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Problem Solving: A Kitchen Cubby

Whenever you buy a house, there are going to be little things that irk you; it was no different for my wife and I. At first, these things seem fairly insignificant--after all, if things are still ship-shape and water tight, there really isn't too much to complain about. But after a couple of years, these things have a tendency to pick away at you. So it was with the glass shelf in our kitchen.

On the chimney wall, facing our little portable island, was a half-moon clear glass shelf. It seemed to be the perfect height for me to run into--and I did...regularly. I would have happily pulled it off the wall, but it happened to be the only available space next to the sole phone jack in the entire downstairs. The wall also had an electrical outlet conveniently placed to give us somewhere to plug the phone adapter in. It looked like I'd be running myself into the stupid little shelf for years to come.

What changed the status quo was our 11 month old son, who had begun to motor around the house, and had a real thing for pulling the adapter cord--which, if unchecked, would inevitably lead to the phone, and possibly the entire shelf, falling off the wall, and potentially landing on his soft little melon. Clearly something was going to have to be done, and I was just the fellow for the job.

A smarter less budget-constrained fellow might have simply gone to Home Depot, bought a pre-fab cubby, cut a hole and plopped it in. Not I. I had some left-over plywood shelves from when my wife had me outfit our closet with wire racks that were just begging to be put to use...but would they be big enough? Clearly, a reconnaissance mission was in order.

Cutting a Hole

With the help of a supervisor, and some necessary safety equipment, I made the first exploratory foray into the wall, confirming that the cavity was indeed deep enough for a cubby (I had previously checked depth with a rod through a hole under the phone jack plate), and nothing worrisome was in the way.

A second exploratory hole became necessary when I found a stud running through the center--not terribly surprising, but standing in the way of proper reconnaissance.

Basic Plan

A brief retreat was sounded on the project to develop a plan of attack. I can't stress how important this step really is, and I regret to say that it's a step that I've only recently begun to embrace. A plan doesn't have to be complicated, but I would recommend that it be detailed enough to allow you to list the precise measurements of each piece you'll be cutting, and double-check the logic of where the additional dimensions will be added for thickness of material, etc.

When used properly, a quick plan and sketch (or set of sketches) will save you a ton of project time, and money in materials, as well. Some like to go as far as developing 3D models of the project in something like Sketchup, but I don't bother for most of my projects; it's really about getting your ideas out on paper and examining them critically.

Recon and planning was complete; it was time to get to business: measuring and cutting. I began by drawing the hole on the wall, using a tape measure and a level. You'll note that it appears the hole and the light switch don't agree on level--that's just one of the joys of owning an older home, I'm afraid; you get to decide whether to make your things level, or as skewed as the existing bits and pieces. I personally go for proper level, every time.

The rest is all you and a drywall saw. Others may argue for a power tool here, but it's been my experience that I'm less likely to screw things up using a drywall saw than a jigsaw; I tend to follow the line more closely, and end up with a better end product. YMMV, of course.

My Little Helper

With the hole open, it was time to remove the stud standing in the way of the project. With my other trusty helper to hand me tools (my primary helper doesn't like the sound of Daddy's power tools very much) I attacked, slaying the mighty stud with a combination effort of circular saw and reciprocating saw.

"Why both," you ask? Because neither is sufficient--or potentially because my skill is lacking. I find it difficult to cut particularly straight with a reciprocating saw. As I would be using the bottom part of the stud as an attaching point for the cubby, a straight cut was a essential. Unfortunately, my circular saw simply doesn't go deep enough to get the job done on its own--hence a combination effort.

Wall with Stud Intact Stud Cut Out

Studs. So fickle. There one day, and gone the next. What happened to being supportive?

Enter the dreamtime--a time and space where no work was done for a couple of weeks while I dealt with the more mundane day-to-day details of life. HUGE credit to my wife for her absolute patience with the big hole in the wall, and the phone precariously balanced on the sawed-off stud.

With the stud gone, I went back to my plan and cut the old shelves down to size. Sorry--there's no picture for this part of the process; it was almost -40C outside at the time, and my garage is unheated. If you're looking for tips and advice for cutting the pieces, use your plan/sketch to make cuts in batches, according to size (this project had four pieces that were all going to be identical widths, for example). That means only setting your tablesaw guide once, and having all batched cuts turn out identical. This is a HUGE bonus at assembly time.


After a quick dryfit, I spent some time drilling and cutting holes for the electrical outlet that I planned to install on the side of the box, and the phone cable. Then it was time for paint. The original plan had been to paint it the same colour as the kitchen walls, so I foolishly used paint the previous homeowners had labeled as "kitchen." Apparently by "kitchen" they meant "living room," and I wasn't detail-oriented enough at that point to catch it. Oops.

Fortunately, most of the colours in the house are complementary, so no harm no foul--it's now an "accent piece."

In the Wall

Fitting the cubby into the wall provided a bit of a challenge. I intentionally left space, as per building code, between the chimney and the back of the cubby. This meant, however, that I had to worry about keeping the unit precisely flush with the wall, while at the same time sinking screws through the cubby and into the studs below and beside the unit. My solution was to use a pair of paint sticks, tacked to the front of the cubby, which let me hold the whole thing in place with minimal effort. Thankfully, it worked.

You can also see the electrical outlet and the phone jack in this shot--remember: you need to fish these lines through BEFORE screwing the cubby in place. I had this repeating like a mantra through my mind during the first part of the install.

No Trim

Finally, the cubby was in place, the screw holes filled and painted, and all the electrical and phone stuff in place. I realized belatedly that I'd also managed to create a perfect spot for storing and recharging my cell phone, conveniently located at a height higher than my 3 year old son can reach. BONUS!

All that was left was to trim and touch up. I originally bought some finished foam-based trim (Lowes didn't have a nice narrow wood trim in a pattern I liked) with the intention of gluing it on to the cubby and the wall. Naturally, of course, the wood glue wouldn't stick to the foam, and I had to resort to my brad nailer. Not a huge deal, but I did have to fill and paint the holes in the trim, as a result.

Completed Cubby

Approximate final costs of the project were:

  • Wood: $0

  • Trim: $5

  • Electrical/phone: $5

  • Glue & Misc: $3

Total: $13

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