DIY apartment furniture

I love building stuff, especially furniture. But before you imagine finely-crafted, oak and brass masterpieces, my furniture is more… um… experimental. I use 2x4s and plywood, and very simple tools.

Here is my current desk.  (Click on the pictures for larger versions.)

Hang everything!

Read on for a photo-retrospective of some of my past furniture, along with tips and tricks for making your own things! The post is rather long… my apologies if the page loads slowly.

Pico/Union apartment

Burlington apartment building

Burlington apartment building

After moving back from Japan, the first place I lived was the LA Pico/Union area, right near Staples Center. Maz actually lived in the next-door apartment for a short while (good times!). It was small and a bit run down, but also the most satisfying somehow. About a year after I moved in, the room design received a major overhaul, to make room for Hiro joining me. The final version featured a lofted bed and suspended desk, a fold-out table, and lots of hanging shelves. The bathroom was bright and cheery and I had a great setup for turntable practice.

Successes: easy to clean floor (even the refrigerator was hanging), desk foot rest, slanted book shelves, lots of natural light, ready-to-practice TT setup

Not-so-successes: not enough headroom above bed, fabric covering chairs and table got grungy, all tub resurfacing attempts failed

The suspended bed and desk were what made the tiny space livable for two. Here are a few shots of the construction process.

The basic frame

Gardena apartment

Hiro got a job at JCI Gardens Apartments in Torrance and spent a few months making the commute by bus. An inexpensive apartment within walking distance of her office became available and it was too good to pass up. So we disassembled the furniture and carted the wood to the new place. This time we made a lofted bed with storage beneath. To save on plywood, we used the doors off several closets for some of the paneling. The ropes above the bed were for hanging clothes to dry and was a surprisingly efficient use of space (hanging clothes during the day, sleepers in the bed at night). I tried in-floor storage beneath the desk, and made a simple couch for Hiro. In cleaning out our stuff, we came across the x-ray that Hiro had taken for her US visa application. We didn’t have the heart (har har) to throw it away, so we turned it into a weird window clock.

Successes: floor storage, offset L pantry shelves (holds tall and short items efficiently), crawlspace storage below bed

Not-so-successes: vertical support on kitchen desk sometimes annoying obstruction, cheap futon for couch loses cushion over time, for the in-floor storage, build the base supports to match the panel sizes (not the painstaking other way around)


The in-floor storage was the big experiment of this apartment. (And the concept gets refined in the next apartment.) Here are some shots of the construction process.

Little Tokyo apartment

Hiro and I liked living in Gardena, but an even better opportunity appeared, forcing another furniture disassembly. Hiro was offered the assistant manager position at Little Tokyo Towers, along with a paid apartment in the building. The screws came out, we packed our stuff, and headed to downtown Los Angeles. I started straight to work on an improved version of the in-floor storage. The compartments were tall enough to hold standard file boxes. And I did away with hinges and finger holes in the panels, in favor of simple, flat, unattached panels. I ordered a pair of high-power suction cups (the kind used for handling car windshields) and they work perfectly for the purpose.

Successes: Suction cups!

Not-so-successes: Only four months, fear that floor panels will be difficult to reuse in dream home

Torrance apartment

After living in Little Tokyo for about three months, Hiro got a call from her previous company. They wanted her back. And they wanted her to be head manager. So we were on the move again. In the new place, I built the main-room/kitchen frame and then focused on the kitchen. I tried the most complicated thing I’ve made thus far: an all-plywood desk, suspended at only two corners.  It has been a grand success but I’ve stopped serious work on this apartment… I’m putting my energy into the dream home design!

Successes: embroidery hoop lighting, oil holders w/ wipe rag, bowl holders, desk shape / structure, white-board on door for “don’t forget to take:”, retractable clothes lines, drawing horizontal and vertical lines on plywood by measuring from the edges

Not-so-successes: Probably should have used a CNC company to cut the plywood pieces, suspended card catalogues block view to kitchen, not enough natural light

clothes_lines_retracted clothes_lines_extended

clothes_lines_wide

The desk was far and away the most exacting design I’ve tried. Before the desk, everything I made was fairly over-built. Not knowing exactly how sturdy a beam should be, I’d err on the side of extra rigidity, using a 2×6 instead of a 2×4, just in case. For the desk though, I wanted to take a bit of a risk and try and fine tune my engineering sensibilities. I wasn’t sure that the desk would be stable with only the two supports, and I wasn’t sure about the proper height of the built-up main beam that runs under the length of the whole desk. It turns out I still could have built it thinner and lighter, but I’m relieved it’s stable and comfortable.

The desk is made of five, main interlocking members — two L-shaped pieces for each vertical support, and the desk itself — plus two, lower-height shelf spaces at each end. The vertical supports are cut in two pieces, the upper half connected to the room frame and the lower half to the desk. This would allow us to position the top portions independently if the room frame didn’t exactly match the desk dimensions. The main challenge came from the fact that two of the vertical support members are larger than can be cut from a 4’x8′ piece of plywood, so they would have to be built up from smaller pieces. I also wanted to utilize the wood efficiently, so after designing the shape of each finished, vertical member, I broke them into smaller pieces and then used scale paper pieces to find an efficient cutting layout. Each piece was formed of three layers of 1/2″ plywood.

The end result was 42 pieces to be glued together. Cutting them to the necessary tolerances pushed my technical skills. The measurement was actually the hardest part. I tried a number of methods for drawing parallel and perpendicular lines on the plywood. Many online resources say not to trust that a piece of plywood is square, and to draw one’s own straight line from which to work. I tried this method, using a large construction square for perpendicular lines. I made a 3x4x5 triangle out of thin cable with the hopes of further improving my accuracy. But none of these methods were better than simply measuring along the edges and drawing lines from those marks. I bought a straight piece of aluminum bar, 8.5′ long at a local metal house for my straight edge. I used a utility knife to score my lines to reduce tear-out. In the end, I was surprised how accurate I was able to measure, mark, and cut. The cuts (with a jigsaw and new blades) were very clean thanks to the scoring. It took forever, but somehow, all the pieces fit together and the end result is my favorite desk yet. It has a built-in glass panel under which I can install a light table for those drawing projects I keep meaning to get to…

Tips for making your own inexpensive furniture

Over the course of living in 10 different dorm rooms in college, and 8 different apartments since, three things have held true: 1) money is tight, 2) you can’t put holes in apartment walls, and 3) there’s not much space. Here is a short list of the things I have learned in dealing with these facts:

1) Customized furniture beats “quality” furniture

Having just the right size and shape desk, in just the right spot, is more important than what the desk is made of. Understanding your own preferences for size and shape is hard enough… would my desk be more comfortable at 29″ or 30″ high? Use apartment furniture as a chance to experiment and find what’s just right for you.

2) Use simple materials

  • 2x4s and plywood are inexpensive
  • They can be environmentally friendly (see below)
  • They can be reused many times (see below)
  • Use screws!

Buy reclaimed wood if possible, or look for FSC-certified 2x4s and formaldehyde-free plywood. You’ll be able to reuse your wood again and again – some of the 2x4s in my current apartment were a desk in Tokyo, then shipping boxes, then a bed, a desk, and now part of the frame structure.

3) Hang everything!

As much as possible, I don’t like having furniture touch the floor. Floor-bound furniture gets in the way of cleaning. It also makes rooms feel smaller to me. Moving objects up off the floor to hanging positions, gives feet room to move about freely and lifts the “gravity” of the objects in the room. It’s hard to overdo hanging… even my refrigerator was suspended in my first LA apartment, and I loved it. In older apartments, there is sometimes substantial “picture rail” trim that runs around the room and you can build off of that (see the Burlington kitchen and bathroom images above).

4) Use an internal frame to build upon without affecting apartment walls

In order to facilitate hanging, build a simple, internal frame that wraps the corners of the walls and ceilings, then screw things to that. Single, vertical 2×4’s in the corners will usually be plenty to support anything you plan on building. I use double-width columns because I can build them from overlapping and screwing together smaller 2x4s.  I often leave one of the 2×4’s shorter than the other to for a “ledge” support for the ceiling beams.

Basic room frame

5) If you can’t hang, lean!

These shelves have only two legs, placed near the front of the shelves so that the entire unit falls backward against the wall.  The more books are added, the more stable it becomes.

Tools

The tools and materials for building:

  • miter saw (aka chop saw)
  • jig saw
  • drill
  • straight-edge
  • measuring tape
  • earplugs, safety glasses
  • 2.5″ screws

Miter saw

Technically speaking, you can do everything in the pictures above without a miter saw, but its speed and accuracy make the tool well worth the cost. I bought mine for about $150.  Miter saws with rail slides have the capacity to cut significantly larger pieces of wood but I’ve been fine with this little 10″ saw.  When cutting the rare 2×6 at a 45 degree angle, this saw won’t cut all the way through, but I simply finish the cut by hand with an inexpensive Japanese pull saw.  Apparently, rail slides also reduce the accuracy of the saw, so I suppose I’d rather not have them.  For what it’s worth, a saw without the compound angle function would be fine for me as well.  I’ve only cut a few compound angles (angled in two axes) in the 6 years I’ve had this saw.

Jig saw

The jig saw is extremely versatile, and essential for cutting panel goods like plywood. The best blades I’ve found are Bosch Xtra-clean. The hanging desk in Torrance benefited from the precision of a circular saw and a home-made, 8’6″ straight-edge, but a jig saw can be guided by a straight-edge as well. The only real problem I’ve had with jig saw accuracy is getting a feel for curves. If you push the saw to one side, the blade will bend out of vertical producing a slightly angled cut.

Drill

Any corded or cordless drill will work. I have a Bosch 33618 and like it a lot, but I’m sure newer, lighter drills are available. If you go cordless, don’t get suckered into buying a huge, heavy, high-voltage drill. Mine is 18V and has plenty of power for this kind of building. The drill is strong enough to snap the head off a screw, so more power is of little use here, especially because we’re pre-drilling most screw holes anyway.

Straight-edge

Do not trust the measurements on standard rulers!! My Home Depot-bought 4′ measure and store-bought 12″ measures are not accurate. The 4′ rule was particularly vexing because it’s graduated on both sides, but they produce very different measurements, neither of which is actually 4″! A decent measuring tape is far more accurate, even when using the end tab. (A true measure, from a company like Starrett is extremely accurate, but probably not worth the cost for our wood-working purposes.)

I also use an 8’6″ x 1/4″ x 3″ strip of aluminum as a straight edge for cutting 4’x8′ panel goods with my circular saw and jig saw. I bought the material at a metal supplier in Torrance for about $10.

Measuring tape

I’ve had a number of random measuring tapes and they have all been accurate and useful.  The tape lock is the most critical — make sure it’s convenient and comfortable to use.

Earplugs, safety glasses

Please, please use earplugs and safety glasses with the miter and jig saws. Hearing damage is irreversible and cumulative. Both saws can kick eye-piercing splinters directly toward your face. Wear earplugs and glasses every time you use a power tool, so you feel uncomfortable without them.

Screws

Never use nails. They’re noisy and dangerous to put in and hard to take out. Use screws for everything.

Many beginning builders make the mistake of buying metal connectors (elbows, joist hangers, etc) for a project. You don’t need them if you plan the design properly. Make all connections by butting 2×4’s against one another and screwing them together directly. Drilling pilot holes will likely be necessary to keep the ends of the 2×4’s from splitting. 2.5″ screws are the most useful length since they can join two 2×4’s in either perpendicular or parallel alignment without poking through. I’ve tried both square hole and Phillips screws.  Square hole is certainly better, but still difficult to drill without a pilot hole. With pilot holes, Phillips screws are just fine.

Considering cost

What is the right amount to spend on DIY furniture?

If you’re considering diving into the DIY furniture world and will need to buy tools and materials, it can be difficult to weigh these costs against what you’d spend on IKEA furniture. Sometimes you’ll come out ahead, and sometimes it’d be cheaper to just buy. For the three tools above, I probably spent $500. If I hadn’t continued to use those tools for multiple projects, DIY almost certainly would have been more expensive than buying standard furniture.

DIY furniture does have one significant savings however. It often enables you to live in a smaller space, for longer. My first studio apartment in LA was tiny. Hiroka moved in with me after about a year there and we *never* could have lived there if it weren’t for all the shelves, the fold-up table, the lofted desk and bed, etc. We were able to live in that apartment for a year before moving to a bigger place, where rent was significantly more expensive (from $500/mo to $800/mo). In this regard, the DIY furniture saved us $3600 by allowing us to stretch our time in a smaller space.

In the end though, by going the DIY route, I’m focusing on understanding myself and my personalized living spaces, and I’m able to create apartments that I love living in. If I’m able to do that for less than I would spend at a furniture store, that’s just extra!

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21 Responses to “DIY apartment furniture”

  1. Colin says:

    Yo dude, I THink this post is awesome, but something is blowing my mind. These internal frames you speak of. Do they not have to be screwed to the wall? Ive zoomed in on pictures and reread that paragraph multiple times and still is seems like some ind of Kris Magic that has the frames staying up there. But, totally awesome!

  2. Dan Bergstrom Noel says:

    Ingenious Kris! I have been lucky enough to see two of these designs in action and I am always curious and impressed with the functionality and the design. What a cool blg post…thank you for the illumination!

  3. Nicki Bergstrom Noel says:

    Hey! Now that I’m constantly thinking about how “baby-proof” something is–“does that dresser need to be screwed into the wall?”–I can imagine that the nearly-everything-hanging set-up would be ideal in a house with a baby. Nothing can fall over! Feel like building in Vermont?

  4. Kristofer,

    Very insightful. I enjoyed watching the evolution of everyone of your apartments. I have never seen better use of space.

    Everyone should learn a lot from your experiences and creativity.

    Dad

  5. kris says:

    Hey everyone! Thanks for the question, Colin! The frames are not screwed to the wall. They’re butted up against each wall to hold them firm. With the frames in the early apartments, I made their outside dimensions about 1/2″ to1″ narrower than the room dimensions and then used wooden wedges or old paperback books to fill the gap. On the recent frames, I’ve been able to do without any wedges, by going with narrower tolerances (1/8″ to 1/4″ gap) and then pushing the pieces firmly up against opposite walls when screwing the last pieces. One thing I’ve learned is that the ceiling dimensions are not always identical to the floor dimensions (apartment building walls are not always straight). Measuring the ceiling is difficult, so when in doubt, I cut about 1/2″ long and trim to fit.

    I’ve been through a few earthquakes in the various apartments and they do surprisingly well, especially the items hung from cables (currently my shelves, speakers, and subwoofer). As the building moves, they sway in place. “Sway in place”… does that make any sense? :)

  6. Shoji says:

    Awesome post Kris! As someone who has seen Kris’ philosophy of living in small places develop over time I’m constantly amazed at his ability to live large in small places. I have some pictures of his Tokyo apartment constructions which make these apartments look like mansions:) I also have a great memory of using two skate boards to move a Kustom Kris bed through the streets of Tokyo much to the astonishment of neighbors.

  7. kris says:

    Hah! Like many of the Tokyo episodes, that “moving-one’s-whole-apartment-with-skateboards” idea is probably left untouched.

    If you find those photos, I’ll definitely add them, Shoj. I don’t seem to have any Tokyo photos on hand anymore… Thanks for the comment!

  8. patrick graham says:

    great stuff Kris.
    as someone who is a native of the land which proudly puts forward the noble Beaver as a national symbol, truly i believe that you deserve the Order of Canada.
    Here at home, the beaver is well-acknowledged for its remarkable use of wood.
    Proudly, you can stand alongside our national animal, standing tall as a friend to the beaver.
    Good on you!

  9. Brandon Martin says:

    Great post. These are the most interesting and diverse blog postings I’ve seen from a musical performance group. You’ve got Heather and I dreaming about some gentle tenant improvements of our own. I think the in-floor storage idea is endlessly cool and she wants a desk with a special ramp and cat perch built-in.

  10. hiro says:

    Kuri, you always amaze me! I’m always comfortable living in the world you’ve created. It’s so difficult to stay away from the couch. “Yaba Kauchi” Also thank you for making kitchen efficiently customized for me all the time. I can’t tell you enough how much i enjoy my life in your rooms! I can’t wait to have our dream mobile home in the future!

  11. kris says:

    Hiro, your first comment! It’s been fun to do the designs with you thus far. And for the dream home, gambarimashou! In preparing for the dream home, I need to get rid of a lot of stuff (as I’m sure you know). Everything you own would fit in a suitcase but I’ve got boxes and boxes. The problem is that it’s all stuff that was headed for the landfill. I’ve still got about 50 network cards from the JCI computers that were recycled. I suppose they *might* come in handy… someday… for something? I don’t have the heart to just junk them. Help!

  12. noze says:

    awesome! thanks for posting this for all. Just moved into a small apartment after living in a big home with a garden and boy do I need these tips and info. Thanks!!!

  13. Jamie says:

    I just stumbled upon this site, and this stuff is amazing! I can’t wait to try out building an interior frame, which is a genius idea. It’s blowing my mind right now, just looking at the pictures. I especially like the kitchen shelving units in the Torrance apartment. Very clever.

  14. kris says:

    Thanks so much, Jamie! It’s looking like the kitchen bowl shelf design might make it into the dream home, so I’ll get to build it with nice materials and attention to detail. In that design, I’m going to try and make it so one can put wet bowls in the rack and the drips don’t fall on other bowls. Like the current design, the bowls will be angled a bit so the back lip is lowest. Also like the current design, the smallest bowls will be on bottom and the largest on top. But in the new version, I’m going to make some kind of stop at the back of each shelf so that the back lip of the upper bowls will overhang the lower bowls.

    If you build anything, please send us pictures!

  15. Futons says:

    Wow! this is ingenius. I love it and it looks great too. I lived in Europe for a while and the appartments there can be really small too, especially for a family. I love what you’ve done. It’s such an efficient use of space and resources.

  16. Luis Alfonso says:

    Great post, This is what i’ve been looking over the internet. I’ve moving around every year since 6 years ago and is always the same problem, temporal fixtures, furniture limitations etc… I’ve lost the deposit many times for making holes and gluing things…

    Your post gave me lots of ideas… i’d encourage you to develop it, i don’t know if there is a community of this kind or if you know anyone… but you could expand it, like me, is the problem of many “nomads” around the world.

    Please, if you have any information, links, photos, recomendations etc etc… i’ll apreaciate it.

    … and keep on!

    see ya

  17. Brent says:

    Kris, I’m absolutely blown away. For years I’ve complained about not having enough space to have a shop where I could build stuff, but obviously, I have NO excuse after seeing all you’ve done. Your creations are so thoughtful, intuitive, and useful. The storage in the floor and those dent things to pick up the panels – brilliant. If you didn’t provide us with such awesome music I would have said you missed you calling. Thanks for the inspiration! Great, great post!

  18. Charles says:

    I know this is an older post, but I’ve really enjoyed looking at your furniture pics here. Wonderful designs.

  19. Mike says:

    So, If I read, and look at the pictures correctly, the internal frame around the outer walls of the room are made from 2×4’s, cut to length so that when the 2×4 headers are put in at the ceiling, the whole thing is basically wedged in, and held in place by friction? Once the fram is built, you can then build off of it just as you would for a stud wall in regular construction. Am I getting this right?

    I ask because I have a situation where I live that I’m very short on storage space, and my landlord won’t let me drill or nail into the plaster walls due to the age. If I can use this internal frame deal, it could work out very well.

    • kris says:

      Mike, you’re exactly correct. You can either build the internal frame an inch smaller than the wall dimensions and then wedge a phone book or something similar to stabilize everything, or you can have overlapping beams somewhere in the structure that allow you to snug everything to the walls. If you need more specific advice on your design, don’t hesitate to ask. Have fun!

  20. dillinger says:

    True Genius !!!

    We are trying to make our flat look decent within the space of three weeks on a very tight budget…….(agreed to a family reunion at our place) ….. your post has left us feeling very inspired, so thank you. I won’t be attempting anything so fancy though, all we want is boxed-in pipes in the kitchen, bathroom and living room, that will make everyone happy. Might have to get someone in to do it after all. Anyway, thanks for the read, much appreciated.

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