Project Niagara: Cubby in a Cabinet

A few days ago, when I introduced our new Niagara pop-up (the people in the “know” apparently like to call them simply PUPs), I concluded the post thus:

Being the kind of fellow I am, of course, I’m now looking to start modifying the trailer. Going to start small, I think, by just cutting apart a cabinet or two.

It’s possible that some people out there thought I was joking. Those people, it hardly needs to be said, don’t know me very well.

It wasn’t too long into our maiden voyage of our new tent trailer that I began to frown at a few things that needed improvement in one way or another. One of them was this cabinet:

The Niagara's stock microwave and stereo cabinet. What a waste!

First of all, it’s really strange to me that my PUP has a built-in stereo system, much less a microwave. Setting that aside, though, I kept looking at this cabinet and thinking it was quite a waste of space.  There’s the little storage space at the bottom beside the outside door there, but what’s the rest of this thing doing?  Holding a little stereo and a littler switch?  Egads, what were they thinking?

Right away, I started making plans for some sort of cubby in this space.  My family’s old PUP had a little pocket tray beside the outside door, and it was a great place to put a flashlight, keys, bug spray, maps, and whatever else might otherwise clutter the countertop beside the door. Why Fleetwood/Coleman didn’t incorporate such a thing, I can’t say.  Clearly, though, it needed to be remedied.

First things first, I needed to see what was hidden in the cabinet.  It might have been that it wasn’t really wasted, after all.  Maybe it was hiding some obscure and unsightly piece of equipment.  So I pulled the microwave partially out, and yanked the stereo.  I found nothing but a clutter of wires (for stereo, light switch, and microwave) and empty space.

So I started marking and planning:

You can see I changed my mind on how tall a main hole to make.

My plan was to move the stereo up from its stock position — it made no sense to me that it was down toward the middle of the cabinet wall, when moving it up would make it (and its clock) easier to see from our bunk — and then use the existing stereo hole as the upper left corner of my big cubby hole.  I also ultimately decided to move the switch up about 3/8″ so it fit better with the overall look of the area.  If you try this at home, remember to measure everything multiple times; there’s no “undo” on chopping up cabinetry.

You can see some stray pieces of blue tape on the cabinet corner and then below the big cutout area.  What I’m doing there is figuring out where the bottom of my cubby hole is going to be.  It turns out that the maufacturer had a very nice piece of wood running the whole horizontal length of this cabinet.  I could feel it from the storage area beneath this, and I could see it when I pulled the microwave out a bit.  Using this existing “floor” saved me from doing extra labor and also adding more weight to the trailer. Satisfied with my plan, I cut it all out by drilling holes in the corners and then running between them with a cheap jigsaw.

No turning back now!

This picture gives you a good look of all the wiring (try not to cut it!) and the nice “floor” hidden in here.  I did give some thought to trying to make a deep storage area back behind the microwave, too (yet more wasted space), but I decided I wasn’t up for it.  Besides, the microwave may need that room for cooling.

So how am I going to build this cubby in here?  What am I going to make it out of?  I had some plans, but they involved unfinished particleboard and were admittedly somewhat crude.  Not for the first time, the Wife came to the rescue:

Check out the curb carrion!

See that there to the left?  It’s a drawer she found sitting in a trash pile by the curb. The bottom had fallen out, several of its screws were loose, and the front of it — I suspect this was the reason it was getting trashed — was covered with a child’s doodles in various media.  When I got home from my first day of teaching yesterday, I was honestly surprised to find this thing was sitting in the entryway.  “What’s with the drawer?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.  “One of the neighbors was throwing it out and it seemed like some of the wood was still good.  I thought it might help.”

And so it did, my dear.  It didn’t take but a minute of looking at it to reckon how to stabilize it and convert it into my cubby hole.

The shrunken drawer, ready for installation.

Voila.  What I’ve done is yank the doodled front off the drawer and cut down what had been the bottom and back of it, thus shrinking it from a wide drawer to a narrower one.  It’ll go into the hole in pieces and be assembled in there — since it’s bigger than the opening — but I wanted to be sure it all went together first.

What am I going to put in place of the front?  Well, nothing.  The drawer is going to be flipped up to form my cubby hole.  The old bottom will be the back of the cubby, the old back will be the top, and the old front won’t be needed since it’ll be resting on the cabinet “floor.”  Must admit, I was sorta proud of my cleverness (and grateful to the wife for her curb-watchingness).

Bracing modified to allow passage of wires.

So how to mount the cubby inside the cabinet?  Well, I again tore parts off the old drawer. The little wood brace you see in place here was previously being used to attach one of the sides of the drawer to the front.  I’m going to use it to attach that same side (through the same holes using the same screws) to the cabinet floor.  Ditto for the other side.

I did switch the brace from being on the inside corner of the “drawer” (as it was originally) to being on the outside of my cubby (and thus inside of the cabinet, if you follow me).  This was done for several reasons.  First, it will look cleaner when things are done, since these braces will be hidden behind the “walls” instead of exposed at the base of the cubby.  Second, it will be stronger, since any pressure against the sides of the cubby will press them against these braces; if I’d installed them in the drawer fashion that pressure would be pushing the sides away from the braces and ripping them out.  Third, it will be easier, since the braces will help me square up the cubby and I can now secure it by driving a simple woodscrew from the cubby interior into the brace.

This particular brace pictured here, you can see, had to be modified to allow passage of these wires.  I hadn’t realized where this pass-through was when I made my big cutouts.  If I had, things would be a bit more elegant than this.  That said, I ended up using this minor screw-up to my advantage: once the “wall” of the cubby is in place, the smallest sliver of this hole is still visible. It’s just big enough to act as a drain hole for the whole cubby. Or to sweep debris through into the lower cabinet on the actual floor of the trailer, where it’s easier to clean up. All’s well that ends well.

Always cut away from you, kids.

My cutouts weren’t exactly perfect — I’m not that good at freehanding with a power saw — and I knew I’d want some sort of trim to clean things up regardless.  While I was putting the kids to bed last night, the Wife went to Home Depot and got this cheap plastic trim made for bathroom tile installation.  She thought I might be able to cut out the interior flange and be left with a nice piece of right-angle corner trim.

As you can see, I did just that.  But as it was with the drawer, she was more brilliant than she knew (or maybe she thought of all this and let me discover it myself?).  While I did make finishing trim by cutting out this flange, I also used a bit of the trim with the flange left intact to secure the back of my cubby hole.  You can see this last bit of trim work in the last of these shots of the finished product:

First Niagara modification completed. Got me a cubby by the door!

The wood finish isn't a perfect match, but it isn't eye-catchingly off. And the whole thing is nicely finished.

I really like the depth and size of the completed cubby. It's a far better use of the space!

So that’s it.  One modification down.  Several more to go.

Next up will be adding either storage for the sewer line or some kind of foot-washing system by the front door.

2 Comments

  1. Very, very clever! Looks like you picked up some of that “MacGyverism” from your Father! Good job to Sherry too! It looks great, and will really come in handy for those necessities you mentioned. Love the PUP!

  2. Thanks! We’re really excited about how it turned out.

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