Turning Store Bought Dressers Into Bedroom Built-Ins

It’s been a busy but productive week in the nursery built-in department, so I’m going to cover a lot in this post. Hang on to your hats, crank up your favorite Swedish electropop, and be prepared for some nitty-gritty detail on how we began the transformation from free-standing Ikea dresser to built-in dresser/bookshelf combo (that’s not a finished result on the right, by the way, it’s just photoshop).

As you might recall, we bought two FJELL dressers because they were the size we needed and they were made of solid wood. But they did need a little additional help when it came to giving them a built-in look:

  1. The indented side profile meant it couldn’t sit flush to the wall, leaving a pretty glaring gap that needed filling
  2. The nursery’s baseboards on both the side and the back also prevented it from hugging the walls tightly
  3. The bottom drawer wasn’t built up enough from the floor to accommodate wrap-around baseboards, which we wanted to add to complete the built-in look

None of these issues were insurmountable, but it did take a some extra work to get them taken care of before we could move on to the fun stuff. Let’s start with problem #2: the existing baseboard, since it’s an issue that anyone would run into with any piece of furniture they’re trying to build-in. The solution? Cut it out. I just had to mark where to make my cuts. I marked where it sat originally, but kept in mind that when I removed the side baseboard, the whole piece would shift to the left against the wall. Same goes for marking the side cut (when I remove the back baseboard, it would sit further back).

To cut it out I used my Dremel Multimax. The metal radiator cover (leftover from this project) is just there to help protect the floor. You don’t technically need a metal grate, but I figured this way it would make a pretty distinct noise when my blade got too close, which was a nice warning to keep me from damaging the floor underneath it.

Once I had cut all the way through, I scored the seam between the wall and the baseboard with a utility knife (to make sure no wall paint peeled off with the baseboard). Then I just pried off the quarter-round and the baseboard.

With both the back and side baseboard removed, I excitedly pushed the piece back into the corner… only to realize that the top piece was now the problem. It was bigger than the bottom of the dresser, so the overhang was preventing me from getting the piece completely flush. Bummer.

So Sherry and I had a little “meeting of the minds” and decided to trim the top a smidge to remedy the situation. Luckily, being an IKEA product, it was easy enough to remove the top (after I marked how much would need to come off). I was sure to write my cut measurements on the side that needed a trim so that once I got downstairs to my saw I didn’t accidentally slice the wrong end.

I set the guide on my table saw to the correct measurement and just sliced the two sides accordingly. This is a moment we were particularly thankful that we went with a nice sturdy dresser made of solid wood (and not particle board, which can be tougher to cut cleanly).

With the top cut and reattached, the dresser now sat nice and flush against the wall on the back… but I was still dealing with a gap-on-the-side (problem #1, if you remember).

This was an easy solution because the gap just happened to be 3/4″, which meant I just had to slip a 1 x 2″ piece of scrap wood in there (after I cut it to the right length with my miter saw). It was actually a tight enough fit that it might’ve stayed on its own, but I put a couple of nails through the dresser into it, just to be safe.

The last and final issue (#3) was building up the entire piece so that the bottom drawer wouldn’t be blocked by the new baseboard that we wanted to wrap around the base of each dresser. We decided a simple base/platform for the dresser to sit on would be nice and simple, and would buy us the extra height that we needed. Since it wouldn’t be visible, we just chose some 2 x 4″ framing lumber (since we needed it raised about 3.5″ off the ground). I cut the pieces and then attached them to each other in place, using my Kreg jig and some nice heavy duty screws.

Here you can see how the dresser (sans drawers at the moment, for easier moving) sits right on top of this base. I didn’t actually attach the dresser to the base, which leads me to my next point…

Securing everything in place was really important. We didn’t want this thing to move an inch – especially movement of the tip-over variety (dressers can be especially wobbly if someone pulls all the drawers out at once). So using my stud-finder I found as many places as I could to drill through nice solid wood (i.e. not the thinner backing piece) into studs – along both the side and the back. Not only did that help make things super flush against the wall, but both the base and the dresser became rock solid in their placement. Phew.

I know all of that didn’t seem terribly complicated (or exciting), but there was enough careful measuring, cutting, and screwing together, that it took me a good day-ish to complete… especially since I had to do it twice over.

I was deep into building mode at this point, but logic told me that I should pause construction and Sherry and I should do some of our painting and staining before going further. Taking time for these steps while everything was still apart would mean less edging and taping, so it would hopefully save us time in the long (and result in a really clean look).

First up was staining the top, since we decided we wanted to take advantage of its wood grain texture and make it contrast a bit from the rest of it. We had two stains on hand that we’ve always liked, so it was just a matter of choosing which one worked for this application.

We were having a hard time judging based on the cans, so we decided to just look at real projects that were already sporting those colors. Clara’s dresser was Red Mahogany and my bike frames were Dark Walnut.

It’s hard to tell from that picture above, but in person the Dark Walnut color was closer to the floors (Red Mahogany was darker) and was also the exact tone that we’d used on the bike frames that would go in the room, so that made the decision pretty easy.

I removed the tops, took them out to the garage, and got to staining. They each took two coats of stain followed by two coats of Acrylacq sealer, which Sherry brushed on (it’s non-toxic and awesome for sealing in any off-gasing from non-eco products like the stain). Including drying time, this step stretched over about four days, but each coat went on pretty quickly, so a lot of that was just drying time.

But we didn’t sit idly by, we had two whole dressers to paint. Except one thing we worried about – which some of you explicitly warned us about – was the potential bleed-through. Strong knots like these have a tendency to make stains seep right through a paint job over time, even through layers of primer and paint in some cases.

So thanks to some of your warnings and a little bit of research on Sherry’s part, we decided to take a couple of knot-busting tricks for a spin. The first was to cover them in wood putty, since it’s supposed to seal the knots and keep them from bleeding. I’ll admit I wasn’t crazy about this technique, mostly because it was time consuming (this piece has LOTS of knots) and when it came to sanding down the dried wood putty (which I did with a palm sander) it was a thin line to walk between getting it smooth again and sanding all the putty off completely. In the end I think we got a nice thin glaze of putty over most of the knots though, which did feel like added protection.

Sherry also had another trick up her sleeve (thanks Internet!), which was painting a thin layer of wood glue over each of those puttied knot areas. This technique was considerably faster (glue is surprisingly easy to paint with) and it didn’t result in any sanding dust getting everywhere.

We could’ve avoided the putty and glue by using a shellac-based primer, but since we try to keep things as fume-free as possible (especially in a nursery where a newborn will soon reside), we prefer to use Kilz Premium as our primer (it’s VOC-free). We used that on our kitchen cabinets a month ago, which were darker and had their fair share of knots, and nothing has come through their crisp white finish, so it does seem to do the trick in most cases – and the wood putty and glue that we used on the dresser feels like nice added insurance.

Not to skip ahead or anything, but it has been a few days since priming and painting, and so far not even a hint of bleed has occurred (sometimes things bleed right through the primer before you even get to the painting step, so it has been really comforting). Only time will tell if these techniques really work for the long run, but you know we’ll keep you posted either way.

Speaking of the priming step, we already had some Kilz Premium leftover from when we painted our bedroom dark blue, which is why it’s tinted.

We probably didn’t need tinted primer, but we appreciated the chance to use up this can. Sherry detached and rolled all of the drawer fronts downstairs in the kitchen (it was too cold in the garage) and upstairs I rolled the bases in place, along with a few pieces that I had already cut for the top part of the build.

With the primer dry, we could move on to our first coat of paint (we went with Senora Gray in Advance paint, which is made for furniture and cabinetry, and has some nice self-leveling and low-VOC perks). It’s the same paint we used on our office cabinets in our last house, along with our last two kitchens. Those office cabinets were beat on by Clara with wooden trains when she was younger, so we love how durable it was.

The color nearly gave us heart palpitations when it first went on. It was so light and so, I dunno, beige. We actually triple checked the swatch and can to make sure they had mixed it right. Fortunately it dried considerably darker and much closer to what we were envisioning. Phew.

Although I’ll admit we did second-guess the color a bit. It’s not nearly as dark as our photoshopped rendering, but that was on purpose. After doing that mock up, Sherry found the inspiration picture below on Pinterest (it’s originally from Ballard Designs) and that’s how we picked Senora Gray for the built-ins and Going To The Chapel for the walls (more on that process in this post).

Still, I think Senora Gray turned out a bit lighter than we expected – namely in that it doesn’t contrast with the walls as much as we thought it would (even though it’s four squares below the wall color on the swatch card). We considering picking a new color before applying our second coat, but we decided it was a blessing in disguise, because it makes the stained wood top and the hardware pop really nicely thanks to more contrast, and as much as Sherry and I might chose moodier built-ins for ourselves, we keep trying to remind ourselves that this is a room for a little boy (and it only has one window) – so keeping things lighter isn’t a bad thing.

We finished both coats and put everything back together – including the stained top, the hardware (which came with the FJELL originally), and even started attaching some of the molding on the floor. That baseboard and shoe molding will be painted Senora Gray too – we just have some caulking to do first.

Update #1: People are wondering how we decided to paint the baseboard (and the crown we’ll be adding) to match the built-ins instead of keeping them white. We think it could look good either way, but we just prefer the look of an entire piece from floor to ceiling being the same tone (as opposed to accenting something like baseboard or crown by choosing to make it a contrasting color – especially since we already have the stained wood top as an accent). Here’s an example of a painted built-in with the baseboard and the crown in the same color, which we really like.

We’re super psyched with how they’re turning out. I know they’re a bit anticlimactic without having their bookcase tops on yet, but after all the time it took to get this far we relished in them at least looking partially complete.

Update #2: A few others have asked if we’ve thought about filling that indentation on the inside edge of each dresser for more balance. In person we actually really love that added detail (we feel like it gives them some special architecture, and once the crib is between them it’ll be a nice little accent). Of course we could always change our minds and add something to fill that down the road, so we’ll keep you posted!

Assuming things stay on course the next couple of days, we should have these completely finished – built to the ceiling and primed/painted – by Wednesday or Thursday. Which is a huge relief because when I first started planning these guys I felt like I’d be lucky to have them done before baby boy arrives. Guess I kinda overestimated the task!

We’re definitely looking forward to crossing off the biggest project on our to-do list with ten weeks left for the fun stuff (Sherry can’t wait to tackle things like bedding, mobile-making, art, curtains, a bold green closet door, adding sconces and a light fixture, and doing something exciting to the wall between the built-ins where the crib will go).

Were you guys painting or building anything this weekend? Have you ever used existing furniture, but altered it in some way to get a custom or built-in look?


    • says

      I know, right?! I keep thinking “I want this in my room!” – but we figure we’ll blink our eyes and be saying “how does he have so much stuff and where can we shove it next?!” in a few short years! Haha!


    • Sarah says

      Julia- your dresser makeover is amazing! I think that’s one of the best IKEA hacks I’ve seen, what an awesome idea and it looks to custom and luxurious. Thanks for sharing!

  1. Jarrett says

    These look fantastic! Nice paint choices, and trimming them up a bit to make them appear built in was a great choice. I’m sure the top piece will be a great addition too. Nice work.

  2. says

    Wow, am I actually the first to comment?

    I just wanted to say: save those baseboard molding pieces that you cut out! You never know when you might need to replace a piece elsewhere in the house somewhere down the line.

  3. jessica says

    what’s the difference between these minwax products and the polyshades you used on railing/kitchen cabinets? How do you know when to go with what? Thanks!!

    • says

      For raw wood we’d always go with Minwax I think, and for wood that’s already stained and sealed that we want to make a different color (especially deeper) without a ton of sanding and stripping, the PolyShades is great.


  4. says

    Looking good! And I like that as the boy grows a big boy bed could still fit into that little nook between the shelves.

    Oh and your accent doors are totally making me think that maybe I can live out my bold paint color obsession in a more subtle way. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to that green door. :))

    • says

      Ahhh, me too! Practical John keeps making me wait until we add things like curtains and art to pick the right shade but I’m ready to go rightthissecond! Haha!


  5. says

    I was a bit unsure about filling in the sides to make them flush. You’ve fully convinced me! I like how the thicker piece next to the drawers seems to visually ground the dressers to the wall. I think the lighter paint colour will let the pops of green be the star in the room too. Looking good so far! I house hunted this weekend :)

  6. Julianne says

    Wow! They look fantastic, guys! Nice work. Most definitely a great colour choice, rather than anything darker. Can’t wait to see the rest go in!

  7. Bree says

    Seeing hacked ikea stuff is my fave!! I love the stained tops and hardware especially. It will be fun to see the finished product.

    Do you guys have your furniture secured to the wall for the kid’s safety?

    • says

      Yes, we have blogged about how we use wall anchoring systems for everything from dressers and cabinets to TVs and leaning wall mirrors. It’s so important! Spread the word!


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