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Our Old House Gets Some New Built-ins


Custom cabinetry, when well executed, can really take a room to a new level of both usefulness and beauty.  While our focus at Shy Dog is primarily custom furniture pieces, we do a fair amount of work for clients who need a custom touch and hands-on approach to a built-in project.  Of course, most of those projects leave our shop for their new homes and live there happily ever after.  But occasionally, we get to use the power of the Shy Dog shop for our own home, too!

We live in a very old house, which means every room will eventually undergo a major renovation.  In 2016, it was the living room’s turn.  Virtually untouched for 65 years, it needed new windows, new electric, new heat, new trim, new drywall…basically, I left the floor in place and rebuilt everything from the outside in.

Despite the mess and hard work, a complete gut of the room also meant a chance to integrate custom built-ins designed from scratch to match our aesthetic preferences and functional needs.  Starting from the ground up allowed me to incorporate really nice features like integrated kickspace heaters, hidden LED accent lights, a padded window seat and cabinetry to hide audio visual equipment.

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Demolition fully underway.  Old house means removing LOTS of old plaster…

Especially in an old house, building custom cabinets can be the best (or only) way to deal with non-standard dimensions, less-than-level floors and the strange angles and curves that were easier to smooth over when plaster and lath was the standard construction method.

Laying out plumbing
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Kickspace heater and drain installed

One challenge that I encountered was our existing hot water baseboard, which ran along the same wall where the built-ins were going.  Doing a full demo meant the room would get insulation (for the first time!) but it still needed a heat source.  Anyone with baseboard knows it can kill the usefulness of a wall.  As an alternative, I installed “kickspace” heaters that you would normally find hidden under kitchen or bathroom cabinetry.

Heaters like these use the existing hydronic heating system as a coil with a thermostatically controlled fan blowing the warmed air out into the room, producing a lot of heat from a very compact package.  The high output of the units also allowed us to completely remove four feet of baseboard from another wall of the room and regain that space for furniture.

With the window being located off-center (and three dogs who LOVE to birdwatch) I chose to build the base cabinets in three sections  Two with shallow depth of 18″ at just under counter height and one lower central window seat with a 24″ depth.  This window seat holds a wide drawer for storage and gives us (and the dogs) a place to sit near the window.  (Which is considerably less than drafty than the original!)

I built all three countertops from solid black walnut with a semi-gloss polyurethane finish to really highlight their natural color.  Each one was scribed to fit the slightly out-of-square corners inherent to old houses and the paneling that ran in from the other wall.

One side of the base cabinets incorporates all the audio-visual equipment for the room (receiver, cable box, DVD player, etc) with a PVC pipe through the wall to bring cables to the back of the television invisibly.  An infrared relay on the front of the TV allows for remotes to work while the equipment all stays hidden behind closed doors.

Another of my favorite features is also out of sight most of the time.  Even though cabinets are more pleasing aesthetically, drawers are incredibly helpful when it comes to organizing.  Two cabinet sections feature walnut and poplar dovetailed drawers inside to help everything stay in its place.


The upper cabinets incorporate architectural columns to convey a sense of depth and structure.  They also serve to hide all of the wiring for the low-voltage LED accent lighting, sconces and overhead spotlights.  The paneling of the both the upper and lower built-ins ties in to central wall where the TV is mounted.


Custom built glass front shaker style doors keep adjustable shelves clean while still allowing our books to be on display.  I used seeded glass to match the lighting sconces and low voltage, dimmable LEDs light the alcoves below the shelves, the space behind the trim, and the interior of the cabinets.  Each section may be switched on and off individually and they serve as a subtle night light when all the fixtures in the room are switched off for the evening.  Crown moulding around the perimeter of the ceiling completes the installation.

The dogs really do enjoy their new perch…!


1 comment on “Our Old House Gets Some New Built-ins

  1. Christine

    Amazing! Please move to Colorado so you can work on ny house.

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