Who doesn’t love the idea of a secret space that only you know about? I’m fascinated by images of rooms hidden behind the book shelf that only open with the perfect key stroke of the piano, or a small crawl space that opens into a hidden refuge. 

Secret rooms are a bit difficult in a space smaller than 700sqft, but the idea lived on in my head. When I saw an image online of an ornate mirror on a hinge (houzz.com is high on my list of regularly visited websites) I was inspired to take on another project. Taylor was leaving on a weekend trip, so I took that opportunity make it a surprise. After a weekend of hard work I got the cabinet boxed out and the mirror re-mounted on the wall. Taylor was home for 5 hours by herself before I got home from work and didn’t notice any difference, success! She was confused when I told her I made her something and it was in the mirror...

It took a few more weeks of working on and off to finish up the project. The final result is a well hidden space for keeping necklaces, bracelets, heels and a collection of odds and ends. We not only got an interesting conversation piece, but we also eked out just a bit more valuable storage space! 

Where to Build

Don't start by knocking a hole in your wall! A built in cabinet or shelving is not something to take lightly. Once in place, this room feature will dictate the layout and use of the room. The mirror that I used for this project had been hanging in that spot on the wall since we moved in, and I'm confident that we will not be changing the layout of the closet - which is mostly decided by the position of the washer/dryer. 


Figure Out What is Behind the Wall

Mark the place where you need to cut.jpeg

Our 1800’s building is a bit quirky and I’ve always felt there was unused space behind our walls, particularly in the closet which isn't as deep as other rooms on the same wall. One day I got home from work a bit earlier than Taylor and decided to take the mirror off of our wall and see what there was back there.

The first step was to use a stud finder and figure out where the framing is. My stud finder is in the middle price range. It has the ability to do both stud scan and deep wall scan, which is useful in this case.

I was very lucky in the fact that the mirror sits almost perfectly between two studs so I wouldn't have to move the mirror position (or worse cut through the studs). Using the deep wall setting I also found that there was some noise running vertically and at an angle. My thought was that a pipe for our radiators ran at about waist height, and I wasn't too worried about building around it if that was true. 

I felt confident in the location I had picked, so I cut out a 3” by 4” section of the dry wall using a box cutter to get eyes on the space.  I shinned my phone camera in there to find more than a foot of space between the framing of the wall and the exterior brick wall. There wasn't a pipe in the way, but there was a stud running at an angle down. None of the framing in our building is structural. All of the units are loft style and the load is carried by the interior brick walls and exterior wall. 

I hack job sealed the hole I had made and hung the mirror back up. I wanted to make it a surprise for Taylor. 

Cut Your Shape in the Dry Wall

Taylor's weekend trip came and I sprung into action. A Home Depot trip in Brooklyn with no car is not easy to do, so I had to make sure I got what I needed in the first trip. A couple of things I picked up for this job:

  • A dry-wall saw (100x easier than a box cutter)
  • L brackets for the shelves
  • Wood screws
  • 2x4 for framing 
  • 1/4" ply for the box and shelves 
  • Trim for finishing 
  • 1"x12" solid board to hang the necklaces & smaller shelves 
  • Tsquare (I didn't buy this until later, and I wish I had one for this project)

Once home, the first step was to measure out the hole I needed to cut. My goal was to have all of the trim completely hidden so you couldn't tell there was a cabinet behind the mirror. I measured out the dimensions of the mirror and drew out the same shape on the wall in pencil. 

It's always easier to cut more later, but it is much harder to try and put some back if you cut too much.

In this spirit I drew my cut line 1/2" inside of the shape of the mirror. I knew I would be using the 1" trim I bought to make up any difference I needed to. 

Create the Internal Framing and Box

Once the hole was cut I knew exactly what I needed to do and drew out how I was going to do the framing. I originally wanted to use the studs for support, but I'll admit that I'm not very comfortable working with metal studs, and my drill isn't very powerful so going through a metal at any angle was going to be difficult. I decided to take a risk and use the sheetrock for my initial support and then use the vertical stud as support once the box went in. Two issues with this:

  1. I would be drilling into the sheet rock from the front which leaves an exposed screw to deal with
  2. If I drilled too close to the cut I made then the sheet rock wouldn't be strong enough to hold the frame while I worked.

In the end it worked out and I got the frame and the box in pretty easily. I also decided that I didn't mind having screw heads showing in the final product since my goal was to complete this in single a weekend, and the tools I had access to were extremely limited. Once the internal box was completed I put the trim on with small chads that I would paint over.

Getting the trim right is a key to the whole "secret" concept

I cut the trim and laid it out on the upside down mirror to ensure it aligned with the outside of the mirror. I then hung the long vertical piece first, ensuring it was level. The original hole I cut turned out to not be perfectly level, but it was within the margin of error that I had with the wide trim. Once the first piece of trim was hung I worked my way around, and used the mirror to check myself along the way. I started on the bottom horizontal by putting a single chad in place to connect the mitered edge to the piece already hung, and then with a bit of acrobatic skill (2 people would have been easier) I aligned the trim with the mirror and marked where to position the far end of the bottom horizontal. I worked my way around until the whole box was trimmed, and I was very pleased with the result. 

The next step was the hang the mirror. I started by fastening the hinge to the mirror, and then I used a step ladder with a book pile to hold the mirror while I aligned it with the trim (again, a second person would have reduced the risk of mistake here significantly). 

The piano hinge is sitting on top of the trim, but is actually supported by the sheet rock. The trim on its own would not be able to support the weight of the mirror. I also took apart a very simple magnetic cabinet locker and used the magnet and metal hidden behind the trim to make sure the mirror held closed. 

Lay out the Interior

At this point we have a mirror with a large box behind it. Its a good place to be, but not useful until we add the functional interior. For me this project was very much form before function, so at this point I didn't actually know what was going to go in this other than a section to hang necklaces. I played around with a few sketches an eventually, with Taylor's input landed on a clean plan for three large shelves with a top section for necklaces and smaller items. My box was irregular shaped (rather than perfectly square) so fitting the shelves was more difficult than it should have been, but because I used 1/4" ply I was able to easy whittle down the sides to fit using a box cutter. Once I had the shelf sized I used a small level and three L brackets to put it in place. I did not attach the shelf to the wood and left them floating. 

putting on the front of the shelf.jpeg

The next step was to attach the trim to the front of the shelf to get good contrast between the white trim and natural shelves. The important part here was ensuring the trim aligned correctly. Once I measured and cut the trim I attached a 1/3" dowel to the back using glue. This served as a ledge to glue onto the shelf from the bottom. I put the shelf into position first, then used clamps to hold the trim in place. While the glue was still wet I shifted the shelf and the trim around so that the front of the trim made smooth contact with both sides.

We had a pretty good looking shelving unit once the shelves were in and the varnish and paint was applied!

The last step was the top section where I installed a swinging door from solid 1" thick board. I used a matching piano hinge which I had on hand. There are more attractive hinges to use in an area this exposed, but using left over parts for a project like this is part of the charm. 

I also used small section of the 1" board for shelves behind the door, again supported by exposed L brackets. I decided to use the solid board in this application because I wasn't going to cover the leading edge with trim so solid board would be cleaner. Given my limited tools this was a bit annoying to cut properly, but I'm happy with the result!

Finishing Details

So now we have an awesome cabinet with shelves and a door, but we still need some way to hang necklaces. I was going to use simple screw hooks, but then Taylor had a great idea while I was asking her what kind of knob she wanted on the inside door.

"Why not use decorative knobs as the necklace hangers?"

One of the first ones we saw were these deer heads with small ears and antlers. We thought they were great, but then spent the next three hours on etsy looking through every type of knob before finally coming back to them as the ones. It works well because larger necklaces can hang around the neck, and more fine ones can be strung on the antlers and ears. 

What I'd do differently next time

This was my first attempt at creating a fully boxed cabinet with shelves. I will say it was not my best craftsmanship, but I’m happy with the result considering the limited tools I have access to. Someday I would like to learn real techniques for cabinetry - probably once we leave NYC and I can have a workshop.

One really good option, that I didn't consider until after I was done, would have been to have the boxed out cabinet made custom by a cabinet maker then add the details from there. Working for a level and square box would have made the shelving and secondary door easier. 

I'm not too concerned about the exposed screws and L brackets holding up the shelves since the goal was for a home made project. I was however impatient with the city Home Depot and settled for brass hinges when I should have waited for silver hinges to be back ordered to match the majority of Taylor's necklaces.