The Project in a Nutshell
When faced with a no-closet master bedroom in our Victorian home, we hacked the IKEA PAX system to create a character-filled, built-in wardrobe system that looks original. The room still has great natural light, terrific traffic flows, and now ample storage in-room. And we did it in a way that elevated the room instead of taking away from it.
Read below for a really in-depth view of how we designed, planned, and built our Ikea PAX hack into our 150 year old home. If you want to skip to the main sections, they are:
- The Design Challenge
- Our Design Principles
- Deciding on IKEA PAX
- Design Concepts for Trim – and how we tested them
- Getting a truly built-in look
- Trimming the IKEA doors
- Painting the PAX
- The ‘After’ – our #ProjectCloset IKEA PAX hack
You can also check out the pinned highlight on our Instagram, labelled #ProjectCloset, with an end-to-end timeline of difference phases of the project.
When we moved into our 1880 Victorian home in Prince Edward County, we had what we would call ‘little-to-no’ closet space. Like a lot of old houses, ample storage for lots of clothes just wasn’t a thing. We knew this would be a challenge for us when we moved in, but hadn’t really put a lot of thought into how we would overcome it – until a few weeks of living with all of our clothes still in cardboard boxes spread across a few guest rooms.
Some of our bedrooms have tiny closets – by no means walk-ins. Our master bedroom, though, had NO closet. We lived with a dresser in here (which used to be our dining room sideboard) but it just wasn’t enough – even to bridge the gap to a down-the-road renovation.
One day over breakfast, having just done a three-room, 35-minute, through the dark of a winter morning hunt for a sweater – we decided right then and there we’d take on the closet right away. #ProjectCloset was born. We, of course, launched #ProjectCloset just a couple of weeks before our wedding. What could go wrong?
What the bedroom looked like before we bought the house (MLS):
The day we moved in:
Our cardboard ‘closet’ after we moved in:
The wall we had to work with, was this 88″ section that divides the master from the ensuite. We had a dresser here as an interim clothes storage solution:
The Design Principles
We borrow a lot of the methods we’ve used in our design work in our jobs and apply them to our projects around the house. For example, when taking on a room or a storage solution, we tend to set Design Principles – in other words, what is the criteria that this design must meet in order work for us? What would need to be true for this solution to be successful? (Yes, this is a strategy consultant’s playbook for interior design).
Most of our Design Principles can fit into these three buckets, a good guide if you’re thinking about how to build some criteria for your own DIY:
1- Loved by Us:
In #ProjectCloset’s case, this category meant something along the lines of:
Principle: have all our ‘staple’ clothing items accessible right in our bedroom
Principle: elevate the feel of our room, not detract from it, and use #ProjectCloset as a springboard for transforming it from bare-feeling sleeping quarters (albeit with some beautiful windows) to that of a private retreat
Principle: make Kevin and Sarah’s respective sections easily configured to their specific needs (taller storage for Sarah’s clothes, compartments for jewelry; drawers and drawers for Kevin’s extensive black t-shirt collection)
Principle: maintain or enhance our favourite attributes of the room: a sense of symmetry with the two front-facing windows, traffic flows, and massive amounts of natural daylight
2- Loved by the House:
This category is simple: will it look like it belongs in the house? Taking on our 1880 Victorian Italianate house has definitely brought more of our attention to this category than, say, the modern and less ornate townhome we lived in before. The main principle here:
Principle: make #ProjectCloset look like it was always in the house, is built-in, and belongs
With 14″ baseboard mouldings, some signature old house sloped floors, and a character-filled 150 year home, our work was cut out for us. (This category doesn’t always mean perfectly matching every aspect of the project to the home, but it does need to feel tied in to the overall feel and aesthetic we’re after.)
3- Loved by our Budget:
As much as we’d love to go Kim Kardashian on this thing and have a live petting zoo in our walk-in dressing room / champagne cellar, we refrained.
Principle: do for for $2000 or less, all-in.
Sure, it’s a closet and there are plenty of good reasons to justify going all out here, but we know there’s a bigger rework of our second floor in the future and a need to hold some budget back for our ensuite upgrades in a few months.
Deciding to hack IKEA PAX
We ultimately decided on the IKEA PAX system as our base for building in a wardrobe along the wall shown above (the one with the midcentury dresser on it just after move-in).
We hesitated on this, to be perfectly honest. “An IKEA product in an old Victorian house?” But with enough research, we found professional designers and DIYers who had done amazing things with the PAX system as their base. It provides a modular system of frames, organizers, and components that would save a lot of money and time doing those things ‘custom’. It also was simple and minimal enough to be built up – with baseboard, crown moulding, and panel moulding to have it blend into the house and not think twice.
With PAX, it actually became easier to see how we could meet all of our #ProjectCloset Design Principles with one system. We’d just need a little work to really make it everything we wanted.
Because of PAX’s modularity, it meant we could piece together the right components that worked perfectly on what would become the wardrobe wall in our bedroom. You essentially pick a frame size (and colour), fill it with organizing compartments, and pick doors as optional – sliding or hinged.
We opted for the tallest and biggest wardrobe size – two of them – side by side against the wall. Sarah’s on the left, Kevin’s on the right. This would give us almost 8ft high, 6.5 ft wide, and 2ft deep of glorious closet space in total.
You can see where the two PAX units are located in our bedroom on this floor plan view:
IKEA has an online configuration tool you can use that helps lay out your wardrobe and then seamlessly make sure you order the right parts that all work together. It doesn’t work in all browsers (including ours when we sat down to do it), so we just set ours up manually and used Pinterest to find examples of different combinations of things like drawers, rods, trays, etc.
It can be really overwhelming – there are SO many possibilities, which is both the blessing and the curse of PAX’s modularity.
It can also be easy to get seduced by fancy organizing components that – when you come back down to Earth – just don’t work for your particular needs. As such, our Design Principle of making sure it worked for our specific needs was a really good clarifying filter here. For example, as Pinterest-worthy as entire row of pants-hanging devices may look, the reality is that Kevin’s wardrobe consists of a pretty standard uniform of three pairs of pants – and a small handful of special occasion pants that don’t need to live in this exact closet. So, we’ll pass on the pants-hanging technology. But that’s just us.
Bottom line: visit your closet as-is today and actually take stock of what kinds of things you need access to. Design for your needs – not Pinterest’s!
Design Concepts – and how to test them before committing
While we waited for all the PAX components to arrive, we started to explore concepts for the overall look and feel of the outside of the wardrobe. No doubt, you can buy and build a PAX system and just sit it in a room – and even then it still looks clean, organized, and potentially a big improvement for your current state closet (like our cardboard boxes…).
But, in our case because of our Design Principles and nature of the house, we knew we had some customizing and design work to think about:
-adding baseboard that joins up with the existing baseboard in our room to make it built in
-doing the same with crown moulding along the top
-doing something with the 4 doors (2 per wardrobe frame) so as not to stay looking like stock IKEA parts (it’s okay IKEA, WSLY – we still love you). IKEA does, by the way, sell a variety of doors including some with various trim – however we chose to go with a plain door and add our own trim to better match the style of the house
To help us figure out how we might style the baseboard, crown, and doors – we looked to Pinterest and Instagram to build a mood board with various looks we liked, and ultimately honed in on the design elements we liked from those that would also meet our criteria. You can see some of the examples in our Pinterest board, which I’ve linked to below in the photo. Some of these pins are for specific trim styles, some for the way sides are built up, others for hardware – so it’s a bit messy but as a general repository for saving ideas we liked, it worked perfectly.
Once we found a whole bunch of inspiration that seemed to click with us and our Design Principles, we found cheap and clever ways to actually ‘try them on’ before committing or spending anything. When we do design work for clients at work, we often follow the mantra of “a prototype is worth 1000 meetings” (credit to our friends at design firm IDEO for this tattoo-worthy mantra). At home, same goes before smashing in a wall or purchasing materials.
(This is the part of the blog post where I need to profusely apologize to professional interior designers who have deep skill, tools, and methods for how to research, conceive, mock up, and validate design ideas. We unfortunately only have 1/10th of those things, so make do with what we can.)
Method 1 for testing your design ideas – the iPhone markup tool:
Take a photo of the space as-is. Sketch what could be with. new design. Show the people who will use it. Improve. It’s that simple!
Here’s an early sketch we shared on Instagram that got people excited and even this spurred a whole bunch of conversation about #ProjectCloset and how it could be designed.
It’s rough, but it gave us an idea of the scale (we knew it would tower above the doorways), the vertical lines and implications of having four tall and narrow closet doors, and the idea of essentially building the closet that would span this entire wall:
Method 2 for testing your design ideas – use tools you might already have:
As two people who have worked as management consultants, we know our ins-and-outs with PowerPoint (ask Kevin’s sister about the wedding toast he prepared using slides like an annual corporate report…).
We used PowerPoint to place a photo of the bare PAX unit once arrived and assembled to test how different moulding patterns would look in the room. All we did was use the line tool and trace out the boxes for moulding, add a line for chair rail, etc. Here are three concepts for trim that we came up with, based on our Pinterest examples and original sketches:
In our Instagram highlight, #ProjectCloset, you can see the PowerPoint slides I made behind the scenes to do these mockups. If you know MS Paint, or Apple Keynote, or Google Slides – go for it! The point isn’t to be perfect, but to be slightly smarter than if you didn’t try out different looks and feels.
Before we started #ProjectCloset, our tendency was to go with each of the 4 closet doors trimmed with their own panel mould box. Once we sketched it, though, we realized how tall and lanky each would look. Instead, the sketches helped us realize that we loved Concept 2 – it was grand and tall, but the panel moulding spanning across two doors was going to help us avoid the tall and skinny effect.
Method 3 for testing your design ideas – build a throw-away version:
For this one, we used painters tape to prototype the moulding pattern on the doors so we could live with it for a few days (we still had work to do around the base and crown, which I’ll cover in the next section).
This helped us test proportion and also usability. It helped us figure out where moulding would sit in relation to a comfortable and ergonomic location for a handle – something we didn’t think of when only drawing on a screen.
Getting a truly built-in look
Aside from being large and awkward, assembling a PAX system is actually quite simple. If you’ve assembled a piece of IKEA furniture at all, you can assemble a PAX. I cleared out a lot of the room and made space to do this – and started building. I needed to get a view of how the cabinet was structured, once built, so I could start to plan the build-in. Here’s a quick photo of the first frames getting built:
Because we wanted an as-built-in-as-possible look, we faced a few challenges that are probably unique to an old home and some of our needs, namely related to the sloped floor.
1- our floors really sloped along this wall, meaning we had some levelling to do
This is a challenge for a few reasons. First, to have all of the organizer drawers and closet doors sit square was going to be key to their longevity and ability to work in this location. We had to level the cabinets. That meant levelling two cabinets across a sloping floor to be level, yes, but also level with each other – so that all the lines and trim line up when it’s done.
2- our super-high baseboard meant the PAX wouldn’t sit flush against the wall
Our house is blessed with this super-tall 14″ baseboard. We didn’t want to rip off original baseboard and start messing with the walls. If we kept the baseboard on, though, and just placed the cabinets against the wall we’d face two challenges: a big gap against the wall (because the PAX would be set against the baseboard, which sticks out from the wall) AND, if just sitting on the floor and we wrapped baseboard around the base of the PAX, the baseboard is actually higher than the PAX base – meaning it would interfere with the bottom of the door.
The answer: build it up on a DIY frame
The answer to both these challenges was the build a frame out of 2x4s that would lift the PAX up off the ground so that the bottom of the PAX was higher than the baseboard level. This would mean:
-the PAX would sit just on top of the baseboard and nicely flush with its back against the wall
-when the baseboard gets wrapped around the sides and front of the PAX, the doors would be up much higher and not blocked by the baseboard
Lots of blogs that cover PAX hacks build a simple, flat frame that sits on the floor and then lift their PAX onto it, like this hack Kim Mayo covered in her excellent and detailed post (that we referenced many times for inspiration while building ours!):
If your floors are uneven or sloped, though, a square base like this set on an un-level floor means an un-level PAX.
Instead, we built structural wooden legs – one for under each corner of each PAX. Think stilts, but each stilt was a slightly different length to ensure that – when butted against the wall and side-to-side – the PAX units sat nicely level, despite the floor sloping beneath it.
The photo below shows the progression from no legs, to one cabinet with legs, to both cabinets with legs. Because the floors slopes down from the doorway on the left, each leg going that was was slightly longer to ultimately make both cabinets together sit perfectly level. We drew a level line on the wall – where the back of the base of the PAX would line up on the wall – and used a measuring tape to get the distance from that line to the floor in each place a leg was going.
Once levelled and satisfied with how the tops and the bottoms of the PAX were aligned, we bolted the two cabinets to each other and then to studs in the wall. IKEA provides hardware and instructions to do this.
Success – we had our PAX up and levelled in place! Now it looked like an awkward tall skinny box awaiting trim and doors.
Adding the Crown, Baseboard, and Sides
Even though we raised the PAX units to fit snug against the wall, there were still some gaps that, if not filled, would have ruined our plans for a perfectly built-in look. Sure we could have caulked these gaps, but it would never look perfect.
Instead, we used pieces of MDF to frame up the sides of the PAX. This had the benefit of closing the wall gap, making the side of the cabinet look trimmed out, and also giving us something at the top and bottom to secure the crown and baseboard to.
You can see the MDF added around the side in the photo below – strips along the wall and flush with the front of the cabinet, and then horizontal pieces to nicely frame each side. This gave us a nice surface to nail the crown moulding into (we won’t cover crown moulding DIY in this post – lots of resources on that around the web).
The crown was simple enough because the cabinets had been nicely levelled – so we just had to measure, mitre, and nail using our air compressor and brad nailer. Our mitre gaps would be filled and caulked toward the end.
For the baseboard, though, a different challenge. Yes, the bottom of the PAX was level, but the floor was still sloped. We had to make a decision to have the baseboard either
a) follow the slope of the floor and be un-level, or
b) be nice and level with the cabinets, but depart from the slope of the floor
Even though a little more tedious, we opted for b) to keep with the new level-ness of the cabinets – even though the baseboard would get ‘taller’ as the floor sloped away from it across the front of the cabinet. This was the right answer for us – mostly because the bed would run parallel with the PAX in the room, just 3ft or so away, meaning you’d never have a clear line of sight dead-on of the cabinets.
To do this, we scribed the bottom of the baseboard to follow the line of the floor, so the top of the baseboard could sit level just under the cabinets. Measure, mitre, nail, nail nail. All set for the front.
The sides took slightly more labour – because we wanted the baseboard on the PAX to run as seamlessly as possible into the existing baseboard. To do that, we coped the side pieces of baseboard. Here, we used a contour gauge to get a perfect outline of wall baseboard. We used that contour to trace and cut the exact pattern (or as close as we could!) onto the PAX baseboard using a jigsaw.
We’d ultimately end up caulking, filling, priming, and painting – so if your cuts and mitres aren’t perfect, don’t sweat in-progress flaws!
See how the two baseboards don’t perfectly match or align? That’s because we couldn’t source the *exact* same baseboard profile as the original. And, remember we had to alter the piece of baseboard across the front for the sloping floor? That meant that one side of the front baseboard was shorter than the other and, to meet at the corner, the side pieces of baseboard had to match those heights.
Trimming and painting the IKEA doors
We purchased the most basic IKEA PAX doors because we knew we wanted to add our own trim and hardware.
To do that, we purchased some chair rail (we used chair because we wanted it to be particularly chunky and substantial moulding), and followed a few online tutorials for how to mitre wall panel moulding – creating two boxes – a tall and a short – across each two-door spread:
This photo shows how I laid the doors flat to do this part of the project (the handles were just sitting there to see how they’d look). I did all the cuts at once in the garage using my mitre saw – then built a little 2×4 spacer exactly 4″ long to use between the mouldings and the edges.
When applying moulding like this to a wall, typically you’d use an adhesive and nails. I opted to instead use a really strong construction adhesive and no nails. IKEA boards like this aren’t the most resilient, so I was afraid of blowing a hole through the doors with the power of the nail gun.
I let the moulding glue dry for several hours before moving them – and then put the doors up later.
Painting a PAX Hack project
With the doors and their moulding on and hung, it was time to caulk, fill, sand, prime, and paint. Whew!
We used Elmer’s ProBond Max to fill all the nail holes, mitre gaps, and seems we didn’t want in the finished product. And then lightly sanded the filler to get a nice flush, smooth surface with the rest of the material in those spots.
Along the wall, crown bottoms, and baseboard tops we used paintable caulking to make everything look seamless and totally built in.
Readyyyy to paintt… oh. IKEA stuff. How do you paint it? If you’ve ever attempted, you know the pain of trying to get latex paint to stick to the finish IKEA uses on their products. To get around this, you need to scuff all the IKEA surfaces with a 120 grit sandpaper and use a shellac-based primer that paint will really stick to. It’s an extra couple of hours of work but saves endless headaches down the road when paint starts chipping on unprimed surfaces.
We used this Zinsser B-I-N Shellac-based Primer and primed the whole cabinet – doors, trim, and all – to get a beautiful, paint-ready surface. Even this step was super exciting becuase, for the first tim,e we saw every part of the cabinet transformed a uniform colour and finish (even if ugly, grey-ish primer) – and it was the motivated we needed to get this thing across the finish line! This stuff smells like the world’s strongest gin and tonic so if that’s your thing, enjoy, but if not – open the windows and even consider wearing a respirator mask. It’s strong but the good news is it doesn’t linger like oil-based primers.
Finally, we painted. We chose Benjamin Moore Chantilly Lace in a semi-gloss finish. Chantilly is of course the colour we’ve used through the entire rest of the house, and we wanted the wardrobe to blend in seamlessly. We chose semi-gloss though – instead of the matte we typically use on. the walls and pearl on the baseboard – because we wanted the finish to hold up to lots of use as a high-traffic area and we wanted that little bit of extra reflection to bounce as much light into the room from the three big windows.
Even though the primer looked relatively white when on, you can see what even the first coat of Chantilly did to start to transform this wall-now-wardrobe:
While I was painting, I ended up painting the entire master bedroom – also in Chantilly Lace, but in pearl finish.
Here’s what the room in general looked like after painting:
The ‘After’ – #ProjectCloset IKEA PAX hack
Let’s take a look at the (almost) finished product! I say almost because we still have plans to add integrated lighting above each hanging rod and inside each drawer.
But, first, a reminder of what we started with: a closet-less room and, after we moved in, an insufficient dresser and cardboard boxes!
And, to transform this space, we set the following Design Principles as our criteria for success:
Loved by Us:
- Have all our ‘staple’ clothing items accessible right in our bedroom
- Elevate the feel of our room, not detract from it, and use #ProjectCloset as a springboard for transforming it from bare-feeling sleeping quarters (albeit with some beautiful windows) to that of a private retreat
- Make Kevin and Sarah’s respective sections easily configured to their specific needs (taller storage for Sarah’s clothes, compartments for jewelry; drawers and drawers for Kevin’s extensive black t-shirt collection)
- Maintain or enhance our favourite attributes of the room: a sense of symmetry with the two front-facing windows, traffic flows, and massive amounts of natural daylight
Loved by the house:
- Make #ProjectCloset look like it was always in the house, is built-in, and belongs
Loved by our budget:
- Do #ProjectCloset for $2000 or less, all-in.
And, finally, our new beautiful wardrobe that looks like it was always part of our new old home:
A special thanks to lots of people who helped us complete this project via inspiration and know-how: Rick Morris, Quinte Paint & Wallpaper, Erin Kestenbaum, Shelley at Crazy Wonderful, Tiffany Leigh Design, Chris and Julia Marcum.