Ugly pipes where you least want them? Create some decorative pipe boxing and you’ll never know they were there.
Boxing in is a cheap and simple solution and to make a virtue out of a necessity, you can use it to increase your storage space and actually enhance your decorative scheme.
Boxing in ugly, exposed pipework has plenty going for it: you don’t have to switch off the services; there’s no need to disrupt your home by rerouting them; best of all it’s simple, quick and inexpensive. And if you plan ahead, the simple boxwork construction can turn an eyesore into a decorative feature or blend unobtrusively into the background it’s your choice.
Using the basic boxing-in methods featured in this article, there’s scope for all these things and more. Once you’ve mastered the general idea, adapting the boxwork to fit your requirements becomes easy.
Careful consideration at the planning stage can lessen the visual impact of what is essentially an intrusion. But think carefully about the size of boxwork your space can take – boxing may well be impractical in a small or narrow room.
Measure the distance from the wall that the pipes project and the length of the area that they cover. Take particular notice of fittings like stop valves if you want the box to cover them too, you must provide access for maintenance and servicing.
If you are dealing with water or gas pipes that are close to the wall, decide whether they are small enough to be covered by simple solid boxwork constructions made from standard size softwood boards. If necessary, a visit to your local timber suppliers will tell you what sizes are available. Plan the structure with these in mind to save time.
For hot water pipes, allow for a gap of at least 50mm all round the pipes so that you can insulate them – wasted heat is expensive and will make the boxwork shrink and split. For larger waste pipes or awkward shapes, standard sizes of natural wood will not be large enough – you need to build a framed box. Meters or other plumbing fittings also require access panels and removable panels or doors will affect your design and the materials you need to buy, so make a sketch first.
For either method, consider whether you can disguise the box work by blending it with existing decorations, for example running the floor or wall covering over its surface – or whether the structure could provide a useful shelf, cupboard or extra storage space. The alternative ideas found below suggest decorative ways to extend the basic box work without too much trouble.
What to buy
The materials you need depend on the sizes of the pipes and the area you need to cover.
For solid boxwork, use standard planed-all- round (PAR) softwood boards. These are commonly available in widths from 25mm to 150mm and in thicknesses of 12mm, 19mm and 25mm. 12mm is perfectly adequate for box work – the structure itself increases the rigidity of the board.
If you need larger boards for solid boxes – for example, to span a number of pipes close use 6mm plywood or 12mm to the wall chipboard screwed to wooden sides. It’s cheaper to buy plywood and chipboard in the full sheet size of 2440mm X 1220mm. Some suppliers will be prepared to saw these into strips for you for a small fee.
For the wall fixing, use 25mm x 25mm battens throughout. You don’t need to use planed battens – rough, sawn wood is generally cheaper and it will be completely concealed by the softwood boards anyway, so use these to save money.
On framed boxwork, use 25mm x 25mm battens for the frame too. But if heavy weights have to be supported on the finished structure, use sturdier 25mm x 50mm battens. For the paneling use plywood (6mm, 10mm or, for very large and sturdy structures, 15mm) or chipboard.
You also need an assortment of counter sunk screws and wall plugs – check the wall to see if you need plastic wall plugs or cavity fixings (more below). And if the pipes run to floor level, buy some skirting board to match the existing ones so that you can make the box work less noticeable.
Vertical corner boxes
Cut the 25mm x 25mm battens to run the full length of the pipes you want to box. You need two battens, one for either wall. Screw the solid boards together to form the external corner of the box.
Cut the battens as accurately as you can, if necessary by offering them up to the wall and trimming them to fit. Then use one as a template to cut the wider softwood boards to length.
Hold the cut batten against the board. Align it with the edge, then mark off the place where you need to cut. Extend the mark around the board with a try square to ensure a square end when you saw it to length. Use a 4mm twist drill to make clearance holes in the batten at 300mm intervals.
Nail two offcuts of board together to position the battens accurately. Check with a try square to see that they form a right angle, then place them over the pipes and mark where you need to fit the battens.
Align the battens with your marks, using a spirit level to ensure that they are upright. Mark through the clearance holes onto the walls with a pencil or nail. Drill holes with a No. 8 masonry drill (a 4mm twist drill for hollow walls) at these points.
Insert wall plugs or cavity fixings, then attach the battens with 50mm No. 8 screws.
Test fit the boards. If the wall is uneven, shape the boards to take up the irregularities (see dealing with uneven walls). If you need to provide access to stop valves or similar fittings, mark and cut a section from the board at the appropriate place and attach the three pieces separately.
Drill 4mm countersunk clearance hole at 350mm intervals to join the boards to the battens.
Drill similar holes on the opposite side of the overlapping board so that you can screw it to the other.
Screw the boards in place with 25mm No. 6 screws.
1. Use offcuts to mark where to fit battens
2. Level, then mark positions for wall plugs
3. Shape the boards, then screw them to the battens. Fix one to the edge of the other
Three sided boxes
Use a three-sided box to cover pipes that run down the middle of a wall. Fit battens to the wall on either side of the pipes, using the same fixing method as that used for corner boxes, then attach sides and a solid or ply. wood facing board.
If the distance to be spanned is less than 150mm, use a softwood board for the facing board. Attach one batten to the wall first, then shape and attach the adjoining side board. Place an offcut of the facing board against this and mark the wall on the other side of the pipes to indicate where to fit the second batten. Mark the wall at a number of points so that the facing board fits.
Use a combination square to extend the edge of the facing board offcut to the appropriate points on the wall.
The blade can be adjusted to project the required amount. Otherwise, nail an offcut of the side board to one of the facing boards and use this as a marking guide instead.
Drill and attach the second batten. Cut and shape the side board (see Basics: Dealing with uneven walls) then drill and screw it to the batten with 25mm No. 6 screws.
Drill countersunk clearance holes in the facing board; afterwards, screw it to the edges of the side boards. If necessary, cut it into sections to give access to the pipes beneath and attach each piece separately.
1. Fit one side, mark the other with offcuts
2. Face wide boxes with chipboard or plywood
Most walls are far from being perfectly flat, so you need to know how to shape boards to fit.
Shape the ends first. Hold a try square flat against the back wall and slide it into the corner. If there is a gap between the blade and the wall, the end must be cut to fit this shape.
A tool called a sliding bevel is ideal for the job. This is like a try square, but with an adjustable blade. Alter the blade’s angle to fit the corner, then tighten it. Use it like a try square.
If you don’t own a sliding bevel, cut a sheet of card
Cut card to fit the shape. Use it as a template to fit the corner. Use this as a template to mark the end of the board with the correct angle.
Now fit the cut board against the wall so you can mark and shape its long edge.
Hold it against both the wall and the fixing batten at the same time. Check its alignment with a spirit level. Clamp or temporarily nail it to the batten.
To mark the profile of the wall on to it, cut a piece of wood to fit the largest gap between the board and the wall. Hold pencil against this wooden block, then slide it down the wall marking.
Box in horizontal pipes using the three-sided method but include battens at either end to prevent the structure from sagging.
Drill and attach battens to the wall, using offcuts of the boards to locate their positions. Treat pipes at the corner of a ceiling as you would for any other corner, and fix the batten to the ceiling as you would on a hollow wall – by screwing to the timber joists or by using cavity fixings. Use offcuts to mark where to put the ceiling and wall battens.
Mark the boards to fit uneven walls as shown
Shape the boards to your marks with a planer and file the board as you go. Trim down to the mark with a plane or planer file to make a neat fit.
Locate the ceiling joists by tapping the ceiling with your fist – a dull thud indicates the general position. Drill small exploratory holes behind the marked line to make sure – the rest are probably at 400mm or 450mm intervals.
Use the same offcuts as before to mark where to put side support battens. Hold an offcut of the 25mm x 25mm batten against the marks you have made, mark it, then cut it to length. Attach it to the wall with screws and wall plugs or cavity fixings.
- Cut and shape the boards and screw them to the battens in the same way.
2. Horizontal ceiling boxes are like corner boxes insert a side support batten too
3. For horizontal pipes in the middle of the wall, fit side support battens to each end of each board to stop the box from sagging
Skirting board pipework
Pipes that run along skirting boards are easy to box in. Measure the skirting board, then buy ordinary planed boards of the same size to use as a facing board.
For the top board, use any board of appropriate width. If the pipes carry hot water, allow a 50mm gap around the pipes so that you can add loose-fill glass fibre insulation.
Nail an offcut of the facing board to an offcut of the top board, then use this to mark where to put the 25mm x 25mm floor batten.
Drill and attach the floor batten against the marks you have made. Cut and shape the facing board, then drill 4mm countersunk clearance holes along its bottom edge to secure it to the floor batten. Do this with 25mm No. 6 screws at 300mm intervals and on either side of any access panels.
1. Use offcuts of the boards to mark the position of the batten on the floor
Lay the top board against the skirting board on one side and the facing board on the other. If necessary, mark it to fit the uneven- ness of the wall, then cut it to shape.
When pipes change direction and run up, for example, into radiators mark the lines for the width of the pipes on the edge of the board. Follow by measuring the distance they project from the wall, then mark notches to this depth. Saw down the first two marks, and chopout with a chisel.
Drill 3mm countersunk clearance holes at 350mm intervals along both edges of the board. Screw it to the skirting board and to the facing board with 25mm No. 6 screws.
Framed box work
For framed boxwork, you need to cut four rails from the 25mm x 25mm battens; they span the area of the boxwork and are all the same length. Cut one to size, then use this as a template for the rest.
If your battens are not long enough, hold two together against the back wall and slide them apart until they touch both side walls. Mark one where you need to cut, then use them together as a template.
Cut the struts for the top frame first. Allow for the thickness of the front and back rails, then measure how long they should be to clear the pipes and fittings. Cut enough to fit one every 450mm along the rails.
Mark where you need to fit the struts to the rails, spread woodworking adhesive on the ends of the struts, then fix them to the rails with 50mm oval nails.
Nail and glue the middle struts only to the rails, then test-fit the frame. If necessary, adjust the length of the rails to fit exactly before adding the side struts.
Drill 4mm countersunk clearance holes through the back rails and the side struts (for hollow walls, drill them where you can screw into the the timber frame behind the surface of the wall). Position the frame and level it up, then mark the fixing positions on the wall.
Drill and insert wallplugs, then screw the Position of the two remaining rails together on the floor and mark a batten with the length you need to cut the struts. Build the second frame in the same way but this time screw it to the rail of the top frame and the floor, using a spirit level to check that it is upright.
Cut the plywood to fit the shape of the walls (see Basics: Dealing with uneven walls). Allow an overlap on the top to cover the edge.
Here’s a simple way to box in larger pipes and fittings: it can be used with equal ease on both vertical and horizontal pipes.
Two frames – long rails, nailed and glued to short struts of 25mm x 25mm battens make up the basic structure. Struts are spaced at 450mm intervals and on either side of an access panel.
The top frame is screwed to the wall through the back rail and the side struts. The front frame is screwed to the floor and the uppermost rail of the top frame.
Both frames are covered with 6mm plywood or 12mm chipboard. Access to stop valves is provided by cutting the plywood above the struts and screwing the sections separately to the frame. Meters need similar access. If you intend to tile over the boxwork, adjust the size of the access panel – and the position of the struts to correspond to the size of a number of whole tiles. When you tile over it, don’t grout the joints where the panel finishes. This way, you can lift off the panel without disturbing the tiles.
If the boxwork is intended to carry heavy weights, the size of the battens and the thickness of the plywood or chipboard can be increased
Drill 4mm countersunk clearance holes along the edges at 350mm intervals. Screw the plywood to the frame with 25mm No. 6 screws or pin it with 10mm panel pins.
For lift-off access panels in the top frame, pin beading to the underside of the panel to prevent it slipping off. Make the beading fractionally shorter than the struts.
1. Nail and glue the struts to the rails at 450mm intervals and on either side of fittings that need access
2. Level and fit the top frame first. Screw to the wall through the back rail and sides
3. Level and fit the top frame in the same way. Fix it to the top frame and floor, then cover both surfaces with 6mm plywood. Screw the plywood to the frame with small screws 4. For top access panels, pin beading to the underside to keep it in place.
Finishing off your boxing in
The art of finishing boxwork is to reduce its visual impact.
If it is a fairly low construction, painting it to match the existing skirting boards will help it to blend in. Fill all gaps and holes with one part fine surface filler, then sand down and apply a primer. Sand down again to make a really smooth base for the finish coat.
Alternatively, finish low boxwork with the same material used for the floor. This is particularly effective in bathrooms and kitchens, where boxing can be made to look like a deliberate design feature.
Higher boxwork can often be concealed with wall tiles. As long as the access panels match the joints in the tiles, they can still be removed for maintenance work. In the bathroom, the boxwork often looks best if it is extended into a shelf structure and covered with ceramic tiles.
Boxing surfaced with chipboard may be difficult to paint smoothly. If necessary, sand and fill the whole panel (except for the screw heads on removable panels) to get a really professional finish.
Wallpapering box work is not usually a good idea it makes access difficult and tends to come away at the edges. But in certain cases it can be effective, particularly with a wide, flat box.
Adapting the box work Without changing the construction of the basic box work types, you can adapt them to match other fittings in the room and provide useful storage space and decorative features.
Overlapping one side of a corner box creates a convenient ‘alcove’ in which to fit small shelves. Backed by mirror tiles, this creates the illusion that the shelves run from the front to the back of the wall. The same can be done to three-sided boxes by extending the two side panels forward.
Alternatively, adding a further vertical box and stretching shelves between the two makes the structure seem like an integrated design feature.
An upstanding front edge on horizontal boxwork allows it to double up as a con- venient plant holder. If you plan the sizes carefully, you can make the box large enough to accept standard size plant pots or plastic troughs. And if you face it with cork, or even simply paint it, few people should guess the true reason why it’s there.