Build a Recessed Storage Cabinet





Introduction: Build a Recessed Storage Cabinet

About: I'm a husband and father that loves working in the garage. From sewing to welding to wrenching on engines and everything in between.

My wife wanted somewhere to store her spices so they wouldn't be all piled up in a cabinet. Since I'm fond of "secret compartments", I decided to build some shelves in a cavity of the kitchen wall and build a door that would double as a picture frame. The shallow depth of the wall cavity helps keep everything in front where it can be easily seen. 

**Before you finalize a location, determine if there will be any electric lines, plumbing, heater ducts, or any other obstruction that may pass through the wall cavity that you'll be working in. This cabinet will fill the entire depth of the wall cavity.

There's no set way to do this. It will vary from house to house. Here's a couple guidelines to help determine if its a safe location.

Electrical wires:
Some of the commercial stud finders also have a non-contact voltage detector built into them. You can also look lower on the wall to see if there are any outlets close by. Wires typically run horizontally through the studs from one outlet to the next, but sometimes the wires will be fastened to the studs to run vertically either up to the attic, down to the basement, or even over doorways.

Ductwork will always run parallel between the studs (or between floor joists). If ductwork runs perpendicular to the studs or floor joists, it will be outside the studs or under the joists. Look for any heat registers nearby. They can be in the wall, ceiling, or floor. In a multi-story home, you also need to be aware of any vents that may be in the same general location on the floor above you.

Again, be aware of your location. If you're in a family room and don't have a bathroom or kitchen in close proximity you're probably safe. If there's a sink directly above you up stairs, you may want to investigate some more.

Step 1: General Info

There are a few things to consider before starting this project.

First: You'll need to locate the wall studs. There are commercially available stud finders, but I decided to use a strong magnet and a string. The magnet will stick to the nails (or screws) that hold the drywall (or other wall covering) to the studs. The nails are typically spaced ~18" apart (going up and down the stud). I tape a string to the magnet and dangle the magnet so it is touching the wall. I'll drag the magnet side to side until it sticks to a nail. From that point, you can easily pinpoint the rest of the studs. Typical stud spacing is 16" from the center of one stud to the center of the next stud. Use a tape measure to get approximate stud locations and verify with the magnet. Once you find the studs, you can determine how high you want the cabinet and how tall you want the cabinet. Since the 16" O.C. (on-center) is a standard for most buildings, the width of the cabinet is limited to ~14.5". 

Another thing to consider is whether you want a door covering the cabinet shelves. If not, you can build this a little bit deeper and build a face frame on the outside of the wall. Of course, if your house is built with 2x6 studs, then your cabinet can be made even deeper. 

Step 2: Break on Through...

Now that you've got it all planned out, you're going to need a few tools before you get to work. 

Tools needed:
Utility knife with a new blade
Something to cut drywall (sawzall, Dremel, key hole saw, etc)
small drill bits
saw to cut wood (I used a circular saw and a miter saw)
router (optional)
Phillips screw driver
tape measure
level (I used a laser level)

Let's get started.

With the studs marked, mark a horizontal line between the two studs where you want the top and bottom of the cabinet to be. Time to cut the hole. Start in the middle of the desired location and cut a small rough opening. Use a mirror and flashlight to look inside the wall cavity to see if there are any "surprise" obstructions. A small hole is much easier to patch than a large hole. If all looks good, you can remove more of the drywall. Now that a large portion of the drywall has been removed, Use a sharp utility knife to score the drywall. Make multiple slow careful passes to achieve a clean cut line. Once the drywall is scored, use your tool of choice to carefully cut up to the wall stud and up to your top and bottom lines. Ideally, you'd want to cut just shy of your final opening size and open it up more as needed in future steps. 

***It was suggested by another member that bracing should be added behind the drywall on the top and bottom of the opening. This is easily achieved by cutting two 2x4's to length to fit between the studs. Slide the braces up behind the drywall and toenail the support to the stud on each side.

Step 3: The Heart of It All

Now that you have cut an opening in the drywall, measure the exact distance between the studs. You'll also need to measure the depth of the cavity. To ensure the cabinet will be flush, your depth will be measured from the inside of the drywall on the opposing wall through the cavity all the way to the edge of the opening. My depth was 4". Once you have your measurements, you're going to build a box out of wood. I used a 1x4 pine board (which actually measures 3/4" x 3 1/2". This left me with a bit of wiggle room behind the box so I could attach a back on the box.

To build the box, cut your pieces to length. I cut the side pieces the same length as the height of my opening. Because I wanted some shelves, I clamped these two boards side by side and cut 3/8" deep grooves (called dado cuts) at two separate places in the boards - see figure 1. For the top and bottom pieces, I subtracted the thickness of both side pieces from the width of the opening. I assembled the box with some drywall screws. You can use any type of screw, so long as the screw heads will be flush when fully seated. Remember to pre-drill the screw holes to prevent splitting the boards.

Once the box is assembled, I used some 1/8" thick hardboard** cut to the same size as the box. I just nailed this on using some small tack nails.

I had some 1/4" x 3" pine left over from another project that I cut to length to use for shelves.

**Note: Instead of hardboard for the back of the box, you could use pegboard. There should be enough room between the pegboard and the back side of the drywall to get pegboard hooks (and many other accessories) into the pegboard. 

Step 4: Does It Fit?

Now that the box is built, it's time to install it in the wall. Depending on how good your measurements and cuts were when building the box will determine how difficult this step will be. A snug fit is desired to reduce the amount of gaps that may need to be filled when finishing things up, but you don't want it so snug where major force is required to get it slid into place. The gist of it is, slide it into place, shim the sides if needed and screw through the sides into the studs. If it's too snug, sand (or cut) where needed.

Once again, pre-drill your holes. Trim screws would be great to use, but I already had drywall screws on hand, so I used a countersink drill bit to drill a relief so the screw heads would be flush. 

Step 5: Door

At this point, you could be almost finished. Fill any gaps with some spackling compound. Paint or stain as desired. 

I chose to put a door over the cabinet. I could have purchased a cabinet door to match my existing cabinets, but decided that I wanted this storage space to be less obvious. I chose to build a picture frame as a door. There are many ways to go about this - some methods are very ornate and decorative. You could also go the rustic route and use some old weathered barn lumber. I decided to go simple so I purchased another 1x4 board and built a frame. I'd gotten a biscuit joiner for a gift several years back but had never gotten a chance to use it, so this was the time.

I wanted the door to overlap the box and opening a bit so I sized my cuts accordingly. You'll also have to keep the type of hinges in mind when deciding on the overlap. After cutting all the pieces I used a cove bit in the router to add some detail to the outside edges and a roman ogee bit to add some detail to the inside edges of the front of the frame boards. For the back side of the frame boards, I used a straight router bit to cut a 3/8" rabbet (or shoulder) on the inside edges. This will give a spot for glass and a backer to fit in the frame. With all the detail cuts made, I used my biscuit joiner to cut slots on the mitered edges, slathered some glue on the biscuits and clamped the frame together. Once dry, I pre-drilled a hole through each miter joint (from the top edge and bottom edge) and ran a 3" screw** in to hold things tight. 

** Quick tip : Rub some wax from a candle, crayon, etc. on the screw threads before driving the screw. The wax will lubricate the threads as you're driving it in. You'd be amazed at how much a little bit of wax helps. 

I had some plexiglass left over from past projects so I cut it to size to fit in the shouldered area inside the frame. I also cut another piece of hardboard to use as a photo backer. 

Step 6: HINGES!!!

This was probably the hardest part for me. I had designed all of this in my head before hand, but I wasn't quite sure about the hinges I was going to use. I knew I wanted the hinges to be hidden, but I also didn't want them taking up so much room inside the already small cabinet. I was also trying to stay relatively cheap, but some cabinet hinges can get very expensive. I originally bought some hinges like photo 2. They were advertised as a full overlay hinge, which is what I thought I needed. You can see the holes I used to mount these. When I got them mounted, I quickly figured out that I couldn't actually open the door, because the pivot point was 1" in from the edge of the door, so the 1" overlap was hitting the drywall. They'd work fine on cabinets, but not on something mounted flush in a wall. 

The only thing at the time that I could come up with was the self closing hinges seen in photo 3. To keep them somewhat hidden, I used the router to cut a relief in the backside of the frame. This would keep the pivot point of the hinge at the edge of the door, but still keep the bulk of the hinge hidden. If you look at the 4th photo, you can see the hinges on the left edge of the frame. If I painted the hinges white, they'd blend in much better. 

You know what they say - hind sight is 20/20. Thinking about it now, I could have used a piano hinge since the 1.5" directly next to the box is a stud. When I was building this, I overlooked the fact that there was something solid to mount a hinge to, other than the box. I even have a piano hinge sitting in a drawer of my toolbox. If you use a piano hinge, you'll need to use longer screws to attach the hinge to the stud. The screws that come with the hinge are too short to go through the drywall and into the stud. 

Step 7: Conclusion

I still need to finish this. I just put a quick coat of white paint on the door, but we are still trying to decide what color to paint it. I also need to fill in the gaps between the box and the opening in the drywall. All in all, it was a fun project that was (mostly) completed in a weekend. 

There's a multitude of things that this same technique could be used for. I mentioned the pegboard earlier, but you could also use this as a display case by just putting glass in the door. You could build this into a bedroom wall and use it as a secret stash for firearms, or anything else you may want out of sight. Instead of using hinges, you could use self closing drawer slides so the frame/door would slide sideways (or up). You could add storage shelves for toiletries/cosmetics in a small bathroom, or even a recessed place to hang a towel...

Anyway, thanks for checking out my project and comment with any other ideas you may have. 



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    Nice Instructable! I will be doing something similar for two bathroom medicine cabinets. Won't have doors. Is it possible to make small shallow drawers (2) for the middle shelf and bottom shelf?

    This is actually a pretty smart idea! I'm quite partial to hidden storage too and having a nice way of displaying some of the kids' drawings is a good bonus at the same time too!

    I love this idea for in my front hall : flashlights,extra keys, documents and/or the odd weapon for self-defense. You could put on an unobtrusive locking device to keep it childproof. Perfect idea. Thanks for this ;-) we have a question - we cut the sheetrock from between the studs and then we used some chevron contact paper to "line" the inside of studs and the back. We have a framed mirror that will be our door. Our question is, the contact paper looks great inside the shelf... Except the raw edge of the sheetrock is exposed... Your picture looks like a finished edge on the did you get such a perfect edge?

    2 replies

    Nick Ferry on Youtube just posted a video showing a great method of finishing one of these hidden storage spots.

    I was just very careful when I cut the drywall. The wooden box fits tight enough that you don't really notice the gap and the box is flush with the face of the drywall.

    Are you using the existing studs as the sides of your compartment? The only thing I could suggest is to get some clear platic corner protectors (like these - and frame the opening with, then reapply the contact paper over one edge of the corner protector so the contact paper comes all the way to the face of the drywall.

    Really a useful project--thanks! I know just where I want to install this in my house, and it will solve a long-time problem I've had finding a convenient place to store oils and spices. One minor suggestion I have is to extend the dadoes for the shelves across the board used as the back of the cupboard. This will give additional support to the shelf and keep it from bowing over time.

    1 reply

    That back dados are a good idea, if you have the room for it. I used 1/8" hardboard for the back, so it wouldn't work in my example.

    Nice work, while the recessed cabinet idea is as old as the hills, this is the first one I've seen disguised as a picture frame.

    I really like how you "hid" the spice cabinet. I did a similar project for DVDs a few years ago - see photos


    I just LOVE hindsight.

    Since you already have studs on both sides of the box, just use 1/4" Luan for top, sides, and back. The back side of some sheets of Luan have an awesome grain pattern.

    Using pegboard is another great idea, just don't forget to leave a gap on the backside for the hooks to fit in.

    My wife is a BIG Bob Ross fan and I'm always looking for new places to hang a painting.

    Since I live in a 'manufactured house', few if any of the interior walls are considered "load supporting".

    Is a .45 ACP considered a 'Spice"?

    1 reply

    spice - verb, add an interesting or piquant quality to; make more exciting.

    I think it qualifies... :)

    Good plan. I've been planning a similar spice rack for a few months, but haven't started yet. It's all in my head so far. My plan is to use the studs themselves for the frame. I will make it two or three stud spaces wide, leaving the center stud or studs intact, so it will consist of two or three 13.5" spaces. This way the shorter shelves won't have as much stress as longer shelves would. I can nail quarter round or 1x2s to the studs for shelf support, or drill holes every two inches or so for shelf pins like storebought book shelves use. A coat of paint should hide the fact that it is the inside of a wall. Some wood putty and Dark paint would hide any knotholess, loose nails, etc. My location is pretty firm. There is an outlet just below the location and I'm not sure if it is fed from above or below. Worse case, if it has romex feeding down through my shelf area, I plan to relocate it to the back corner and hide with 1/2" pvc pipe cut in half or quarter and hot glued.
    I'm just going to hide the cut drywall edge with a mitered frame of purpleheart flooring material to match the other highlights in the room. This will also hide the shelf ends. An optional front ledge on the shelves will help prevent stuff from falling off the shelf from people walking by. (It's in a well traveled area.)
    My plan is a bit simpler than yours, and not quite as pretty, but with all the stacked up projects I have, it has a better chance of actually being done someday!

    @ak49er - good point, but this is the newest house I've ever lived in, and it was built in '69. I've had one entire wall gutted to replace damaged drywall and there were no fire blocks. Maybe I should have put some in. :)

    As an additional step: You should brace the drywall horizontally just above and below the hole with 2x4s so that you don't accidentally put pressure on the drywall at some future point and break it. You need to frame this out the same you would if you were placing a window.

    1 reply

    More importantly, you MUST frame above and below the openning with horizontal 2"x4"s, otherwise you may have violated fire code. By cutting a hole in the drywall, you turn your stud wall into essentially a chimmney. The 2"x4"s act as a fire & smoke stop (along with the dry wall) in the event of fire.

    We have one of these in our bathroom as a medicine cabinet. Good job.

    1 reply

    Also when measuring between studs check the top and bottom. Construction crews can get sloppy with inner walls sometimes and your box may not fit if the studs skewed on a diagonal.

    I have also did this on my sisters house when we remodeled her bathroom.
    Beside her new shower we made a recessed shelves to store her shampoo soaps etc., with a trim frame rather then door.
    Thanks for sharing..

    I have done this in my bathroom to store towels etc. On a note to this, I would not do this for an outside facing wall as you will compromise the insulation at that point.