Introduction: Couch Hack for Your Cat
Couch Hack: A Tale of Bravely Demolishing Our Couch to Add a Space for Our Cat.
This is less of a step by step Instructable and more of a demonstration of risk, bravery, and an almost obsessive need to spoil our cat.
I was inspired by a prototype cat tunnel couch that has made rounds across the internet for some time now. It doesn't seem like it will actually ever become a product so I put it on my list of things I'd want to build myself. It was a silly idea that I thought I'd never actually do, but then quarantine came around and now here we are! I originally tried to design the cat climb for our couch to have just as many holes and entrances as the tunnel design did but it would have probably compromised the structure of our existing couch. Instead, I went with a simpler design that can still provide your cat with a fun new space to play and explore. I took on this ambitious project with my wife BrainTwitch, it would have been impossible to do all on my own. You'll see both of us working on different parts of the projects throughout the steps. And of course our cat, Ramekin, kept us in line with his managerial oversight every step of the way...
This project improved our couch in many ways beyond us doting on our cat. It also added:
- A coffee bar/cat nap surface on the back. Cat hair in your coffee!
- Outlets incorporated into the couch itself for phone charging and more. You could plug in a crockpot!
- New and improved cushioning for the back. No more saggy beer-belly cushions!
- Fixing our oddly specific problem that the couch was too deep for comfortable sitting. Proper back support!
At the end of the Instructable I have also demonstrated that the same modifications could create a nice storage space for books, games, or whatever else you want to store right within the couch itself. These upgrades are clever for pet and non-pet owners alike!
Since every single couch in the world is different it doesn't make sense to go into too much detail on the specifics of our build, but hopefully you'll pick up some ideas and gain some courage to take on an almost certainly foolish idea of your own!
At a minimum:
-Room in your budget to replace your couch in case everything goes terribly wrong
-Time to invest in trips to the hardware store because you are making this up as you go
-Probably every tool you own
-Lots of 1/2" plywood
Step 1: Couch Deconstruction
Take some farewell pictures of your couch, it'll never be quite the same after this...
This wasn't a very nice or expensive piece of furniture so the risk of everything going terribly and needing a new one was accounted for. I was already in the market for a new sofa because I hated the state of the saggy cushions and there was no simple way to replace them as they were built into the frame itself. So, we either had to buy a new one or we could bravely attempt to improve it ourselves! We, being handy tinkers, decided it was worth the risk to see if we could construct our own, perfect, bespoke couch.
I recommend using a seam ripper to separate the fabric as it proves incredibly handy to save as much of the material as possible for future use. We ended up having to make little upholstered pieces here and there to hide ugly areas that didn't go exactly to plan. Reusing the salvaged material allowed the new construction additions to blend in to the rest of the original fabric.
Be careful of sharp bits from the tack strips and splinters!
Because this was a cheap couch there was little material used for the frame and it was just barely held together with some industrial staples. This ended up being perfect for our needs as it was already a very open design, not a lot of material to remove, and I didn't feel like we could do any worse than it already was. I would bet a more expensive couch might be a bit harder to deconstruct and build around.
It was at this point that I uncovered the little framed windows over the armrests, a space the just happened to be the perfect fit for an electrical outlet. I was now going to make the couch project way more complicated that it had any right to be.
You can see in the last picture the exact moment we knew there was no going back....
Step 2: Take It Down Even Further
This was the scarier part after removing all the fabric, actually cutting away pieces of the frame in order to make space for our custom design. We never knew if a board we removed was going to be the one keystone piece that kept the entire thing standing! Luckily, we left enough framework to keep it from falling apart. This couch was held together with nothing but spit and a prayer honestly.
Make sure you remove all staples and splinters! You'll want to make sure that everything your cat could run into is going to be safe to touch so don't be afraid to bring out some sandpaper. The original builders never intended for people to rummage through the inside of the couch so it's made with very rough, unfinished boards.
Step 3: Planning, Prototypes, and Templates!
Now that you can see how your couch goes together, take a minute to:
- Plan your design
- Take measurements
- Make templates
- Adjust your plans as needed
My initial design ended up getting changed a bit after we learned more about what space we had to work with once we were inside of the couch. It was still very helpful to have our original idea on paper and it's neat to see the changes that were made by the end.
You can kinda see what we are going for in our frame structure for our cat tunnel from the little cardboard prototype we made. The framing will make more sense in later pictures. The cardboard mockup saved us from making a handful of mistakes that would be much harder to undo later on if we hadn't mocked up our design first.
With the help of a full sized cardboard template for our new supports we were able to check that everything was level and at good angles before we cut them out of wood.
We also planned out our cat tunnel opening for the top surface and the covers for the couch outlets from a single 1"x12"x10' pine board.
It doesn't pay to skimp on prototyping and preparation!
Step 4: Building Your New Frames to Create the Cat Tunnel
These frames are the cornerstone to the project, they:
- Define the height, depth, and overall size of the cat tunnel
- Provide the angle for the back cushion
- Create the support for the tabletop to rest on
- Are the foundation for the tunnel floor boards
- Finally, they close up the ends where the couch was never supposed to extend out to (better explained in the next step)
After using our template we cut out four total frames: two open and two solid. The solid ones will be upholstered in the same material as the couch and close up the sizable gap we create by extending the cushion forward nearly 12".
I used some 1/2" plywood to mark where the bottom of the wood would be to the opening of the internal tunnel frames. That'll ensure that the plywood floors will sit flush with the frame in the tunnel and avoid any kind of gap or lip. I cut a million little blocks of wood, mostly out of the wooden bars we removed from the original couch. Upcycling!
By doing little blocks instead of full strips of wood the length of the frame edge I was able to stagger them and ensure I could tack through from the plywood side without the block from the other side being in the way.... I'll let the pictures explain what I mean. Blocks were placed for the bottom for the floors, on the angled edges for the cushion board, and on the top for the tabletop.
You can see we planned on a gap to allow the power cord for the outlets to run through. I had already run the electrical at this point even though the step for it in this Instructable comes later. Always plan on your order of operations! While it wouldn't be impossible to run your line after installing the framework, it is easier to do it beforehand.
I checked to make sure it was all level and nailed them into place!
Step 5: Close Up Those Gaps
The outside framing boards are going to be visible from either end of the couch so I could either clean up the plywood for a nice wood finish look or disguise it with material to match the rest of the upholstery. After deciding to go with the covered look, I cut down a discarded cushion to recycle some of that original fabric. It looked like they always belonged there!
Most of the edges will be hidden so I wasn't too careful with my stapling and pulling work. You'll notice I had an extra block added, that block will be where the outlet will be installed and secured.
Optional step: Adding phone catcher fabric
Since the back cushions were originally installed into part of the framing, removing them created a big gap that was now a perfect hole to lose your phone down forever. So I bought some official upholstery dust cover fabric to create a cell phone catcher to make sure none met an untimely end in the bowels of the couch.
Step 6: Adding the Convenience of Electricity
Did you know you can take a heavy duty extension cord and use it to power an outlet or a light bulb from a wall socket? Now you do! It just needs to be a heavy duty cord to work properly. The outlets I grabbed required 14 gauge wires so you'll want to be aware of the extension cord type you use.
Some thoughts on the outlets I chose: Not only do they have two normal outlets but they also have two USB ports for convenient phone charging (We lived in the dark ages of constantly sharing a single phone charger, so this is a blessing). Even more handy about these fixtures is that they have a solid rectangular closed face so I could install them into my custom outlet mounts without needing to also fit an outlet cover plate. Since I didn't need a cover plate I could recess the outlets so they wouldn't be so tempting to accidentally touch or stick things into. It does limit what kinds of plugs will fit into the ports but it is only a couch after all, and it's ok that it has limits.
I ordered a 14g 25ft heavy duty extension cord online since that was a little too specific a need for what my local hardware store will carry. It seemed like a good idea to have extra length so we could move our couch around the living room to our hearts' desire without worrying about being able to reach a wall socket.
You can follow along with the pictures but this step is really for those who are already comfortable with wiring up electrical outlets. I don't want to be responsible for any furniture fires, beyond my own, so electrify your couch at your own risk!
Step 7: Optional: Complicated Keyhole Outlet Mounting
Fun fact, you can buy metal keyholes!
We do own a keyhole bit for a plunge router but I was worried about trying to get two keyholes to line up and "stop" at the same point as each other. Human error and all that. I could create a jig to make it more foolproof, but buying premade plates is much easier!
I made a template to first mark out where my boards are on the couch.
I folded my template in half so I conveniently created a line to keep my keyholes even. Then I used that to line up my keyhole positions. Keep in mind and decide if you want to lock your keyholes by pressing down or have them lock in place by pressing up! That will determine which way your hole sits. I had mine planned so I had to press the outlet into the couch arm to get it into the hole, and then the pressure from the fabric would push it up and keep it locked in place.
After that I marked where the screw would need to sit in its final "locked" position. I bled my pen through the bottom of the keyhole markings onto the fabric so I knew where to put my screws.
Finally, I transferred my keyhole position to the outlet itself and carved out a pocket in the wood for the screw to fit.
Install it all together! I had to move the screws around a few times because a plan this messy isn't expected to work perfectly the first time. I made sure my screws were as tight as they could be while still allowing the metal keyholes to slide. Now I can remove the outlets if needed and no one can see the hardware.
I'll admit, it's a crazy and complicated and by far the hardest way to do it. If you don't care about getting into your outlets later, just use nails or even glue. If you don't care about hiding your hardware, a set of nice brass screws will do the job too.
Step 8: Making a Removable Cushion Backboard
I feel like a good design is one that has room for later adjustment or modification. It's a big gamble to make things absolute on a build, that's why I like to make things removable. The cushions of our couch will be no exception!
I hated the fact that our original cushions were built directly into the frame leading to this full deconstruction of the couch in the first place. I want to be able to fix or change my cushions either out of necessity or simply on a whim. If I want to suddenly change it into a purple couch then I can and I will!
After brainstorming we came to the exact same solution- T-nuts! Those little threaded inserts you can hammer right into wood. Using that specific piece of hardware we can install and secure the board from the back and remove it whenever we want. You'll see later that we leave the back of the couch removable so we can get to these screws at any time.
We temporarily tacked our board in place with a few nails to hold it into position while we measured, drilled holes, and installed the hardware. You'll need to do this before you've added cushions and fabric.
That funny little cone you see on my drill is a jig I designed and 3D printed. It's a simple cone shape with a drill-bit sized hole. This ensures that I set my drill bit at a perfect perpendicular to the board even though it is itself at an angle. I learned after all that CAD and 3D printing that I could do the same thing with an L-bracket. Getting the correct angle does help the threated T-nuts sit in the holes much better and create a straight channel for the hardware through the blocks in the back. If you end up at an angle it causes the hardware to get jammed and you'll need to re-drill your holes. I did that a few times myself.
The pictures do the best at explaining the rest.
Step 9: Upholstering the Cushion
I'm not sure if we did it the best way but YouTube videos kept contradicting each other over how to upholster cushions on a bench seat. Here's the process that we decided on-
Got some foam squares. I did absolutely no research on types, thicknesses or anything, I pretty much just grabbed the first thing I found at Walmart. It was on sale!
The cushions we got were just ever so very slightly larger than our board but we turned that into an advantage instead of cutting them down to size. We allowed the foam to overhang the wood by about an inch so that it would create a nice cushion bump where you would rest your head!
We used spray adhesive to make sure the foam didn't slide around while we wrapped it with our covering. It probably helps them stay in place during day-to-day use too. We put the odd cut-to-size cushion in the middle in case you could see the cushion lines through the fabric. That way it would at least still look symmetrical and deliberate! Our new fabric choice ended up being visually busy and you would probably never see any cushion distortion but it's good to plan for the worst. We decided to add batting as well to help curve out the edges and add a little extra fluff for extra comfort.
Then it was just a lot of pulling and stapling! As you can see, we did the batting separately from the final material. I saw it both ways online and doing them apart seemed to be a bit easier to manage even though it required twice the amount of staples. Our hands were definitely tired after all that!
This step really transformed the look of the couch! This is one of my favorite parts of this improvement.
Step 10: Finishing Up the Back - Floor Boards and Fabric
I wanted to share our particular process but keep in mind that everyone will have their own version of finishing their specific project as all couches will be different.
This was a bitter sweet day in the project. Ramekin was delighted to explore the new floors of his tunnel, but it also meant I was closing up his access to underneath the couch. He couldn't get enough of hiding and playing down there the whole time it was exposed. I would have left it open if I wasn't afraid of accidentally crushing him by sitting down on the wrong cushion at the wrong time!
I measured, cut, and nailed the floorboards down onto the blocks we placed on the framing sections. You can see how our previous measurement with the board allowed the floors to be even all the way across without a lip to step over each time the cat crosses a frame. I did end up having to use a few shims to make things perfectly level with each other. I sealed the floor boards with polyacrylic before installing them just to help make it easier to sweep out cat hair.
I am proud of my idea to add a little accent of the new cushion fabric to the back of the couch. It tied it all together and made it look like it was always a fully planned and designed couch, not a Frankenstein mess of ideas! It also helped give us a little more leeway with reusing the fabric we had removed and are now reapplying in odd ways.
I mostly upholstered with a staple gun up to this point but I wanted to have a nice decorative finish along the edge of the tunnel floor. It won't be seen most of the time, but I really didn't want it to be a mess of staples when I did have the back flap open. I believe that ended up being about 44 tacks and I couldn't feel my thumb for three days after pushing them in to hammer into place. I think it was worth it though, it looks so fancy!
After closing up the underside of the couch I needed to fix the ugly sides left over from our demolition. Those ends were originally covered using those tack strips seen in the beginning and there was no way we were going to be able to do that again. I harvested some more fabric from the removed cushions and covered some plywood panels I had cut down to size. I used our handy nail gun to secure the panels into place and voila, It's starting to look like a real couch again! When in doubt, fix any ugly bits or mistakes with more fabric and plywood.
Step 11: Optional: Convoluted Fabric Flap Invisible Hook Securing System
Any cat owner should know that you don't want to give a cat a tunnel without having a way to get them out. Cats can be good at hiding in the most inaccessible places if they hear the familiar sound of a cat carrier that can only mean a trip to the vet. It's also good to be able to get inside of your cat couch in case you need to clean up hairballs or other messes. So, lets make the tunnel accessible!
There are lots of ways to create a removable back and through this process I probably gave each idea a consideration: wooden doors, having the tabletop become a hinged lid that can open, a pull-string curtain.....and many, many more. I decided I wanted to do it the hardest and most experimental way possible, of course!
I find my technique quite elegant and it didn't add too much new hardware or the bulk of even more wood. We've probably doubled the weight of this couch with all the parts we've already added. This design also took advantage of re-using the material we removed from the back instead of buying more material. Overall, it preserved the original look of the couch and it didn't have too many moving parts that could fail.
I'll have to let my diagram and pictures do most the of the explanation as it is a weird concept for me to put to words but I'll attempt it.
Here are the basic ideas:
- Have a sewn channel at the bottom of the curtain to hold an aluminum metal bar. This will add support and structure.
- Create and line up holes in the fabric and metal that coincide with the placement of your nails
- Add a rivet/eyelet that will create a tunnel through the inside fabric and all the way through the aluminum.
- Round over and secure the eyelet without going through the outer fabric
- Follow this design and the nail can fit through the eyelet tunnel and hook onto the metal bar while being hidden by the outer fabric.
- You can now tightly secure your curtain without any hardware showing!
I will confess that I did cut through the fabric on the outside trying to hammer down the eyelet but luckily the material is busy enough that you can't tell. So, it's not fool proof but I still think the idea has merit.
Feel free to explore other access options but I wanted to share my proud experiment.
Step 12: The Last Step, the Tabletop Board!
Now we need to create the top and get it installed. Once again, I'm going to let the pictures do most of the talking because this was very specific to our couch and to our needs.
Some interesting things to share:
This was the first project where we got to use our new router from Christmas!
Don't forget to pre-drill your holes before screwing your table top down to your frame blocks
Using a rope is a great way to make a natural path to follow with vinyl decals! The paw prints tipped the couch project from elegantly and seamlessly designed to purrrrfectly whimsical.
Step 13: Cat-free Version
No cat? No problem!
You can still enjoy the coffee tabletop and the nice little nook for books, games, and other assorted treasures! Leave it open for all to admire your clever use of space or disguise it to look like a normal couch back where no one would even know about your secret storage cubby. There is endless possibility to having an electric couch: you could power a fondue pot for parties, electric blankets, lights, power tools....whatever you need!
Everyone can benefit from hacking their couch!
We actually did make chocolate couch fondue with friends just because we could, but I did move the pot when it came time for dipping to protect our precocious couch from messy molten chocolate blobs.
Step 14: Final Thoughts...
Phew! Thanks for following us along through this entire process. I got exhausted just looking back through all of the pictures and remembering how much effort and how many steps this project took. Photo magic allows it to seem like it only took a few days. However, for weeks we were without a complete couch and our living room was a construction zone littered with tools and wood.
Would it have been easier to buy a new piece of furniture? Yes, but honestly, I love this couch so much more now and I don't think I could buy one as perfect as this one we upgraded ourselves. I think this is one of my favorite projects I've done. I know I normally make quirky yet functional things but for it to be something that is the center of our home and we can benefit from our designs every single day? That's priceless. Our cat uses the tunnel and sleeps on the back, the tabletop is great for drinks, the outlets on both sides make it so we don't have to fight to charge our phones, and the couch comfort is greatly improved with the new cushions.
One must appreciate the journey as much as one appreciates the destination. No one benefitted from the journey more than Ramekin, who was greatly entertained at every opportunity, every step of the way....enjoy a million cat pictures.
First Prize in the
Modify It Speed Challenge