Hacking the IKEA Pax into a Fully Custom Closet

When I first started imagining how I wanted my closet to look, I became stuck on this image of Jenny Wolf’s closet. I absolutely adored the blue, custom cabinetry and decided I was going to figure out a way to get a similar look in my own house with a non-custom budget.

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I initially assumed that we would make all the cabinetry from scratch, but Cory brought me back to reality with the truths that 1) we’d never built a cabinet in our lives, let alone lots of drawers, shelves and boxes, and 2) the cabinetry would take forever, and would make this room impossible to accomplish for the One Room Challenge.

So, I sought out a closet system that I could customize and paint to match my vision. And in this search, the IKEA Pax kept coming up as the most common, highest-rated, and budget-friendly closet system. I’m no stranger to the concept of hacking IKEA products, though we actually had never done it ourselves. In my research, I discovered that lots of people have hacked the IKEA Pax or IKEA Billy systems to create a built-in look. But there were some upgrades that I wasn’t able to find any examples of in the wild, including recessing in-cabinet lighting and adding drawer fronts for an inset, full custom cabinetry look. The drawer fronts were critical to my vision: the IKEA Pax drawers look very modular and modern to me, making them stick out like a sore thumb in our 1940’s home. Most people hid the drawers by adding doors on the wardrobe units, but we didn’t have the space, or the desire to add so many unnecessary cabinet doors to our space.

The transformation

So, let’s get started on how we transformed our closet from this:

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To this.

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The High-Level

In order to achieve the high-end custom look I envisioned, we added baseboards, crown moulding, shoe moulding, recessed puck lights for in-cabinet lighting, refaced the fronts and sides of the wardrobe units with wood strips, added wood drawer fronts, added plugs to cover the unused shelving holes, wallpapered the back of the units, primed and painted everything, then swapped out the metal hanging rods for stained wooden rods, and finally added drawer hardware.

We tried to be as detailed as possible in the below steps, so I’m going to give a disclaimer that this post is massive. Let me know in the comments if anything needs further clarification and I can update to address those questions.

How we did it

1. Planned the size of the wardrobe units and the placement of the organizational accessories

This is where the Pax Planning tool on the IKEA website comes in handy. We cataloged how much space we each needed for our clothes (High, Medium, Low) and storage type by clothing category in a spreadsheet, and then I referenced it as I created each of our sides of the closet to ensure we had enough space for our existing wardrobe items and our storage preferences. For instance, I fold my jeans, while Cory prefers to hang his, and he dresses business casual for work, meaning there’s a lot of shirts to hang. When it came to choosing accessories, I opted out of the slightly gimmicky IKEA accessories, like the pants hanger, the shoe trees, etc. in favour of clean, classic closet designs. This isn’t to say that they aren’t helpful to maximize storage, but it’s very challenging to make them look seamless in a high-end custom closet. This limited our options down to hanging rods, drawers and shelves.

For reference, the room is 14.6′ long by 6.5′ wide, and we opted for the deeper IKEA Pax units on one side (29″ deep) and shallower units on the other wall (13″ deep), which allowed for a wide walkway between the two units.

2. Built the units and made certain they were level.

We only have standard 8” ceilings, so we had to build the units in the room and also couldn’t build a platform for the wardrobe units to sit on. If we had higher ceilings we would have elevated the units on a wooden base to ensure that we weren’t losing any potential storage space when we added baseboards. We shimmed under the units to ensure they were completely level, ensuring that the units were level to one another, so when we ran the baseboards across the front of them, everything looked flush.

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3. Installed the puck lights

We ordered these puck lights off Amazon and hardwired them into an electrical box, so we could switch them on and off when entering the room. In order to reach all six of our closet units, we had to order extra extension cords. We fed these cords in a chain, where for each unit, one light branched off and fed into the unit from the very top in the back. Because we knew we were going to have rattan boxes on a top shelf, we knew the cords would be invisible.

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In order to make the lights look very custom, we recessed them into the front of the top shelf in every unit. To recess the lights, we used a router to trace a template we made in a scrap piece of wood. If we had more time, we would have used a Kreg Concealed Jig with a Forstner Drill Bit for a more perfect round circle, but they look pretty great. We set a routing depth equal to the thickness of the puck light, so it would be completely flush with the lower surface of the shelf.

Once we routed the holes for the lights, we drilled a hole straight through to accommodate the cord for the puck light itself. Then we installed the shelf and ran the puck light through it on each unit. We used a small bead of construction adhesive on the back of the puck light to secure it into the recessed hole in the shelf. Once all the lights were installed, we moved on to the next step.

4. Installed the baseboards

Next up, was installing the baseboards to the front of the units. We ran the baseboards all the way around the room, for a fully-built in look. We used these baseboards from Metrie, which are part of their Fashion Forward collection and play very nicely with applied wood trim. Because the top of the baseboard profile is flat horizontally, it allows the wood that we applied later on to the fronts of the cabinetry to flow seamlessly.

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We attached the baseboards to the front of the wardrobe units with construction adhesive, and added nails where the baseboards sat flush with the vertical sides of each individual wardrobe unit. If your floors are not level (old house problems), always start at the lowest point in the room and simulate where the top edge of the baseboard will fall, so you don’t get into any trouble as you make your way around the room. We set up our laser level (we’ve named it our tool of the year since it has made our lives SO much easier) to keep our baseboards level. It’s critical that your baseboards are level across all the units, because you need to create square openings for your drawer fronts later on.

5. Build up bottom of unit to be flush with baseboards

Using some spare Pax/Komplement shelves, we installed them on top of the interior base of the units to bring it up to flush with the baseboards, since we had to apply them to the front of the Pax units themselves. For this, we used some scrap strips of 1/8th inch tempered hardboard to bring the shelf up to level and secured it with screws. This step was only relevant for the wardrobe units without drawers at the bottom.

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6. Installed the wood trim

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This is where things start to really begin to look custom. We used 1/2 inch thick Poplar boards that we cut down on the table saw to create strips to cover where the wardrobe units met and the filler boards on the sides, where the wardrobe units didn’t quite reach the wall. The poplar had to be ordered for delivery to our house, since it wasn’t available in stores. We used a nail gun and finish nails to attach the vertical wood strips to the Pax units.

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We then added horizontal poplar strips that aligned with the bottom of the crown moulding, so the bottom edge of the crown would look properly built onto the units and not recessed into it (in the above photo you can see that there’s some wood behind the crown moulding). We found it was easiest to sand the edges of the poplar strip that would be exposed before installing. We also used an orbital sander to sand down any visible faces as well, since this makes a huge difference in the finished look.

On the exterior sides of the Pax units, we added some additional strips of poplar to give the sides a more finished look once painted.  These we attached with construction adhesive and used clamps to hold them in place. We couldn’t use nails here, because there was no solid surface for them to grip into or they might have become visible on the inside of the units.

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Finally, we added the smaller horizontal strips. This was something I was very concerned about because the shelves in the Pax units don’t sit flush with the sides of the Pax units, so the depth of wood needed here was thicker than the 1/2 inch Poplar we used everywhere else. Turns out they don’t sell 5/8 inch Poplar, so Cory ended up finding stain grade flat pine board at Lowes that worked like a charm. You can see that the color looks different, but once it was all painted, you’re none the wiser.

Once all the wood was installed, we used Bondo to fill all the holes and seams where the wood strips met. We also used glue to add shoe moulding to cap off the space between the baseboard and the floors.

7. Hung the crown moulding

We again used the same Fashion Forward crown moulding from Metrie and installed it along the top edge of all the wardrobe units. This really capped off the built-in look and totally hid the gap from the top of the wardrobes to the ceiling. We then caulked all the seams.

8. Created drawer fronts

Using the vanity in our adjacent bathroom as the guide for how we wanted the drawer fronts to look, we opted for a flat front, which is a nice streamlined look and also lower effort than a shaker style. The drawer fronts were actually simpler than expected, where we used the same 1/2 inch Poplar board and just cut it down to size. We left an 1/8 inch gap around the drawers. We sanded the drawer fronts down and then brought them into the room.

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We then test fit all the drawer fronts on to the drawers themselves using two screws per drawer, drilled from the inside of the drawer into the new front (make sure your screws aren’t too long that they come through the front of the drawer face). Here, we used a laser level to ensure the drawers lined up throughout the room horizontally in each unit. Don’t worry that the drawer fronts may not sit flush with the trim on the front of the units, we address that later. Once we had test fit all the drawer fronts, we used tape to label the drawer and the drawer front, so we could match them up later once they were painted, and then separated the drawer fronts from the drawers.

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8. Wallpapered the backs of the wardrobe units

One of the tell-tale signs of an IKEA Pax is the seam that runs down the back wall of the wardrobe unis. Because the MDF comes folded 1-2 times, there’s an unightly seam that definitely screams low quality. I didn’t want to put all this work into making the Pax look custom only to have a seam give it away that these are indeed IKEA!

So, I tracked down paintable faux grasscloth wallpaper and installed it on the back wall of the wardrobe units. I wanted a paintable wallpaper so it looked seamless with the units and I also love the hint of added texture. Since the paper is pretty thick, it completely hides the seam when painted out (it was still visible through the paper before it was painted as it was somewhat transparent). It’s a small detail that you may not notice, but is one of those things that you certainly would have noticed had it not been installed.

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9. Plugged holes

A little known secret is that IKEA sells packs of plugs designed to hide the many, many holes in the Pax system that are used for shelving, etc. They sell packs of 100 plugs for $1, and while they are more difficult to install than expected they are totally worth the effort. I think we went through at least 12 packs of these plugs. You can see in the above shot that we had installed the plugs.

As a note, we didn’t add in the plugs on the side where we have only shelves, since we wanted them to be adjustable long-term.

10. Primed Everything

A lot of you expressed concern over how we would paint the shiny IKEA laminate finish, and I can assure you it’s totally doable. The key is to prime with a shellac based primer (specifically this one) and you will have no trouble at all painting over the IKEA finish. I will warn you, this primer, Zinnser BIN Shellac Primer, is awful to use – it’s runny and high-fume, so I would recommend wearing a respirator and having some patience. I also read that leaving the paint can open for a little while can help thicken it up, but we didn’t notice that.

We applied the primer with a high-density foam roller and a paint brush in the spots that were most difficult to reach. Most tutorials I read online indicated that they primed once, we actually did two coats because the primer dries really fast and we’re a little bit neurotic. We also primed all the wood trimwork twice, to ensure we were creating the best possible base for the paint. We primed the drawer fronts separately outside of the room using standard high-coverage primer.

11. Painted all the cabinetry

We painted the room using a spray gun, which allowed for a super professional look. Our biggest learnings from using a spray gun on a few projects now are: 1) preparation is everything, make sure to mask effectively and to totally cordon off the doorways, 2) make sure to spend the extra time cleaning your sprayer between uses, it will absolutely make or break your finish, 3) make sure you test spray a low visible area (or the masked off area) to ensure proper paint flow and that your coat is not too thick, 4) make sure to have a lot of light sources when you’re spraying so you can catch any drips early, and 5) use a low grit (extra fine) sandpaper to smooth out any missed drips or errant spray between coats. When spraying, it’s better to do multiple thin coats of paint than heavier ones to allow for greater durability.

We painted the removable shelves and drawer fronts separately in our garage (we created a spray booth to keep the paint contained).

For the paint, we used Farrow and Ball Inchyra Blue in the Modern Eggshell finish, and it’s one of my most favourite moody colours of all time. Depending on the time of day it can change from a peacock blue to a dark sage green. When it comes to paint, make sure to go with a paint that is rated for cabinetry, since the closet gets a lot of hands on use. Another go-to paint for cabinetry is Benjamin Moore Advance, which has held up really well on our downstairs bathroom vanity and is more widely available and more budget-friendly.

12. Installed the drawer fronts

Allow the paint to cure for a day or two before installing the drawer fronts. Once the drawer fronts were ready to go, we installed each drawer front one at a time, with screws in each of the four corners and a fifth screw along the top edge in the middle to prevent the wood from flexing. Since the drawer fronts weren’t quite flush with the added frame, we used washers between the IKEA Pax drawers and the wood fronts at each screw location to bump the drawer front out slightly to be flush.

To install the drawer fronts, we taped the washers to hold them in place, as it is next to impossible to slip them in between the drawers and the wood front. Then we screwed the drawer fronts on from the back, going right through the tape.

13. Installed the drawer hardware

We worked with Emtek on this project and opted for gorgeous, super heavy unlacquered brass cup pulls and attached them through the drawer front and the drawer itself. We used our favourite laser level to ensure all the drawer pulls were aligned horizontally on both sides of the closet.

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14. Added wood hanging rods

We painted the original IKEA hanging rod hardware to match the closet paint and then cut down basic wood hanging rods to fit each wardrobe. We gave them a light sand and stained the wood rods using leftover Rubio Monocoat Oil from when we refinished the floors.

And that’s it! Now the closet looks super custom and you can see how all components came together in a space that feels much more high-end than a basic IKEA hack!

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Edited to include quick interior iPhone photos of the interior of the drawers:

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101 thoughts on “Hacking the IKEA Pax into a Fully Custom Closet

  1. What is the width of the walkable area between the two cabinets (first photo in section 14)? Do you find it is tight? Working on an addition with closet and want to ensure I leave enough space between wall and cabinetry.

  2. Your closet is awesome, Erin! We are in the midst of doing ours much like you have and I have a question. Have you had any problems with the wallpaper you used to cover the back wall seams? I have read comments on bubbling, lifting, being difficult to cover with paint, etc. Would greatly appreciate any input!

    1. We covered the interior of the drawers sections (including the rails) with paper and taped off the area (we didn’t want to waste paint on the interior that nobody would ever see).

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