Everything you need to know about customising IKEA cabinets and bookcases

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I'm a big fan of an IKEA hack and have spent many an hour perfecting the process. I did a little happy dance when both my IKEA BILLY and IKEA HAVSTA hacks were featured on the IKEA Hackers website recently and I know lots of you are DIY home decor enthusiasts who are keen to have a go so here are my top tips for a successful project.

BILLY Bookcase Hack
HAVSTA Alcove Unit Hack

You can paint IKEA furniture.

As long as you prime it first you can paint IKEA furniture, and in my opinion it's a game changer. A lick of paint can really elevate the piece and opens up a whole spectrum of colour to really put your stamp on it.

By painting IKEA furniture you can totally change its look and style and it's also the perfect way of blending it in with any extra panels you might add to give the 'built in' look, but more on that in a minute.

What paint should I use on laminate?

The following primers are great for painting IKEA furniture with and allow you to paint over the top with your preferred top coat.

Zinsser B-i-n Primer & Sealer

Zinsser Bulls Eye 123 Primer

I often use a hardwearing matt emulsion on top as these can be easily colour matched to my favourite designer shades for a fraction of the price and can be wiped and cleaned, essential for a hardworking piece of furniture in a family home.

Pale pink built in bookcase in front of teal front room wall

IKEA unit painted in Lick Paint, Pink 01. Wall in Teal 01, also from Lick.

Build-in those freestanding units

If you've read my previous blog posts about my BILLY Bookcase hack and my HAVSTA alcove hack then you'll know that I love built-in furniture but don't love the price tag that come with custom joinery. Don't get me wrong, I know the level of skill involved and understand the value associated with a custom piece however, not everyone has hundreds (perhaps thousands) in the budget for this kind of luxury so an IKEA hack can provide an affordable alternative when you don't want to sacrifice on style.

IKEA hack - frame above unit
IKEA hack - panel over frame
IKEA hack built in alcove unit

How to build in IKEA bookcases and shelves, is one of the things I get asked about most, so here are the key points.

  • Build and affix a frame between the IKEA bookcase and the walls and/or ceiling. I often use odds and ends of wood for this job as it's a good way of saving money and reducing waste.
  • Make sure your IKEA furniture is fixed to the wall.
  • Ensure you use the appropriate fixings for your walls and ceilings eg if fixing into plasterboard then you should use drywall anchors. I also find grab adhesive handy in some instances (eg No More Nails is really good).
  • Once the frame is in place, attach a panel over the top. MDF sheeting is very useful for this as it's lightweight, easy to cut to size and comes in varying thickness so you can choose the correct one for your requirements.
  • Fill any gaps or cracks to ensure a smooth and continuous surface and sand once dry if required.
  • Prime and paint to complete.

You can swap IKEA cabinet handles

The standard issue IKEA handles can look a bit generic and upgrading them is a low effort way to get a more luxury look.

These days you can easily get your hands on a huge selection of stylish cupboard and cabinet door handles, knobs and pulls in a range of finishes. I opted for some gold half moon handles for my latest HAVSTA alcove cabinets and they've given the piece a totally different vibe.

Claire Douglas IKEA hack

Note: You will need to fill the standard holes on the IKEA cabinets if you choose handles with different dimensions to those supplied. This is easy to do with some polyfiller, one the filler has dried, lightly sand to ensure a smooth finish on the surface of the door and then prime and paint and you'll never know the holes were there.

Shelf thickness... more is more!

One of the questions I get asked the most is how did I get the shelves to look thicker when I did my wall of BILLY bargain built ins. The answer is actually very simple...

  • I used 50mm thick strips of mdf to cover the edges and glued them in place.
  • I lined the MDF up with the level of the shelf so the strip hangs down lower that the original shelf.
  • Once the glue had dried I filled any gaps or cracks to ensure a really smooth and uniform finish and then primed and painted the whole thing.
IKEA BILLY Bookcase hack Claire Douglas
Claire Douglas' IKEA hack How to thicken then shelves
Original HAVSTA unit thickness on Claire Douglas' latest IKEA hack
IKEA Havsta shelves being customised by Claire Douglas

The end result looked like the shelves were much thicker and more substantial and didn't resemble the thin chipboard associated with BILLY bargain bookcases.

Play around with shelf configuration

Being more adventurous than the standard IKEA shelf configurations is another way to make your furniture look more bespoke. With my BILLY bookcase hack I had four individual IKEA BILLY bookcases to play with so was able to create a central, four compartment feature by diving the open part of the two middle bookcases in half.

IKEA BILLY bookcase hack customised by Claire Douglas
How to change the IKEA BILLY bookcase configuration. IKEA hack by Claire Douglas
DIY Home Decor Completed IKEA hack

With my recent HAVSTA built in alcove unit hack, I again decided not to follow IKEA's suggested shelf layout and instead created a large central compartment with narrower compartments above and below.

To create this layout I took out the central supporting shelf, which is  designed to form part of the structure as is fixed in to the unit's sides (as opposed to the shelves which rest on metal cups in the predrilled holes) and drilled new holes lower down so that the unit would not sacrifice any strength as a result of the change in design.

DIY Home decor, how to customise IKEA furniture, Claire Douglas IKEA hack
DIY Home decor, drilling into IKEA Havsta unit to change the shelf configuration.
IKEA Havsta hack, Claire Douglas DIY shelves
Claire Douglas' completed IKEA Havsta hack

For more details on how I did this, pop over to my IKEA Havsta Hack tutorial blog post here.

In summary, don't feel you have to settle for off the shelf. Instead, use your DIY skills to create a piece of furniture that reflects your style and better suits your home. As I've been writing this I've thought of a few more tips, so I think I'll have to add a follow up 'part 2' soon!

Thanks so much for reading. I'd love to keep you up to date with future DIY, decorating, interior styling and upcycling projects, if you would like to receive my (not more than weekly & no spamming I promise) emails then please subscribe (scroll down to the box at the bottom of the page).

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...and why not pop over and give me a follow on Instagram too.

Thanks again.


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