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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