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  • Writer's pictureTrevor Fry

Building a wine cubby

This may come as a little bit odd, but it turns out, my wife and I are not a huge wine drinkers. However, that doesn't mean we don't enjoy the occasional glass with friends, and haven't amassed quite the collection over the years (I believe we were at 40+ bottles when we counted). This is the first part of a 2+ part project to redo an area in our pantry as a make-shift bar.

Something that stuck with my from my early architecture classes is to avoid empty spaces in a house (or maybe it's the engineer in me thinking that it's inefficient). Any time I realize there is space in a house, my mind gears start grinding to figure out why. So when I realized that there's a cavity under our stairs, I started thinking what that could be used for, and eventually came to the conclusion that it could be used to finally give our pile of wine bottles a nicer home.

Finding the right spot

I figured we'd need a large setup to store all our wine bottles, which lead me to focus on the larger wall on the left side under the stairs.

Not having a lot of experience tearing into walls (re: not much besides adding drywall anchors) I didn't want to immediately start cutting holes without an idea of what I was getting into. So with my trusty tape measure, a stud finder, and an isometric sketch pad I mapped out the pantry and then threw it all into sketchup.

Though it's a bit of work up front, I find that working with projects like this in a 3D CAD application helps quite a bit as it allows me to easily make changes, and model different designs before committing.

So after a lot of playing with designs, this is what I came up with that seemed the most feasible to build. I didn't want to change the structure of the house, so it was designed to wrap around the existing studs.

Still hesitant to make any cuts without knowing what was behind that wall I borrowed a neighbor's boroscope to take a peak inside.

Too my surprise there was another sheet of drywall on the other side of the stud, which lead me to down the rabbit hole of California building code. Turns out, this is acting as an additional fire barrier to provide more time for escape down the stairs should there be a fire. After chewing on some options for a bit, I decided against building a 'fire-safe' wine cubby and instead look into the adjacent wall under the stairs.

Score! Only one sheet of drywall covering a big open space and it looks like plywood has the same burn-time as the drywall. To my surprise though, this cavern was textured and painted on the inside.

I never was able to nail down why, but my best guess is that this wall was left open so the inspector could see that the walls had double drywall under the stairs, and in that time it was textured and painted, then closed up after.

So, with a new wall picked out, I mapped out the studs and went back to sketchup to come up with some new designs.

I ultimately landed on this "tree" design to add a bit more modern flair to the cubby. However, to be able to fit 2 bottles on either side, it meant I had to relocate a stud.

I felt comfortable relocating this one as it looked like it wasn't structural considering it was just sitting on some OSB. In fact, this wall looked like it was made with scrap from around the job-site.

Making a mess

With my plans in place, it came time to start building.

First step was to open up the wall and verify my dimensions (I was still working off a stud finder and what I saw with the boroscope).

I scored where the hole would be in an attempt to not tear off the texture when I made my cuts, and started with a hole just big enough to see inside, figuring if I had to abandon ship I could probably patch this section back without too much trouble.

Building the carcass

So with my plan verified, it came time to start building the cubby itself.

Fortunately, I started this before the crazy pandemic lumber prices hit.

With the outer shell built, I brought it inside to enlarge the hole and have closer measurements to know where to relocate the stud.

Old stud out:

New stud (and semi-naked kid) in:

With the carcass fitting, it came time to build the shelves.

This turned out to be a lot more tricky than I had anticipated.

My first issue was creating straight, 45° angles on my old table saw (Atlas 3020 made in the early 1950s). I wasted a lot of wood trying to find the right settings, angles, jigs, and positions to make the cuts, but eventually I got it dialed in.

Dry fitting everything together:

Next came actually attaching the shelves. I had ultimately decided on using pocket holes on the inside, bottom of the shelves as they would be easy to hide and avoided having to create some angled dados (which is how I would do it if I were to create this again).

This required some interesting clamping to hold the shelf in place while screwing them in with a very awkward combination of extensions and bits.

In hindsight, I should have left the back of the carcass off so I could screw in from the other side, negating the need for all these extensions.

It was slow going, but in the end, it turned out pretty OK.

After gluing everything together, I added edge banding to the plywood edges that would be visibile and began staining.

This may have been the longest part of the entire project. I felt like I was constantly fighting with the stain to not look blotchy and also hours upon hours of hand sanding between coats (again should have left the back off to have more access).

Crossing the finish line

With the stain and top coat finally done and dry, it was time to install this beast.

I crawled into the cavern, and had my wife hold the cabinet level while I measured the distance to the ground inside to attach some simple 4x4 feet to the bottom of the cabinet. Thankfully she let me back out so I could finish this project.

There are 2 screws countersunk in the top and the bottom, and 3 screws on each side to hold it in place. To cover these, I stained some extra edge banding, and cut some plugs out of that to cover the screw heads. I did not account for the fact my iron would not fit inside the wine cubbies to heat up the glue to stick the edge banding, and I ended up using a small propane torch to heat up the end of a socket cap screw which I would then hold onto the plug with some pliers for a few seconds which worked OK.

After some trim, paint, and putting in the wine, it was done!

It's kind of funny that now that it's installed it feels like it actually was built with the house, which I guess is a good thing.

Next steps are to convert the area on the right into a dry-bar, but there's many other projects to tackle before this one.

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