Group 6 4 minutes Read

stair cabinet design – part two

Lauren Zerbey

Forever ago (August), we posted part one of the stair cabinet design. A second cousin to the fauxdenza, our stair cabinet is a series of IKEA wall cabinets that are fastened to a plinth made of 2×4’s, wrapped in vertical grain fir boards, and backed with painted drywall. Primarily, we needed something that would serve as a guardrail to the new basement stair, but because every inch is valuable in our small house, we decided to snag 12 extra inches and create a guardrail that also doubles as storage and display space. The basic unit has been finished for months, but we spent a long time designing and redesigning the finishes, which was challenging because technically, it is part of the kitchen, dining room and living room. But good news, it’s finally done!

In addition to providing safety and storage, the cabinet has one other feature – it collects the return air from the main floor and sends it back to the furnace. With only 800 SF of living space on the main floor, we just needed one centrally located return grille, so the stair cabinet location made a lot of sense. And then of course we had to design the grille. The photo above shows the final product. The toekick is actually two pieces – the solid piece on the left is attached permanently while the piece on the right is fastened with exposed screws so we can remove it and access the plenum behind if necessary. The two sets of slits were made (very carefully) with a 1/2″ wide dado blade on the table saw. Because we were limited in height, the openings had to be fairly long in order to equal the amount of supply air serving the rest of the floor.

Kyle had the brilliant idea to install a mesh screen on the back to keep Bailey fur and other debris from finding its way into the return duct (and hopefully we won’t have to clean the filters as often).

To do this, he kerfed out some groves on the backside and installed the screen the same way you would on a screen door. (Fortunately, due to a party faux pas by a certain big-headed golden, Kyle has had some recent practice.) Below is a shot of the finished backside, ready for install.


Honestly, the biggest decision hurdle for this piece was the counter. In some ways, it made sense to match one of the counter materials in the kitchen, but we couldn’t justify shelling out the money for a surface that didn’t need to be as durable. Since it’s long and skinny, another thought was to buy a 10′ board and just paint it. This would be an inexpensive, easy solution but unfortunately we needed 12.5″ in depth to cover the doors and common boards are only 11.25″ at most. Finally, we came up with the idea to fab up a countertop out of three different materials. This entailed first buying a nice piece of 5/4 vertical grain fir and a piece of low-cost MDF and then biscuiting and gluing them together.

This way, the long and short edges of the fir would be exposed and the MDF would be totally hidden by the back of the cabinet and side pieces.

The third ingredient – plastic laminate. Now, p-lam can be a dirty word in the design world, but we think if it’s done right it can be an attractive and practical solution. So we bought a roll (about $80 for a 30″x144″ piece), trimmed it down (leaving a little excess on all sides) and covered both surfaces with contact cement.

After the glue was dry, we flipped the laminate over onto the boards and used a small hand roller (same one we bought for the cork floors) to press it into place.

Then Kyle used the router to trim the excess and get a precision edge.

For the “backsplash”, we covered the MDO (which serves as the substrate for the drywall on the opposite side) with extra cork tiles. This took about 20 minutes to install and adds a little something while still being subtle. (We could use it as a tackboard, but since its low and recessed I’m not sure it would be that practical.)

We debated whether to use the white or gray high gloss panels for this piece (one of the biggest challenges with a small open space is how to match things without being too matchy-matchy), but after deciding on a white counter the gray seemed like the logical choice and adds a bit more color and richness. At the exposed sides of the cabinet we cut pieces from a botched dishwasher end panel and screwed them in place from the inside of the cabinet. (With IKEA cabinets, you can buy various cover panels that match the cabinets and are designed to go on the exposed ends of cabinets but also come in larger sheets for whatever your DIY brain comes up with.)

Obviously, it’s feeling a little sparse right now. In addition to extra display or book space, the counter could also be cleared and used as a buffet for once-a-year events like Thanksgiving. We also have ideas about a mail organizer that could sit at the left end of the counter (I’m envisioning a lacquered tray in mustard yellow).

The exposed fir edges of the counter still need to be finished with some benite and poly, but you get the idea.

Three of the four cabinets are filled with books. I was overly optimistic in thinking that all of our books, photo albums and maybe even a few board games would fit. I know there’s room for purging but it’s (for some dumb reason) really hard for me to let go of architecture books. So I’m just going to shut the doors and not think about it for now – we still have the basement!


The fourth cabinet (closest to the kitchen) is the mini-bar/cookbook storage. 

Finally, for the hardware, we used the same pulls as the kitchen but in a slightly narrower version.

So there it is, the little stair cabinet that could. Our 1910 house may have been cheated out of the charming early 20th century built-ins that come with most houses of this age, but now it has its own and it better be around for 100 more years.