This project utilizes an old mahogany headboard and some nice veneered plywood. The salvaged hardwood serves as trim and edging to hide the plys and helps to add strength to the cases creating a beautiful and lasting piece of furniture that will hold up over time under use and abuse.
The design of this project is based on the Trofast storage solution system by IKEA. I love the simplicity and function of the Trofast sytem, however I wanted to create a more visually appealing finished product for use in our home. For this reason, I chose to purchase the storage bins from IKEA and design my cabinets around those. I purchased the exact number of bins needed to build two of the smaller units and two of the tiered units. These particular bins don't have to be used. They could be substituted with different ones of your choosing.
I've included sketches with the rough dimensions I used, however this project could be customized to meet your own individual needs. The spacing between the slide gaps (dados) will remain the same regardless of how you design your cabinets.
Step 1: Selecting Your Trim and Edging
First you must select the hardwood you wish to use for this project. I recommend a hardwood because it will be the most durable choice for this type of project. Look around your home or shop to see if you happen to have an old piece of furniture that you're not using anymore. In my case, I had an old mahogany headboard that was salvaged from an old barn. It was made of solid mahogany, and while it was both old and beautiful, we simply didn't have a need for it in our home and yet we didn't want to get rid of it either. I disassembled and ripped the headboard down on the table saw into more manageable pieces first. If you do not own a table saw, you could also use a circular saw with edge guide for this step or if you're particularly adventurous you could even use a handsaw to rip saw the boards.
Step 2: Selecting Your Plywood for the Case
For this project I chose to go with a nice birch-veneered cabinet grade plywood available from most home centers. It is a bit more expensive however it is a higher grade of plywood and the birch contrasted nicely with the mahogany. There are many options you could go with such as a nice blonde-wood plywood. Any plywood could technically be used for this project, however whichever your choice I highly recommend you go with at least a cabinet grade plywood as it will be both more stable and more consistently sized and will also provide a more finished looking and longer lasting product in the end.
Step 3: Selecting Your Storage Bins/totes
You can really choose any type of storage bin for this project, however the dimensions I've provided are based on the Trofast storage bins by IKEA. They're consistent, well-manufactured, and fairly inexpensive. They also come in a variety of color options. The small, medium and larger bin options make for a more versatile unit as you can choose the sizes to meet your own needs. Another nice feature about these particular bins is that if you use the spacing I've provided in the sketch, you can mix and match between small, medium and large bins and they will be interchangeable in the unit. One medium bin takes the equivalent space of two smaller ones and one large bin takes the equivalent space of three smaller ones. This makes for a more versatile solution for your storage needs. Since this project was primarily for toy and Lego storage, we selected a variety of different sizes. Regardless of whether you use these bins or another type, be sure the bin you choose has a nice consistent lip that will be able to slide in and out of the dados you will create for them.
Step 4: Ripping Down Your Plywood
Since the plywood I chose for this project was a bit more expensive, I took care in laying out my cut list to fully maximize the sheets. Though I've not included that cut list, I have provided the dimensions and depending on the kerf of your saw blade you can lay out each piece to make the most effective use of your sheet goods. I cut the 4' x 8' sheet down into 3 strips measuring 15 7/8" wide by 96" long. This gave me full use of the sheets with very little waste. This width along with the added trim used on the front edges of the plywood also work out to match the depth of the IKEA storage bins quite well. I ripped the plywood down on the table saw, however you could also use a circular saw with edge guide for this step. Note: The number of sheets you need will vary based on how many units you are building. I made two of the smaller units and two of the tiered units, and for that I used a total of three 4' x 8' sheets.
Step 5: Cutting Down Your Trim
Since I chose to use plywood for this project, it was important to incorporate a nice hardwood trim to hide the edges of the plywood, add strength to the overall construction of the case, and create a more elegant looking piece. I chose to re-purpose the headboard because it was made of solid mahogany. Mahogany is a hardwood that is very rich in color when a clear finish is applied. The vibrant and deep tones of the mahogany contrasted well with the lighter birch veneer on the plywood. You could use any type of wood for this step however I would recommend it be a hardwood as it will stand up better to abuse over time. The dimensions of the trim will vary based on the plywood that you select for this project. The plywood I chose was slightly under 3/4" thick. I began by cleaning up the faces of the mahogany on the thickness planer. This could also be done with a hand smoothing plane but since I had quite a bit of grime to clean off, the planer was a much more efficient method. Once all my faces were clean and still of sufficient thickness (3/4"), I then began ripping up both my rails and edging strips. For these cabinets I wanted to add both a top and bottom rail to make a more sophisticated looking unit. The bottom rail was sized at 2" wide. This provides a nice lift off the floor where they would be installed. For the top rail I went with 1 1/2" in width. I cross-cut these rails to length on the table saw with a cross-cut sled using as stop block. The outside end panels will get an edge trim on both the front and top edges of the plywood. The top and bottom shelves will get just the front trim applied to the front edge of the plywood. I ripped strips for the edging that were slightly wider than the thickness of the plywood. I cut mine to 7/8" wide as I would be gluing them onto the plywood and trimming them with a flush trim bit in my router later. If you don't own a router you'll want to go ahead and rip these to a dimension just ever so slightly wider than your plywood is thick and once glued on the edge a few quick passes with a sander and you can have them flush with the surface of the plywood. You'll need to cut a lot of strips for this step depending on the number of units you build. The vertical dividers of the smaller unit will have edging cut to fit in a later step while the tiered units can have it applied sooner. I recommend cutting the trim to longer lengths now, applying to the plywood and cutting panels down to final dimensions later.
Step 6: Gluing on Your Plywood Edging Strips and Rails
Before cross-cutting the panels down to final dimension, you'll want to go ahead and glue the edge strips and rails onto the plywood first. That way, the edging gets cut to final dimension along with the panel at the same time. This can be a tedious part of this project and the number of clamps you have will determine how long this step will take.
There are several different techniques that can be utilized when gluing on the edging. I tried a couple methods. One involves gluing a wider strip between two panels and ripping them apart on the table saw. This can be tricky if the panels are larger as in the photo I included. The other method involves gluing a single strip on each individual panel, one at a time. I ended up using this method for the majority of this project and it worked well for me.
For the exterior end panels, the top and front edges get an edge trim. For the nicest look, you'll want to miter the front top corners of the edging before gluing them onto the panel. For the smaller units, the center vertical dividers will not get edging glued on just yet because of the top rail. These will get measured and cut to fit after dry-assembly. These mitered ends can either be cut on a miter saw or by hand with a fine tooth handsaw with a miter box.
Step 7: Cross-cutting Your Panels to Final Dimensions
Once all of the rails and trim have been glued on, it will then be time to cross-cut them down to final dimensions. I used my table saw with a cross-cutting sled installed because for me this was the best and safest method for cutting them to length. You could also cut them on a radial arm saw or sliding compound miter saw if you have enough depth of cut. Because the panels are over 16" wide with the trim attached I chose the table saw using my cross-cut sled. This method is good for a number of reasons such as zero-clearance cuts providing a clean cut across the trim and with a fine-toothed blade you can get a fairly clean cut on the plywood as well. In some cases, I used blue painters tape to get a clean cross-cut on the plywood as seen in the photo above.
Step 8: Cutting the Dados
For this project, I decided to utilize dados for the bins to slide in and out of. This is the design IKEA uses and it just made the most sense. This can be done on the table saw with a dado stack. I measured the thickness of the lip on the bins and created a stack that added a slight buffer to allow a little wiggle room to get the bins in and out more easily. Ultimately this is up to you depending on how much slop you want to give yourself. I recommend about 1/8" more width than the lip as this should be sufficient to prevent binding when sliding the bins in place. The edging was glued on ahead of time so that the dados could be cut through the edging as well. When cutting, be sure to use a sacrificial fence on your miter gauge to prevent blow out on the back side of the dado. If you do not own a dado stack or table saw, you could also use a router with and edge guide to cut the dados. There are bits that are sized for standard and typical plywood thicknesses though this method requires multiple passes to obtain the depth you desire. I cut a 3/8" deep dado on the outside panels and about 1/4" on the internal vertical dividers. You may need to adjust these depths depending how tight the fit is. I recommend a test cut or two to determine how deep your dados need to be. If you do not own a router you could also utilize some matching hardwood cleats for the lips of the bins to ride on. Simply glue and brad nail on some cleats to each panels. You would however need to adjust the dimensions to accommodate the addition of the cleats.
Step 9: Choosing the Joinery Method
There are a number of methods that could be employed to join these units together from something as simple as dowels, to biscuits to dominos. You could even glue and brad nail them together if you chose to and hide the brad heads with some wood filler. My design calls for the top and bottom shelves to be installed between the end panels and the smaller units will double as extra seating for children in our play room. For these two reasons I wanted to utilize a joinery method that would provide added strength so I chose to use dominos. If you're unfamiliar with dominos, they are essentially floating tenons that are similar to biscuits only they extend further into the work pieces and provide a stronger glue joint. Whatever method you choose, be sure to apply a liberal amount of glue to the joint for a strong bond. An equally important note is to take special measures to ensure accurate placement of the dowels or floating tenons.
I used 3 dominos on each side of the shelves. The mortises were actually cut into the mahogany trim of the end panels. For the vertical dividers, I used 4 dominos on the top and bottom to join to the top and bottom shelves.
Step 10: Completing the Dry-Assembly
One of the most important steps in the build process is the dry-assembly phase. Particularly when a project involves an intricate glue-up procedure like the tiered unit, the dry-assembly step provides an opportunity to expose potential pitfalls that may exist but weren't entirely obvious beforehand. Any obstacles you encounter during the dry-assembly process can be addressed to ensure an easier final glue-up process. Now is also a good time to measure and cut to fit the edges of the two middle vertical dividers on the smaller units. These extend behind the front top rail up to the top shelf so the trim needs to stop at the bottom of that rail so they are actually shorter than the panels themselves because of the overhang from the top rail.
Step 11: Sanding the Pieces
This step is likely the most mundane and least favorite step for most woodworkers. It is an important step however for a number of reasons. The most obvious is to smooth all of the surfaces of your piece. For furniture that will be handled a lot, this is an important step to ensure a smooth surface and prevent splinters. A less obvious reason for sanding is to prepare the surface to accept your finish. This is particularly important when using a water-based finish like I did. Sanding helps to seal up the pores of the wood making it less likely to absorb a lot of the finish which can cause the grain of the wood to stand up.
When sanding I like to put a piece of carpet padding down on my work surface before sanding to help prevent marring up the surface while sanding.
Step 12: Applying the Finish
There are any number of different types of finish and application methods that can be used for this project. I chose a water-based polyurethane that was oil-modified and I brushed it on with a synthetic bristle brush. The finish is durable, supplies a nice finish and is less caustic during application because it is virtually odorless. It also ensures a quick and easy clean-up. It is made by Minwax.
Just like sanding, finishing is equally important to ensuring you're pleased with the finished product. Any shortcuts taken on either of these steps will mean a less than desirable outcome. I chose to sand with a really fine grit sandpaper (about 400 grit) between coats and I applied a total of three coats to each piece. I chose to apply finish before assembly though you could apply finish after the units are assembled. If you do choose to pre-finish the pieces, be sure not to apply finish on the glue surfaces to ensure the best bond possible.
Step 13: Completing the Final Assembly and Glue-up
Once all of the pieces have had their finish applied, it is not time to glue-up the final assembly. Hopefully any issues that were present were addressed in the dry-assembly phase. Apply a liberal amount of glue to all joints and have a damp shop towel handy to wipe up any glue squeeze-out. Be sure to have clamps, glue and dominos close at hand during this process. A nice dead-blow mallet like the one pictured above is also a great asset to have during this step as it will help to convince the panels to go together as planned.
Step 14: Installing in Your Home
The last thing to do is move the finished units into your home and fill them up with your choice of toys or whatever you'd like. One suggestion would be to add labels to the bins to indicate what belongs in each bin. One of the smaller ones I built was strictly for Legos that were given to our children. The various size bin options is great because the pieces can be sorted and kept in an appropriately sized bin. This was a fun project to design and build and is sure to get lots of use in our home. We plan to make seat cushions for the two smaller units that will double as bench seating in the room where they now reside. I appreciate your feedback and invite your questions. I'll also be uploading a build video on my YouTube channel. I will be uploading a build video soon for this project.
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