Everything you need to know about buying (and installing) an IKEA closet system

Attempting to install a PAX closet system? Avoid divorce court and a raging headache with these expert tips.
Before you even open the IKEA planner (or take pencil to paper), spend some time in the space where the system is going, and measure, measure, measure.
Before you even open the IKEA planner (or take pencil to paper), spend some time in the space where the system is going, and measure, measure, measure. IKEA
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By Dana McMahan

If you've spent five minutes on the internet looking at closet solutions you've seen IKEA PAX. The enormously popular closet system is a Pinterest champ, and for good reason: it's far more affordable than custom, looks great, and can be endlessly tweaked to exactly what buyers need.

I recently joined the fan club as a PAX buyer, and made it my business to learn everything I could about the closets before hitting the "order" button, and am here to share what I learned along the way.

Meet the experts: Justin McMahon is IKEA's Senior Sales Leader for Bedroom Storage; Mayra Perdomo builds IKEA closets for TaskRabbit; and designer and blogger Erin Kestenbaum hacked one of the most beautiful IKEA closets you've probably seen online.

Armed with all the intel I gathered from these pros, I set about designing a two-wardrobe system for my husband. We live in an 1887 home that contains all of two closets and his minuscule reach-in closet with one rod and a shelf — in the corner of the laundry room because: Victorian — was long overdue for an overhaul.

An IKEA PAX wardrobe system without doorsIKEA

Get some Advil (or bourbon) and fire up the planner

The online planner is marvelous. The online planner is maddening. The idea is wonderful: You design your dream closet, moving things around and customizing to your heart's content. But here's the reality. It's overwhelming because when you can do anything, what do you do? More frustrating is the system itself. It's a little twitchy and not at all the sleek, contemporary user experience you'd expect from IKEA of all companies. The headbanging my husband would have later during the real-world build was just his fair share of what I experienced building online.

You don't have to give yourself a headache though. Kestenbaum gave up on the planning tool and used good old fashioned graph paper to design her system. (If you go this route, download or print the buying guide to get all the specs you'll need.) However, you'll still have to create your closet in the planner once you know what you want in order to generate your shopping list or your order.

Measure twice, order once

Before you even open the planner (or take pencil to paper), spend some time in the space where the system is going, and measure, measure, measure. This is crucial, Kestenbaum said. They learned the hard way after planning two walls of full-depth units.

“In the tool it looked like we had enough clearance,” she said. “Once we got the units on both sides we got kind of claustrophobic.” IKEA staff told her this happens all the time, she said. The couple had to pivot to the shallower depth frames. (They come in 13¾" or 22⅞ deep; in widths between 19⅝" and 39¼; and heights of 79¼" and 93⅛".)

Channel your inner Marie Kondo

It helps with the overwhelming bit of planning if you can think about what you have — and do a good purge of your existing closet. I had gone through a real-deal closet clean-out with a stylist a while back, so took my husband through a very mini version of that exercise. Then we took stock of what was left, eyeballing it. Kestenbaum took it a step further with her husband. “We sat down with an Excel spreadsheet,” she said, detailing everything they wanted to store. Then they negotiated what should hang, what should go in a drawer, and what could go on a shelf. I took a tip from her there: “You always think you need so much hanging space,” she said, but “at the end of the day realistically you don't.”

Since we were going with doors-off, I filled the frames with as many drawers as would fit below a clothes rail in each one. A clever feature of the planning tool is that it shows what you can hang as you add and remove drawers, so you'll be able to see exactly how many you can stack before running out of room for hanging clothes.

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One more tip from Kestenbaum: “I was trying to be cognizant that drawers aligned at the same place,” (from one unit to the next) she said, because “looking at custom closets a lot of them do.” So I placed drawers and trays at the same level in both our units and it really does give it a more polished look.

You can order online, but a pilgrimage to IKEA is a good idea

You can order everything online and have it delivered, McMahon said. And I considered it; the nearest IKEA is a 90-minute drive. But I really just needed to see what we were getting in real life. And I'm glad we made the trip. Yes, it was great looking at closets and how they were designed (and if you live close enough and have the fortitude make two IKEA trips I'd suggest doing a preliminary trip to scout for ideas). But the real help came from the IKEA team member who helped us.

By now you'll likely have designed your closet system and held onto the several digit code the planning tool generates. (More than 90 percent of buyers already have at least some idea of what they want when they come in, McMahon said. And there's not a design service — at least not yet — as there is with kitchen cabinets.) The team member will pull it up on their computer and review everything with you, making sure you don't have anything weird going on, and making suggestions for improvements. After the (many) hours I'd spent in the planner it was gratifying to hear her say my design was well-done. But she still had a couple tweaks, like glass shelves over the pull out drawers to keep out dust, and the lights you can mount inside the top of the cabinet (well worth the extra expense!).

But we also found out some unpleasant news. We'd planned to hire someone through IKEA to build the closets for us. Some 80 percent of customers do, McMahon said. But: if we did the online order with delivery and assembly through IKEA, the builders would require that our baseboards be cut out where the closet was going. Wait, what? The original trim on our Victorian isn't negotiable so that ruled that out.

I followed up with McMahon later by email and he confirmed. “With all clothing storage, IKEA requires them to be attached to the wall,” he wrote. “Unlike other wall anchor brackets for IKEA products, the PAX brackets require them to be mounted flush against the wall for the most support (fully loaded with clothing these units can be very heavy.) For this reason the baseboards need to be removed before install.”

Well, sometimes in old houses with plaster walls that crumble when you hang TVs on them (another hard lesson) you have to do what you have to do. We opted not to anchor ours to the walls (being a home without children, we're willing to take that risk). “We are looking for more/better ways to communicate this to our potential customers,” McMahon said. But IKEA, if you're listening, I'd put that requirement somewhere unmissable well before customers have completed the purchase.

The big question: DIY or hire it out?

There's a reason Taskers like Perdomo can make a living building IKEA furniture. If you've ever attempted your own assembly you don't need me to tell you about the frustration factor. I feared we'd end up divorced if we tried to assemble it ourselves (and in fact, Perdomo said she can always tell if a couple is going to stay together when she sees how they deal with an IKEA assembly). But the whole baseboard issue nixed that so it was up to us.

If you opt to hire a pro, you're buying yourself time. For the average person it takes about five and a half hours, Perdomo said, while it takes her or another pro an hour and a half to two hours. Unless you're doing sliding doors, that is. “If it's a sliding door it doesn't matter who you are it's going to take five hours!” she said. Pricing varies, but when I looked locally, hourly rates hovered in the mid 20s to mid 30s per hour.

If you choose the, shall we say, adventurous route, Perdomo offered this advice: “Make sure you take everything out of the boxes including nuts and bolts and break them into little sections so you can see everything.” I would add to that: print your order list and match up the part numbers to the corresponding boxes; just stick a post-it on each box with a note on what's inside. Some of our part numbers didn't match up from order to box even though the parts were right, and if I'd thought to label things earlier it would have saved untold frustration.

Head to YouTube if you're DIYing it

I scoured YouTube for videos, and by far the most helpful (and weird!) I found, and the one we used featured a scantily clad Swedish couple (you can't make this up). I'd suggest watching it before you start, and then using it to follow along to check your work. For the most part I stayed out of the way while my husband did the assembly. He has way more experience and skill than I do in building things so I was content to lean on gender stereotypes this time, especially since I was nursing an injury and not of much help anyway.

His feedback on the seven and a half hour build? “The quality is good,” he said, “It feels sturdy. I thought it might come with more pegs and glue. I'm pleasantly surprised that it's done with locking screw devices. But be careful with tools around any finished areas. I tapped a side of a drawer with a screwdriver and it chipped. It won't take much.” And when you use a drill for the shelf brackets, he noted, “have it on a low torque setting or you can damage the wood.”

And the final result? He proclaimed it a “wall of luxury.” And indeed it looks like a wall in a boutique — and is a vast improvement over the earlier situation.

But wait, you can hack it

We stopped at out-of-the-box, but you don't have to. Kestenbaum and her husband transformed their basic build to a glamorous dressing room. What's their trick? Well, they did a few things. OK, kind of a lot.

“We went to town with the trim,” she said, adding baseboard and crown molding to make it look built-in, and “trim on the outside to make it look like it's been there forever. It didn't add much more expense but it did add effort, but it was worth it.”

They also primed and painted everything (which, she said, she'd do before building if she were to do it again.) They refaced the fronts and sides of the wardrobe units with wood strips, added wood drawer fronts, and plugs to cover the unused shelving holes, and recessed puck lights. She also wallpapered the back panel to hide the MDF, and added nice hardware. And they replaced the clothes bar with an inexpensive wood dowel rod from Home Depot that they stained. So basically, every last detail was touched.

Designer and blogger Erin Kestenbaum added baseboard and crown molding to make their IKEA closets look built-in.Courtesy of Erin Kestenbaum

Last words of adviceJust like somehow there are always a few parts left after an assembly (that's not just us, right?) I have a few more bits of wisdom to share. Wear very comfortable shoes to IKEA because there's no way you can only go to the PAX section (ha!). Know your IKEA Family number so you can get on their WiFi (your phone data may no work in the cavern). Eat first. Bring water, and maybe a snack. (These last three apply for assembly, too!) And may the force be with you.

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