Introduction: Upcycle a Particleboard Bookcase Into a Reptile Enclosure

A guy who lives in the neighborhood where I work was getting rid of a cheap particleboard bookcase. I had been planning on building new enclosures for my leopard geckos, and it occurred to me that this might be something that I could convert into a four-story enclosure. In fact, many commercial cages are made of particleboard laminated with melamine. I loaded it into my van and headed home.

I'm not a woodworker by any stretch of the imagination, and some of the things I tried I had never done before. Some things worked out great, and some, not so great. It was a great learning experience though.

I got some inspiration from this instructable by Kcraftshack.

Step 1: Remove Doors and Replace Back

I removed the paperboard back piece and replaced it with a piece of shower board. I had intended to completely dissassemble it and cover the entire interior with white contact paper, but this turned out to be a mistake. First, the contact paper was difficult to apply in large sections. Second, I couldn't get the bookcase to square with no shelves in it. Finally, the contact paper was easily damaged. I decided that I would put the contact paper on in sections once the shelves were mounted and the ventilation holes were drilled.

Step 2: Mount Shelves

The bookcase had some adjustable shelves as well as two fixed shelves. I wanted to make them all fixed. I measured and drilled pilot holes for their new locations and attached them with 2" deck screws.

Step 3: Fill Holes and Sand

I used wood filler to fill the holes where the pegs for the adjustable shelves went, the old holes where the fixed shelves were attached, and the where the new screws were countersunk. Once it was dry I sanded everything flat.

Step 4: Drill Ventilation Holes

I drilled three holes on each side of each enclosure with a 1 1/8" spade bit; on one side they were at the top and on they other they were at the bottom. A forstner bit would have been a lot better but I didn't have one that big. To prevent blowout of the particleboard I drilled halfway from one side then the rest of the way from the other side. They weren't the cleanest holes but since the edges would be covered with the vent trim it wasn't that big of a deal. I found a 48" t-square to be extremely helpful in making sure the holes were aligned with each other.

Step 5: Line Inside With Contact Paper

I didn't want to paint the inside for two reasons. First, I wasn't sure how good it would look and second, I didn't know if and for how long any harmful vapors would outgas from the paint. Just to be on the safe side, I used white contact paper instead. It was a pain to get it on without wrinkles, but once I did it looked really good (except where I had to patch the damaged parts). I covered anywhere there was exposed particleboard. Except for the top shelf, I didn't cover any of the shelves. The bottoms of the shelves weren't really visible, and the tops would be covered with the substrate.

Step 6: Caulk the Seams

I wanted to make sure that there was no exposed particleboard. In case of an accidental water spill I didn't want it to swell up, and I also didn't know if there was anything in the particleboard that would be hazardous to anything living in there. Again, I thought it was better to be safe than sorry.

I ran a bead of 100% silicone caulk along any seam where there was exposed particleboard.

Step 7: Attach the Legs

I wanted the enclosure to look like it was a more expensive piece, so I decided to add legs. I picked up some fence post toppers at the hardware store. They had actual furniture legs, but I liked the way the toppers looked better and they were about half the price.

I attached two pieces of 2x4s to the bottom of the shelf as bracing, drilled pilot holes and attached the legs.

Step 8: Add Trim

I attached 1x2 pine boards to the front in order to make it look nicer. I attached them with construction adhesive and trim nails, then used a nail set to sink the nails below the surface. I filled in the holes and the seams with wood filler. I used a 1x3 at the bottom instead of a 1x2 to make the leg braces less noticeable. I used lattice board as trim on the sides.

Step 9: Build New Doors

The old doors were too big to reuse, and I didn't like the way they looked anyway, so I built some new doors with 1x2s and luan plywood. I don't like how they came out, so I'll probably replace them someday.

Step 10: Add Crown Molding

I thought adding crown molding to the top would class it up some more. I had never used it before and it took a lot of wasted material before I figured how to get the angles correct. I attached it with trim nails and filled the seams with wood filler.

Step 11: Sand, Sand, Sand

I smoothed out any wood filler that was still not flat, then all of the particleboard on the outside so the paint would adhere better. I started with 80 grit then moved up to 240 grit on the trim.

Step 12: Attach the Top Sliding Door Track

I used 1/2" c-channel as the track for the sliding doors. The top rail had to sit behind the trim to make it even with the shelf below, so I had to attach it before I painted so that I didn't mess up the paint with a clamp. I glued the track to a piece of 1x2, then when it was dry I glued that to the back of the trim.

I didn't tape the track but I should have as the glue leaked out as it dried and it was a pain to scrape it off.

Step 13: Paint

This, by far, was the worst part of this project. I had never painted furniture before and should have researched it before just jumping in. I wanted the enclosure to match the trim in the living room that we had just redone, so I used the leftover latex paint.

I don't know if it was the paint, the brushes or my technique (probably all three), but the paint didn't go on very smoothly. There were tons of brush marks when it dried. I tried sanding them down with some 400 grit sandpaper. It flattened them out a little bit but not completely. After all was done, the brush marks looked like a wood grain pattern that I kind of liked, so I left well enough alone.

The legs were another story. I should have just gotten actual furniture legs. The fence post toppers were treated to be water resistant, so naturally a water-based paint didn't want to stick to them (duh). The paint just ran off of them like a duck's back. I found that painting a thin layer, then drying it with a heat gun, worked somewhat. It took about five rounds of this to completely cover them.

Step 14: Add the Rest of the Track and Add Sliding Doors

I glued the remaining tracks down. I had a x 4'x8' piece of acrylic sheeting I had salvaged from a dumpster a few years back. I intended to use this as the doors, but they were pretty scratched up and I didn't want to put the extra time in to try to get the scratches out; I was anxious to get this project finished. Instead I used some 12" x 18" sign holders that I acquired last year. They were brand new, so no scratches, but they did have some mounting holes in them that I would have to patch somehow.

The bottom track has to be shallower than the top so that the door can be installed. I cut up strips from a wooden yardstick and placed them in the bottom track.

Step 15: Add Vent Covers

I used some small sections 1" PVC pipe with window screen hot-glued to them as vent covers. This was a little more work than buying premade covers, but it was also a lot less expensive. I could have just glued the screen to the outside, but the PVC did hide the exposed particleboard and made it look a lot better.

Step 16: Add Trim to the Vents

I used 1" to 3/4" reducing washers from the electrical section of the hardware store as trim. I scuffed them up with sandpaper, then put five coats of spray paint on them. I found that not scuffing them or using only one coat of paint made the paint chip off very easily. I used a darker color so they would contrast with the bookcase, but I think that using the same color would look just as good. I attached them with hot glue.

Step 17: Add Leveling Casters

The bookcase was pretty wobbly so I added some leveling casters. Problem solved.

Step 18: Drilling Holes for Heat Tape

I needed an opening to pass through the power cord for the heat tape. I was really nervous about this part - if I messed up here it would look terrible or I'd have to replace the back again. I used a 1 1/4" spade bit, and it came out fine. When the cord is in I'll fill in the opening with a patch of contact paper.

Step 19: Attach the Doors and Add Cabinet Hardware

Step 20: Add Substrate, Cage Furniture and Reptiles

Right now I'm just using the hides that I had in their old enclosures but I plan on making new hides and backgrounds from foam and grout. RedHandFilms has a great instructable for that here. I lined the bottom of the cages with removable shelf liner which was an upgrade from the paper towels I had been using.

Step 21: Lessons Learned

Would I do this again? Sure, but I'd make the following changes:

  • Use forstner bits instead of spade bits for drilling holes.
  • Wait until the shelves were all mounted before adding the contact paper.
  • Not assume that paint will conceal anything but the smallest of holes.
  • Not use exterior wood for the legs.
  • Use a primer and oil-based paint for the outside.
  • Measure once, twice, and three times before cutting.

I hope this instructable is helpful for you. If anyone has any suggestions for improvements, feel free to let me know, and if you build something similar, I'd love to see it!

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