So, there’s really two things you should know before I dive right into this.
First. Prior to this project, my knowledge of power tools was purely limited to the use of a power drill. Matt’s knowledge was a little deeper with minor around-the-house projects and a couple major backyard fence building projects under his belt but in general, the bright neon sign above our heads read oh-so-brightly “DIY NOVICES”.
Second. As it currently stands, the built-ins are almost/kind-of in the tedious (but game changing) stage of prime, spackle, caulk & paint so if you sense some sassiness in my writing, oh trust me, you’re reading it right.
When we first started talking about this project, we went through the classic pro/con lists of hiring a contractor to execute vs. attempting our biggest DIY project to date. No shocker that the biggest negative of hiring someone to take care of this for us was the cost of execution. The one contractor I invited out mumbled something about $5,000-$8,000 pending design and materials and I said thank you very much, sent him on his way and then hyperventilated into a paper bag for an hour.
Three months into this project and probably a little too close for comfort to that beginning budget range for hiring this out, and we’re feeling a little jaded about our decision. But, on the other hand, we now have the (literal) tools & a mild level of skill to put to use on future projects so even if we could start over, we’d still choose our same route. Frustrations and all.
THAT’S ENCOURAGING RIGHT?
I promise it gets better. It just gets really bad before it gets better. This is the bad. Like the REALLY BAD. Hang with me.
So, here’s where we started:
This room is long but ultimately not very wide so as we were trying to envision a dream-situation furniture set-up (more to come on that), that meant getting the TV off of a free standing furniture piece (especially one that is nearly 10 years olds, from Target and is bowing in the middle…sexy) and mounting it on the wall.
You may ask why we never thought to add a fireplace since, yes, we live in the frozen tundra where winter is a reality for 6 months of the year and fireplaces to gather around are the stuff puffy cloud dreamlands are made of? Oh, we did. We researched it until it hurt inside but the reality is that neither of us love gas-burning fireplaces and adding a chimney is too big of a project, both financially and physically, and would have prevented us from making the living room more than just livable until we could save for a major home renovation.
That brings us to where we were in November of last year. Ignorantly blissful and still thinking that building built-ins is just like building a bunch of boxes and putting them together.
We had pulled these two images as inspiration:
image 1 / image 2
Clean lines. A mixture of closed storage and open shelving. But most of all? Looks like it has always been a part of the house.
I drew a super accurate and to-scale (sarcasm) plan based on our inspiration just to give us a starting point and something to reference back to when we started to doubt the direction (which we did, a little bit, in the middle).
In January we pulled off the baseboards, built the base for the unit (to allow for baseboard trim) & started the process of cutting and building the base cabinets. Since we were doing this without utilizing pre-built cabinets (which we now refer to as learning from our mistakes for the future), everything was measured and re-measured and made to fit as snuggly as possible. And in relative terms, this part of the project was a piece of cake with the exception of two cases: one being a dislocated shoulder & subsequent tear-filled meltdown (I’m the BEST partner in DIY projects) in the parking lot of Home Depot trying to get the uncut sheets of MDF home the second case where – after a waster sheet of MDF – Matt figured out that the first table saw we purchased couldn’t cut a straight line to save it’s life. After we got over those two consecutive fail-whale sized failures, things came together relatively quickly.
I say relatively because when you are figuring out each step as you go, time seems to do this thing where it just disappears. Entire weekends slip through the space-time continuum and suddenly it’s Monday and you’re wondering exactly what did you do those last two days?
After the base was tested for fit and we stood back and said, “This is going to look so good.” we started in on building the upper shelves and while this proved to be more complicated in technical terms (just due to the size & weight of the pieces combined with the desired stability to have the shelves hold heavy/valuable items), this – too – was just above cake-level easy. Slow and careful not to miss any steps but easy.
Here’s where things got messy.
Apparently, when you measure for a project of this nature, you should measure the width of the wall in 3 places (bottom, middle & top) because as it turns out, sometimes walls aren’t completely straight and sometimes they curve in at the upper right and if you don’t measure in 3 places, you’ll completely miss this fact and add a month onto your project timeline trying to problem solve. I mean. Just a word to the wise – don’t do what I did and only measure one part of the wall.
After consulting with both of our dads (and pouting about it), we decided to try and sand down the wall on the right before we (last & final resort) re-built the middle (and easiest to build) piece. And by we, I obviously mean Matt because as mentioned previously, I’m the best to do DIY stuff with.
That got us here. And here was a fine coating of dry wall dust on everything. Including our lungs. Including those dogs. Including our Dyson vacuum because someone (me) thought it would be a good idea to vacuum up the dust using the Dyson and not the shopvac. Like I said, I’m awesome.
In retrospect, we should have just bit the bullet and rebuilt the middle piece first. It was the better solution but the one that seemed the most irritating at the time since that meant more MDF sheets and more long/complicated cuts on the table saw. The good news is that we rebuilt a piece that fits and actually is more sturdy/less likely to bow in the center than the previous piece thanks to a few things we had learned since we built the original piece. The bad news is that side wall needed some pretty intense wall patching action and bummed us out enough to put a hold on the project for a couple weeks.
In between the sanding debacle mid-February and, we had an electrician come in and add the wiring for the library lights on the right & left uppers as well as wire for a few additional outlets to help with cord management (If you are a Twin Cities person and need an electrician? Jim at Total Electric is fantastic and we love him.) and completed some very uninteresting things like wall patching, staining & cutting the wood boards for the countertop ledge, in addition to priming everything in sight & choosing just the right white for the final project.
Which brings us to how it stands as of yesterday…
For you guys, this probably looks hideous and how could I possible be in love with a few pieces of wood but I am. I am absolutely, whole-heartedly in love with this sight. Two plus months of having giant wood structures sit in your living space, disrupting my natural sense of order and cleanliness was starting to kill my soul a little bit. But the good thing is that the soul is like rubber, it bounces back and my heart grew 3 sizes when we finally got everything in place and officially mounted into the wall.
This week’s to-dos include mounting the soffit covers where the electrical boxes & library lights will mount to, adding a trim frame to the uppers, installing the crown molding, getting my caulk on, cutting & installing boxes for the low voltage wires (look at me with the technical jargon!), and if we’re very, very lucky, building the doors & drawers this weekend with loads of help from YouTube.
None of which we know how to do but, I mean, it’s just a bunch of boxes, right? <famous last words>
We found these resources to be exceedingly helpful. The hard truth of the matter is that it’s essentially impossible to take duplicate a built-in tutorial because, you know, walls are different sizes and we all have different design preferences but all the same, I’m pretty sure I would still be in the fetal position at Home Depot without being able to reference these posts/DIY sites (thanks team!):
Our Home From Scratch
Decor & the Dog