How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Use MDF panels and wood molding to transform your entry with a stately new built-in

Photo by Ryan Benyi

Not every home is blessed with a grand entryway. If your front door swings open directly into the living space, it can make for rather abrupt arrivals. A columned room divider creates an architectural feature that will gently redirect foot traffic while providing extra storage for books or even boots. Follow along with This Old House contributor Christopher Beidel, owner of Pernt, a handmade-furniture company in Brooklyn, New York, as he shows you how to construct a partition that will look right at home in your place.

Download and print the cut list here.


Steps // How to Build a Columned Room Divider
1 ×

Overview for Columned Room Divider

 
Step One // How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Overview for Columned Room Divider

exploded view of columned room divider assembly
Illustration by Gregory Nemec

Day-to-day timeline
SATURDAY: Stack the cabinet boxes and add the face frame (Steps 2–11).
SUNDAY: Build the column, and cut and install the trim (Steps 12–18).

Download and print the cut list here. Or see below

Cut list for columned room divider

Cabinet boxes
¾-inch medium-density fiberboard (MDF) box tops: three @ 12 by 36 inches
¾-inch MDF box bottoms: three @ 12 by 36 inches
¾-inch MDF filler layers: two @ 12 by 36 inches
¾-inch MDF box sides: six @ 9½ by 12 inches
¾-inch MDF base panel and cabinet top pieces: three @ 14¼ by 37½ inches
¾-inch MDF box back: one @ 34½ by 36¾ inches

Column
¾-inch MDF capital front and back: two @ 6 by 9½ inches
¾-inch MDF capital sides: two @ 6 by 8 inches
¾-inch MDF upper and lower blocking: three @ 6½ by 6½ inches
¾-inch MDF column front and back: two @ 8 by 62¼ inches*
¾-inch MDF column sides: two @ 6½ by 62¼ inches*

*Measurements are approximate; cut to fit the height of your ceiling.

Face, end, and back frames
¾-inch MDF front and back rails: six @ 1½ by 34½ inches
¾-inch MDF front and back stiles: four @ 1½ by 34½ inches
¾-inch MDF end stiles: two @ ¾ by 34½ inches
¾-inch MDF end rails: four @ 1½ by 11¼ inches

Base
2x8 base sides: two @ 37½ inches
2x8 base ends: two @ 11¼ inches

Finishing trim
¾-by-1¾-inch solid crown cabinet-top trim: two @ 38½ inches*
¾-by-1¾-inch solid crown cabinet-top trim: one @ 16½ inches*
¾-by-1¾-inch solid crown capital trim: four @ 11½ inches*

*Measurements are approximate; cut all pieces to fit.

Baseboard
1x8 baseboard: two @ 38¼ inches*
1x8 baseboard: one @ 15¾ inches*
½-inch quarter-round base cap: two @ 38¼ inches*
½-inch quarter-round base cap: one @ 15¾ inches*
¾-inch quarter-round shoe molding: two @ 38¼ inches*
¾-inch quarter-round shoe molding: one @ 15¾ inches*

*Measurements are approximate; cut all pieces to fit.

 
2 ×

Cut the Parts

 
Step Two // How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Cut the Parts

cutting pieces for a columned room divider
Photo by Ryan Benyi

The body of the cabinet is made up of three identical boxes stacked on top of one another to form shelves. Take your MDF stock, clamp a straightedge in place, and use a circular saw to cut each piece according to the cut list. Also cut the four base pieces; we used 2x8s to match the height of the existing 1x8 baseboard.

 
3 ×

Assemble the Boxes

 
Step Three // How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Assemble the Boxes

assembling the parts for a columned room divider
Photo by Ryan Benyi

For each box, the top and bottom capture the sides. Lay the bottom piece on a workbench, run a bead of construction adhesive along the edge of one side piece, then clamp it upright to form an L with the bottom. Repeat on the other end. Tip the assembly so that you can countersink pilot holes for 1½-inch MDF screws through the bottom and into the edges of the sides. Drive the screws and remove the clamps. Set the assembly upright. Apply construction adhesive to the top edges of the sides, and set the top in place. Clamp it down at each side, countersink pilot holes, and screw it in place, as shown.

 
4 ×

Level the Base

 
Step Four // How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Level the Base

making sure the base is level for a columned room divider
Photo by Ryan Benyi

Build the 28 base with 2½-inch deck screws. Remove any existing baseboard molding from the wall, place the base directly on the floor and against the wall, and shim it level. Rest a 4-foot level diagonally across the corners, as shown, to check for level.

 
5 ×

Attach the Base

 
Step Five // How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Attach the Base

attaching the base for a columned room divider
Photo by Ryan Benyi

Fasten the base to the floor by toenailing deck screws through the exposed end of the base and the shims, as shown. Screw through the other end of the base and into the wall. Then score the shims and snap them off.

Tip: Slide the shims from the inside of the base outward so that the screws will catch the meatier ends. This also makes it easier to snap off the exposed, thinner ends of the shims.

 
6 ×

Cap the Base

 
Step Six // How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Cap the Base

capping the base for a columned room divider
Photo by Ryan Benyi

Run a bead of construction adhesive along the top of the base and cover it with a panel of MDF. Countersink pilot holes and drive MDF screws through the panel to secure it. Then, to account for the height of the 12 face-frame trim, add an MDF filler panel. Use scrap trim to inset it ¾ inch from the front and the end; inset it 1½ inches along the back edge to accommodate the back panel plus the trim. And to allow for out-of-plumb walls, leave a ¾-inch gap at the wall end; it will be covered by a face-frame stile in Step 8. Secure the filler panel with construction adhesive and countersunk MDF screws at each corner.

 
7 ×

Stack the Boxes

 
Step Seven // How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Stack the Boxes

stacking the boxes for a columned room divider
Photo by Ryan Benyi

Apply construction adhesive on top of the filler panel and stack the first box, aligned at the edges. Tack it in place with a pneumatic brad nailer and 1¼-inch brad nails. Stack and fasten the next two boxes in the same way. Shim the gap between the top box and the wall, then drive at least one deck screw through the box and shims and into a stud or an anchor. Make sure the top box is level, then glue and nail another filler panel on top.

 
8 ×

Attach the Back

 
Step Eight // How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Attach the Back

attaching the back of a columned room divider
Photo by Ryan Benyi

Measure and cut an MDF panel to cover the back of the stack and meet the wall. Apply construction adhesive to the back edges of the boxes, and clamp the panel in place. Countersink pilot holes and secure the panel with MDF screws.

 
9 ×

Install the Face Frame

 
Step Nine // How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Install the Face Frame

attaching the face frame of a columned room divider
Photo by Ryan Benyi

We ripped 1½-inch strips from leftover ¾-inch MDF, but you could also use 1x2 trim. Either way, measure and cut the front and back stiles to length. If necessary, scribe and trim the wall-side stiles to follow the wall's contour. For the outside stiles, use a scrap of ¾-inch MDF to stand in for the abutting stile to be installed in the next step, as shown. Glue and nail the stiles in place; they should end up flush with the inside edges of the shelves on the front.

 
10 ×

Rip the End Stiles

 
Step Ten // How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Rip the End Stiles

attaching end stiles to the face frame of a columned room divider
Photo by Ryan Benyi

To make the trim end up the same width on both sides of the corners where the stiles meet, rip two pieces ¾ inch wide. Glue and nail them in place, as shown. Now measure, cut, and install the four front rails, four end rails, and two back rails.

 
11 ×

Install the Top

 
Step Eleven // How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Install the Top

installing the top of a columned room divider
Photo by Ryan Benyi

Measure and cut two additional panels of MDF sized to sit flush with the face frame. Glue and nail them in place. This last layer serves as your cabinet top and as a nailing surface for the solid crown molding that goes on in Step 17.

 
12 ×

Install the Lower Blocking

 
Step Twelve // How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Install the Lower Blocking

measuring the lower blocking of a columned room divider
Photo by Ryan Benyi

To find the location for the column's two lower nailing blocks, subtract the width of a block from the width of the cabinet top, then divide the result in half. Use a combination square to transfer this measurement to three sides of the cabinet top, as shown. Glue and screw the blocks in place, one at a time.

 
13 ×

Size the Column

 
Step Thirteen // How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Size the Column

measuring the top blocking of a columned room divider
Photo by Ryan Benyi

Measure the distance between the cabinet and your ceiling and cut the four MDF column panels to fit. Two should be the same width as the lower blocking, and the other two 1½ inches wider to capture the edges of the first two. Clamp the base of one of the panels to the blocking, then clamp a 4-foot level to its face. Plumb the panel, then mark where its inside face meets the ceiling, as shown.

 
14 ×

Mount the Upper Blocking

 
Step Fourteen // How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Mount the Upper Blocking

attaching the upper blocking of a columned room divider
Photo by Ryan Benyi

Run a line of construction adhesive along the edge of an abutting column panel, and join it to the first to form a corner. Nail the joint together. Clamp a level to the new piece and check both levels to plumb the column assembly. Apply construction adhesive to the block and position it into the L-shaped crook, then drill pilot holes and screw it to the ceiling with deck screws. We were lucky enough to catch a ceiling joist, but you may need to use toggle bolts to fasten the block securely.

 
15 ×

Assemble the Column

 
Step Fifteen // How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Assemble the Column

assembling the column of a columned room divider
Photo by Ryan Benyi

Countersink pilot holes through the tops of the column assembly and into the upper blocking, then screw them in place with MDF screws. At the bottom, tack the panels to the lower blocking with brad nails. Then glue and secure the two remaining sides of the column in the same fashion.

 
16 ×

Install the Capital

 
Step Sixteen // How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Install the Capital

finishing the top of the column for a columned room divider
Photo by Ryan Benyi

To finish the top of the column, measure and cut the capital pieces to fit. Use clamps to hold the longer pieces in place, to give you something to butt the shorter pieces into. Glue and nail each piece in place.

 
17 ×

Install the Crown

 
Step Seventeen // How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Install the Crown

lining the columned room divider with crown molding
Photo by Ryan Benyi

To trim the top of the capital, measure one side, use a miter saw to cut a piece of solid crown molding at 45 degrees on each end, and install it with adhesive and brad nails. Continue measuring, cutting, and installing each side as you go. To trim the cabinet top, measure its long edges and miter-cut pieces of crown to fit—90 degrees at the wall and 45 degrees at the end. Glue and nail them in place. Measure and miter-cut the end piece to fit between the two mitered ends, then install it with adhesive and brad nails.

 
18 ×

Install the Baseboard Molding

 
Step Eighteen // How to Build a Columned Room Divider

Install the Baseboard Molding

attaching baseboard molding to the columned room divider
Photo by Ryan Benyi

Follow the same approach to install the baseboard: front and back first, then the piece that's mitered on both ends. Cut pieces to fit along the exposed wall and install those. Install the base cap—½-inch quarter-round molding in this case—the same way. Then cover any gaps along the floor by installing the ¾-inch shoe molding. Finally, fill the nail holes and caulk the joints and seams, sand everything smooth, and prime and paint the entire structure.

 
 
 

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