An Aviation-Themed IKEA Billy Hack

You know when you first move in and you feel like you have no furniture and need to start filling up your space now? That’s when you go to IKEA and just sort of buy things to fill up space and to keep your clothes and books and meals from being piled or consumed on the floor. And then, after a few months, you start to acquire cooler, more personal pieces, and you start to feel like your plain IKEA furniture doesn’t work in your space anymore, like it needs to be…hacked!

I actually did this simple little IKEA Billy hack (okay, it’s more of an “update” than a hack) a long time ago, but I’m just getting around to putting it up now. I did not take a lot of process shots during this project – it was waaaay before I even thought about a blog.

IKEA Billy hack

I started out with the ubiquitous IKEA Billy in birch veneer. It started in my living room, in that small space where my TV is now, and then I moved it into the corner of my bedroom. In the midst of my “alter all generic furniture” mood, I decided to make it into a sideboard, with the intent of putting it back in the living room. The plan was to flip it sideways, paint it white and add a distressed wood top.

IKEA Billy hack
Before. See what I mean about everything being very IKEA back then? And also very messy…

1. Light sanding.

Why do some people put the “h” sound in front of the “w” sound in the word “white”? No clue. What I do know is that painting slick IKEA birch-veneered furniture white (or any color) requires some forethought.

Sand the surface lightly. Be aware that IKEA furniture can be either the veneered particleboard or it can have a foil top layer. Do not sand the foil – it will get flaky and uneven, compromising your paint job later. Since the Billy is veneer, though,  I sanded it until I could see the marks, giving the primer something to cling to.

2. Optimally, prime.

I used Zinsser 1-2-3 Bullseye oil-based primer, and it worked like a dream. I could have done just one coat, but I did two, just in case. It goes on easy, clings to the veneer and gives you a rough surface for your regular paint to latch on to. Other people swear by Kilz, which I’ve never used, but I can definitely recommend Zinsser.

3. H-white

I used just regular old Behr gloss white, two coats. I painted with a roller and then touched up the inside corners with a brush. Easy-peasy.

4. Airplanes!

So, I love airplanes. Especially old airplanes. When I was a kid, my Dad taught me how to build models, and my favorites were the old World War II warplanes, like the F-4 Corsair, the P51 Mustang, the Spitfire, the De Havilland Mosquito. I wanted to put some black and white photos in the back of the bookcase, and had airplanes on my mind because I’d just seen my old model airplanes at my parents’ house.

IKEA Billy hack
I love WWII planes. Built these in 1:72 as a kid. So yeah. Airplanes on my bookshelf.

I realize this looks like a bookshelf for a little boy’s room, but I like airplanes. Sue me. I split some black and white photos across several sheets of 11×18 paper printed at Kinko’s/FedEx. Then I cut the photos out, Mod Podge’d the paper and then Mod Podge’d over the paper to seal it.

I had a little leftover space on each side where the new vertical shelves would go, so I Mod Podge’d some chevron fabric scraps I had leftover from making pillows, just for fun. In keeping with the aviation theme, though, I think I might try to find some metal sheets I can stick back there instead, and maybe add some small beads as faux rivets. Or maybe switch it for yellow-and-black striped fabric that puts me in mind of the striping on a fighter plane’s ejection handle. But for now, you can see the bit of yellow-and-white chevron on either side.

IKEA Billy hack
Scissors and Mod Podge.
IKEA billy hack

5. Sideways

Since I tilted the bookshelf sideways, I needed to alter the shelving. The Billy has a fixed shelf in the middle, so I used L-brackets and branched the two horizontal shelves out from that center vertical shelf, and then used the two remaining shelves to brace the other side of the horizontal shelves. That sentence probably made no sense…but just look at the pictures.

And yes, the stabilizing piece at the bottom of the Billy bookcase does make it look asymmetrical when it is flipped sideways. I thought about sawing it off, but there’s some bolts in there to deal with, and I was afraid of compromising the stability, so I left it. Where it is now in the bedroom, that awkward end faces into a corner, so it doesn’t bother me that much.

6. Knock on wood.

I used two of the distressed boards (process described here), trimmed one of them, and then just screwed them onto the new “top” of the Billy. It looks awesome, if I do say so myself.

IKEA Billy hack
Love the warm, distressed wood on top.

7. Figure out where to put it.

I set it up in the living room first, and it lived there for about two weeks. But then I rearranged the living room (for the umpteenth time), and it just didn’t work there anymore. So then I dragged it into my bedroom and put it along the space between the air unit and the window. It works really well there, I think. The white and wood look nice against the dark gray walls.

IKEA Billy hack
In the living room. Looks nice, but takes up a lot of premium space along the wall. (Also, look how happy the orchid looks here. What happened to it?)
IKEA Billy hack
Now it’s along the wall in the bedroom, and there it shall stay. Probably.

So how much did this IKEA Billy hack cost? I’ll include the cost of the Billy, just because, you know, you sort of need it to make the sideboard.

Round up

Time: 6 hours, between the painting, the Mod Podging, the shelf rebuilding and the wood distressing. Not a difficult 6 hours, though.


  • IKEA Billy in birch veneer, IKEA – $80
  • Zinsser 1-2-3 Bullseye primer, Home Depot – $9
  • Behr Premium Plus Gloss White, Home Depot – $13
  • Roller and brushes – already owned
  • Mod Podge – already owned
  • Airplane prints, Kinko’s/FedEx – $4
  • L-brackets, Home Depot – $8
  • “Aged” wood boards, Home Depot – $9

Total: $123. Yeah, it’s on the pricier end of my projects, but bookcases ain’t cheap, even at IKEA. And I don’t like stacking my books on the floor, so…

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4 Responses to An Aviation-Themed IKEA Billy Hack

  1. Matt says:

    I really like this, including the airplanes.
    Optimally, you should fill the visible holes. Overall, you did a Mega-terrific job transforming the Billy!

    • Claire says:

      Thanks, Matt! Filling the holes is a great idea and really should be on the to-do list… you know how hard it is to come back to a project you “finished” a while ago, though…

  2. Ellen Niz says:

    Hi there,

    I’m excited to let you know that we will be using this great photo from your website in an iVillage article about great Billy bookcase hacks and will link back to your website for readers to click through. (We will not post the full instructions on our site.)

    If you do NOT want us to use this photo, please get back to me as soon as possible.

    To get a link to the article, follow me on Twitter (@ellenbird) and I’ll tweet it out when it’s published.

    Thank you so much for your time!


    Ellen Niz
    iVillage Contributor

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