How to Build a Message Center

This cabinet keeps everyone's schedule within easy reach without cluttering up the kitchen

Get organized with this hallway message center. With an erasable calendar, mail bin, shelving, key hooks and corkboards, it’s the perfect spot for keeping track of family activities.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine






$20 - $100

Step 1: Overview

Busy family? If you have trouble keeping track of the kids’ or your spouse’s schedule, and you want to make sure your messages are read, build this simple organizing cabinet. It has an erasable calendar for busy schedules and immediate messages; plenty of cork for photos, invitations, coupons and permission slips; a pull-down door with a notepad for short messages and shopping lists; and storage for a good supply of pens, postage stamps, tissue and other items that usually clutter nearby table tops. It also has hooks for keys and shallow bins for magazines, mail, dog leashes, address books and homework (completed, no doubt!).

We designed this cabinet to slip back into the wall between empty stud spaces, so you won’t bump it as you go by and knock stuff off the board. And the closed doors keep most of the clutter out of sight.

The message center fits inside a standard interior wall, which is usually constructed of 2x4s spaced 16 in. on center, with 14-1/2 in. of space between studs. Exterior walls won’t work because they have insulation in them. And some interior walls won’t work either, if they have heating ducts, pipes and wiring running through them. (Later we’ll tell you how to check them.) You can easily adapt this project to any size and as many open cavities as you want. The basic concept is simple—just cut a hole in the drywall, insert a wooden box, and add trim to it.

We used a table saw, a miter saw and a pneumatic brad nailer for this project, in addition to standard hand tools, but you could also build the project with just a circular saw (with a cutting guide for straight cuts) and a drill.

Step 2: Detective work comes first

Before cutting into the wall, try to get an idea of what’s concealed inside it. Find stud locations with a stud finder or by tapping on the wall and listening for variations in tone. Be aware that blank walls can conceal a wide variety of framing—especially in older houses. Note: Locating studs in old plaster walls may require a more sensitive, higher-priced stud finder. If you absolutely can’t find the studs, try removing a section of baseboard and opening the wall where you can hide the hole. Or tap a finish nail through the wall until you hit a stud, then measure over about 16 in. and tap the nail through again to find the next stud.

Once you’ve located studs, check both sides of the wall and the rooms above and below for heat registers, plumbing and electrical fixtures. If you find potential obstructions on adjacent floors, use an outside wall for a reference point to estimate if it’ll obstruct your cabinet. Even if the location looks clear, you never know what’s inside, so cut small holes in both cavities and double-check for obstructions. Cutting the hole with a utility knife is difficult, but it’s safer than using a saw because you can keep the cuts shallow and away from any electrical wires (Photo 1). If you find obstructions, don’t despair. Half of our message center is only 3/4 in. deep (not including trim). It may fit over the obstructions without any problem. Another option is to make the box shallower. You may also be able to extend wires around the boxes by rewiring, but consult an electrician or electrical inspector first.

Video: How to Find a Stud

Gary Wentz, an editor for The Family Handyman, will show you a few techniques that will help you quickly find studs in a wall. Next time you are hanging a picture or installing trim, these tips will help you get the job done fast and right.

Step 3: Cut the Openings

Draw plumb lines at stud locations, then mark the rough opening height (34 in. from the floor to the bottom and 83 in. to the top). Adjust this height above the floor, if necessary, so the message center lines up with nearby door or window trim (Photo 10).

Check the studs for plumb (Photo 3) and adjust the box dimensions as needed to fit cleanly between them. Our center stud was plumb, but the left and right sides were out of plumb by 1/8 in. in opposite directions, so we made the two boxes 14-1/4 in. wide instead of 14-1/2 in. wide and left 1-5/8 in. between them. It’s generally best to leave the center stud in place.

Figure A: Message Center Details

Cutting List

A23-1/2" x 47-7/8" x 1/2" birch plywood (sides for deep box)
B23-1/2" x 13-1/4" x 1/2" birch plywood (top and bottom of deep box)
A121/2" x 3/4" x 47-7/8" pine (sides for shallow box)
B121/2" x 3/4" x 13-1/4" pine (top and bottom for shallow box)
C214-1/4" x 45-7/8" x 1/2" birch plywood (backs for both boxes)
D43/4" x 3/4" x 10" pine (nailers for top and bottom trim F)
E4 3/4" x 3-1/2" x 13-1/4" pine (shelves)
F23/4" x 2-1/2" x 34-1/8" pine (top and bottom trim)
G33/4" x 2-1/2" x 44-3/8" pine (center and side trim)
H23/4" x 1-1/2" x 35-1/8" pine (top and bottom sill)
J21/2" x 3/4" x 34-1/8" pine (bottom crossbars)
K13/4" x 13-1/8" x 20-1/8" birch plywood (upper door)
L13/4" x 13-1/8" x 12-1/4" birch plywood (lower door)

Figure A: Exploded view of message center

Step 4: Build the Boxes

Our message center spans two stud cavities, with a deep side for shelves and miscellaneous storage and a shallow side for a cork message board and calendar. To maximize space, we made the sides of the deep box from 1/2-in. birch plywood and the sides of the shallow message board from 1/2-in. x 3/4-in. pine. Nailing trim to a 1/2-in. edge is finicky work, so use a brad nailer or predrill the nail holes.

Cut the backs and side pieces from a 4 x 4-ft. sheet of 1/2-in. birch plywood using a table saw or a circular saw with an edge guide. If you use a circular saw, cut from the backside to avoid chipping the birch veneer. If possible, gang-cut pieces that are the same length (Photo 4). Use 1/2-in. plywood for the back for rigidity, to give solid support for the cork board and any other items you want to mount.

Cut the long sides of the boxes 47-7/8 in. (A, A1), and nail the top and bottom pieces (B, B1) 1 in. in from the end to create nailer legs for the top and bottom trim pieces (F); see Photo 5. Glue and nail the back (C) down onto the box, aligning the edges and squaring the box as you nail (Photo 5). Tack down the back with 1-in. brad nails; longer nails might angle and break through the plywood sides. Use a damp cloth to wipe off any glue that oozes to the inside.

Step 5: Install Shelves

We nailed the shelves (E) into place before joining the two boxes (Photo 6). Gang-cut the shelves from 1x4 pine, then slide them into position and hold them tight against square blocks of wood clamped to the sides. Mark the center of the shelf on the outside of the box frame to ensure accurate nailing (Photo 6). Use four 1-1/2 in. brads on each side and then flip the box over, connect the nailing lines from each side across the back, and shoot a few brads in through the plywood back for extra strength and rigidity.

Step 6: Join the boxes with the trim

Line the two boxes up with each other, then glue and nail the center trim (G) to join the sides, leaving a 1/16-in. reveal on each side. Center the center trim lengthwise to leave it about 1/4 in. short of each end. When you attach the top and bottom sills (H), this will give you a 1/4-in. lip to help keep papers and odds and ends from sliding out the bottom (Photo 8). Remove the spacer blocks after nailing the center trim.

Glue and nail the sills (H) at the top and bottom edges of the boxes (Photo 8). Center them on the center trim. They’ll overlap the side trim by about 1/2 in. Then glue and nail the side trim (G) flush with the edges of the boxes. Nail the sills to the side trim as well with 1-1/2 in. brads. Cut the nailers (D) and nail them to the tops and bottoms of the boxes to support the top and bottom trim (Photo 8). Finally, glue and nail on the slats (J); see Photo 9 and Figure A.

Take a break and let the glue set up. Then sand out all the rough edges. Paint it now, rather than waiting until it’s up.

Step 7: Set the message center into the wall

The message center should slide right into the opening that you cut in the wall and cover all the rough edges as well (Photo 10). Level it and adjust the height before nailing it to the studs through the trim with 2-1/2 in. finish nails.

We installed our doors after mounting the cabinet in the wall, but it would have been easier to do it before. We installed a door (K) on the upper part of the deep box, and a small, drop-down writing surface (L) below it. Special hinges hold the drop-down door at 90 degrees without supports (Photo 11). These doors are both inset, so they have to be aligned with each other and evenly spaced in relation to the trim. This can take some time and patience. At first, install the hinges with only one screw in the adjustable slot, then lock them into place with additional screws after all adjustments are complete.

Fill and sand all nail holes, then paint the message center if you haven’t already done so. Finally, install knobs on the doors and put the message center to use. (H)


Keep hands well away from the power nailer.

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Miter saw
  • Air compressor
  • Brad nail gun
  • Cordless drill
  • Circular saw
  • Level
  • Table saw

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

  • One 4' x 4' x 1/2" birch plywood (A, B, C)
  • One 2' x 4' x 3/4" birch plywood (K, L)
  • Two 1/2" x 3/4" x 8' pine (A1, B1, J)
  • One 3/4" x 3/4" x 4' pine (D)
  • One 1x4 x 6' pine (E)
  • One 1x3 x 4' pine; two 1x3 x 8' pine (F, G)
  • One 1x2 x 6' (H)
  • 1" brads
  • 1-1/2" brads
  • 2-1/2" finish nails
  • Wood glue

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