Whether years of service have taken a toll on the appearance of your radiator or you just want to put the space it occupies to better use, a wood cover can offer functional camouflage: Besides hiding the unit, this cabinet can enhance its efficiency and act as a toasty seat, too.
I designed this radiator cover to complement a 1930s-era bungalow, but it would suit many other styles of houses as well. You can easily modify the appearance by changing the size, shape, layout or orientation of the wood grille slats. (You might consider a horizontal or diagonal pattern.) Or you can replace the slats with a manufactured metal grille available at some home centers, sheet-metal fabricators and specialty retailers (see Sources list at bottom of article).
Radiator Cover Function and Design
As its name suggests, a radiator is a radiant heat source, meaning that heat emanates from it in all directions. When you place a cover over a radiator, the hot air is directed out through the front of the cover and the cooler air is drawn up from the floor, creating a convection flow. Redirecting some of the heat into the living space before it rises to the ceiling can make the room more comfortable, although the effect depends on the quality of the home’s insulation, windows, doors and weather seals.
When you design a radiator cover, it is important to leave open space at the base for cool air to flow up from the floor. It is also important to leave at least one-third of the front panel open for airflow. I chose to continue the grille pattern on the sides of the cover, and I added reflective insulation under the top and behind the radiator to help direct the heat into the room. (Tip: Even if you don’t build a cover, placing reflective insulation behind a radiator will increase its efficiency and limit heat loss into the wall.)
The dimensions provided in the cutting list, are for a cover that encloses a 12-in.-deep x 20-1/2-in.-tall x 61-in.-wide radiator (including the valves). You must measure your radiator and modify the dimensions to fit. When determining the size, allow at least 1 in. of air space on all sides of the radiator. If your radiator features a bleeder valve or thermostatic valve that you frequently use to control how much heat the unit generates, be sure to leave the valve exposed. Shorten the width of the cover and raise the height of the bottom side rail to clear the pipe that connects the valve to the radiator. I covered the valve on my radiator because I rarely have to access it. (The cover is easy to remove when I need to make adjustments or bleed the system.)
Download the complete Radiator Cover Plans
Radiator Cover Construction
Because I intended to paint the radiator cover, I made the frame and grilles out of solid poplar and the top panel out of birch plywood with solid poplar edges. If you prefer a natural wood finish, use any furniture-grade wood species.
Except for the wood grille slats, which are 1/2 in. thick, the parts are made out of 3/4-in.-thick stock. Many home centers and lumberyards sell 1/2-in.-thick boards made of a few common wood species such as poplar, pine and red oak. If you have difficulty finding 1/2-in.-thick stock, you can plane stock to thickness or just use 3/4-in. boards. If you use thicker stock for the slats, use the same rabbet dimensions specified for the 1/2-in. stock and let the extra thickness extend behind the grille. Thicker slats will not look quite as refined, but the extra thickness won’t affect the cover’s function.
Begin construction by ripping the rail and stile pieces to their final widths and cutting them 1 in. longer than the final length. You’ll trim them after routing bead and rabbet profiles in some of the edges.
Rout a 3/16-in.-dia. bead profile in the top and bottom rails (photo 1). Using the same setup, rout the bead profile in the outside front edge of the front stiles. Next, rout a 1/4-in.-deep x 3/4-in.-wide rabbet for the slats to fit into the inside bottom edge of the top rail and the inside top edge of the bottom rail (photo 2). Cut the rails and stiles to their final lengths.
PHOTO 1 - Rout a 3/16-in.-dia. bead profile in the top front edge of each bottom
rail, the bottom front edge of each top rail and the outside front edge
of each front stile.
PHOTO 2 - Rout a 1/4-in.-deep x 3/4-in.-wide rabbet along the top back edge of
each bottom rail and along the bottom back edge of each top rail.
You can either scribe the cover to fit around the baseboards or remove and cut the baseboards so that the cover fits between them. I wanted to keep the baseboards intact in case the radiator is ever removed and they are left exposed, so I scribed the baseboard profile onto the side back stiles using a compass. Cut along the scribe line with a jigsaw.
I used two widths of slats: 1-1/4 in. and 2 in. Cut the slats to size, and cut a 1/4 x 3/4-in. rabbet in the ends to match the rabbet in the rails. Use a router or table saw to cut the rabbets.
Assemble the wood grille frames, installing a single 1/4-in. dowel at each rail-and-stile joint. Clamp the frames together, aligning the top of the top rail flush with the tops of the front stiles and positioning the underside of the bottom rail 2 in. above the bottom of the front stiles. Mark each rail and stile for one dowel, positioning the dowels so that they do not interfere with the rabbet in the rail. Drill 1/4-in.-dia. dowel holes centered on each mark. Sand all of the frame parts and slats before assembly. Apply glue to the dowels, and clamp the frame together. Reinforce the dowel joints with wood cleats fastened with 1-1/4-in. flathead wood screws (photo 3). The cleats will also be used to fasten the top to the front and side grilles.
PHOTO 3 - Apply glue to the dowels, and clamp the rails and stiles together. Next,
attach a top cleat across each joint with glue and 1-1/4-in. screws.
Before gluing the slats, lay them out to ensure correct spacing. I centered a 2-in. slat between the stiles and then worked out to the sides, spacing the slats 3/4 in. apart. Increase or decrease the spacing slightly, or trim the end slats to finish the layout with a full or partial slat, butting against the stiles at each end.
When you are satisfied with the layout, the next step is to fasten the slats with glue and brads, starting with the center slat and working out to the ends. Apply glue to the rabbets on each end of the slat and attach it to the rails with one 5/8-in. brad centered on each end (photo 4). Use spacers to maintain consistent spacing.
PHOTO 4 - Attach the slats to the rails with glue and 5/8-in. brads. Begin with the center slat and work out toward the ends.
Finish the frame by attaching the center support leg and block to the front grille and attaching the side grilles to the front grille. Run a bead of glue along the front edge of the side frame, and clamp it to the front grille, aligning the outside faces (photo 5).
PHOTO 5 - Glue and clamp the side grilles to the front grille. Align the edge of the front grille with the face of the side grille.
Next, make the top out of plywood or medium-density fiberboard. (These products are a better choice than solid wood because they are less prone to expanding and contracting with heat and humidity changes – a characteristic that’s especially important considering the temperature variations that the radiator will produce.)
For added strength and durability, I attached solid-wood edging to the plywood top. To apply the edging, miter the corners of the edging pieces and fasten them with glue and finish nails. Center the nails so they won’t interfere when you cut the roundover profiles (photo 6). Use a jigsaw to trim each front corner to a 1-1/4-in.-radius curve. Then round over the top and bottom edges of the top with a 1/8-in. roundover bit (photo 7).
PHOTO 6 - Attach the top edging with glue and finish nails. Center the nails on
the edging to keep them clear of where the roundover will be cut.
PHOTO 7 - Trim the front corners of the top edging, following a
1-1/4-in.-radius curve. Next, round over the top and bottom edges with a
router and 1/8-in.-rad. roundover bit.
Sand the top; then apply finish to the frame and top. The cover does not have to withstand as much heat as the radiator unit, so most water- or oil-base finishes will work. I applied one coat of primer followed by two coats of satin latex paint, using an HVLP sprayer to achieve a smooth, even finish on all of the surfaces. If you choose to use a brush or roller, consider applying the paint before you assemble all of the parts - just be sure to mask surfaces that must be glued. Once the paint has cured, complete the assembly by attaching the top to the frame, driving 1-1/4-in. flathead wood screws through the cleats.
Radiator Cover Installation
To increase efficiency and limit heat loss, attach pieces of reflective insulation to the underside of the top and to the wall behind the radiator. Flexible reflective insulation or rigid-foam insulation with a reflective face work best because of their added insulating properties, but you can even use sheets of aluminum foil. Attach the insulation to the underside of the radiator cover top
and to the wall with 1/2-in.
staples. Use insulation or panel adhesive to attach reflective-face
You’ll secure the radiator cover by attaching it to a wall cleat that fits between the two side grilles. To determine the position, temporarily place the cover over the radiator. Mark the wall in a few places along the top panel and at the top of the sides. Remove the cover and locate the cleat 3/4 in. inside all of the marks. Then attach the cleat to the wall studs with 2-1/2-in. screws. Finally, replace the cover and fasten it to the wall cleat with 1-5/8-in. screws. Now you can stand back and admire your handiwork -- or sit down on it and take a well-earned break.
Raditor Cabinet Cutting List (All parts solid wood except where noted)
Key No. Description Size
A 2 Front stiles 3/4 x 3-1/4 x 21-3/4 in.
B 2 Front rails 3/4 x 2 x 56 in.
C 2 Front side stiles 3/4 x 1-1/4 x 21-3/4 in.
D 2 Back side stiles 3/4 x 2 x 21-3/4 in.
E 4 Side rails 3/4 x 2 x 10-1/4 in.
F 24 Narrow slats 1/2 x 1-1/4 x 17-1/4 in.
G 11 Wide slats 1/2 x 2 x 17-1/4 in.
H 1 Center support leg 3/4 x 2 x 21-3/4 in.
I 1 Center support block 3/4 x 2 x 2 in.
J 13 Top cleats 3/4 x 1 x 3 in.
K 1 Top, plywood 3/4 x 13-3/4 x 62 in.
L 1 Front edge 3/4 x 1-1/4 x 64-1/2 in.
M 2 Side edges 3/4 x 1-1/4 x 15 in.
N 1 Wall cleat 3/4 x 1-1/2 x 61 in.
3/4 x 13-1/4 x 62-in. birch-veneer plywood
3/4 x 3-1/2 x 96-in. poplar (4)
1/2 x 1-1/2 x 96-in. poplar (6)
1/4 x 1-in. dowels
2-1/2-in. coarse-thread drywall screws
No. 6 x 1-5/8-in. flathead wood screws
No. 6 x 1-1/4-in. flathead wood screws
2-in. finish nails
Metal grilles are available from these companies:
Arsco Manufacturing, 800-543-7040, www.beautifulradiators.com
Barker MetalCraft, 800-397-0129, www.radiatorcover.com
Van Dyke’s Restorers, 800-787-3355, www.vandykes.com