Under the Stairs Built-in Bookcase

Jeremy had the great idea of turning the wasted space under our (split) foyer into storage space. He tasked me with figuring out how to do it. I turned to the Internet for help. I found awesome examples to inspire me (like this one):

Built-in bookcase

I like how the frames are not all the same width. But, how deep is that bookcase? Where are the studs? Our foyer has a lot of support under it; I am bound to encounter some reinforcement. I searched online for “How To”s on built-in bookcases and under stairs shelving. Most of the information I found was like this eHow article. I understood the general principles, but I really wanted to see someone do it. Well, we took the plunge and here is our story.

First, we drew out our plan on the wall. From the laundry/storage room, you can access under the foyer. Jeremy crawled back there and used the drywall saw to mark where the studs and bottom of the stairs are. I then drew out the overall shape of the bookcase and the placement of the shelves.

BuiltInWallSketchYou can see Jeremy’s saw holes in the photo above. We also moved that outlet (Jeremy is becoming quite the electrician) to the storage room. I then cut along these lines – alternating between our drywall saw and the dremel. I like the dremel because it is easier to keep the cut straight, and it requires less muscle.


We also popped the baseboard off. Now, the basic idea is to build boxes, slide them between the studs, and attach them to the studs. We decided to build up the floor first. Behind the baseboard was a 2×4, so we placed another 2×4 parallel to it, approximately 10″ away (we planned to make the shelves 11″ deep). Between those two boards Jeremy installed a few perpendicular 2x4s. He then laid a plywood floor on top of those beams. Here is a sketch of the “floor” plan:


We constructed the floors and sides of the boxes from 1/2″ thick MDF and the backs and tops from 1/4″ thick hardboard. Since we knew we were going to paint the bookcase, we didn’t bother with wood – MDF is way cheaper. First, Jeremy cut and installed the rectangles for the floors (installed on top of the plywood). Then, he cut and attached the sides, back and tops together using the nail gun.

You might notice in the earlier photo that there is a post in the way of one of the boxes (where the stairs start their descent). We made this box “Oklahoma” shaped – this way the box fit around the beam, but without altering spacing between boxes. We could have avoided the beam altogether by making the one box more narrow.

Jeremy slipped the boxes between the beams (it was pretty snug) and attached them to the studs with screws. The advantage that we have is that Jeremy could get behind the bookcases (under the stairs) to do some of the installation. Here is a picture of the boxes after the two coats of primer:


Can you see the Oklahoma box? The MDF is dark brown and “thirsty” – even after two coats it looks patchy. Jeremy caulked the seams of the boxes and I primed them using my 1  1/2″ angle brush and 3″ roller.

Above you can also see our trim selections. We glued together 3 pieces of trim to give us the 2  1/2″ coverage that we needed to obscure the studs and edges of the boxes. Here’s a picture after I painted the bookcases with Behr’s Ultra Bright White (with primer) and the wall with Behr’s Sparrow.


Like the bows? They were for my friend’s bridal shower.

The most difficult part was cutting the shelves. We would make cardboard templates from the measurements (11″ x  22″, etc) but they wouldn’t fit right. We realized the boxes aren’t perfectly square. The lesson here is that you should not assume that your studs are straight. We relied too much on the studs for the framing of our boxes. Make your boxes square first, then shim as necessary (between the boxes and the studs). Jeremy’s solution was to use strips of cardboard to frame out templates for the shelves. This allowed him to compensate for the lack of 90 degree angles. He used his frames to trace an outline for each shelf on the MDF boards and cut with his circular saw.

We installed the shelves before I painted them. This is because the shelf supports we used screw into the bottom of the shelves. We didn’t want the screws to be noticeable, so we installed first so I could paint over them. This time I only did one coat of primer, but two coats of the Ultra Bright White.


Here are installed shelves, with a focus on the Oklahoma-shaped shelves. You can see that they are just wide enough in the panhandle to sport a picture frame. This is also a good close up of the trim that we pieced together. Let’s look at the shelves in use!

Finished FinishedRoom

I love this project because we took unused space and turned it into much needed storage space. I hope you found this post more useful than that eHow article!

How much planning do you do before plunging the drywall saw into the wall? Have you ever worked with MDF before? How do you save money on materials?