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When IKEA Is Great For DIY... And When It Isn't

IKEA is a popular choice for furniture that’s easy to assemble and affordable. What IKEA isn’t, however, is a hardware store. We love good IKEA hacks as much as the next person, but there are times when IKEA is a good place for DIY projects and other times when it’s really not. Here’s how to tell.

IKEA is great. You can argue about its durability or when it’s worth it at all to buy cheap furniture, but the company doesn’t stay in business because its furniture build quality and design are awful. That said, it’s no panacea. IKEA furniture can fit a lot of shapes and spaces, but it’s not the same as raw materials, and it often costs more than just getting the raw materials for your DIY project. Sometimes, it’s just cheaper and more efficient to go to Bunnings and buy some wood, paint, nails and go to work.

When IKEA Is a Great Option for DIY

There are some times when IKEA is a perfect fit for your DIY projects. Here are some examples:

  • When the price is right. IKEA isn’t always the cheapest option, but if you can make the item you want using affordable IKEA parts as opposed to spending more on the raw materials, IKEA is a good option. This only really works when you’re building simple things though, like shelves, tables, desks or organisational household items — things that IKEA already does well, just tweaked to fit your needs.
  • When what you want to make can be made from flexible components. Some IKEA products are used more often than others in those DIY projects. The LACK series of tables and shelves and the EXPEDIT storage system are two prime examples of affordable, customisable products that can be used as blank slates, affordable raw materials to build something greater than the designers intended, or a series of products that can be mixed and matched to create new and interesting furniture.
    We’ve seen an awesome bar made from EXPEDIT components, an EXPEDIT reception counter and storage wall, even an EXPEDIT breakfast bar/desk, all from essentially the same parts. Some of IKEA’s components are more flexible in that regard than others, and a combination of a LACK table and adjustable VIKA KAJ legs means you can build just about any flat surface you need, like these speaker stands, for example.
  • When you don’t have special tools or space to do a lot of DIY work. Apartment dwellers, roommates and people who live in small or constrained spaces (or people who don’t have or don’t know how to use power tools) gravitate to IKEA hacking because, well, you can use the tools that come with the stuff you buy, and it all just works well together. After all, if you don’t have space for drilling and sawing and painting, it makes sense to find something that approximates what you need and can be tweaked to fit your needs.
  • When someone else has already made what you want. The beauty of the IKEA hacks we’ve featured and things you’ll see at IKEA Hackers is that if someone else has made what you want and you really like it, you can just duplicate what they’ve done without needing plans and measurements. You can just go buy the products, assemble them the way they did and be done with it. It’s simple but admittedly not terribly customisable.
  • When you don’t care about long-term durability. Let’s face it, IKEA isn’t exactly built to be handed down to your kids. Sure, if you take good care of your things, they will last a long time, and IKEA furniture is no exception to the rule, but most of it is particleboard, aluminium screws and wooden dowels. Full IKEA setups like kitchens and organisational systems are a different story, but bookshelves, desks and beds? Not so much. If you know you’re moving soon, don’t have the budget for hardwood or something more expensive that might last longer, or you want to save a few bucks but still get something that works well, heading to IKEA is a great option. If you don’t find something that works outright, you can find something that can be made to work.

There are likely some other examples of when IKEA is a good option too, like when what you want is essentially already an IKEA product, it just needs a little work to fit where you want it to go, or do what you want it to do. IKEA is also a great option if you’re just getting into DIY, and, as we mentioned, you’re not comfortable with, have access to or space to use nailguns, table saws or a few buckets of paint.

When You Should Just Go to The Hardware Store

Now that we’ve established when IKEA is a good idea, let’s discuss when it really isn’t. There are plenty of examples too — not necessarily IKEA projects gone wrong, but times when you could have made the same thing (sometimes for less) with better materials, raw materials, or more time and effort.

  • When you know how to use proper tools. Or better put, you’re in a better position to know when IKEA is a good or bad option for your DIY project when you know how to use proper tools. If you can look at an EXPEDIT-hacked bar and think to yourself “I could make that on my own with better wood, probably bigger, and put in some racks for wine glasses in an afternoon or two”, then you’re qualified to skip IKEA and head to Bunnings. You probably already know it.
  • When you have access to better (or more functional) tools. You don’t have to have a garage full of woodworking tools and heaps of space to spread out to make your own desks, tables, nightstands or other furniture. Lifehacker reader zakany001 recently told me about the Kreg Jig, and once you have one and learn to use it, you can make just about anything IKEA can sell you on your own — he has the finished projects to prove it. You’ll have to get your own wood, paint your own stuff and measure/cut it yourself, but you’ll end up with a better product. If you have access to real home improvement tools, you probably don’t need to fiddle with allen keys and mismatched screws.
  • When personalisation and customisation are key. IKEA is great for a lot of things, but fitting a specific space isn’t one of them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve measured a space and gone to IKEA to find out that similar objects to the one I want just don’t come in that size or shape. Ultimately, if you need something specific to your home or your needs, you might be better off making it yourself, unless, as we mentioned, it’s easily built from something else — even then, you may be spending more to hack something IKEA made than you would spend building your own. This brings us to the next point.
  • When IKEA’s prices don’t match up with material costs. IKEA is known for great prices, and they say that’s because you put everything together yourself, but there are some IKEA products that are very obviously more expensive than the value of the materials you get in the box. Some of IKEA’s desks, kitchen storage systems and other office furniture are prime examples of this. Take a look at this door stop monitor stand. At IKEA in Australia, it will set you back at least $50. Now look at this shelf at Bunnings for $9.90. See the similarities? You could get the same shelf — in different colours so it matches your desk — for a fraction of the price of the IKEA hacked version, and it comes with the benefit of not having to actually go to IKEA. Will it be more work? Definitely. However, it will cost you less, use stronger materials and be a perfect fit. Watch out for where IKEA marks up its items just because they can.
  • When it needs to last, or you need to use a non-standard wood, metal or other special material. Some materials you just won’t find at IKEA. Solid or hard wood, heavy tempered glass or stronger metals just aren’t available. Part of it is because those materials are expensive, but part of it is because there’s no reason for IKEA to make solid wood desks when they can make 10 particle board desks for the same price and sell them to people who don’t really care. If you have demanding tastes or needs, you might want to pick up a hammer (or find someone else who can help you).

Some of the trouble with IKEA products isn’t that they’re overpriced or underwhelming as raw materials, but just that they’re not practical for the application they’re being used in. For example, if you need a case for your Raspberry Pi, an IKEA PRUTA works, but is it really the best option? If that’s what you want though, couldn’t you use any Tupperware container?

Other examples are clearly great for the person who made the item, and we definitely applaud their creativity, but they still leave us scratching our heads as to why someone would do it in the first place.

In any event, a good IKEA hack can turn a cheap, pre-made piece of furniture into something perfect for your needs, and save you the time and energy needed to build something. At the same time, doing so strips you of the ability to create something unique, control the materials, and really learn the ins and outs of DIY. Before you assume IKEA is a furniture hacker’s haven, you should make sure it’s the best place to make your specific idea come to life. Sometimes it’s a windfall, but other times you should head to the hardware store, talk to an expert and start from scratch.

Pictures: Timothy Krause/Flickr, Robert/Flickr, Christian Delbert/Flickr