How To Build A Functional Custom Closet Based Off the IKEA Pax System

This post details the building process of my DIY custom closet. Done with that part and ready for the next? Install Your New Custom Built Closet can be found here.

The closet in my master bedroom used to be one area of my house I tried to avoid. I mean, I wouldn’t even put my clothes away so I wouldn’t have to go in there! Okay, maybe that’s not why I usually have a laundry basket full of clothes lying around. The closet layout was a huge waste of space that basic store-bought closet organizers just couldn’t fix.

My hunt for better closet organization led me to the IKEA PAX system. This was IT – huge life-changer. I ran into my closet, tape measure in hand, then back to my computer to enter the measurements into the IKEA PAX interactive site. I mean, unless you’re getting a fully custom-built closet, this system looks great!

Right? Wrong. Now, I know that the PAX system is a fairly cost-friendly alternative to a fully custom-built closet, but it still wasn’t in my price range! Nope. So, of course, I decided to build my own.

Problems with the IKEA PAX system

  1. One side of my closet was too narrow, and the PAX system would have protruded into my closet doorway (I’m guessing the result would have been many stubbed toes – ouch). I was still determined to make it work at this point.
  2. The IKEA PAX system only comes in three different widths and two different depths. Making it work in my existing closet would have meant awkward gaps between the PAX frames and my walls. I could have put molding up or something, but it just wouldn’t have been ideal.
  3. Now I’m just being picky, so this won’t be an issue for everyone. I have 9.5 foot ceilings in my house. The PAX system is only about 7.5 feet tall. I hoped for usable closet space between 8 and 8.5 feet tall. That extra foot on top could be quite useful to store stuff I’ll never ever need again I don’t need very often.
  4. Oh, did I mention that the options I chose put my price at over $1,100?

I went ahead and finished the rough layout I wanted on the IKEA website. Their interactive PAX system build tool is amazing! (Make sure you have Adobe if you want to try it) Then, I decided I wanted to tackle the basic IKEA design with my own measurements and build it myself.

My closet measurements

My closet measures 78″ deep, 54″ wide, and 116″ tall. The door is 24″ wide. The left side wall to door frame measurement is 19″ (this side is used for hanging clothes), and the right side wall to door frame measurement is 11″ (this side is full of shelves). If you have the space to make your shelves up to 14″ or 15″, use it! I wish mine were a little deeper, but with only 11″ of space, I didn’t have a choice.

Custom Closet

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I had baseboards that I tore out to make the frames flush with my wall. It’s up to you whether or not you keep them, but I’d recommend tearing them out, as we ended up screwing the frames into the walls for added stability.

The pictures below show the closet after we tore out the hanging rods, but before we tore out the baseboards and wood that held the hanging rods up. I know, gross.


Determine the materials you need

You’ll want to have a good idea of all the materials you’ll use before you start. It’ll save you several trips to the hardware store (not that I would know). Here is a list of the supplies I used, from the build through installation:

  • 3/4″ MDF board for the frames and shelves. The deeper frames used for the hanging side of the closet are 18″ deep, 39″ wide, and 97″ tall (I have 2). The shallow frames for shelving are 11″ deep, 18″ wide, and 97″ tall (I have 3). I ended up using five 49″ x 97″ sheets from Home Depot. You can find them here.
  • 1/8″ paneling for the backing of each frame. These sheets were 48.5″ x 96.5″, also from Home Depot. I used three.
  • Closet rods. These were 72″ long. I used two and had some leftover. In retrospect, I wish I had done metal rods. Just FYI.
  • Closet pole sockets. I used eight.
  • 1.5″ screws. These worked really well.
  • Table saw – I started off using a circular saw, but it took a lot more work, and my cuts weren’t very straight. If you don’t have access to a table saw (I know they’re expensive), you could check with your hardware store to see if they would make the cuts for you.
  • Screw gun or impact drill. I LOVE my Ryobi impact drill! The battery lasts a few hours with constant use, and it’s fairly light.
  • Sander (optional) and sandpaper. You could sand by hand, but that sounds like a lot of work. I only used a fine sandpaper to go over the whole frame. Getting a really nice, smooth finish wasn’t important since I ended up painting the whole thing.
  • Drill bits. Both for pre-drilling holes for the screws and to make holes for your shelf pegs. I used a 1/4″ bit, but only used it for the shelf peg holes (more on that later).
  • Wood putty.
  • Shelf pegs. I used 1/4″ pegs. These things are STURDY. I know, because I stand on my shelves sometimes to reach my top shelf. 😉
  • Paint. If you end up using MDF board like I did, you’ll probably want to paint the closet rather than stain it. I always use Behr paint from Home Depot and have had good luck with it.

It seems like a lot, but this should be EVERYTHING you need to start building your closet.

Cut All MDF Boards and Paneling

We built our closet one frame at a time to make sure it wouldn’t be a total disaster and waste of money. Therefore, we didn’t cut all the boards at the beginning. By the time we were finished, though, this is what we ended up with:

  • A – 4) 97″ L x 18″ W MDF (hanging frame sides)
  • B – 4) 39″ L x 18″ W MDF (hanging frame top and bottom)
  • C – 1) 37.5″ L x 18″ W MDF (left side hanging frame middle support shelf)
  • D – 2) 37.5″ L x 18″ W MDF (hanging frame top support shelf)
  • E – 1) 22″ L x 18″ W MDF (right side hanging frame middle support half shelf top)
  • F – 1) 40″ L x 18″ W MDF (right side hanging frame middle support half shelf side)
  • G – 3) 37.5″ L x 3″ W MDF (hanging frame support)
  • H – 1) 22″ L x 3″ W MDF (right side hanging frame middle support)
  • I – 2) 96″ L x 39″ W paneling (hanging frame backing, not pictured)
  • J – 6) 97″ L x 11″ W MDF (shelving frame sides)
  • K – 6) 19.5″ L x 11″ W MDF (shelving frame top and bottom)
  • L – 6) 18″ L x 11″ W MDF (shelving frame middle and top support shelf)
  • M – 6) 19.5″ L x 3″ W MDF (shelving frame support)
  • N – 17.75″ L x 11″ W MDF (as many as you would like – these are your adjustable shelves, not pictured)
  • O – 3) 96″ L x 19″ W paneling (shelving frame backing, not pictured)

**The below photo is NOT to scale. It is just a quick drawing so you have a visual of what each cut is for.

Closet Template

Steps to Build

As you build, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Pre-drill your holes – if not all of them, then definitely the end holes. I didn’t, and ended up splitting the boards, leaving ugly cracks.
  • I’d recommend a second person to help stabilize the boards as you screw them together. It’s do-able without, but considerably harder.
This is what could happen if you don’t pre-drill the holes.

Steps 1-6 are to build the left side of the deep frame to be used for hanging clothes.

STEP 1: On a level surface, lay out the 2 side pieces, top, and bottom of the left hanging frame. The photo below shows two of board A and two of board B.


STEP 2: Screw the frame together. You will want the cut edges of the long boards screwed to the smooth part of the short ones. Once upright, it will look like the sides are sitting on top of the base board, and the top board is sitting on top of the sides. I used a screw every 3 inches.

Example of how to screw the boards together. Also – example of what it will look like if you don’t sand them. Hence, I went back and sanded.

STEP 3: Measure and secure the permanent shelves (boards G). My top shelf is 16″ from the bottom side of the top of the frame. The middle shelf is 40″ below the bottom of the top shelf. I’d recommend marking your measurements with a pencil before you screw the boards in. This helps keep them lined up.

STEP 4: Install the closet pole sockets. The picture below shows the fully installed sockets and rods. I allowed 2.5″ of room between the top of the poles and the bottom of the shelves they’re installed under. They are directly centered in the side boards.

STEP 5: Determine which side you want to be the front of the closet. Once decided, flip the frame onto its’ front. Here you will install the support boards (G).


STEP 6: Leaving the frame face-down, use the staple gun to staple the paneling to the back of the frame. I went heavy with the staples. I put them every couple inches apart on both the outer framework and the shelves.

Steps 7-11 are to build the right side of the deep frame to be used for hanging clothes.

STEP 7: Repeat Steps 1 and 2 above. (Lay out the frame boards and screw them together)

STEP 8: Repeat part of Step 3 above – insert the top support shelf 16″ from the bottom side of the top of the frame.

STEP 9: The right side hanging frame in my closet has a space for longer clothes to be hung, such as dresses and cardigans. Instead of putting in a permanent shelf the whole way across the middle of this frame, I only went about 2/3 of the way. It is important to determine which side you want as the front in this step, because you’ll want to put the shelf on the correct side of the frame. Once I decided which side it went on, I screwed the shelf piece in – level with the shelf in the left side frame – then attached the board that attaches the shelf to the bottom.

STEP 10: Repeat Step 4 above. (Install the closet pole sockets)

STEP 11: Repeat Step 5 above. (Install the support boards for this frame)

STEP 12: Repeat Step 6 above. (Staple the paneling to the back)

By now, I’m sure you’re a pro at this, and you’re ready to take up closet design and building as your new profession. You’re telling all your friends to send people your way because they need a new closet design too!

No? Okay, me neither. By this point, I was ready to be done with the building process and wanted it all installed. But, there were still three shelving frames to finish.

Which means – on to Step 12.

Steps 12-14 are to build the shallow frames to be used for the shelving side of the closet.

STEP 12: Repeat Steps 1, 2, and 3 (lay out the frame boards, screw them together, install the permanent shelves) above with the 11″ wide boards (J, K, and L). All the permanent shelves in my closet are spaced the exact same distance apart, so the measurements you used earlier will work here too.

STEP 13: Repeat Step 5 above. (install your support boards (M) to the back of the frame)

STEP 14: Repeat Step 6 above. (Staple the paneling to the back)

Now you’re ready to install the frames in your closet! I hope you’ve had as much fun with this build as I did. This was definitely out of my comfort zone, but I absolutely love how it turned out. I’m ready to get my son’s closet in order now, too!

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