Fresh off the factory floor, with ornate cast-iron fins ready to take their first hit of steam, the radiator was the darling of American plumbing. But that was a long time ago, and 90 winters and 10 paint coats haven't treated the old girl well. Even if you could clean up the cobwebs and grind off the flaky lead-based layers, a cast-iron hunk crouching over a warped floor still doesn't look pretty.
Better just cut your losses and cover it up. As This Old House technical editor Mark Powers demonstrates on the following pages, with a little weekend carpentry and about thirty bucks' worth of MDF and molding, you could customize a cabinet to hide the radiator and reclaim some wasted space. Add a fresh coat of paint and a gleaming metal screen, and the venerable radiator, a living legend, will once again look as hot as it feels.
Building Radiator Cover Overview
A radiator cover is basically a three-sided box with feet on the bottom and a lid on top. The one shown here is made from MDF (medium-density fiberboard), an inexpensive and stable choice for a painted cover. Each side of the box allows heat to radiate outward through a large opening covered by a decorative metal screen. Behind the radiator, a piece of sheet metal helps reflect heat out into the room. You can also add a 1x strip across the open back for stability if it will fit between the radiator and the wall. Note: MDF creates a lot of dust as it's cut, so plan to work over a drop cloth, preferably out of the house.
That same wall behind the cover also offers some stability, especially if you scribe the cover's sides to fit against the baseboard. In these circumstances, two feet in the front will hold the cover as it leans on the wall and baseboard for rear support. Otherwise, use four feet. Adjustable feet can be a big help when leveling the cover, as years of dripping water have often warped the floor beneath the radiator.
Finding the right feet also offers you the first of several design choices. Screening comes in myriad designs, from austere to ornate. Cove molding on the inner edge of the screen openings gives the cover a more finished appearance. And though we chose to leave the top unadorned for a streamlined modern look, you could edge it with base cap (turned upside down) for a fancier bullnosed profile.
Steps for Building a Radiator Cover Cabinent
Step 1: Cut the cover pieces
Measure the radiator. Add 4 inches to its width and 2 inches to its height. Cut a piece of MDF to these dimensions; this will be the front cover.
For the sides, measure the radiator's depth. Add 1 inch and cut two pieces of MDF to this width and the same height as the front cover. For the top, cut a piece of MDF ½ inch wider than the sides and 1 inch longer than the width of the front.
On both side pieces and the front piece, mark for the screen openings: Draw lines 3 inches from the top and sides, 4 ½ inches from the bottom. Bore two ½-inch holes inside of opposite corners of the cut lines. Use these holes to start cutting out the screen openings with a jigsaw.
Step 2: Fit the trim to the screen openings
Using a miter box and handsaw, cut a 45-degree inside miter on a length of cove molding. Fit the cut end of the molding into one corner of a screen opening and hold it tight against the opening's edge. Mark the molding where it reaches the next corner. Cut another 45-degree miter at this mark, facing the other direction. Continue cutting molding in this manner until you have four pieces to fit the inner edge of the opening.
Step 3: Attach the trim
Fasten each piece of ¾-inch cove molding with wood glue and 4d (1 ½-inch) finish nails. To prevent the nails from splitting the molding, especially when nailing close to the mitered ends, first drill ½-inch-diameter pilot holes. Repeat the above procedure for attaching trim to the other screen openings.
Tip: To get the molding to fit snugly, measure out each section with an adjacent piece in place, then cut everything just a hair too long.
Step 4: Cut the screening
Measure and cut the screening in place over each opening. (This is easier to do before the cover is assembled.) Place the front of the cover facedown on a tarp. Lay a piece of screening over the center opening. Using tin snips, cut the screen so it overlaps the opening by 2 inches all around.
Cut screen pieces to fit the cover's sides in the same manner. Set all three screens aside.
Step 5: Assemble the cover
Hold a long scrap of MDF on edge against the face of the front piece, flush to one side. Draw a light pencil line along the side of the scrap on the front piece. This will be your guide for drilling pilot holes. Assemble the front piece and one side, held together flush at 90 degrees. Using a countersink bit, drill four evenly spaced pilot holes through the face panel—dead center between your pencil line and the edge—and into the side panel's end.
Step 6: Attach the feet
Spread wood glue onto the front edge of the side panel. Hold the front cover against the side panel, forming a 90-degree angle. Join the two pieces together with four 1 ⅝-inch drywall screws, sinking their heads just below the surface. Attach the other side panel in the same manner.
Cut triangle-shaped MDF blocks for attaching metal adjustable feet. Measure from the floor to the bottom of the radiator fins. Measure the height of the radiator's feet. Subtract the first measurement from the second. The remainder is the distance from the bottom of the cover to the underside of the blocks. Place the blocks inside the front corners of the cover. Drill pilot holes, then glue and screw the blocks through the cover's sides and front. Next, screw the feet to the blocks.
Set the cover over the radiator and adjust the feet to level it. Use a scribe to transfer the contours of the wall's baseboard to the cover's sides. Cut along these lines with a jigsaw to create a tight fit over the baseboard.
Step 7: Finish the cover's top
Place the cover's top upside down on a tarp. Turn the assembled cover onto it. Center the cover with the back edges flush; there should be a ½-inch overhang around the sides and the front. Mark the inside perimeter of the cover onto the top.
Cut three 1x scraps to fit in a loose U-shape inside the lines. Glue and screw the pieces to the underside of the top. Caulk all seams, fill the nail and screw holes with wood putty, sand, and paint the cover's exterior. Once it's dry, use a staple gun to attach the screening to the inside of the cover. Cut a piece of sheet metal to fit behind the radiator to help reflect heat into the room. Then place the cover over the radiator.