Building Ikea Furniture Ikeasily

This post is about how to build Ikea furniture more easily, in my experience cutting assembly time at least by half, and being much more fun. And it’s very simple: power tools and planning.

Update: Many people finding this page appear to be searching for the hex sizes that Ikea uses. According to this document, Ikea’s sizes are 2mm, 3mm, 4mm, 5mm, and 6mm. A quick look through a couple of Ikea instruction manuals shows that the 3mm and 5mm seem to be common. I’ve also updated the link to the hex driver set at Amazon.

My house is teeming with Ikea goods, which I’ve accumulated over the past 15 years, and I most recently outfitted my home office, including a Galant desk, file cabinet, Expedit bookcase, and the classic Ikea hack monitor stands.

First is planning: completely unpack your boxes, sort out the parts, then look at the directions. Match the parts to the ones in the instructions, which is made easier by comparing the quantity – for example, some of the Ikea screws are notoriously similar, so knowing that you should have 8 of part 123456 makes it easier to match up.

Then go through the directions, and visualize how the components should be put together. It is best to lay out the pieces, arranged as they will be assembled. And be very careful about checking finished versus unfinished sides and edges. Ikea furniture goes together well, but disassembling and reassembling it is a different story altogether.

For the assembly process, first item of business is to throw out those paper clip pseudo-Allen wrenches that come with the parts. Using them provides no leverage, and if your hands get sweaty (hint: they will, as you get more frustrated), you’ll lose the ability to get a decent grip.

Instead, get a cordless screwdriver. Huh? Aren’t all screwdrivers cordless? No, this refers to power screwdrivers, such as this one, which is essentially a watered-down (less powered) drill. If you haven’t used a cordless screwdriver before, you’re in for a treat. A couple of notes: get one with a light, which is essential when working inside (meaning both indoors and inside a piece of furniture). Mine is a Skil, which as a brand is at the lower end of the price spectrum, and has served me well for years.

Why not just use a drill? A couple of reasons: one is that drills have much more power (the one linked above is 3.6 volts, whereas drills are usually 12 to 18 volts). Using a drill is possible but requires a more delicate touch, and the soft metal of Ikea screws leads to them being stripped easily. The bulkiness of drills makes them more difficult to use in tight spaces, and their heavier weight can be fatiguing.

For your screwdriver you’ll want a set of driving bits, specifically the Allen wrench equivalents of the Ikea paper clips. These are usually sold in a set, such as this one, for $11. The important thing is that you’ll want an Allen wrench (hex) bits in sizes 3mm and 5mm. As noted above in the update, the smaller one, 3mm, is used by far the most with Ikea furniture, and the 5mm one is also common. I don’t recall any other sizes that Ikea uses.

The Allen wrench bits will work, of course, in the place of the Ikea paper clips, and you’ll also get some regular screwdriver bits (Phillips head) for the standard screws that Ikea uses. (Going back and forth between Allen and Phillips bits is a good reason to get a cordless screwdriver that can change bits easily, i.e., without tools. Or better yet is to have two cordless screwdrivers, and not have to switch bits at all.)

Again, when using power tools with Ikea, be gentle, especially when at the end of driving a screw. Their woods (MDF) can tend to splinter, especially between the laminated part and the underlying wood, and their screw heads can be stripped easily. If you do that with a Phillips screw (it doesn’t usually happen with Allen screws) then change your driver bit to the largest one you have that fits the newly-stripped screw head, push in very forcibly, then slowly unscrew the screw.

A good habit before driving screws in or out is to “test fire” the screwdriver, with a quick touch to confirm that it is spinning in the right direction. It can be frustrating to be in the wrong direction, and to unscrew a half-driven screw, or vice versa. Again, with Ikea furniture, you don’t want to assemble or disassemble it more than once.

Another tip is to magnetize the screwdriver bits. I have a fairly large refrigerator magnet (1.5″ x 0.5″ x 0.3″ or so) that I rub on the end of the driver bit a few times, thus adding a bit of “stickiness” that helps hold the screws to the bit. Properly magnetized, a screw will hold to the bit in any position, making it far less likely that you drop a screw. I learned this when building computers, where it can be maddening to drop a screw onto/into a motherboard, making it difficult to find and remove.

The last word of advice is that you may want to modify the Ikea instructions as makes sense to you, such as whether you are working on a piece by yourself, and the amount of space that you have. For example, for my Galant desk the instructions say to assemble the desk top-down on the floor, with the legs up, then flip the desk over, onto its legs, when done. In my 10′ x 10′ office, with only me working on this, space and human strength and agility would have made that very difficult, so instead I assembled the legs, set them up normally (feet on the floor), put the desktop on top of the legs, then crawled under the desk and fastened the desktop to the legs. Of course, you should always wear eye protection, but especially when you are under the point where you are working, thus susceptible to falling screws or wood particles.

Put a different way, think of this: you’re building furniture (thus using proper tools and technique), not simply following a set of instructions.