How to create custom built ins with stock cabinets

August 28, 2020

If you've read TDC for awhile, you know how much I love a good wall of built ins. I think they create so much character without spending a ton of money, and you get all that added storage! Thing is, there's no need to build the whole thing from scratch. You can create a really custom look with unfinished stock cabinets as your base for the project. 

This means when you get an idea to add some storage, you can do it immediately with in stock cabinets from the hardware store.  There's a little trick to it though! I have a go-to for almost all of the built ins and bookcases I've built over the years. Instead of bottom cabinets that you'd find in a kitchen or bathroom, I use the uppers only. 

This is for a few reasons -- they don't have the drawers that most lowers have (which makes it look more kitchen-like), they are cheaper! and they don't take up nearly the space regular lower cabinets do. (Uppers are only 12 inches deep.)

You can walk into almost any large hardware store and pick up what you need right there. These are the unfinished cabinets I usually use
built in storage from stock cabinets

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The other bonus is they come in a few different sizes -- so for most walls you can find a configuration that works and just line them up to create the base for bookcases. 

You do have to do some prep to make them look custom. The first step to making kitchen uppers look like built ins is raising them up a bit. If you just install them on the ground they won't look as built in. 

I use 1x4s or 2x4s and nail them into the sides around the bottom of the cabinets: 
how to build storage cabinet built in

Actually, the size of the wood will depend on the height of your current baseboards (or the height of new ones you may be installing): 
Make base for cabinets for bookcases

The center piece is for added support. To make these look custom I wrap the bottom with baseboards and this base pulls them up off the ground so that's possible. You can read more about the steps for cabinet installation for built ins here. That post explains everything in more detail.

When you add the base and then some simple trim on the ends to dress it up, it gives it all a much more sophisticated look:

Using kitchen cabinets to build a bookcase

Of course the butcher block counter offers some nice contrast and makes it feel even more custom: 
Kitchen cabinets as base to bookcases

I added a wall of stock cabinets in our old loft that gave me SO much storage space for craft and office supplies: 
Loft office/craft room

family office space with built in storage

You can see more of that craft room/office/loft space here! 

This built in was in our dining room turned library and I've shared it a million times, I know. But we easily saved a couple grand by doing this project ourselves. The inexpensive cabinets make it a really affordable project!: 
DIY built ins with kitchen cabinets

It is truly the best combo of form and function -- those cabinets are only 12 inches deep but they hold a ton! (Think of how much they hold in your kitchen.)

I used the upper cabinets that go over a fridge for our mud room bench:
Pretty DIY mud room bench with cabinets

And my first project with these was another project I did with my Dad for my son's bedroom
Blue and red airplane room

I have Dad to thank for this idea -- he's the one who thought of it for this room and I've kind of taken off with it over the years. :) 

I used those same skinny, upper cabinets for the bases of my green office built ins in our new house: 
Dark green built ins with wallpaper

And the 18 foot wall of stock cabinets turned gorgeous bookcases in our basement!: 

Have you tried this trick to build custom built ins or bookcases? They work great as storage in offices or pantries, or as built in entertainment centers around a TV. I'm thrilled with how they look in our home and I'm sure I'll add more in the future! 

You can shop some of the items from these rooms here: 


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  1. Hi Sarah! Question- why did you decide to go with uppers instead of lowers? I'm in the process of building something similar for our laundry room and I bought the lowers to start my built-ins.

    1. because lower cabinets are super deep. uppers are a nice narrow depth- they take up less floor space but you still get lots of storage. If you have the room for lowers it's totally fine though!

    2. Hey Maria! Good question -- two reasons. One, for these projects I didn't want the built ins to take up that much room (since lowers are deeper). Also, lowers are either drawers or cabinets with drawers -- which just look too much like a kitchen for me. At least for something decorative like bookcases. I almost did drawers for the loft though! I decided I didn't want it quite so deep. Yours look great and look perfect for laundry room storage! (Oh, and the third reason -- the uppers are cheaper.) ;)

    3. Wow I never would have thought to use uppers! Thanks :)

  2. Love this idea! The mud room is my favorite!

  3. One of your signature moves! ;)

  4. We did this in our first home as well (also with upper cabinets) and loved the results! TFS!

  5. We used IKEA refrigerator cabinets as a very long built in bench in our playroom. I didn't put on the doors b/c I wanted it open for baskets. It worked perfectly.

  6. I also used refrigerator cabinets (2 36" sets) to make a window bench in my kitchen. I made a plank top from 1x lumber. People think it's a 'custom' piece, which I guess it is, but a diy custom :-) It does add a lot of storage (perfect for my cookbooks and less used kitchen stuff), and is awesome as some extra seating for guests. I created the lifted base from 2x4's (for more support for sitting), and added 1x across the top to support the planks. I didn't want anyone to feel insecure sitting on the bench. Instead of baseboard, I painted the 2x4 base flat black, and made curvy 'feet' shapes to make it look like a free standing bench - the black base recedes and you don't see it. I did something similar on my island. It's amazing how useful those humble off the shelf cabinets are!

  7. We have used upper kitchen cabinets in our garage and several other projects in our house too. My question for you is, have you ever put one of these built ins in a room with carpeting? If so, did you put it right over the carpet or did you pull the carpet back and have it re-installed. Also, did you remove the existing base molding?
    Thanks! I can't wait to see your finished project!

    1. Yes! We put it right on top. If you ever have new floors installed they just cut around it -- you can't see the old carpet. And sometimes I remove the base, sometimes not. After you add the 1x4's to the bottom of the cabinet they're up higher so they will fit right over baseboards and then I coped my new base to fit to the old stuff. Hope that makes sense! (We had pretty small baseboards where I did this, if yours is taller that may not work.)

    2. Thank you for asking this! We are hoping to do this in a room with carpet and have been pondering the same things about the carpet and the base boards.

  8. Hi Sarah! I love this! Where do you purchase the uppers and how much do they usually cost? Are they portable or built in? Also, what paint do you use? I'm a very inexperienced DIYer!!!

    1. Sorry I missed this! You can find them at any big box hardware store. The price depends on the size -- the larger ones for our bookcases were about $100 each I think? I use semi gloss or satin for cabinets. I shared how I painted our kitchen cabinets here:

  9. I really like this. Where do you go for butcher block tops?

    1. My favorite place to get them is IKEA! You can also find them at Lumber Liquidators and search for local lumber suppliers.

  10. Hello Sarah! I am trying hard to make this a reality in my home. We also have a formal dining room that I want to do this to. I noticed in your last home, you added a bigger space for the bottom shelf and the rest of the shelves the same size but with your new ones, you made the shelf spaces all the same size. Do you have a preference and why?

    1. We had a thermostat and light switches I had to work around at the old house. It was either a larger bottom shelf or more, smaller shelves. (I wanted to make sure there was plenty of air circulation around the thermostat.)

  11. I showed my husband and he still says NO! "I'm not a carpenter" he says. I swear, I'm just going to hire a carpenter to build me my bookcases it would look so much better in our family room. Thank you for great ideas!

  12. I love the look of the lowers with the bookshelves on top. I was curious what you used for the bookshelves on top of the butcher block?

  13. Hi, Did you build the shelves that are above the cabinets or were they pre-made bookcases that you just repurposed. I SO want to have this done in my livingroom! TY

  14. I never thought of using the uppers. They look great. Getting ready to install in my daughters house. Thanks for informative article.

  15. I never thought of using the uppers. They look great. Getting ready to install in my daughters house. Thanks for informative article.

  16. Hi - Thank you for sharing! What did you use for the upper trim pieces for the bookshelf? I love the look of the thicker trim.

    1. You can use a 1x2 or 1x3 -- whatever really, just depends on how thick you want the fronts to be. :)

  17. I love what you've done here and may run with these ideas in place of pricey built-ins. We're not carpenters, either, but... if you can do, I can do it. lol Thank you!

    How did you install the light fixtures to some of these?


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