Tips For Designing Built-Ins, Drawing Cut List Diagrams, And More…

I was sure that we’d be further along on my niece’s room by now, but I haven’t even started on the built-ins yet. In fact, we didn’t even head to Home Depot to buy all of the supplies until yesterday afternoon, and I always forget what a time-consuming process that is. But we finally have all of the supplies purchased, and all of our MDF and plywood cut to size, so I’m ready to start building today.

Anyway, I thought the whole planning process might be interesting to some of you (although this is the nitty gritty technical stuff that might bore some of you to tears 😀 )

When I do built-ins, the very first step I take is to make a very basic drawing of the design. And when I say “basic,” I mean very basic. The main purpose for the drawing is to figure the number of pieces of MDF, and get the basic measurements for all of the pieces, down on paper. I don’t draw anything to scale, and I don’t draw anything in 3-D perspective. I just do a simple, very basic 2-D line drawing. I always do this on paper with a pen or pencil, but since my scanner isn’t working right now and I can’t show you my actual drawings, I whipped something up really quickly with my photo editing software. So my drawing might look something like this…

very simple drawing of built-in design

From that drawing, and with my overall finished measurements written down, I then begin to think through the entire building process, making my cut list and supply list as I go.

For example, for these built-ins (and most built-ins like this), I would start by building a base made of something like 2 x 4’s. This gives support to the bottom, and raises the bottom shelf up so that I can add baseboards around the bottom without blocking the bottom shelf. In other words, you never want a bottom shelf sitting right on the floor. So I figure the number of 2 x 4’s I need to make a very basic base, which will include an outside frame and two inside supports. (If you’re unsure about what I’m talking about, it’ll all make sense once I start building and show you pictures of the process.) So I figure that each base will take one-and-a-half 2 x 4’s, so those go on my list. To put the base together, I’ll also need wood glue and 2.5″ wood screws, so those go on my list.

The next step in the process will be to build the main shell of the bookcase, which is basically a big five-sided, open-faced box made of MDF. It sits on top of the base, and tucks in behind the top face piece. In other words, it doesn’t need to go all the way to the ceiling. That big box is represented by the bold lines here…

very simple drawing of built-in design 2

To build that box, I need a top piece, a bottom piece, two side pieces, and a back. It’s very simple construction, but I really have to think through the dimensions. The top and the bottom will be cut to the finished width and depth of the bookcase, which is 15.5″ x 28.5″. And I need two of those for each bookcase, for a total of four, and I like them to be really thick and sturdy, so I’ll do those out of 3/4″ MDF. So those dimensions, including the quantity and MDF thickness, go on my cut list.

Then I like to do my back piece sandwiched in between the side pieces. But I also like to do 1/2″ MDF on any sides that are against walls (since it’s cheaper, and since the wall lends support, there’s no need to use the thicker, more expensive stuff). So each bookcase has one side and a back against a wall. I determine my height and depth for the side, and that goes on my cut list, along with the quantity and MDF thickness. For the other side (the side not against a wall), I use 3/4″ MDF. So I determine the height and depth, and that goes on my cut list.

For the back, I have to keep in mind that it’ll be sandwiched between the side pieces of MDF. That means that if I want my finished width to be 28.5 inches, I have to take that finished width, subtract the 1/2-inch (from the side MDF on the wall), and subtract the 3/4-inch (from the non-wall side piece of MDF) to arrive at the actual width that the back piece needs to be cut. So then that measurement, along with quantity and MDF thickness for that piece, goes on my cut list.

Then I think through the supplies needed to make that box — wood glue (already on the list), 16-gauge 2-inch nails for my nail gun.

So I basically continue visualizing the whole process, from beginning to end, in my mind. When I’m finished, I have two lists — a cut list (MDF and plywood), and a supply list. My cut list for this project looked like this:

1/2″ MDF:

  • 84″ x 15.5″ (2) (wall sides of bookcases)
  • 84″ x 27.25″ (2) (back sides of bookcases)

3/4″ MDF:

  • 96″ x 15.5″ (2) (non-wall sides of bookcases)
  • 15.5″ x 28.5″ (4) (tops and bottoms of main bookcase shells)
  • 15″ x 27.25″ (12) (shelves)
  • 26.75″ x 40 (4) (for decorative “wings” forming bed frame)
  • 16″ x 76.5″ (1) (for facade on trundle bed)

5/8″ MDF:

  • 43″ x 77″ (for bed platform)

And then my supply list looked like this:

  • wood glue
  • 16 gauge 2-inch nails
  • 18 gauge 1-inch nails
  • 2.5″ wood screws
  • Kreg Jig screws
  • wood filler
  • caulk
  • primer
  • paint conditioner
  • shoe moulding (I use this as supports for the shelves)
  • 1″ x 2″ x 8′ lumber – 8 pieces (face pieces for the bookcases)
  • 1″ x 8″ x 8′ lumber – 1 piece (top face piece for the bookcases)
  • 2″ x 4″ x 8′ lumber – 8 pieces (support frame for the bookcases and bed)

So after thinking through the whole process, visualizing it from beginning to end, and making notes along the way, I end up with a cut list and a supply list.  But I don’t stop there.  If I were to take that cut list to Home Depot and hand it to an employee, they would look at me like I was crazy.  And then it would take about four hours for them to figure everything out, and to get everything cut.  And with a list this long, they would undoubtedly use more MDF than necessary, costing me more money.

So I don’t EVER go to Home Depot to get MDF and plywood cut for a project like this with just a list of measurements.  I take the time to first draw out exactly what pieces will fit on each piece of MDF, and how they need to be cut.  I always do this quickly and draw them by hand, but I make sure that each piece has the measurements on it, and I make sure that I know the order in which everything needs to be cut.  Here’s what some of my cut diagrams looked like for this project:

1/2″ MDF:

cut lists and diagrams - 1

3/4″ MDF:

cut lists and diagrams - 3a

That’s not all of them, but you get the idea.  I don’t ever go without these cut diagrams!!  And I make a diagram for every single piece of MDF that I’ll need cut, even if I have two or three that are identical.  That way, as each piece is cut, I can cross them off of both the written list and the diagrams, and I never get confused as to whether or not a piece has been cut, or how many more sheets of MDF with the same configuration I still need to be cut.

And here’s the key, and what really speeds up the process.  I don’t ever just hand these diagrams to the employee to figure the out while I stand on the sidelines and check my Facebook page.  Nope, I basically direct every single step.  I literally tell the employee, “If you’ll just make each cut as I tell you, this will go much faster.”  🙂  And I do just that.  We’ll get the first piece loaded, and I’ll say, “First, let’s rip a piece that’s 15.5″ wide.”  After he does that, I’ll say, “Next, let’s rip a piece that’s 28.5″ wide.”  After he does that, I’ll say, “Now I need that piece cut into four pieces that are each 15.5″ wide.”  And on, and on, and on, until everything on my list is cut.

I have never even once had an experience with an employee that seemed frustrated or insulted by my micro-managing of their cutting process.  🙂  In fact, it’s always much the opposite.  I think they actually really appreciate people coming in fully prepared so that they don’t have to waste their time trying to figure out how to fit the 50+ cut pieces onto sheets of MDF.  And if you do your own cut diagrams before even heading there, you’ll know that you’re spending as little money as possible, and not wasting money on inefficiently placed pieces that are taking way more MDF than needed.

So that’s the planning and buying process!  🙂  Seems easy enough, right?  It’s not difficult, but that part always takes way longer than I think it should.  The whole process yesterday, from planning, list-making, diagram-drawing, purchasing, MDF-cutting, truck-loading, and truck-unloading, took us about three hours.

But now it’s all done, and I’m ready to get started today.  Hope to have some good progress to share with you on Monday!



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  1. Kristi, have you ever had a problem with inaccurate cuts? My Lowes has a sign that says the cutting is only so you can fit it in your car- they don’t guarantee accuracy. So frustrating!

    1. I’ve never had them so inaccurate that I couldn’t work with them. They might be 1/16″ to 1/8″ off at times, but that’s what caulk is for. 😉 I probably wouldn’t do much better if I were doing the cuts myself. A finish carpenter I am not. 😀

    2. I’ve run into the same thing, more or less. That, and here in New England (where we lack Southern Hospitality and temperament), it can be hard to find an employee to do the cuts and they would probably be disgusted with you if they have to do more than 2 or 3 (even though it’s their job). 🙂 Last time I had them do a cut, it was off by quite a bit. If I use their cutting services, I intentionally give myself an inch extra and then do the fine cuts at home.

    3. You need to make sure they account for saw blade thickness. Majority of the time when I tell them what I need they mark everything first and then cut. This can be prevented by guiding them on the cuts as they go instead of giving them a list.

  2. Hi Kristi — thank you for the detailed post. Some may not care for it but for those of us that aren’t as meticulous as you are and/or don’t really know what we are doing yet this is invaluable information. One of the many reasons your blog is on the list of sites I most often visit on my google page!

  3. Hey Kristi, while certainly not the most exciting part of the process, it’s certainly a necessary part. I always wondered how you managed to pull off so many cuts with so little scrap. I always measure twice and cut once, then measure and cut again and again and again until I get it right. I generate so much scrap, it’s ridiculous. Good idea using Home Depot for your cuts!


  4. Two years ago, my husband and I did a built-in desk along two walls in our once formal living room (and by once, I mean, perhaps when a prior owner had this house because we’ve never utilized it that way). One of our neighbors took what we wanted to construct, figured it all out, and gave us a build diagram along with cut diagrams. We saved ourselves a whole sheet of plywood by letting him tell us what to do. Make friends with your neighbor who’s an engineer, I say! 😀

  5. This comes at a perfect time for me Kristi, because I’m getting ready to embark on a master closet make over!
    Thank you! You are most talented and you really make things look so easy! It is an encouragement – if she can, well I can try to, too!

  6. I’ve always been a little embarrassed when my hubs does this – but you’re right, the employee never seems to mind! And this makes me feel more comfortable about it. After all, as the old saying goes, ask for what you want or you’ll never get it! And I agree, we’ve done this plenty, and never had any probs with it being the wrong size. Exciting project!

  7. And don’t forget to account for the kerf of the saw blade when making your cut diagrams by leaving an inch or two of waste on sides parallel to where you’re making cuts. If you’re ripping 12″ wide sections off a board and hoping to get 4 of them, with a 1/8″ kerf (which some might be), you’re going to be disappointed that the last one is only 11 5/8″ wide! And that’s pretty big to fill with caulk if you’re expecting matching pieces.

  8. I may be the only one here who can’t figure it out, but I’ve read this post 4 times and still don’t get why the 1/2 inch MDF is 84″ and the 3/4 inch MDF is 96″?? It’s the height, yes? So why would the non-wall side be a foot higher?

    1. I think all sheets of MDF are 96 inches long standard, 4′ x 8′?
      Off tangent a bit but just saw this months Architectural Digest August cover and it has a built in bed that is pretty dang impressive and yet so simple. We are helping our daughter remodel her basement and we are building one of these Bed/Reading Nook for a Queen sized mattress. It will be a reading area for her kids and a guest room for Grandparents! It is going to be so cool and I know Kristi has probably already made one somewhere on here design travels! Excited to see it done, but lots of figuring just like Kristi has explained in this post.

    2. The wall sides will be covered with molding and/or trim and won’t show, the non-wall sides will still show. That’s my guess anyway!

    3. Elizabeth, I think it is just a mistype in the posting about the 3/4″ MDF finish length as 96″. Good catch by the way! But we all know Kristi is doing a fantastic job!!!

    4. It’s not a typo. 🙂 Sometimes I don’t know the exact size that I’ll need for something (I’m very much a kinesthetic learner — I learn by doing and figure things out along the way). I do need the non-wall sides of the bookcases to be taller, and hopefully the reason will become clear once I share tomorrow’s post about building the bookcases. But I didn’t need them to be 96 inches tall, either. I just wasn’t quite sure how tall I needed them, so I left them at 96″ and cut the exact height myself.

  9. Wow lots of detail and really involved. I did not realize that HD would cut that much for you. I seem to recall a sign up at ours that they will only make three cuts per person. I always thought what good is that? That is why I bought a table saw… is in the basement…..I could say the same about that…..what good is that???? No one uses it. LOL. Blessings.

  10. You are fortunate that in Texas, the stores are allowed to cut mdf. Here in California, they aren’t because of the chemicals released. The EPA and AQMD just won’t hear of it!