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How to Build a Bar

How best to finish a space for entertaining? Grab some stock lumber wood and specialty molding, and cozy on up to this DIY home bar project.

If the notion of building a bar conjures fond and fuzzy memories of hammering 2x4s into some makeshift cup stand back in college, terrific. But that experience won't help you much here. This is a real piece of furniture, as you can see from the trimmed panels, sturdy oak bar-rail molding, and stainless-steel foot rail.

Follow along as This Old House senior technical editor Mark Powers and colleague Douglas Adams build this handsome rec-room centerpiece. And if you want to break out the toga when your DIY home bar is finished, well, that's entirely your call.

Home Bar Parts Overview

Home Bar Parts Illustration by Gregory Nemec

Day-to-day Timeline

  • Prep Day: Build, trim, and assemble the bar's side panels (Steps 1–7).
  • Saturday: Install the shelves and corner stiles, and create the bar top (Steps 8-12).
  • Sunday: Install the bar-rail molding and optional foot rail (Steps 13-15).

Refer to “Cut List to Build a Bar” and “Shopping List” at the bottom of the article for materials and products.

Steps on How to Build a DIY Bar

1. Lay Out the Three Sides

Men Building Sides Of DIY Bar Photo by Ryan Benyi
  • Using a circular saw, cut the ½-inch plywood to size for the bar's front and side panels.
  • With a miter saw, cut the 1x4 framing boards to length; use them to line the panels' perimeter, and arrange three more, equally spaced between the side boards, as shown. And if you plan to install brackets for a foot rail, add 6-inch nailing blocks to what will be the lower corners of the front panel.
  • Apply construction adhesive to the back of each 1x4, and nail them in place using a pneumatic nail gun and 1-inch nails.
  • Mark the location of the vertical boards on the edges of the horizontal boards so that you can pinpoint them once they're covered.

2. Cut and Attach the Sheathing

Men Attaching Sheathing Of Home Bar Photo by Ryan Benyi
  • Place the lauan finish-face down, and cut it to size with a circular saw.
  • Apply construction adhesive to the framing and affix the lauan. If your pneumatic gun accepts staples, use it to fasten the sheet along the framing with ½-inch staples; if it doesn't, turn down the air pressure, use ⅝-inch nails, and tilt the gun slightly so that you don't shoot straight through the lauan.

3. Place the Corner Stiles

Person Marking Inside Edge Of Stile On Wooden Panel For DIY Bar Photo by Ryan Benyi
  • Using a miter saw, cut the 1x4 stiles and rails to length.
  • For the front corner stiles, shift a 1x4 to overhang the panel edge by ¾ inch, using a block to set the space, as shown. Mark the inside edge of the stile on the panel. Do the same at the back edges of the side panels.

4. Miter and Insert the Molding

Man Mitering And Inserting Molding Of DIY Bar Photo by Ryan Benyi
  • Lay pieces of molding one by one inside the recessed panels created by the stiles and rails, and mark their length.
  • Using a miter saw, cut the ends at a 45-degree angle, then nail each one in place with 1¼-inch nails. Hold off on the pieces alongside the corner rail for now.

Tip: For a tight fit, miter one side of a long piece of panel molding, hold it in place, and use the panel's corner to mark a precise cutline for the opposite miter.

5. Attach the Stiles and Rails to the Front Panel

Man Nailing Stiles And Rails To Front Panel Of DIY Bar Photo by Ryan Benyi
  • Lay the top and bottom rail on the front panel between the marked lines, and position three equally spaced stiles between them.
  • Glue and nail the stiles and rails in place with 1¼-inch nails. Set the corner stiles aside until the panels are assembled.

6. Attach the Shelf Cleats

Man Attaching Shelf Cleats Of DIY Home Bar Photo by Ryan Benyi
  • On the interior side of each panel, mark two horizontal lines 1½ inches and 24 inches from the bottom.
  • Cut 1x1 cleats to length, leaving room for the side panels and their cleats to butt against the front panel.
  • Install the cleats along the lines by countersinking pilot holes every 8 to 10 inches and driving 1¼-inch screws in place.

7. Assemble the Walls

Men Nailing Walls To Side Panel’s Framing Of DIY Bar Photo by Ryan Benyi
  • Apply glue to the front edge of a side panel. Set it upright, butt it into the front panel, and clamp the pieces together.
  • Mark a line along the front panel to help you center your screws into the edge of the side panel's framing.
  • Drill pilot holes and drive 3-inch screws one at a time, working your way from one end to the other so that you can align the corner as you go. It helps to have a partner.

8. Make the Shelves

Men Adding Shelves To DIY Home Bar Photo by Ryan Benyi
  • Using a circular saw, cut the two shelves to length. For the bottom shelf, cut a 1x2 to length for a toe kick and glue and nail it underneath the front lip.
  • Set the shelves in place, and nail through them and into the cleats, which will keep the panels square.

9. Attach Corner Stiles and Clad the Sides

Man Attaches Corner Stiles To DIY Bar Photo by Ryan Benyi
  • Now apply glue to the two front corner stiles and set them in place: snug against the rails and overhanging the edges by ¾ inch.
  • Rip ¾ inch off the width of the side corner stiles, since they butt up against the overhanging front pieces. Apply glue to the back and nail them in place.
  • Overhang the stiles at the back of the side panels by ¾ inch, and glue and nail them in place.
  • Hold the top and bottom rails between the side stiles to scribe them. Cut, glue, and nail them in place.
  • Attach a center stile on each side and trim it—as well as the untrimmed corner stiles—as in Step 6.
  • Butt a 1x2 against the overhanging stiles to finish the side panels.

10. Size the Bar-Top Base

Man Sizes Bar Top Base Of DIY Bar Photo by Ryan Benyi
  • To determine the width of the three plywood-base, the first layer of the three-piece countertop, hold a section of bar-rail molding against the long edge of your plywood and snug the 1x12 oak bar top into the notch.
  • Mark the plywood along the back edge of the board, as shown. Rip two lengths of plywood to this width.

11. Install the Base

Men Install Base Of DIY Bar Photo by Ryan Benyi
  • Cut one of the plywood lengths into two pieces for the sides that, when flush at the back, overhang the front by 6 inches.
  • Arrange them to overhang the sides by 6 inches, too, then measure between them to get the length of the front piece. Cut it to length.
  • Secure the base with 1¼-inch screws.

12. Set the Oak Bar Top

Men Cut Boards Of Oak Bar Top Photo by Ryan Benyi
  • Measure the inside edge of the plywood side pieces and cut two 1x12 boards to that length.
  • Set them flush with the inside back corners, and measure outside edge to outside edge to get the length of the front 1x12. It will overlap the seams of the base layer.
  • Cut the front piece to length. Set the boards in place, and use 1¼-inch nails to secure them.
  • Finish the inside edges of the bar top with an oak 12 nailed on edge.

13. Miter the Bar Molding

Person Using Miter Saw To Cut Bar Molding Photo by Ryan Benyi
  • Pad out the saw deck with two strips of scrap plywood to fit in the notch of the molding and keep it level. You'll have to cut the padding to width, from the first notch of the molding to its back edge, as shown.
  • Miter the end of one length of molding at a 45-degree angle.

14. Dry-Fit the Bar Molding

Man Dry Fits Bar Molding Photo by Ryan Benyi
  • On the bar top, use a combination square to draw 45-degree lines from the front corners.
  • Take a piece of molding with one mitered end and hold it up to the front edge of the bar; line up the mitered end with the 45-degree mark.
  • Snug the molding up against a mitered scrap to make sure you have a tight corner. Then, at the other end, carry the 45-degree line from the bar top over the molding's uncut end, and miter the piece to size.
  • Install it by screwing through the plywood underneath with 1¼-inch screws.
  • Miter and cut the remaining sidepieces ¾ inch long to overhang the back of the bar.
  • Finish the back edges of the bar top by cutting a 1x2 to fit the open notches of the molding with a saw.

15. Attach the Brackets

Man Attaches Brackets To Home Bar Photo by Ryan Benyi
  • On the front wall, mark vertical lines over the nailing blocks, equidistant from each edge.
  • Place the brackets on the marks, and screw through the brackets' holes and into the wall and nailing block.

16. Install the Foot Rail

Man Installs Foot Rail To Home Bar Photo by Ryan Benyi
  • Slide the rail into the brackets, place a cap on each end, and run a set screw through the rail and into each cap.
  • Fill the fastener holes on the bar with wood filler and caulk any open joints, then sand and paint the inside and outside of the walls and shelves.
  • Sand the oak bar top with 220-grit paper, wipe it and the rail with a stain, and finish with a coat of polyurethane.

CUT LIST TO BUILD A BAR

  • ½-inch plywood: 1 @ 60 by 42 inches
  • ½-inch plywood: 2 @ 24 by 42 inches
  • Lauan sheathing: 1 @ 60 by 42 inches
  • Lauan sheathing: 2 @ 24 by 42 inches
  • 1x2 framing: 11 @ 37 inches
  • 1x2 framing: 4 @ 24 inches
  • 1x2 framing: 2 @ 60 inches
  • 1x4 nailing block: 2 @ 6 inches
  • 1x4 stile: 5 @ 31¼ inches
  • 1x4 corner stile: 4 @ 42 inches
  • 1x4 corner stile: 2 @ 42 inches (Rip ¾ inch off the board’s width.)
  • 1x2 stile: 2 @ 42 inches
  • 1x4 rail: 1 @ 54½ inches
  • 1x4 rail: Scribe 2 to size.
  • 1x8 rail: 1 @ 54½ inches
  • 1x8 rail: Scribe 2 to size.
  • Panel molding: Miter 32 to size.
  • 1x2 shelf supports: 1 @ 54 inches
  • 1x2 shelf supports: 2 @ 6 inches
  • ¾-inch plywood bar-top substrate: Cut 2 to size.
  • ¾-inch plywood bar-top substrate: Cut 2 to size.
  • 1x12 bar top: Cut 1 to size.
  • 1x12 bar top: Cut 2 to size.
  • Bar-rail molding: Miter 3 to size.

Shopping List

Paint: Valspar’s Royal Garnet.

Stain: Minwax’s Jacobean.

Bar-rail molding: Bar-rail profile #375; Dykes Lumber.

Foot-rail assembly: Brushed stainless-steel foot-rail tubing, brackets, and caps; KegWorks.


Tools