardrobe frames, with no gap to the kickboard, and, if positioned correctly, the skirting board will bridge the platform edge and filler perfectly. This means no gaps, and no fiddling around with different thickness filler pieces, which would have driven me mad.
The first modification to the PAX frames was therefore to re-drill the holes for the bottom kickboard dowels to make them flush with the edges of the PAX sides as just discussed. Just making an offset (in one axis) on the existing holes wouldn’t work as the offset was small and the holes would join up. Luckily by flipping the kickboards the dowels end up sufficiently far from their old positions, thus avoiding this problem. I made an acrylic template consisting of a rectangular and an L-shaped piece screwed together in order to get the holes perfect every time.
This procedure was repeated on all the PAX frames. With hindsight, I would have made the template double sided so that it could work for both sides of each PAX frame without having to unscrew and flip over the L-shaped piece.
With the PAX frames constructed the assembly now looked like this:
Luckily the width of the room perfectly fit the correct number of PAX frames and required gaps. However, this did mean that the far right and left frames were tight to the wall and as a result were sitting slightly on the existing skirting boards. This led to the second customisation, just for the far right and left frames, which was to plane 5-10mm from the bottom of the offending sides and add an offset piece of chipboard, screwed to the side. This extra piece sits away from the skirting board and firmly on the platform:
I joined the pairs of adjacent PAX frames with the usual supplied joining screws and stepped back to consider all the woodwork which was about to follow.
Two lengths of 8 x 2 inch planed timber were created by screwing and gluing 6 x 2 inch to 2 x 2 inch lengths. These are crucial parts of the overall structure, and are screwed through the sides of the middle wardrobe pair and also the outer wardrobe pairs. The front face of this piece must be flush with the doors of the PAX unit when they are closed. I used a piece of wood as a spacer to make sure this offset was correct. You’ll see later how these pieces achieve the look of a solid wardrobe carcass rather than a modern door to door look.
Two frames were then created from 3 x 1 inch planed timber for the far left and far right PAX units. These would be part shelves and part cupboards and again to make the wardrobe look traditional, a wide boarder is needed here. Getting the upright pieces to fit perfectly to the uneven wall was a challenge. I found the best way to do this was to place the wooden length against the uneven wall then slide a pen flat against the wall, with its point on the wood, down the front face. The pen creates a line on the wood which is perfectly offset from the wall by half of the diameter of the pen. A plane or saw can be used to cut to this line, and the piece will then perfectly fit the wall. It’s best to plane to this line at an angle, making the final adjustments easier. The frames were completed by adding small cross pieces at the top and bottom. Once cut and marked, the frame pieces were secured to one another with dowels using a dowelling jig. They were not glued yet as further pieces needed to be added later. The frames were attached to the PAX wardrobes with small plastic angle brackets.
Remember the filler pieces I mentioned at the beginning? Well these were now cut and added to the bottoms of the rest of the PAX wardrobe frames. They were screwed to the sides of the PAX units and also the kickboards. Without the kickboard modification mentioned earlier, there would have been a nasty gap here between the filler pieces and the kickboards, but the fix worked well and it all looked very tidy. With these fillers in place, their front face was not only flush with the closed doors of the PAX units but also the edges of the platform, as intended. Here is how it all looked so far:
Next came the skirting which was cut from 6 x 1 inch planed timber, mitred in the corners and made to fit to the existing wall skirting boards using a contour gauge. The skirting is screwed to the 8 x 1 inch uprights and the filler pieces, and also stops the wardrobes from sliding backwards on the platform.
Then, 2 x 2 inch planed timber was used on the top of the wardrobes, again to achieve that solid carcass look. I mitred and screwed these pieces to the ends of the 8 x 2 inch uprights and up and through the tops of the PAX units. Divider pieces were added to the left and right frame –dowel joints were used here again and these frames were then disassembled and reassembled with glue. Two smaller frames were constructed using dowel joints and glue to form the small doors for the lower cupboards. They were hinged with solid brass butt hinges to the left and right frames and magnetic catches were a nice finishing touch. I used standard Bergsbo doors for this project, which are later painted. The whole thing now looked like this:
The small cupboard doors were routed from the back to accept 6mm ply panels which were glued and pinned into place. The top molding, or cornice, was mitred and screwed using small blocks to the 2 x 2 inch top pieces that were fitted earlier. Then I used the router again to create a simple molding on the top edge of the skirting. Stepping back it began to feel like it was all coming together nicely. All the custom pieces could still be removed easily at this point. This is how it looked:
I then dismantled all the parts and laid them on the ground to begin painting. Two coats of water based primer were used on all the bare timber, with a light sand using 240 grit paper between coats. Here they are after their first coat of primer – this is a handy photo as you can probably make out what all the pieces are for:
After a lot of research and tests with various primers which claimed to be suitable for melamine, Zinsser BIN was chosen for the job. This stuff is really quite tough, adhering very well to the shiny surface. However, it dries very very quickly giving you about 5 seconds before the paint will begin to drag, if using a brush. Using a small roller gives a little more time. The insides of the far right and left PAX wardrobes were lightly sanded, wiped with mineral spirits and then primed with two coats of Zinsser BIN primer. I was seeing stars with the fumes after doing this, despite all the windows being open. Also, the fronts and edges of all the doors were primed in the same way, as were the IKEA shelves which would be used in the far left and right units. As mentioned before, the primer sticks better to the flat white melamine than the grain effect melamine so with hindsight I would have used the white PAX units and shelves for the left and right units. Then all the timber pieces and doors, the left and right PAX units and shelves for those units were coated in two coats of Craig and Rose eggshell Roman White paint. It may sound a little mad to paint the white IKEA doors, but the hand painted look adds to the whole illusion that this is a very expensive custom traditional wardrobe, not to mention the shade of white needing to match everything else.
Then for the finishing touches. I added LED lighting strip to the insides of the right and left units to light the shelves, sticking the strip to the back of the frames I had made. I got a local shop to cut mirror glass to fit into each of the square recesses in the middle three doors. Five pieces of industrial grade double sided sticky foam are used to stick each mirror to the recess, so they shouldn’t fall out. The mirrors were a great addition and really complete the look.
The screw holes in the skirting board were filled and painted as were the small gaps in the cornice mitre joints. The photo below shows the finished wardrobe project, minus knobs, which were added later.
After a lot of searching around we finally ordered and fitted the some lovely solid brass, antique finish knobs to the wardrobe and cupboard doors:
I hope the description is detailed enough for others to use a similar approach. You really can achieve the look of an expensive custom built traditional wardrobe at a much lower cost, if you have a bit of dedication and a few good tools. Another benefit is that you can use the huge array of internal PAX fittings to get the perfect arrangement inside. Also, the approach is very modular so if one part got damaged it would be fairly easy to remove a section and replace it.
Happy hacking, and feel free to ask any questions!