Sunday, February 3, 2013

Tutorial: How to make a lighted, mirror-backed display case from an Ikea Billy bookcase

In a previous post I showed off my new display case. In this post I hope to give you with all the info needed to do this yourself, and hopefully I'll save you the dozens of hours I spent researching various possible solutions and obstacles.

The finished display case
Closeup of the switch

First off, familiarize yourself with how Billy goes together via the diagram below courtesy of Ikea. In particular, note that Billy normally has a non-adjustable middle shelf for structural support, see how in step 9 the cardboard back is shown to slide into channels cut into the main side pieces, and note that the switch will be located in a corner of the slim panel that faces the front at the bottom, and the wiring hidden beneath and up the back of the case. We'll be replacing the cardboard back panel with a custom-cut piece of mirrored acrylic and adding a fluorescent fixture, glass doors, and a number of support beams on the back in lieu of the middle shelf.

Billy bookcase instructions

Next, gather the materials and components needed. You could possibly skip the soldering and use and combination of electrical tape and orange twist caps for all the wiring, but it's not recommended. The components cost me about $400. If this seems like a lot to you, go shopping for pre-fab glass display case and then come back and tell me that. ;)


  • 24" long fluorescent light fixture with plastic diffuser panel with two T8 size lights.
  • Two T8 size fluorescent bulbs in the spectrum of your choice
  • Acrylic Mirror cut to size
  • At least 8" of electrical cord with grounding wire. I used type NM-B.
  • Three prong extension cord with flat head. Go for the kind with flat plug so the case can be site right up against the wall.
  • Three orange wire heads, included with the light
  • Heat shrink tubing - I bought a variety pack for about $2
  • Small rocker switch
  • Standard, full size Billy bookcase. I went for a silver one. White will reflect the most light. A dark tone is recommended against.
  • Six glass Billy shelves
  • Two full size Ikea Morebo doors. I didn't see these listed individually on the Ikea site atm, so call or visit your local Ikea for availability.
  • Five square, 3' long, 1/2" thick dowels
  • Four lengths of 1/4" x 2" wood strips cut to exactly the width of the case (roughly 31.5", but wait to cut them until you can use the case itself to take an exact measure)
  • A couple staples of the white plastic sort with two integral nails used to secure wiring
  • A small sheet (8" x 10" is more than enough) of mat board, thick card, or other material roughly 1/16" thick.

Tools & Supplies

  • Glue - Liquid Nails, Gorilla Glue or wood glue
  • A few various nails and screws
  • Screwdriver
  • Fine-toothed hand saw. A hobby razor saw, jewelers saw, or even a hack saw would each work fine.
  • Electric drill
  • Ikea tool
  • Router with 1/8 bit and edge guide or jig. I believe the type we used was a trim router.
  • Microfiber cloth
  • Scratch remover
  • Cleaner/de-static
  • soldering iron
  • "helping hand" style soldering tool with magnifying glass and alligator clips
  • lighter or propane torch
  • rosen-core solder
  • flux paste
  • protective eyewear
  • measuring tape
  • ruler
  • boxcutter, utility knife, X-acto or similar.
A few of the supplies used for the display case
Selection of some soldering equipment for wiring. Not shown: "helping hands" tool, lighter.

Light Fixture

I expected to quickly source this component locally but was forced to go online. The model I bought is a Minka 1016-44-PL Utility Light. I purchased it on ebay at a store called Wayfair. It may still be available via the the specific listing.

Minka Utility Light 1016-44-PL

You'll need two 24" long, standard T8 size daylight fluorescent bulbs. I went for daylight spectrum. This light is of the same spectrum as daylight and spending the extra $$ on these will give a much more pleasing look. Fluorescent lights largely have a bad rap as big companies are unwilling to invest several times over per bulb when they are paying out for hundreds or thousands at a time. Note that daylight bulbs will still look a bit blue when you view the case from afar in a room otherwise lit by incandescent bulbs, but this is because the incandescent bulbs are orange, rather than any inherent blue-ness of the fluorescent bulbs. Because of this effect, I'm considering looking for a bulb with a spectrum closer to that of incandescent lights and keeping one daylight bulb and one warmer. Give some thought to what will work best for you.

Obtaining the Mirror

I considered several options for mirror, and the main consideration was between acrylic and glass. Acrylic had a bigger price tag but would mean a much lighter case and a more elegant solution in terms of design, and so I went with acrylic. Even though the custom-cut acrylic set me back about $120 and was the single most expensive component, the price of the case all told was a fraction of what a dedicated trophy case of this size would have cost me. The solution involving real mirror I considered was adding a back to the case made of 3/8" plywood and mounting two mirrors cut to size on the ply. Ikea had a very inexpensive, large square mirror last time I was there.

I'm really happy I went with acrylic, however. I had it cut locally at Tap Plastics. This worked out in the end but honestly, it required a good many more phone calls and emails back and forth than I could imagine would be necessary. Here are the plans I sent them.

Be sure to buy scratch remover, plastic cleaner (which is also a de-static agent), disposable microfiber wipes (they gave me a handful of these for free), and a microfiber cloth when you purchase the mirror. I made the mistake of thinking they weren't necessary and had to make an hour-long trip after work to get them later.

Enlarging the Grooves for the Mirror

This is an important step you can do anytime, and it's a good idea not to leave this until the last minute. Essentially the cardboard Billy back slides into grooves, and in order to accommodate the 1/8" acrylic mirror these need to be enlarged. As noted above my friend and I used a trim router for this purpose. One note here is that you have three options here for how to do the routing. You can enlarge right down the middle, eating a bit of wood on either side, or on just one side or the other. You should try to take wood away from the narrow, 1/2" side, so that it winds up being slightly less than 1/2". If you take it from the other side you might have some difficulty later as you put the case together.


Do your wiring before you put the case together. Visualize the following: you're going to run a length of electrical cord from the hole in the mirror, down the back of the case along the right side (as you are viewing the case from the front) and underneath the case to the bottom right front corner, where you are going to install the switch. The switch is accessible from the front of the case. You're going to cut a small rectangular corner off the base plate and fit the rocker switch in this rectangular cutout from the front. Your cord going down the back of the case is going to go below and you're going to split off just the live wire, the black wire in my case, and attach it to the rocker switch. Next, you're going to take your extension cord with plug attached and cut off the sockets, leaving you with a cord and plug. Take the live wire from this cord and split it off like you did for the other cord, and attach this to the rocker switch as well. The third rocker switch contact point is left unused. Once the rocker switch is secure you can then match up the other two wires from one cord and attach them to the corresponding wires of the other cord. All of the above attachments should be soldered and secured with heat shrink tubing.

A some point go ahead and cut out a corner of the baseplate so the rocker switch can be pushed in from the front. I found I needed to do a few small modifications to my rocker switch involving cutting down some bits on the side and gluing on some small pieces of plasticard on two sides. I made the cutout with a hobby razor saw.

As you're examine the pictures above note that I have the two wires affixed to the rocker switch split off so they go perpendicular out from the main cord. If again you visualize the cord running down the back of the case, you can then picture how only these two wires need to be split off from the main cord and run under the case to the rocker switch. The other cords can continue on uninterrupted. Obviously to achieve this setup you're going need to cut off lengths of of the other two wires leaving the live wire longer (about 11 inches longer if memory serves but take your own measurements to be sure).

I chose not to solder the cord to the lamp, but use orange twist caps (provided with the lamp) instead. The reason is that if I soldered the points and then needed to get the lamp out of the case for any reason I would have to cut the wires.

I'm not going to present a full walk-through about wiring rocker switches or soldering. There are quite a few tutorials on each of these topics available on the web. Do be sure to:

  • Examine the Billy plans carefully.
  • Research anything you don't have experience in
  • "Measure twice, cut once."
  • Do a test run attaching the cords with orange caps rather than solder and make sure .
  • Use cord that has a ground wire (three wires). Don't just leave the lamp's ground wire "hanging out" and create a fire hazard.
  • Always observe proper safety precautions.

Rear Support

I mentioned that the Billy normally has an affixed middle shelf for support. A solid shelf in the case would require you mount two lamps, so I've opted to remove it and add support beams in the back of the case. In order to get measurements and fit these, you're going to need to partially build Billy. Ideally you should make these supports while you have Billy face down on the carpet and before you've fitted in your mirror. If you review the plans you'll be able to see why the following design is necessary.

In the last picture, you'll see I've glued little rectangles of card to the ends at the points where I then nailed them to the back of the case. This was necessitated by our choice above to grab space on the narrower side of the channel during routing. This is an extra step here, but better this than risk not being able to get the case together easily. If this doesn't make a lot of sense now, come back to this point when you have the sides routed and the case fitted together on the floor and this will probably become clear.

The picture above also shows cutouts made in the supports that allow the cord to be slotted through the supports and thus elegantly kept in place without the need for additional staples.

Case Assembly

Once you have the above components ready, drill holes for the light fixture and affix it to the bottom of the top piece. Then you can assemble the rest of case per the Billy instructions. When it comes to inserting the mirror, you may want to hold off on "locking" in one side and fit your mirror directly into the slot from the side rather than actually sliding it all the way in from the top per the directions. You'll need to peal off a bit of the paper backing all around the mirror to put it in place. Don't pull it entirely off yet!


  1. Assemble the case on the floor but leave one side unlocked.
  2. Set the wires coming off the rocker switch in the rocker switch cutout so it can later be pushed in place from the front.
  3. Insert the mirror.
  4. "Lock" the sides of the case.
  5. Nail the supports. Don't glue the center of the supports to the mirror. I'm told this will make them visible from the front and damage the sensitive mirror backing.
  6. Run the cord up through the supports and affix it to the light with the orange twist caps.
  7. Push the rocker switch in place (I found I didn't need to glue it) and keep the wires in place under the case by hammering in a few wire staples on the bottom of the case.
  8. Test the lamp
  9. Very carefully life it upright.
  10. Peel off the paper backing.
  11. Wipe down the case with the cleaner/static-agent to dispel the huge amounts of static charge generated in previous step.
  12. Affix doors.
  13. Insert shelves
  14. Bolt the case to the wall
  15. Fill it up!

I guess I was wrong when I said I wasn't going to do an exhaustive tut! If you do this project yourself I'd be interested in hearing about it. And the above pics and more are on flickr for easy reference.

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