Building a Victorian alcove cupboard (part 1)

Sep 25, 2015 | 56 comments

If you live in an old house you’ve probably faced an alcove decision or two – what to do with those tempting spaces either side of a chimney-breast. In this particular case we had ripped out a modern floor-to-ceiling cupboard in our dining room and wanted to replace it with a Victorian-esque alternative. The general idea was a to build a cupboard at the bottom with a set of shelves on top. But Rome was’nae built in a day, so this post documents the first stage in this DIY endeavour, imaginatively entitled: The Lower Section.  Here is a picture of the finished article:

But before we get into the DIY at hand, let’s check out some of the alternatives. Here are two slideshows on the subject from houzz.co.uk : 10 Fresh Ideas for Alcoves in a Period Home and 13 Smart Solutions for Styling Fireside Alcoves (use the arrows in the bottom right to flick through).

10 Fresh Ideas for Alcoves in a Period Home

13 Smart Solutions for Styling Fireside Alcoves

Ok – so floating storage boxes, wall-to-ceiling mirrors, and scaffolding boards are all well and good, but we were after something a little more traditional. Traditional and cheap. The materials for this build cost less than £50: pine strips, an mdf sheet, and some decorative moulding, plus screws, wood-glue, sandpaper and white paint. Below is a gallery of the various steps.

To see how I completed this job check out my post: Building a Victorian Alcove Cupboard (Part 2)

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56 Comments

  1. Matt

    Hi. Nice job. Thinking of doing the same myself and these pics will certainly help. Quick question though. What is it that you show in the fifth picture? With the plane? Are those the doors? Thanks. Matt

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi Matt. The fifth picture (with the plane) is of the middle shelf. I used 6mm mdf for the shelf surface and reinforced the bottom with the three pine slats….and then planed it down because it was slightly too big! Good luck with it. Cheers, Tom.

      Reply
  2. Nick Welsh

    hi Tom, thinking of giving this a go in my 1930’s semi. can i ask what you made the top out of and how?

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi Nick. The top is made from a bit of leftover kitchen worktop I picked up on freecycle.
      It’s some form of engineered wood. Google: ‘glued timber kitchen top’ and you’ll see what I mean.
      This worktop at B&Q looks quite similar: click here. I also gave it a couple of coats of dutch oil. Good luck.

      Reply
  3. T know

    Alcove looks great!! Going to attempt to try and build that. Don’t suppose you have a slightly more detailed guide for a novice like myself. Many thanks.

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi there and thanks very much. I am afraid I haven’t written a more detailed guide yet. Hopefully clicking through the pictures of the build in progress give you a good idea of the process I went through – there was a fair bit of making it up as I went along. The key thing for me was deciding on the height and depth of the shelves and repeatedly checking that I had everything level. Good luck with your build.

      Reply
  4. Paul

    Hi. Really enjoyed looking how you built it . I’m a bit confused as to the packing between a wall and the wood. Did you cover it with something ?

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi Paul. Yes – what I do is roll up some newspaper and wedge it tightly into the gap. I then make up a batch of all-purpose powder filler (from Screwfix) to cover it. Then a quick sand before painting. Cheers, Tom.

      Reply
  5. Cara

    Hi, cupboard looks great, planning on replicating it myself. What thickness was the mdf that you used for the doors? Thanks Cara.

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi Cara. The mdf sheet was 6mm. The pine strip wood that I glued to the front of the doors was 12mm. Good luck with your project.

      Reply
  6. Kerry

    Hi T om, in the 5th picture it shows a piece of MDF with 3 pine strips glued to the back. What was that piece for? Thanks for the inspiration – I’m having a go myself in my own Victorian 3 bed semi (especially after receiving the quote for over £2k to do the work!) Thanks, Kerry

    Reply
  7. Kerry

    Hi Tom, in the 5th picture it shows a piece of MDF with 3 pine strips glued to the back. What was that piece for? Thanks for the inspiration – I’m having a go myself in my own Victorian semi (especially after receiving the quote for over £2k to do the work!) Thanks, Kerry

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Yes – that’s the middle shelf. I reinforced the mdf sheet by attaching some pine strips. Good luck with your project.

      Reply
  8. Guy

    great job Tom. Im inspired to do my own now. Can I ask about the wood? Are the battens just lengths of 2 x 1, the strips 3 x 1 and the frame uprights 2 x 2? And i take it the plinth MDF is quite a think one – say 15mm ?

    I understand the middle shelf is 6mm MDF. I can’t find any kitchen worktops on offer (I’d need 2 tops from Ikea at £40 a piece) so I’ll use think MDF with a rounded edge, say 25mm.

    cheers

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Thanks Guy – pleased to have inspired you. To try and answer your questions:
      1) Battens, Strips and Frame Uprights – yes spot on.
      2) The plinth is 18mm mdf
      2) The middle shelf is 6mm mdf because that’s what I had lying around, and I reinforced it with thee strips of wood on the bottom. So you could use 18mm mdf for this shelf as well.
      3) I was lucky to get the kitchen worktop on freecycle and it provided a nice finish, but I guess any thick piece of wood, plywood, or mdf will do the job, especially if you are planning to paint it. The thickness of this piece is about 25-30mm.
      Good luck with your project. Send me a photo of the finished article. CHeers, Tom.

      Reply
  9. Karen Thomas

    Fantastic storage space, my brother in law is making this alcove cupboard me. Very nice indeed, thanks for the inspiration

    Reply
  10. Cherie Oliver

    Really pleased to have come across this idea. I’m going to ask my husband to do something similar in my alcoves for me. Difference is that I need it to be angled, so deeper 1 side to the other, as this is where all the electrics come into the house, but don’t foresee this being a major issue. Any advice on that would be gratefully received.

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi Cherie. Thanks for your comment. You’re right, I don’t see any reason why an ‘angled’ alcove cupboard should be more complicated, the basic frame remains the same, just one side deeper than the other and the shelves and top cut to size. Here’s an image of someone who has done just that: click here. Good luck with the project.

      Reply
  11. Phoebe

    Hiya-this is fab and really helpful! Just wondering…what did you attach the bottom support bits to? Was it just to the shelf above, or did you attach to the floor? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi Phoebe – The bottom shelf sits on brackets that I screwed to the wall on each side and across the back. In order to stop it bowing in the middle I also added the little ‘support stilts’ in the middle that you mention. I screwed these to the floor and the shelf just sits on them. I hope this answers your question, good luck with your project.

      Reply
  12. Pete Taylor

    Hi Tom, love what you have Built here – from previous comments I think I’ve pieced together the sizes and types of timber you used.

    However, can I just ask what you by meant by strips that were 3×1? Where were these used? Can I see them in one of the pics?

    Thanks in advance.

    Pete

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi Pete – The strips that are referred to in the comments below as 3×1 are more accurately about 90mm x 18mm. I used this size of strip for the final front face of the cupboard (either side and above the doors) and for the doors themselves – seen in picture 9 and painted white in the final image. Hope that helps and good luck with your project.

      Reply
  13. Jez

    Hello Tom.
    You’ve done a fantastic job on your cupboard.
    I’m making it now but I’m having issues with warping on the doors. I’ve used 6mm and 12 mm strips stapled on from behind.
    Also, for your front frame surround did you use 2×1? I have but my hinges are deeper than the thickness of the 2×1 and anything slightly out of square it’s showing when i put the doors on. I’m hoping I’m missing something obvious.

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi Jez. Sounds like you’ve used the same as me for the doors – though I didn’t use staples I just stuck everything together with wood glue. I’ve had no issues with warping, but where there were little gaps I added a little bit of filler to smooth over (I knew it was all getting painted anyway). Regarding the hinges, mine were pretty small and fitted quite well – but you can see from the pictures that I cut a little groove to ensure the hinges were all flush with the frame. I find hanging doors is never straight-forward and I remember doing a bit of planing here and there before I got a finish I was happy with. I guess it is a bit of trial and error…and my finished cupboard is by no means perfectly even! Good luck and thanks for visiting the site.

      Reply
  14. Jez

    Sorry, meant to say thanks in advance Tom.

    Reply
  15. holly

    Hi, what did you use to paint the cupboard?
    did you seal the MDF?

    thanks

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi Holly. I just used some basic wood-primer followed by a couple of coats of white eggshell. I didn’t seal the mdf with anything prior to applying the primer.

      Reply
  16. Leigh

    Hi Tom,
    Sorry if I’ve missed this in earlier comments but what height did you make this unit?

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi Leigh – apologies for delayed reply. The unit is 100cm high.

      Reply
  17. Ian

    Great build Tom.

    So you just stuck the door panelling to a sheet of MDF, no shaker joints between the stiles and rails?

    If so, how did you finish the edges of the doors, looks like there is a pine strip in place? I’d imaging showing the edge of the MDF wouldn’t look great otherwise?

    Cheers, Ian.

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi Ian. Thanks. Yes I just stuck the door panelling on to the mdf, as simple as that. I then sanded round the edge of the doors and painted them. Close up you can see where the edge of the mdf meets the panelling, but as the doors are closed almost all the time it doesn’t bother me. I’d stress that I wasn’t trying to build this to the most meticulous standards, just something that could be done reasonably quickly with the hand tools I had available and that looked passable!

      Reply
      • Ian

        Thanks for clarifying Tom. I’m probably going to do the same – the doors can always be re-made later on if it bothers me!

        Reply
        • Ian

          I completed 2 cabinets this week, one two door, and one 3 door. Both look great – thanks again!

          Reply
  18. Geraint Jones

    Hi, so glad I found this as I’m looking to do the same but my alcoves are 1770mm and 1470mm. Looking at photo 1 does it project 100 mm from the wall. What have you fastened these 3×1 to? Was looking to do mine in 2×1 battens with a flush finish.
    Forgot to say, the finished article is very inspiring well done.
    Thanks for any help.

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi Geraint. Thanks a lot for your kind comments. The unit is 50cm deep in total and it projects about 15cm from the wall. To fix the batons, I drilled a holes in the wall, inserted rawplugs, and then put screws through the batons into the pre-drilled holes in the wall. Best of luck with your project. Tom

      Reply
  19. Steve

    Hi. Smashing unit. How wide were your doors?

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi Steve. Thanks very much. Apologies for the delayed reply. The doors are about 43cm wide each.

      Reply
      • Steve

        Thanks Tom. I managed to complete 2 units and shelves using your handy (indispensable) guide. Currently doing a bay window seat now…

        Reply
  20. Stuart

    Hi. Thank you for posting this. It looks great and my going to try a wardrobe version, fingers crossed. One question please , with the doors, did you use a full door size sheet of mdf then stick pine pieces then beading? Or did the mdf sit inside the timber adding?
    Thank you so much! Stuart.

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi. Yes I cut a full door size piece of mdf sheet (6mm I think) and then stuck the pine and beading to it. Lazy carpentry but it looks alright! Goo luck with your project. Tom.

      Reply
  21. Annie

    This is amazing. We live in an old victorian flat with literally no storage and with large alcolves. I’ve been trying to come up with a solution where we don’t have to remove any original features such as skirting. This is totally affordable and looks brilliant. I think our cupboards will have to be a lot taller to hold more of our stuff but I’m certain we will just be adapting from your idea. Thank you so much for sharing and taking good photos through-out the process, I’m so much happier now that we have a plan for our project. cutting the wood to fit our skirting may be tricky as ours are taller and quite detailed, I’m thinking to use a thinner piece of wood and do my best with a jig-saw, paint white and fill in the tell-tale gaps with plaster or similar?

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Annie – Thank you for such a lovely comment. I’m so pleased you found the post useful and wish you all the best in building your own cupboards. I think you’ve got exactly the right idea for the fitting the wood around your skirting. Good luck, Tom.

      Reply
  22. David

    Hi,

    Great job! Planning to get going on something similar this weekend.

    One question, there is a gap between the wood and wall, how did you fill it, paint over it so it looks seamless?

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi David. I rolled up some newspaper and stuffed it into the gap. I then covered the gap with filler and sanded it down level. Good luck with your project. Tom

      Reply
  23. Gareth Wynn

    Top job! I first looked at your website about 2 months ago – after much measuring cutting sanding & repeating I have just finished our alcove cupboards. The walls were so out of square it all had to be totally bespoke but got there in the end.
    Thanks for all the clear photos and details – it is a real inspiration thanks!

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi Gareth. Reading this comment has made my day! I am so pleased you found the page useful. Well done for winning the battle with those out of square walls. All the best.

      Reply
  24. Ben

    Hi Tom!

    This is brilliant. I’m looking to build one of these soon. I was wondering how you brought the bottom of the cabinet and the skirting board together? Was it using filler? Thanks for the detail!

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Thanks a lot Ben. You are right, I cut the bottom of the cabinet as closely as I could to match the skirting board with a coping saw, and then plugged the gap with filler. Good luck with your project.

      Reply
  25. Tom

    This looks fantastic!! Just what I’ve been looking for – a guide to have a go myself. I’m going to try and follow your method, what is the measurement of the top battens protruding from the wall? And would you recommend removing the side skirting boards? Many thanks in advance, Tom – Newcastle.

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi Tom.
      The height of the top battens is about 100cm from the floor. The batten itself is approx 60mmx18mm. I would recommend keeping all skirting boards in place. I know one of my pictures shows a piece of skirting board removed, but that was actually removed by a previous owner. I think better to retain any original features in case you (or someone else) wishes to remove the cupboard at a later date. Good luck with the project.

      Reply
  26. Jonathan

    Hi Tom,

    Absolutely love the cabinets. Being a complete novice I wondered whether it would be possible to list the materials and tools needed?

    From looking through all the pictures there’s one thing I can’t understand. What is the reason for the gap where you’ve plugged with newspaper and filled?

    Thank you very much in advance!

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi Jonathan

      The reason for the gap is that we live in an old house and the wall next to the cabinet is not completely straight, it leans away from the cabinet as it reaches the top. The easiest thing for me to do was build the cabinet all-square and then plug the resultant gap with filler.

      In terms of tools and materials, I used: handsaw, tenon saw, circular saw, electric drill, plane, ruler, spirit level, pencil, sandpaper, cutting block, folding workbench, clamps, raw plugs, screws, strip wood, a bit of mdf sheeting, a recycled kitchen work-top, wood glue, primer, white paint, brass knobs and catches.
      I recently did a post about the power tools I think an aspiring DIY homeowner needs: http://periodterrace.com/diy-project/power-tools-new-home/

      Reply
  27. Gus

    Hi Tom.
    Having stumbled upon your alcove cupboard post a few weeks ago, I studied it carefully and thought … that looks possible. I have just spent a week building two cupboards and shelves. I deviated from your design a number of times, but whenever I got stuck, I just referred back to ‘what did Tom do here.’ Although im obviously biased, my cupboards look fantastic. Top post. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Well this just made my day! Thanks for getting in touch Gus. I’m so pleased my post was useful for you.

      Reply
  28. Matt

    Hi Tom,

    You have done a great job here mate and more importantly, inspired plenty of people to build something like this themselves – me included! I have decided to build 3 large alcove wardrobes and so far they are looking great. I must admit though, I am struggling to find your inner pine moulding strip on the front of your doors. It really does make your doors look very professional. Can I ask where you got these from? I have searched all the normal UK stores but haven’t had much luck. (B&Q, Wickes etc)

    Thanks in advance, Matt

    (PS keep up the posts!)

    Reply
    • Tom Baughan

      Hi Matt. Thank you very much for the kind comment. I can say with virtual certainty that the pine moulding either came from B&Q or Wickes. Most likely B&Q. Though I’ve just had a look on their website to try and find a link and – frustratingly – I must confess I can’t seem to find the exact match. Sorry I can’t be of more help on that front. All best, Tom.

      Reply

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