When Renee and I bought this house we knew that it was going to need a lot of updating and renovation. On the one hand it was scary and on the other hand it was a dream come true because we had the opportunity to make this home truly our own.
Every inch of it needed work, but we decided to start with our master closet. In it’s original state we couldn’t even move into it. The wooden shelves were unsteady, and the wire shelves were barely connected to the wall. There were only 2 wooden rods, which was no where near enough for both of our clothes. The rods were installed so close to the shelves above them that we could barely fit a hanger on. Lastly, there was surface mold growing on the walls and baseboards because the house sat unoccupied with no airflow for a several months before we moved in.
Originally, we didn’t intend to do any major carpentry ourselves– we were going to hire someone or order a custom closet system. However, we gathered enough quotes to realize that it would be far less expensive if we bought all the tools and materials ourselves. We figured we could also use the tools to work on the rest of the house. We knew that the DIY route wouldn’t be easy, but we were feeling bold, so we took a fateful trip to a big-box hardware store to buy lots of power tools and materials.
Here’s the list of tools and materials we needed to complete this job:
Pneumatic (air) 15-gauge Angled Finish Nail Gun
3-Inch Flex Putty Knife
Mud Box to make it easier to work with the Patching Plaster
Air Hose for Compressor and Air Tools
Biscuit Joiner (also called a Plate Joiner)
Paint Brush Set
Spray Mold Remover
Kilz mold resistant primer/stain blocker
15-gauge Finish Nails for Pneumatic Angled Nail Gun
Paint Grade Pine for shelves
3M Dust Masks
Pre-primed Wood Molding
Coronado Baseboard 4.25” tall
Quarter Round instead of shoe molding
Door/Window Casing for the lower rod support
Santa Fe Baseboard 5.5”
Flat Back Crown Molding
In short, there wasn’t much of a design plan. We knew we wanted two rods on either side (doubling our hanging space). We wanted to be able to fit hangers on the rods without the shelf getting in the way. Additionally, we wanted a taller and wider shoe shelf, and Renee needed at a space for long hanging clothes. We knew that we wanted different heights for the shelves so that we could put tall and short shoes on them without wasting space. I roughed it out on a pad of lined paper, and took measurements to make sure that it would all fit.
Removing Old Shelves and Baseboards
Before doing anything else we used a mold removal spray, and scrubbed down the walls. It was surface mold, so it didn’t require professional abatement services, but I still didn’t want the spores to become airborne during demolition of the shelves and baseboards.
Next, I removed the old baseboards. I was careful to place a piece of scrap board under my pry bar as I pulled them away from the wall. This spreads out the force and avoids putting holes in the drywall.
Our home was built during the 1950s when contractors were first starting to use drywall instead of lapboard and plaster, and they were still trying to figure out best practices for it’s use. The original walls in our home are covered with half inch drywall and a “skim coat” of plaster about a half inch thick. I discovered the hard way that standard “patching compound” does not stick very well to plaster, and in fact you have to use an actual plaster product to patch it. After I removed all of the shelves and rods in the closet there were around 40 holes that all had to be filled and sanded before I could move on to primer and paint. Luckily, the new baseboards I chose for the house are slightly taller than the original baseboards, so most of the damage caused by removing the baseboards was covered with the new boards.
After priming the walls with Kilz I went ahead and painted the ceiling with standard white ceiling paint, and put one coat of paint on the walls.
Installing New Molding
After everything was sanded, primed, and one coat of paint was applied, I spent some time finding the studs in the walls. I used an electronic stud finder, which is accurate to a point, but can be challenging with extra thick walls. I marked the studs with blue painters tape when I found them (see picture above), and I also marked the spots on the wall where I knew there was an electric outlet on the other side in another room. Needless to say, damaging wires or outlets with nails would not have been good.
I used a 4.25” Coronado Baseboard to replace the original 3.75” baseboards. In place of the original shoe molding we chose a quarter round. To support the lower rod and add another line of detail through the middle of the closet I chose to use a simple Door/Window molding. In retrospect I think I would have preferred to just use metal flanges, which you can find with the rods at any home improvement store. It would have been a lot easier and probably a little better looking, but I don’t really have any regrets. To support the top shelf and top rod, I chose to turn a Santa Fe Baseboard upside down and pair it with a Flat Back Crown Molding. I think it does an elegant job of supporting the shelf and rods. All of this was fixed to the wall with molding glue and nailed to the wall using my newly purchased pneumatic (air) finish nailer.
Important Lessons Learned
The first lesson I learned installing molding myself was that measurements are never just right. That whole “measure twice and cut once” saying… well it’s partially useful. Yes, I always measure more than once, but in 4 years of renovating this house I’ve hardly ever gotten a perfect cut the first time. I usually try to cut about an 8th of an inch too long, and that gives me some wiggle room to shave off a bit if it doesn’t fit the first time. That’s a lot better than wasting material because a cut is too short.
The second lesson I learned is that corners are hardly ever square. Corner joints just won’t be perfect if they are cut to fit a perfect 90 degree wall corner. I bought an angle finder to help me get better results. I was shocked at how far out of square some of my wall corners were.
How about a biscuit with your… shelving?
I’ve used round wooden dowels to set butt joints before, but never had the best results. This time I wanted to get it a little tighter, so I decided to buy a Biscuit Joiner (plate joiner) to keep my top closet shelf from moving around at the joints. I bought a Dewalt Plate Joiner and gave it a shot. Here’s a link to a good tutorial video. I really enjoyed this. Hint: make sure you practice on some scrap wood before you use it on your good piece of shelving.
Making it “Level”
Throughout this process I had to learn that caulk is a wonderful thing. Joints are rarely perfect, and caulk can do an amazing job of covering up your mistakes. All that said, there was one huge mistake that couldn’t be covered up with caulk…
After doing a bunch of reading and watching videos online, I thought I had it dialed in. I used a 4ft level to make sure that all of my molding and shelves were completely level. The problem is that I didn’t take into account that the closet (and the rest of the house for that matter) isn’t level or square at all. So cutting molding corners to fit 90 degrees doesn’t yield good results if your corner isn’t 90 degrees. And a perfectly level shelf system in an unlevel closet will make the shelves look unlevel. When I finished the new closet system and stepped back to look at it, I was stunned to discover how lopsided everything appeared. I genuinely thought I had done everything right; I was so careful! It was very obvious that the lines of the shelves didn’t match the lines of the closet. It was bad. I was rather upset. Renee really wanted me to just live with it, but being the perfectionist that I am I just couldn’t.
I ripped it all out except for the baseboards. The new nails and glue I used ripped a lot of plaster off of the walls when I pulled out the molding and shelves. This took a good long time for me to patch, sand, and repaint. After that I started over. This time I measured carefully from the floor and ceiling and didn’t rely on the level as much.
After I recut and reinstalled the new shelves and molding, I taped, caulked, and put the finishing coat of paint on everything. It took several weekends and evenings, and Renee was not happy with me during that timeframe. She would have preferred to have use of her master closet sooner rather than later, but with a few years to think about it she is glad that I started over and made it look like it belongs.
If you’ve never done any carpentry or renovation I highly recommend that you start in a closet like I did. You won’t have to worry about who sees it because the results will be behind closed doors. This will help you gain experience and build your confidence before moving on to something more visible in your home.