Custom Cabinetry #renovations

We did not set out to become custom cabinet makers at the beginning of this renovation. We had assumed we would simply purchase any needed dressers and shelves from a well-known purveyor of cheap, but nice looking furniture from Sweden. But, as we got deeper into the renovation, a value started to emerge that became a guiding principle of our efforts. This value is rooted in our commitment to the environment, sustainability, connectivity, and the priceless dents and scratches that accumulate as a testament to living. With cheap furniture, it looks great in the catalogue and on the showroom floor. It even looks pretty good once it is all assembled, as long as you haven’t inadvertently chipped a corner or set a scratch. However, once that surface is marred, the entire piece of furniture looks shabby. After all our efforts to create a comfortable, cozy, clean living space, we just couldn’t bring in pieces of furniture that were going to look like junk within minutes or months of assembly.

At first, we hadn’t fully formed these thoughts. The fact was we had a space that was between a post and a wall. We wanted to fill that space with a handy set of shelves that could serve as a wireless router centre and a charging station for mobile devices. We tried to find something pre-made that we could just slot into the opening, but there was nothing we could fit, or modify, that would look half decent and serve the purpose we had in mind. We decided we would have to build something ourselves.

Had we ever build custom cabinetry before? Well, no. Did we know what we were doing? A little. We measured, cut, glued, finished, and installed our first piece of oak plywood cabinet. It looked fantastic! Wow, we thought, wouldn’t it be great if we used this same method and materials for the linen closet unit? We can hang it at the same elevation as the charging station so the shelf heights match. Yes, let’s do it. These cabinets are going to be much tougher than anything we can buy, and with each ding and dent they will acquire a patina of history, the history of our family, our friends, our tenants, living in our space over time. The furniture does not become shabby with age, it acquires a history of life, which in turn, imbues it with a life of its own.

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We went ahead and built our second unit, a set of shelves custom fit into an alcove for linens: towels, bedsheets, pillowcases, wash clothes, etc. With this unit I made a discovery: we could hang the shelf unit from the wall, leaving the floor beneath it open and easy for cleaning. Ease of cleaning, that is a value that guides my design and installation every step of the renovation. With this unit we ran into difficulties because I didn’t understand the material relationships between raw plywood, PL glue, and Pentraguard (the sealant I was adapting for finishing furniture as well as concrete floors). Not only that, in my efforts to clean up my material missteps with the sander, I made my own gouges and scrapes on the plywood. With this unit I realized I had beginners luck with charging station and now I was actually learning how to put these cabinets together.

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Undaunted, we decided to build a third unit for the bathroom, to make a nice set of shelves beside the toilet. Instead of having a toilet paper roll and a magazine rack, we put in a small set of shelves to hold extra toilet paper, washcloths, hand towels and reading material. Suspended on the wall, it will be easy to clean the floor, and there will always be extra rolls of toilet paper easily accessible from the throne. This unit went together much better, I was improving my assembly process – sand, pentraguard, glue, repeat. And my planing skills – angle away from the plywood when planing down the cladding, watch the flow of the grain, plane with the grain, not against it. And my sanding skills – just once over, no more, with each layer.

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By now we had three matching built in cabinets and they were very pleasing to our eyes and our aesthetic sensibilities. Well, we needed a broom closet and access panels. So we used the same materials and methods for those pieces. The built-in cabinetry was taking on a presence in the suite, a set piece made up of the composite of these various pieces, they were all different shapes and sizes, but they all matched in tone, style, and installation.

Well, that brings us to today. We are now building two closet organizers that will be installed, suspended in the bedroom closets. They will also be made of oak plywood clad with solid oak trim. They are our most ambitious projects yet, both in scale and complexity. But we persevere and today we are trimming the shelves a saw curf to make sure everything is going to fit together properly.

We are happy we didn’t sink our dwindling resources into furniture destined for a landfill. Instead we sank our time and energies into transforming materials into timeless pieces of furniture that will tell the story of the life in our suite as surely as our photographs and videos. I feel good about what I have attempted and learned. If you had asked me at the beginning if I could build a cabinet, I would have said, “No.” Now, I can definitely say, “Yes.” And it is definitely worth it. There is another part to this that I only just thought of: I built these, we built these, and if we can build these, who knows what else we can accomplish?

Let's not forget the sweet little oak base for the washer/dryer unit.

Let’s not forget the sweet little oak base for the washer/dryer unit.

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