Built-in cabinets can be a beautiful accessory in any room of your home. They can add functionality to an attic room or dress up your dining room. They can be as simple as a bathroom medicine cabinet. Or as ornate as a wall-to-wall cabinet similar to a German Shrunk. Also, built-in cabinets can be enclosed, open shelves, drawers, or a combination of several elements.

They’ve been used for centuries in homes to increase storage space. Because, built-in shelves are a quick, easy, and relatively inexpensive upgrade. Space between wall studs can provide wonderful shelving alternatives for paperback books, knick-knacks, or other small items. The back wall of a pantry can become canned goods storage for store-bought or home-canned vegetables. Also, in a child’s room, a menagerie of Beanie Babies can stand guard unobtrusively.

Types of Built-In Cabinets

The only thing that limits the type of cabinets that can be “built-in” is your imagination. Because, built-ins can be designed into small cubby holes in your home; like unused spaces above stairwell landings, or even the space under a stairwell in a basement. Or, like those surrounding the french doors in the featured image for this article; repurposing empty space into beautiful, useable cabinets. They can be practical storage for items you want to hide in drawers or cabinets. You can have open shelving to display bric-a-brac or cherished family heirlooms.

Wall units

Wall units are common in many homes because of their combined functionality and beauty. This includes older Victorian-style historical landmarks and modern-built condominiums with all the perks. Building them into the actual home design will increase the resale value of a house. Of course, it also means “you can’t take it with you” because they become a permanent fixture. Wall units can be recessed, or built out to add storage and beauty in a bedroom, basement, dining or living room, or a converted attic space.

Built-in cabinets and wall units can be designed to line an entire wall in order to create extra storage and shelf space.

Built in cabinets - Full overlay with beaded edge, looks like inset

Image via Pinterest.

Likewise, a small space next to a fireplace can become a desk and workstation for homework, paying bills, or writing letters.

Built-in cabinets - Around fireplace

Image via Pinterest

An entire wall can become the focal point of a room. By employing a little imagination with a day’s labor and a little planning, a drab space can become spectacular:

built-in cabinets

Image via Pinterest

Home construction almost always leaves empty spaces behind walls to incorporate ductwork, wiring, and plumbing. When a home is finished, much of that space remains empty and just begs for functionality. For instance, using the space beneath a basement stairwell can create storage under a wall-mounted or slightly recessed television:

Built-in shelves

Shelves can be fit in almost anywhere to create storage and beauty that adds to any home decor. Your child’s bedroom might need bookshelves. Or, extra room for toys, a more organized closet, or even a desk and hutch assembly. As a result, finished built-in shelves appear to be a fixed part of the home. They can seem as if they were in the original design plans.

The video below shows how unused space under stairwells can become functional shelves:

When installing any built-in cabinet, wall unit, or bookshelf, the key is to pay attention to the detail. Built-ins should be fully integrated into the overall design of a home. Most molding and design features can be matched with off-the-shelf items at a local lumber supply outlet. Safety is also a primary concern, so consider the location of wall studs and appropriate anchoring of any new built-in.

The video below shows how to integrate a shelf into molding and the proper procedure for anchoring it firmly:

DIY Built-In Shelves

One of the best things about any built-in unit is that they can be a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) project for the entire family. All aspects of the project from planning, design, building components, and installation can be shared over a weekend in many cases. Longer projects might engage the family for a couple of weeks. Everyone will gain a sense of inclusion and accomplishment.


Proper planning can help to avoid unwanted “surprises” during the actual project. Start by determining a basic idea of what the end result should be. Then measure the space carefully. Old carpenters will always tell you to “measure twice, cut once” and it is the most essential part of any build.

With counter-height projects such as buffet cabinets, or hobby room countertop workspaces, plans should include the ending height that you want.

Determine how deep your project will be. You will need to make sure that the depth will not interfere with existing elements. It is important to note that built-ins can incorporate existing components.  Fusing form and function around things such as windows, doors, heat/AC vents, and electrical outlets.

Design and material selection.

There are numerous free or low-cost software options available to make the job of design easier. Some apps work on your phone and allow the phone camera to assist with measuring and design. Others can be used on a computer, laptop, or iPad.

A good design can save time and effort throughout the project. Taking a few minutes to find just the right application for your project can really be a worthwhile investment of your time.

Determine what components are desired in the end product. Shelves, cabinets, drawers, TV recesses, and other design features can all be included. The available software and/or apps make this an easy process. From the design plans, a materials list will be compiled.

Your choice of materials will determine the overall cost. Using solid oak boards will be more expensive than using an oak finished plywood. Time will also be a factor. It will take longer to construct a cabinet using hardwood boards. You can also use a combination of materials, such as plywood for cabinet boxes and solid oak, maple, or other hardwoods for the finishing touches.

Component construction.

Even if you have never built anything in your life, you can find quick and easy instructions and how-to videos in abundance on the internet. The DIYHomeBuilt channel on YouTube is a favorite go-to for instructional videos on many DIY projects.

If building an entire project completely from scratch seems intimidating, there are plenty of options for starting with stock cabinets and shelving. A few tricks can be used to give stock items a built-in look can be employed to create a cost and time effective solution.

The next video describes a project using stock shelving as a shortcut:

If you don’t own all of the specialty tools they use in the videos, it is not always necessary to buy them. Check with your local home building depot first to see if they rent them. Rentals are usually much less expensive than buying the tools, especially for a single-use project. You might also be able to borrow the tools from a neighbor or friend. Additionally, you can accomplish almost anything usually done with a specialty tool using home-made jigs and gadgets — it just takes a little longer.

Cabinet doors can be purchased for many standard sized openings. If your skill level is at the beginner or low-intermediate level, this might be the easiest and quickest option. Matching drawer fronts are often available too, which add cohesiveness to the entire project.


The location where you build your project varies. Some projects start and end in their final location. In contrast, others started in the garage and moved inside for the final touches. Once you secure your base unite in place, then you install cabinet doors, drawer fronts, shelves, and finish molding, completing the project.

Possibly the single most important thing at this phase is tying your built-in into the existing structure by securing it to the wall studs. Finding studs can be easily accomplished using an electronic stud finder. If you don’t have a stud finder, there are also manual methods that can be just as effective.

Built-In Entertainment Center

Entertainment centers are often the focal point of a room. Constructing a built-in entertainment center can change a drab, listless room into a highly functional multi-purpose space. Ideas can be easily found on the internet. One word of caution is that if your plan includes an entire wall area, building it in sections will aid in the installation.

Whether you are sprucing up a living room, family room, or turning the basement into a man cave, a built-in entertainment center can liven up any space.

The Sky is the Limit

There is no limit when it comes to built-in units of any type. Because the options are, quite frankly endless. If you can dream it, you can build it.

The recommendation is that you verify that your project complies with household coding requirements. Also, research local building codes at your local building department. Many municipalities employ personnel that are able to assist you at all levels. Because some projects may require zoning approval and inspection by a qualified or municipal inspector, this is an important step. Nobody likes surprises, so knowing the requirements before beginning your project is the best route.

As long as the project meets local building codes, the sky is the limit.

The five-part video series below covers a wall unit installation from beginning to end:


Featured image: CC by NC 2.0, by sierravalleygirl, via Flickr

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