How to DIY Built-Ins, According to Someone Who Did It

DIY built-in shelving in a living room

The Spruce / Photo Illustration by Amy Sheehan / Photo by Amy Bennett

Built-ins combine form and function, adding an elegant finish to any space, from an office to the kitchen. They also add a chunk of change to the household improvements budget! Fortunately, you can get the look of true built-ins with basic bookshelves you can pick up today and a dose of creativity and imagination. 

Blogger Amy Bennett did just that. When she and her family moved from Missouri to Oregon, their new home had a large master bedroom with a huge closet. The dressers easily fit in the closet, so they had an open space in the bedroom proper that needed… something. 

Amy Bennett before photo

Amy Bennett

“As a little girl, I wanted to be Belle (from Beauty and the Beast) and have my own library,” Bennett says with a laugh. “I envisioned putting some kind of bookcase in there, and when I priced it out, it was going to be way too expensive.”

Enter IKEA. Bennett happened upon a sale on Billy bookcases at the Swedish superstore. She bought two, plus extensions to add height, and hatched a plan to create her own library for less. Here is how she did it:

Amy Bennett bookcases only

Amy Bennett

Supply Run

First, Bennett figured out the dimensions of the space she would use for her library and measured the bookcases and extensions to see what other trim pieces she would need. She headed to a home improvement store and picked up a 1x12, 1x3 and a 1x4 board that she cut to fit for the top. Bennett also grabbed an 8-foot board for the exposed side of the “built-in” to make a sort of case for the stock bookcases. 

Amy Bennett paint prep

Amy Bennett

Build It Out

Bennett attached the bookcases to the wall both for safety and to ensure the finished look matched her vision. Then she used a 1x12 piece of wood on the exposed side to fill in a gap. Next came a piece in between the two bookcases and a header for the entire unit. She also used a thin piece of trim to block a gap she discovered because the ceiling wasn’t perfectly straight. She used a nail gun for the trim pieces and attached them all directly to the bookcases. 

Pick Your Color

“I was going to keep it white in my head, but then I felt this call to go bold and I saw this green,” Bennett says. “I stay neutral most of the time. Our backyard has a private forest behind it, and I used that as my inspiration. I tried eight different green paints”

The dark, cloudy Oregon skies cast an odd light across the space, and the color she thought would work on the piece just didn’t. She settled on a deep green with a low LRV (light resistance value) so the light wouldn’t bounce too much and yet the shade wouldn’t feel too dark for the space. 

“I loved the color so much that I painted my front door and the pantry door the same green,” Bennett says.

Amy Bennett painting

Amy Bennett

Get The Right Kind of Paint

IKEA furniture can sometimes be difficult to paint. The paint just doesn't adhere well. Bennett got around that by using a shellac-based product. “It’s real thick and it doesn’t smell great when you are painting, but the odor goes away,” she says. “If you have knots on the wood trim pieces, it will cover them up so you will have that smooth finish.”

She used one coat of an oil-based primer and then immediately put on one layer of the paint. “That primer dries in 45 minutes and adheres to anything,” she says.

She also shares a tip for this project that will make adjusting the shelves later a whole lot easier: “When you are actually painting the shelves, tape off the rough edges so you won’t have problems fitting those shelves back in." She had some paint drip down the edges of the shelf and then had trouble when she wanted to move the shelves to a different slot. The paint got scratched, so she had to go back and touch it up. She advises anyone trying this project to use painters tape on the rough side and only paint the top, bottom and front face of each shelf. 

Amy Bennett finished built-ins.

Amy Bennett

Tips for Creating Your Own Built-Ins

There are a couple of other things that Bennett says she probably would do differently if she were to repeat this project.

“One thing I didn’t do is add a top clear coat, and I wish I had because sometimes when I am moving heavy pieces around, it nicks the paint and I have to touch up,” she says. “I would recommend adding a matte finish.”

And though she didn’t add trim to the bottom of the unit, she says if you would rather not have a little lip there, you could always choose a piece of decorative wood and trim it out. Another option is to add a piece of wood and front face the shelves as well so that it really looks like it is built in. “It will be hard to fit the shelves in if you want to move them,” she says. “But if you are going to keep it stationary, you could add them.”

With any of the boards you purchase, be sure they are very straight. When you are creating a DIY project like this one, if you get any board with a curve, you will notice it and you won’t get those beautiful lines you are looking for, she says.

On a safety note, if you are working with these types of stock bookcases for a built-in project, be mindful of what you put on the shelves and where you put it. “If you add something heavy to the front of the shelves, there is a tip hazard,” Bennett says.

Doing It Again

Bennett was thoroughly pleased with the end result. The cost for a true built-in for that bedroom space was more than $1,500, she says. And her version? Less than $150, including all the supplies. She has been enjoying her little library space for more than a year now, and it has held up beautifully. In fact, she loves it so much that she is working on another space. “It’s so pretty that I am doing a built-in in my dining room with bookcases that are low and Billy on both sides,” she says.