Our talk from Maker Faire 2011: The Secrets of Secret doors
We simply love Maker Faire. Having been involved from the start, we've demoed CNC machines, made delightful portable mini-golf courses, collaborated on LED interactive tables, and always really enjoyed connecting with people over the passion of making awesome stuff. This year we were too busy to do anything big and complex, so we instead gave a talk on a subject near and dear to our hearts: how to make secret doors!
For those who missed us yesterday at the Faire, here's a summary of our Maker Faire talk: The Secrets of Secret Doors. Enjoy!
Hi! We’re Jillian and Jeffrey, and we run a design-build studio called Because We Can in Oakland, California. We use big ideas and big technology to make awesome buildings, interiors, and furniture. With our CNC router from Shopbot and modeling tools from Autodesk (both here at the Maker Faire!) we can quickly make anything your heart desires.
One thing we’ve had the chance to integrate into our projects is... secret doors! Secret doors are so great we try to sneak them into whatever project we can. They are a wonderful challenge for a Maker. A challenging combination of design, ingenuity, and craft.
Today, we’re going to show examples of ones we’ve made. We’re going to give you all nefarious ideas to make your own secret doors, from basic and cheap to hella expensive. And that’s the thing: simple secret doors can be made for not very much money at all!
Let’s start with a classic: the Bookcase secret door. They are pretty easy to make: you create a swiveling bookcase that simply covers an existing door. This is great because you get more storage and a secret door. It’s win win!
Here is one that was a simple construction that we did for an office in San Francisco. It's a large bookcase that swings out to reveal a secret room behind it! That swinging bookcase is attached to the non-moving one next to it with nifty secret hinges from a company called Soss. Soss hinges are awesome. They look like this!
That’s ‘S O S S’, the invisible hinge company, best friend to secret door makers for over 100 years. You can get them in all different sizes and strengths, from tiny box hinges to huge ones like we used on this bookcase door. They are perfect for secret compartments and doors, for unlike a normal hinge, you can't see them when the door is closed. They are available from many different suppliers and even at your local hardware store.
Now, the swinging bookcase is attached to the ‘anchor’ bookcase next to it. And that ‘anchor’ bookcase is secured to the wall so it can hold crazy amounts of weight. A big swinging bookcase door is rather heavy, and in earthquake country we wanted a solution that was secure and would last and last. We like to either screw into the wall studs or use these zip tie anchors for situations like this.
They aren’t actually called zip-tie anchors, they have different names depending on the brand (one brand is 'Toggler'), but everyone who uses them seems to call them zip-tie anchors. Here is a little demonstration of how they work. You drill a large 1/2" hole in the wall, and insert the metal part of the anchor into it. Then using the plastic tabs, you 'toggle' the metal part to become flat, and pull it back towards you so that it becomes a flush metal plate inside the wall. Then you 'zip-tie' the front part of the anchor to the front surface of the wall, then break off the plastic tabs. This gives you a strong threaded hole in your wall that you can bolt things securely into and are rated for lots of weight.
Using the Soss hinges hid the pivot, but we wanted to go a little farther with the illusion. So we made more bookcases along the same wall that don’t open. OR DO THEY?!? No really, by placing the bookcase in context it makes for a much bigger surprise. A lone bookcase in an office or home without any other bookcases is very suspect! Context plays a huge role here, it's a lot like a magician getting you to look the other way so you don't see the trick.
This is a pretty big door and it’s pretty heavy! If it simply hung from the hinges it might sag over time and rub on the floor. Which would be sad for the secret door wouldn't work very well anymore. So to keep the door easy to move and working well, it actually has hidden casters under it. We used non-marking rubber wheels so that over time they wouldn't mark up the floor. You can order these special caster wheels from any caster supplier or Mcmaster.com.
Now, with our secret door we actually took a decorative item and bolted it to the shelf to act as the handle. You can also do the classic ‘pull the book’ and have it pull a catch to open the door. However be careful with whatever you do that it doesn’t break and stick the door closed!
Now, what happens if you’ve got carpeting? If your carpeting shows marks of a door opening on it.... well that’s a dead give away. And thus no good for a secret door! Or what if you don’t have the room to have the secret door swing out? While it’s possible to make bookcase doors that swing in rather than out, it’s a lot more tricky and expensive. So in this project, we went sidewise!
This secret door is actually hung from a track that’s mounted into the studs above it. It’s actually ‘floating’ over the floor, just barely touching the carpet. It moves easily and silently side-to-side, revealing the door behind. Again, a big steel rail & the rollers and mounts can be ordered from McMaster.com. We painted the rail the same color as the wall to hide it. The dark colored walls allowed us to do this and still be fairly inconspicuous. You could hide the rail even more by adding a picture attached to the bookcase that covers the rail when the door is closed, but what's funny is no one ever seems to notice it right away at all until the door moves!
One thing to point out here is that the back of the bookshelves match the walls. You notice they did in the first example as well. This adds to the illusion, tricking your eye to think it is looking at the wall, not the bookshelf back.
It’s amazing what you can hide in plain sight too. While we didn’t intend for these doors from our old shop to be ‘secret’ they really turned out that way! The middle part there are a pair of smaller doors, then the whole thing opens up huge when you want it to. False bottoms, false backs, and removable panels all fall into this category. Hiding something in plain sight really works a lot of the time, so you don't need to get too fancy about things!
Can’t make a bookcase to save your life? Well another classic is the secret painting door. Mounting a picture on hinges so it swings out is really easy to do. They can cover anything from a small opening to a whole door. Now, this looks expensive, but those ‘paintings’ are actually large format inkjet prints on canvas.
These images were from the client, but any decent resolution picture would work just fine. We stretched and stapled them to a plywood backer. Then we framed them with pre-cut framing we ordered online. We then simply hung the ‘painting’ from hinges screwed into the wood of the door trim.
Magnetic catches are also a huge help here. These doors snap closed, and are easy to pull open by pulling the edge of the frame. That way when they are closed they look very convincing. If you wanted to get fancy about it, you could even make a cutout for the eyes (so you can spy on people) or make a more complex latch, where you have to pull or swivel something else to open the painting.
Online, examples abound for secret doors, both historic and recent. Doing a little research will give you all sorts of great ideas. There are companies that do nothing but make secret doors or furniture with secret compartments. They are pretty easy to find online and will give you great ideas for your own projects. And of course we’d totally love to help you out with you secret door project! We've made several and have a few more in the works. If you're remodeling your home or office, why not include a little delightful surprise?
Historic research can be a great inspiration. Egyptian tombs have all kinds of secret doors and chambers, some of which we’ve only recently found due to fancy technology! Both old European and Asian castles are rife with secret passages and stories of their use. It wasn’t unusual in houses a century or more ago to provide secret passages to the Maid’s quarters so they didn't disturb the owners of the house. Entrances in cabinets and closets to secret hallways built into the walls are common in some areas!
Many a speakeasy had a secret door to keep itself safe. In New York City there was a speakeasy called the "21 Club." A secret door hid the liquor supply in the cellar. The door was designed to appear as a solid concrete wall. The door, which weighed two and a half tons, was supported by massive hinges and could be opened only by inserting an 18" length of wire through one of several cracks in the concrete. It's still there today!
Some really inspiring recent examples can be found on the MAKE: blog as well with the interactivity people are adding to things using electronics. Using affordable Arduino controllers, Makers are creating wonderful things where a secret knock gives you a gumball or opens a door, or boxes that only open when taken to a certain place.
So that’s some of the secrets of secret doors! Just to recap:
Don’t ruin the surprise! Hide those hinges and catches.
Don’t make it obvious! Put the door in context. Or make it look like something else.
Don’t make it too complex! Hardware exists that will make your life easier.
And that's some of the secrets of secret doors!