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How to Build Wall Cubbies

How to make decorative modular boxes, with instructions for parents and kids.

It's a sure sign of independence when older kids want to have a say in how their bedroom is decorated. An easy way to satisfy that need is by making these modular wall cubbies, which can be customized to suit children's changing tastes as they grow. You can make just one cubby or stack several to create more space for a kid's imagination and creativity.

The cubbies shown here are 12-inch cubes, but you can make them any size you like. Even if you make them wider or taller, the construction is the same. For extra fun, the fabric-covered panels inside are removable, so you can change a cubby's look as often as kids change their mind.

Step 1: Building Wall Cubbies - Overview

Illustration of how to build a wall cubby. Carl Wiens

To make a cube out of ½-inch plywood, you need to cut the sides 1 inch shorter than the top and bottom pieces that overlap them. The thickness of the two pieces adds 1 inch, evening out the dimensions of the four sides. Similarly, the lauan or plywood pieces that covers the back has the same dimensions as the box, but the piece that fits inside is 1 inch smaller in both width and height. (To get a head start on the cutting, ask a home center or lumberyard to rip the plywood into 12-inch-wide strips when you buy it.)

As with any wood project, the strongest way to hold things together is with both glue and nails. The glue multiplies the strength of the nails. Kids can do the nailing with some supervision; in fact, they can do most of the work, including measuring, sanding, stapling, and painting. A jigsaw is better off in adult hands, but kids as young as 7 should be able to use a random-orbit sander with a parent's guidance.

And remember: Whenever the saw is on, safety goggles are a must.

Step 2: Lay out and Cut the Parts

Cutting the wood pieces. Wendell T. Webber

Using a tape measure and straightedge, mark up some birch veneer plywood to make the two 12-by-12-inch top and bottom pieces and the two 11-by-12-inch sides. Also, mark up some lauan to make one piece that's 12 by 12 inches and one that's 11 by 11 inches. Clamp the plywood tightly to a worktable. Then, using a jigsaw (a handsaw or circular saw will also work), cut the four sides.

To parents: Here's a chance to do a stealth math problem with your kids. Ask them why the two sides have to be shorter than the other parts to make a perfect cube.

Step 3: Glue up the Boards

Applying glue to wood edges. Wendell T. Webber

Run a thin bead of wood glue along the 12-inch edges of the 11-by-12-inch boards. Then make a box by overlapping the ends with the 12-by-12-inch boards. Hold the glued box together with bar clamps.

Step 4: Nail the box together

Nailing the box together. Wendell T. Webber

Secure the sides by nailing 4d finish nails every few inches along the edges of the top and bottom. You'll need about four nails on each side.

Remove the clamps.

Hey, kids! Practice your nailing skills. Hold the hammer toward the end of the handle. Keep your eye on the nailhead while tapping firmly. And don't worry if you mess up—you can always take the nail out and try again!

Step 5: Put on the Back

Nail on back panel. Wendell T. Webber

Lay a thin bead of wood glue around the entire back edge of the box. Then lay the 12-by-12-inch piece of lauan over it. Nail it in place using 1-inch box nails around the perimeter.

Step 6: Fill and Sand the Box

Smoothing the wood sides with a random-orbit sander. Wendell T. Webber

Using a hammer and nailset, sink all the finish nails on the sides just below the surface of the wood. Then, using a putty knife, fill the holes with putty. Let the putty dry, and wait a few minutes for the glue to set as well.

Using a random-orbit sander with 120-grit sandpaper, smooth the plywood sides of the cubby to prepare them for finish. Kids can help with sanding—just make sure a parent watches, because the sander moves a lot when it vibrates.

Step 7: Paint on the Finish

Painting all sides of the cubby with a clear acrylic coating. Wendell T. Webber

Using a 2-inch brush, coat the top, bottom, and sides of the cubby with a clear acrylic coating (for a wood finish) or latex paint (for a colored finish). Let it dry, sand it lightly, then apply a second coat. To add a colorful touch, use a small brush and acrylic artist's paint to match the front edge of the box to the fabric that will decorate the inside panel. Let it dry completely.

Step 8: Secure the Boxes to the Wall

Securing the box to the wall. Wendell T. Webber

If you want to stack up more than one box, you'll need to secure them to the wall so that they can't topple over. Hold the box where you want it to sit and using a drill/driver fitted with a 1/16-inch bit, make a small hole through each of the four corners of the back panel and into the wall.

If you did not hit the wall framing, you will need to properly anchor the holes.

Reposition the box over the holes. Use a screwdriver to mount the box with 2-inch screws fitted with washers and driven through the lauan and into the wall framing or anchors.

To parents: Make sure you use the right kind of anchors for your wall: plastic ribbed anchors for plaster and screw-in anchors or toggle bolts for drywall. If you hit the wall framing, that's even better—screw directly into that and skip the anchor altogether.

Step 9: Make the Panel Insert

Stapling the fabric to the panel insert. Wendell T. Webber

Cut a 13x13-inch square of the fabric. Lay it facedown, then put the 11-by-11-inch piece of lauan in the center. Fold one edge of fabric onto the lauan and, using a staple gun with ¼-inch staples, tack it at the middle. Fold the opposite side over, and pull it tight before stapling it. Continue to staple the fabric on by working your way out from the middle and alternating sides. Do the same for the other two sides until the fabric is smooth and covers the lauan.

Hey, kids! Staple guns are great for attaching fabric to wood, but you need to make sure the head is flat on the workpiece—and never pointed at anyone—before you squeeze the handle.

Step 10: Prepare the Back Panel

Adding velcro to the decorative panel. Wendell T. Webber

Cut four small tabs of stick-on Velcro tape. Keep both halves of the Velcro stuck together. Peel away one side of the paper backing, and stick a tab onto each of the four corners of the back of the decorative panel. Peel away the paper backing on the other half of the Velcro tape while it's still on the decorative panel.

Step 11: Put in the Back Panel

Pushing the decorative panel into place. Wendell T. Webber

Push the panel into the box and press hard. Wait a few minutes before pulling the panel back out; it should leave behind the other half of the tape, which will allow you to change the panel whenever you want to give your cubbies a different look. With the panel in place, start filling the cubbies with all your favorite things!