Closet "Fit and Finish"

What kind of precision is expected in closet shelving? Should shelves be scribed to fit? May 6, 2009

I recently built and installed my first custom (melamine) closet. I've built and installed plenty of wood closets as a trimmer, where the painter would come behind to caulk and finish. Typically, the framing was okay, so I never needed to scribe shelf boards, etc. in order for the painter to make it look good. I also didn't have vertical dividers right up against walls, so I didn't have to worry about gaps there.

So I built this closet in the shop and assembled it in the field. When I took my measurements, the closet was mostly demoed (no sheetrock, and I was stepping over debris to pull measurements), so I didn't have any idea how out of square, level, and plumb this small space was. Anyway, a seven foot run was out of square by at least 1", out of level by at least 3/4", and the sheetrock concaved by 3/8" over an 8' ceiling (meaning my vertical dividers touched the rock at the top and bottom, but there was a 3/8" gap in the middle). Worse yet, the customer had specified floor to ceiling dividers with no backs.

Installation was a bear, but in order to get my parts square and level (and all of the adjustable shelves to line up), I was left with considerable gaps anywhere the boards touched a wall. I ended up fabricating some scribe strips to hide these voids and caulked everywhere these strips contacted a wall.

Overall, it looks pretty good, but the remodeling contractor is a little sour. I don't have any history with him, but he told the kitchen designer that hired me that he would have scribed every panel to fit. Are real closet companies scribing panels to fit?

The contractor and designer were originally going to order parts from somewhere else and have me install it. I talked them into letting me build and install it instead. Knowing now the poor conditions of the walls and floor, I don't know how I could have made it look any better without my improvised scribe strips. I'm pretty sure they weren't on the order form from the other supplier.

Any thoughts? I guess I could have scribed each panel to fit, but in order to get everything square, I would have had to shorten shelf depth and taper the rears. Besides, I really don't think most (90%) builders/installers would do this. As it was, I spend 2.5 days building and 2.5 days installing. Installation was hampered some because it was in a high-rise and our cutting area was a 4x10 observation deck. What would you have done?

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Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor R:
I would have built them in euro boxes with backs using end scribe to fix out of plumb walls, etc.

From contributor K:
Most commercial type work shuns the use of trims and prefers everything to be scribed to fit. I agree with the post above. Use backs with cleats that hold the case work off the wall - it helps with the concave problem. At walls and finished ends, let the panels run long and scribe to the wall. If you set toe kicks for the boxes in a few inches, you can use a 1/4" melamine skin to cover them after you shim. This is much easier than scribing a cabinet to the floor. Commercial work is all about contingency. We allow for other trades' slop.

Also, if you can't get by with using backs at your cabinets, a toggle type bolt through the nailer and rock will pull the rock to the cabinet a bit, making caulk joints look more acceptable.

From the original questioner:
Interesting about the toggle bolt. I was getting pretty far off the wall trying to keep everything square, so this would have only helped in a short section. I would have had to hang the rock on the back of the closet boards in order to keep the whole run tight. Thanks.

From contributor I:
I do custom closets every day and that job would have been half day in shop, half day install, and it would have adjustable shelves and a very nice look. It all relates to the use of 32 mm system and suspension brackets.

From contributor B:
The key word here is "closet." It doesn't fit, trim, or cost what other cabinets in the house do. A good system with suspension fittings and rails would have, as contributor I said, taken only a few hours to install. If the customer wanted cabinets in the closet, I'd do as contributor R suggested and build euro boxes. I would not have cut anything on the job except scribe strips.

From the original questioner:
So do you use some sort of scribe strips? I'm interested to know what real closet guys do along the face of the 3/4" divider that is up against a wall. If suspended, do you shim to make plumb, or just leave it flat against the wall? If you shim, how do you cover the gap along the ends (if these are in view)?

Just for the record, the closet was designed and sold before I was involved. I would have much preferred to use a suspension system and/or build them as boxes with backs, but these were not options. The designer knows better for next time. I had to do some extra work to make it look good and now I'm just interested to know what real closet guys do in situations similar to mine.

From contributor P:
The "real closet guys" that I encounter are of the "slam and run" variety, and caulking/scribing isn't a part of their job description. Their stuff fits okay, works fine, and gets filled with clothes. Very different from a custom shop's approach.

From contributor I:
Real closet guys know that each job requires a different level of finish work - and charge based on the customer's needs. In high end jobs we scribe around. I have never scribed to the back walls and would never do it - if they needed that kind of detail, I would add backs to eliminate the gaps.

I apply the scribe on the surface of the vertical - overlap by 1/4" or so. Same on the vertical against the back wall after plumbing the units.

I would be cautious about getting into too many of these jobs using your current approach. Most people who want custom closets want them to look like those in their last house (or in their friend's house) and will be disappointed in this product. And the closet guys can do it at a lower cost. I have gotten calls from people who had trim carpenters do their closets, asking if I would come and fix them.

In my book there are three types of closets: builder's closets, custom melamine, and cabinet grade. I do melamine, not because I can't do the higher grade, but because I'm not in this to make beautiful cabinets, I'm in it to make money.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the info and cautionary advice. Fortunately, this was a learning experience for the designer and I, and we're both better prepared to direct the customer's choices should something like this come up again. This client is super detailed and discriminating, so the remodeling contractor, designer, and myself are just making sure everything looks finished before she returns (she's in CA for the winter). None of this will really matter when she fills it with clothes, but she'll see it empty first, so everything needs to look finished.

There was a lot more to my build time and installation time than I've previously revealed. Since I'm obviously not set up to run closets, I used an iron to band all of the edges. I built a 36" x 84" stand-alone shoe rack and the rest of the closet was around 14/lf. Everything was in a high-rise and I was forced to use the freight elevator. I guesstimated that I spent 4-5 hours unloading and loading in two days. The contractor also scheduled the tile guy the same day as us, so I had to work around him since he had to walk through the closet to get to the bathroom. The homeowner had also requested adjustable, pull-out shelves (seen in the bottom of the picture below) so I had to band a bunch of little parts. I went through almost 500' of banding. I had to put up peg board (special request) and spent a lot of time scribing, crowning, pudding, and caulking (not part of the original plan).

Please don't be too quick to judge. It goes without saying that most guys are jumping on every job they can get, so unless I get a bail out, I'll gladly accept more closet work (and use what I learned from this experience). The price I had to meet was less, not more, than other closet companies, and I think I delivered a comparable product that met all of the specifications requested by my client. I think this is more custom than most products delivered by real closet companies.

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From contributor I:
Sorry if I underestimated the quality of your work - based on the second picture, it looks comparable to our stuff. I hope you got paid for all the extras. It's true that in this economy, we have to do what is needed to keep working, even if it's out of our normal scope.