Space-Saving Furniture: Make Your House Feel Bigger

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A drop-down table, storage bench and shelves are space-saving features that improve the livability of this 140-square-foot home in Snohomish, Washington.
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Chris and Malissa Tack live in this 140-square-foot tiny home in Snohomish, Washington.
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Murphy beds fold up behind shelves or inside cabinets when not in use, creating efficient, multipurpose rooms, such as in this Washington, D.C., apartment.
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The cabinet at right conceals a fold-down Murphy bed to quickly convert this small living space into a bedroom.
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Empty walls can be put to work with space-saving furniture, such as this drop-front desk from
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Shelving offers opportunities for both storage and display, and packs a lot of function into a small space in this 648-square-foot home in Franklin, Maine.
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Sleeping, dining and cooking each has its place in this cozy log-cabin room.

Efficient home design will never go out of style because of a condition that prevails in most households: The amount of stuff coming in exceeds the amount of stuff going out. Clutter is especially problematic in small homes or apartments, where it can build up rapidly and defeat the efficiency of small-space living. The solutions are to reduce the number of objects you own and use specially designed small-space furniture to better organize what you keep.

Home Storage Solutions

The following five-part plan is based on my years of experience finding extra storage space for clients, most of whom were challenged by tight budgets. Every one of these steps can help declutter your home and solve your storage and organization problems.

1. Multiply Your Multipurpose Rooms

Getting double duty from a single room makes a huge difference in any size of house. Some of the best space-saving furniture to help you create multipurpose rooms was designed and built hundreds of years ago, when living spaces were really small. The drop-leaf table is an excellent example. This classic convertible can be a freestanding piece of furniture, or designed to attach to the wall (see Image Gallery). Either way, the table takes up little space in its dormant mode. But a living room becomes a dining room when the leaves are extended.

You can add an office to any room with the right piece of furniture. Locating a drop-front desk in a corner gives you a small office that can be closed up easily when the room is needed for other purposes. Even better, a wall-mounted drop-front desk folds up into a small, inconspicuous cupboard (see Image Gallery). And a desk on wheels can be pushed out of the way when not in use.

Multipurpose rooms can be created anywhere in the house using furniture for small spaces. If recessed into a wall, an ironing-board cabinet takes up no space at all when it’s not in use, but quickly folds down when needed. One of the most dramatic ways to get double duty out of a room is to install a Murphy bed — a bedstead that folds up into a cabinet when it’s not being slept in. Basically, you construct a recess that holds and hides the bed by building cabinets or shelves that are installed against a wall. A friend and I installed a Murphy bed a couple of years ago in a tiny room that needed to be a home office as well as an occasional bedroom. The special hardware required to counterbalance the weight of the bed isn’t cheap (about $200 for a single bed; see “Space-Saving Furniture Plans” later in this article), but it’s important for safety, and it comes with easy-to-follow instructions.

2. Closet Makeover

Pack more into your closets with low-cost makeover techniques. The standard closet treatment — a single, eye-level clothes pole with a shelf above — only makes sense in an entry-hall closet where long coats, boots, and maybe an umbrella or two are stored. This configuration wastes valuable space in a bedroom closet, where shirts and pants folded over hangers don’t require long vertical storage space. That’s why placing clothes poles at different levels is better, creating two tiers where there used to be one. Most people also need some shelf space in their closets for shoes, sweaters and T-shirts.

Closet-makeover companies charge a small fortune to reconfigure closets. You can complete your own makeover for a surprisingly low cost using closet poles stocked by any building supply outlet. “Stack” the poles in your closet using a clearance of 36 to 38 inches, making sure the lower pole is at least 40 inches above the floor. This reconfiguration will probably free up space for adjustable shelves. The closet shelves I build are basically rectangular boxes made from hardwood plywood (visit How to Build a Box for further instructions). Borrowing details from closet-makeover companies, I make my boxes 14 to 15 inches deep so that clothes-pole holders can be fastened to the boxes’ sides. I drill holes in the sides for shelf supports, and notch the back corner of each side to fit over a horizontal cleat. After the cleat is installed near the top of the wall, one or more boxes can be lifted into place and positioned on the wall to fit your design. For appearance, I recommend finishing off the front edges of all plywood boxes with solid-wood edging or adhesive-backed edging that can be applied with a clothes iron.

3. Find or Build Smart Furniture

As a woodworker, I’m fascinated with furniture design, and the practical New England Yankee in me definitely prefers small-space furniture. With convertible furniture — such as a drop-leaf table or a futon couch that folds out to become a bed — you have the ability to use a room for more than one purpose. Another way furniture can work for you is by providing storage space. The ultimate example of storage furniture is probably a bed frame equipped with large drawers underneath — a great way to store off-season clothes and blankets. You can use a free plan to build a storage bed (see “Space-Saving Furniture Plans,” later in this article, for several options), but this isn’t the only way to exploit the area below your bed. You can also build or buy under-bed boxes that slide in or roll out.

Another space-saving furniture favorite is a bench with an enclosed base and a hinged seat. Whether you’re buying or building this piece of storage furniture, aim for beauty as well as utility. That’s why I like the coffee table I made a few years ago. The cherry top is lovely to look at, and the base’s baskets and cubbyholes store a multitude of board games, magazines and other objects.

4. Ditch the Clutter

It doesn’t make sense to take up valuable storage space with stuff that doesn’t get used on a regular basis. Yet, somehow we manage to clutter up closets, shelves and cabinets with items that only see rare or intermittent use. Solve this problem by separating your dust-collectors into several groups: stuff you use at least once a week, stuff you need to keep but that doesn’t have to be within easy reach, stuff you should just give away, and stuff you can sell. (In fact, you might want to relegate rarely used items to the utility shelves you’ll build in Step 5.)

Decluttering your home isn’t easy, but it’s definitely rewarding. A garage or yard sale can bring in extra money while giving some of your unnecessary items new life in someone else’s house. Another reward, of course, is the extra space you free up in different parts of the house — space you can use to place more deserving items within easy reach.

5. Wall Storage Ideas

Look at your place with fresh eyes to find and exploit new home-storage solutions. Concentrate on empty walls, and remember to consider the basement and garage. Putting bare walls to work can make a huge difference in upping your storage capacity. I’ve come to rely on four different low-cost wall-storage ideas:

Secondhand Cabinets. Habitat for Humanity ReStores, Craigslist and local classified ads are great sources for used cabinets removed during major kitchen remodels. These cabinets make first-class storage furniture in hallways, garages, basements and sheds.

Utility Shelves. For a fast, affordable way to create sturdy and substantial wall storage, you can’t beat using the heavy-duty, steel shelf standards and brackets available at home centers and hardware stores. Don’t be tempted to buy small, ready-made shelf units when you can easily custom-build large shelves to fit your exact space. When planning to build your own utility shelves, look for wide standards with double or triple rows of mounting slots, and beefy brackets that are long enough to support a 16-inch-wide shelf. The shelves I put up in my basement using this system were quick and easy to make. The standards mount on a horizontal steel cleat that I installed near the top of the wall. I ripped a 4-by-8 sheet of three-quarters-inch plywood sheathing into three identical 8-foot-long shelves just shy of 16 inches wide, then edged each shelf with 1-by-2 pine strips. The edging stiffens the shelf, hides plywood edges and makes the entire installation look nicer, especially after a coat of semi-gloss enamel.

Peg Racks. I’ve lost count of the peg racks I’ve made as gifts, for my own use and for paying customers. The materials are inexpensive — wooden pegs and a narrow, wooden backer board — and every rack can be custom-sized to fit the wall where you plan to install it. A peg rack is the perfect solution in an entry foyer where there isn’t a closet, or in any house that’s short on closet space. If you prefer, use steel hooks instead of pegs. A spacing of about 4 inches between pegs or hooks works well.

Mantelpiece Shelves. With graceful contours and mitered corners, these distinctive display shelves can make any wall more beautiful while also providing extra storage space for special items. Like a peg rack, this single shelf can be made in any length. I use stock crown molding to make the contoured base for a display shelf; it’s fairly inexpensive and available in different sizes and styles. To cut the mitered corners in the molding, you’ll need a powered miter saw or a hand miter box. Design your display shelf by creating a full-sized cross section. Just cut a thin section from the molding you want to use, place it on graph paper, and fill in the dimensions of the shelf board and filler strip. A wider filler strip or a larger crown molding will enable you to create a wider shelf. Your drawing will also give you the size of the ledger strip used to install the shelf. Screw the ledger to the wall, then fit the shelf over the ledger and hold it in place by driving a couple of screws through the top board and into the ledger. Here are a couple of tips about making these shelves: Always buy a few more feet of molding than you need (in case you have to re-cut your miter joints) and, instead of trying to nail the miter joints together (which is just about impossible to do by hand), use a fast-setting adhesive, such as Gorilla Glue’s Super Glue. Simply apply the glue and hold the joint together for about 20 seconds until the bond hardens.

The bottom line to efficient home design is to declutter and make your rooms do double duty with judicious use of wall space and space-saving furniture. Apply these steps and you’ll soon be living large in a small space.

Space-Saving Furniture Plans

Drop-front desks

Woodworkers Workshop, Drop-Front Desk Downloadable Woodworking Plan.

Designs by Studio C, Free Plans to Build a Napa Style Inspired Fold Down Table.

Ana White, Flip-Down Wall Art Desk.

Drop-leaf tables

MLCS Woodworking, Gate-Leg Drop-Leaf Table Plans.

SKIL, Console Table.

Popular Mechanics, How to Build a Folding Table: Simple DIY Woodworking Project.

Murphy bed plans

Handyman Club, Murphy Bed Projects Plans.

Rockler Woodworking and Hardware, Rockler’s Murphy Bed Plan.

Ana White, Plans: A Murphy Bed You Can Build, and Afford to Build.

Murphy bed hardware

Lee Valley and Veritas, Spring Box Hardware for Fold-Down Beds.

Storage beds

Ana White, King Storage Bed.

Woodgears, Under-Bed Storage Drawers.

Ana White, Storage Daybed.

Storage benches

Handyman Club, Storage Bench Woodworking Plans.

MLCS, Cedar Storage Bench.

Fine Woodworking, Weekend Project: Build an Arts and Crafts Storage Bench.

The Design Confidential, Free DIY Furniture Plans to Build Pottery Barn Inspired Olivia Modular Components — Bench.

Ironing board cabinet

Lee Valley and Veritas, Hide-Away Ironing Board.

Loft and bunk beds

College Bed Lofts, Loft Bed & Bunk Bed Plans.

The Design Confidential, Free Woodworking Plans to Build a Full-Sized Low-Loft Bunk.

Tim Snyder is a green homes expert who’s been writing about carpentry and woodworking for more than two decades. See his blog posts on an array of DIY projects on our website.

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