Sat. Jun 15th, 2024

We absolutely love the built-in storage under our basement stairs. But we filled it quickly and knew we needed more!

As part of our family room design, we decided to build cabinets along one of the walls. There were many great options and Pinterest helped us come up with a few ideas.

After a lot of thought, we decided on dark cabinets with a bookshelf on the end:

The open bookshelf would create a nice visual at the bottom of the stairs since without it you would just see the side of the cabinet as you come down the stairs.

I knew that I didn’t want to do custom cabinets again, mostly because custom cabinets are expensive and I thought I could handle doing something in this straight-forward space. I looked into different cabinet options at Ikea and settled on the Sektion kitchen series since they include a 90″ tall cabinet (and our ceilings are ~96-97″) and they have the nicest fronts of any Ikea cabinet (or so I think anyways).


I have about 160″ from the bottom of the stairs to the end of the wall, leaving a good length for cabinets. I played around with different cabinet widths (the Sektion series has a decent number of options) and settled on a 5-cabinet configuration (18″ cabinet against the far wall and then four 24″ cabinets). The open bookshelf at the stair end would be whatever size I needed to have a square landing at the bottom of the stairs (~12-13″).

To achieve a similar look as my Pinterest find, I settled on Ikea’s voxtorp door front series in dark grey. The doors have an integrated handle, giving it a very clean look. I decided to go with 30″ doors on the bottom and 60″ doors on the top.

After we had settled on the design, Alex mentioned that we should probably have a spot for two speakers so we could have surround sound, so back to the drawing board I went and modified the design to have an open cabinet on the far right for a speaker. The other speaker would sit in the open bookshelf on the left. So basically I’d have two open shelves on each end, but the one against the far wall would be the same colour as the cabinet doors since I didn’t want to accent it. You’ll see…


Because of covid, there were major issues in Ikea’s supply chain and the cabinets were out of stock everywhere. I checked online stock almost daily and followed ever-changing in-stock dates. Finally 17 cabinets were delivered to our nearby Ikea and I immediately bought the four I needed. There seemed to be a glitch on their website, so I also managed to get free delivery!

The first step was installing the rail that the cabinets will hang from. Since my end cabinet will actually be two separate cabinets (more on that later), and the top cabinet will need to come out further than its neighbouring cabinets (also more on that later), I essentially had 3 rails to install.

Cutting the rail was probably the biggest pain, but likely because my blade was duller than it should have been. I was careful to cut the rail to the same width as the cabinets.

The rails were then hung 2 3/8″ higher than the height of the cabinet (in my case, at 92 3/8″ from the floor). This allows for the 4″ feet that sit below the cabinet.

Most of the cabinet installation is a two person job, but one of us had to watch the kids so I was alone to do almost all of the installation. Getting the rail at the right height and level wasn’t easy, but I managed.

The other fun challenge I had was that most Sektion cabinets are installed on drywalled walls. But since I’m going to make the cabinets look built-in, I didn’t need to drywall the wall. And it’s a good thing I didn’t because the rail needs to be attached every 12″ on the wall. My studs were 16″ on centre (like most sensible walls) so I also had the job of moving and adding studs so I’d have somewhere to screw into every 12″. Rebuilding the wall was definitely annoying, but I’d much rather have the rail screwed into studs than just drywall. Technically I could have thrown a sheet of drywall on and then screwed into the drywall, but I still think I would have had trouble hitting a stud when I needed to, so it was much easier to just redo the studs. I also could have added blocking, but I felt like it was pretty much the same amount of work, so why not just move the studs.

Once the rails were in place, I began putting the cabinets together and hanging them. The cabinets are cleverly designed and fairly easy to put together. Once I got the hang of it, I could put a cabinet together in under 20 minutes.

I had Alex help me hang the cabinets, since this step really requires 2 people. He also helped me level them and connect them together for a fully seamless look.

I was planning on skipping the feet to have a custom toe kick height but the feet let you level the units and attach an Ikea toe-kick easily. The feet have mixed reviews online, but I actually found them to be fairly sturdy and the self-leveling feature is essential. Without it, I’m not sure how I would have leveled them or gotten the units to be flush with one another.

For the far right cabinet, I have a 30″ cabinet on the bottom and a 60″ cabinet on top. The cabinet on top will not have a door, so I needed to install it further away from the wall so that the base cabinet is flush with the doors (so basically I needed to bring the cabinet out from the wall by the exact thickness of the doors). Also, Ikea doesn’t make a 60″ cabinet (they make 20, 30, 40, 50, 80, 90) so I had to make my own (more on that later).

The bottom 30″ cabinet, which is in line with the rest of the cabinets, doesn’t have the option for feet (since it’s supposed to be hung) so I had to drill holes in the bottom so I could attach the feet. If I had thought about it before I finished building the cabinet, I could have used the bottom of the tall cabinet (since it will just be hung). Unfortunately once the back is nailed on, you can’t take the cabinet apart and it’s basically impossible to undo it without breaking it (I know because I tried). So I used the bottom piece from a tall cabinet (with the holes for feet) and created a template to drill into the 30″ cabinet bottom.

For the 60″ cabinet on the top half, I already had a 90″ cabinet that I bought before we decided we needed an open shelf, so I kept it and cut it to length. I installed the bottom cabinet in place so I would have the exact measurement I needed for the top cabinet (which was 60 1/16″). Then using the table saw, I cut both side pieces to the right length. I made sure to cut the bottom off since the top has the rail attachment piece. I also cut the backing piece so it was the correct length. It worked surprisingly well, with very little chipping.

Once the pieces were cut, I had to re-drill 4 holes in each piece so it could attach to the bottom piece. Using the original bottom pieces that were now cut off, I measured the original hole depth (marking spare drill bits with green tape to check my holes) and then drilled all the way through the holes in my scrap piece, which would become my template. I then placed the template on top of my newly cut sides, lined them up, and used the holes to drill into the cut pieces. I probably should have used clamps to be sure it didn’t shift as I was drilling, but I was careful and used my body weight to hold everything in place.

Once all my pieces were cut and drilled, I sanded everything with 120 grit sandpaper. The primer I bought is specifically made to adhere to shiny surfaces (like tile, laminate or melamine) but recommends sanding first to remove any shine. The scratch marks were subtle, but the sanding definitely helped create a rougher surface for the primer to stick.

Painting Melamine

To paint the cabinet pieces, I first had to make sure they were primed properly since painting melamine can be tricky.

After the melamine was sanded and the surface was ready, I primed it using Benjamin Moore’s Stix primer, which had decent reviews online for sticking well to melamine.

The primer can recommended waiting 3 to 4 days to fully cure before painting a top coat, although a top coat can be applied after 24 hours. Since I was back to work and the basement renovation was incredibly delayed anyways, I waited the full 4 days to apply my top coat of the colour match paint. This was the moment of truth.

Back to what I’m trying to achieve, I wanted the doorless cabinet to be the same colour as the cabinet fronts to create this look:

But to paint the cabinet the same colour as the doors, I had to find matching paint. I contacted Ikea to see if they had information on the Voxtorp paint colours. They did not. So I brought one of the cabinet doors to my local paint store and had them do a colour match.

I painted the first coat and could it see it start to come together. The colour didn’t look quite the same, but I figured this would be improved with a second or third coat.

The paint can said to wait 16 hours until the next coat, so I obeyed the recommended time and did my second coat the next day. I also very lightly sanded the cabinets with 400 grit sandpaper before painting the second coat. The primer leaves the surface slightly rough and I want them to be smooth like the original melamine finish. I made sure to sand only after the first coat, rather than the primed coat, because I didn’t want to remove any of the primer.

After the second coat, they looked much better but still didn’t completely match.

I brought the paint back to my paint store and asked them to redo the match. And then had to paint them all again…

I did 2 coats, 16+ hours apart, sanding 400 grit in between coats. The paint matched almost perfectly. Here’s a picture of the paint can with the formula:

After waiting another 3 days for the paint to cure, the cabinet pieces were finally ready to be put together and installed.

When I had the cabinet in place, I could see a bit of the white from the side (since I didn’t paint the sides of the cabinet), so I decided to paint the side grey as well. I didn’t prime or sand the side and it’s crazy how hard it was to paint compared to the other pieces that had the proper prep.

Since I wanted the front of the cabinet (which would remain doorless) to be flush with the front of the other cabinet doors, I had to shim behind the rail to bring the cabinet out further than the other cabinets. Once I figured that out (which required a lot of trial and error to get the right shim depth), I hung the painted cabinet and connected it to its neighbouring cabinet.

Custom Bookshelf

The most complicated part of the cabinet project was building a bookshelf at the end of the cabinets. The bookshelf would create a nice visual for anyone coming down the stairs (so you don’t see the cabinets) and would also hide the underpinning ledge.

I wanted a light-coloured wood (like birch), but I also have quite a bit of oak nearby (the stairs are red oak and the large pocket door is white oak). So I settled on white oak, which would give me the colour of birch but match the grain of the other woods in the basement.

Finding white oak was not easy, and I don’t even think it was a Covid problem. It’s just not as common as red oak and even my go-to lumber place didn’t have any white. I finally found some white oak in Burlington at Exotic Woods. They have an impressive collection of wood that’s far better than I’ve seen anywhere else. I wouldn’t normally drive all the way to Burlington, but I needed white oak and had to pick up my custom bathroom vanity (which was also in Burlington).

The hardest part of any woodworking project (at least in my opinion) is getting the measurements right. Luckily my cabinets were extremely level and plumb, so I at least had a great starting point.

I wanted to make the area in front of my stairs square, so I needed the bookshelf to come out enough that it left me with a 36″ square at the bottom of the stairs. With the cabinets installed, this meant my bookshelf was ~20″x12″.

To make sure that the bookshelf pieces were exactly the same when they needed to be, I thought through my cuts so I could keep the table saw settings the same (like for the height of the two sides). This was a little trick I learned from making my stair niche and it served me well here too. It meant that any measurements that were meant to be the same, actually were.

Once all my pieces were cut, it was time to assemble. I basically copied how I made my staircase bookshelf, drilling holes through both pieces and countersinking the screws.

When I installed the shelves, I first screwed in one side (carefully measuring so I’d have equal space between each shelf), then lifted the entire bookshelf up vertically so I could drill holes for the shelves on the adjacent side and make sure the shelves were perfectly level (after first leveling the bookshelf).

With all the pieces in place, I could then take it apart and finish each of the pieces. I also made sure to mark each piece so I’d know how to install it once the pieces were sanded and finished.

I applied white oak edging to all of the exposed edges of the shelves.

We’re also installing a plug in the bookshelf because we intend to have a speaker on one of the shelves (so we can have surround sound), so I also made the hole for the plug.

I was then ready to sand all of the pieces. I used 220, then 320, then 400 grit to get a nice, smooth finish.

I then used a satin, water-based clear finish to coat the wood and seal it. I really like the colour of the white oak and didn’t want to stain it, or use an oil-based finish which would yellow the wood over time.

I did 5 coats of finish total for the high contact surfaces (tops of the shelves, frame of the bookshelf), sanding after the 2nd, 3rd and 4th coats. More finish will mean more durability and it also took 5 coats/sands to get a completely smooth finish. For all the other sides (basically the underside of the shelves), I did 3 coats, sanding only after the 2nd coat. It’s smooth enough and doesn’t really matter because it’s not a surface that will be touched often.

It took me 2 days to finish both sides of the wood. Once all the pieces were dry, I waited a couple of days to allow the finish to cure and put the bookshelf back together. I had to get Alex to help me put it together (by pushing the pieces together while I screwed them) to avoid any gaps in the pieces. I was a bit surprised that the wood screws didn’t do a better job of pulling the wood together, but it’s maybe because I wasn’t using the right length.

I decided to use Ikea’s cabinet feet so that the bookshelf had something to rest its weight on, and it was a handy way to help level the bookshelf and keep it in place. It would also act as the backing to the future baseboard under the cabinets. I measured the distance of the other feet from the front edge of the cabinets and tranferred the measurements to the underside of the bookshelf (once it was back off the cabinets), making sure the pieces were rotated the right way (to clear the baseboard) and square to each other.

Once the feet were attached, installing the bookshelf wasn’t too hard, thanks to my new clamps! I clamped the bookshelf in place, leveled it with the feet, and made sure that it was positioned exactly so the trim pieces would sit flush with the fronts of the cabinets.

Once I was completely happy with its location, I used more clamps to hold the bookshelf tight against its neighbouring cabinet and screwed the two together.

Trim and Finishing Touches

Before I finalized all the cabinets, I put in pieces of wood that would act as a backing for the trim pieces. I had to make sure they were at the right depth from the fronts of the cabinets so that when the trim was installed it would be in the right place. I nailed the ends of the trim but didn’t want to take out the middle cabinets, so I used some construction adhesive and hoped it would hold!

With the cabinet made, I then had to figure out how to perfectly shim the wall so my last cabinet (which was an open shelf) would sit flush with cabinet door below and beside it. Luckily my first attempt was successful! I then screwed the cabinet in place to secure its position. And finally cut my trim piece (which was exactly 1″ all the way down the wall), painted it grey and installed it using construction adhesive.

With the bookshelf in place, I could finally do my top and bottom trim.

The top trim was much more difficult than the 1″ end trim piece because the ceiling wasn’t perfectly level and I couldn’t just rip the trim to a uniform width. Instead, I ripped the trim to the widest width and then scribed the piece to make it fit.

The internet saved the day and taught me a very useful trick for how to scribe trim. I placed the trim piece so it was flush with the far side of the cabinet piece (leaving a gap at the ceiling) and then used a piece of wood the same thickness as my cabinet frame (3/4″ in my case) and drew a pencil line along the bottom edge of that piece of wood. I didn’t have enough hands to take a picture of the pencil, but I drew along the bottom of the wood there. I then cut along the line with a jigsaw and bam! A perfect fit!

For the bottom trim, I originally purchased the Ikea baseboard that goes with the Sektion cabinets and is supposed to colour match to the cabinet doors. There were two problems. The first was that the colour was way off. They’re supposed to be the same gray as the cabinet doors but they’re noticeably bluer. The second problem was that they only came in 8′ lengths and I really didn’t want a seam in the middle of the cabinets. Not after all the time and care I took to make everything else look so perfect.

So I scrapped the Ikea option and made my own baseboard pieces, similar to how I did the top trim. I still used the Sektion feet and clips and just used foam board construction adhesive to glue the clips and the baseboard together. We’ll see if it holds up.

After countersinking all the finishing nails, doing some caulking to hide some small mistakes, and giving it one last coat of paint to blend it all together, I was done! Our glorious cabinet was done and looked amazing!

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