Details make the difference between a mundane wall system and a handsome one. To make both room and wall unit appear as an integrated setting, consider three main areas: finish, auxiliary lighting, and moldings.

A fine finish

A wood's finish dramatically affects its impact. But a good finish also keeps dirt and moisture out of wood pores, wards off dents, and protects the wood from abrasion, heat, and chemicals.

Solid wood or wood-veneered wall systems can be treated with any of several types of stains, paints, and clear coatings.

Both stains and finishes come in traditional oil-base and newer water-base versions. All things being equal, choose the water-base products -- they're easier to use, clean up with water, and produce far fewer noxious fumes than the oil-base products.

Stains. In most cases, stains are not final finishes; they are used for color or accent only. You still need to seal the surface with a clear finish. If your pieces are made of unfinished pine, apply a sealer before staining to achieve even coloring.

Though you may encounter many stain names and brands, products fall into two general types: pigmented stains and dyes. Pigmented stains, sold as oil stain, wood stain, and pigmented wiping stain, are composed of finely ground particles of color held in suspension in oil solvent.

Dyes are mostly aniline (a coal-tar derivative), dissolved in either water or alcohol. Because they are actually absorbed by the wood fibers, dye stains allow the grain to show through. If you can't find dyes at retail stores, look for them in wood-finishing specialty stores or woodworking catalogs.

Clear finishes. Generally, clear finishing products fall into two basic types: penetrating finishes and surface coatings.
Penetrating finishes soak into the pores of the wood to give it a natural look and feel. Though a penetrating finish sinks below the wood's surface, it's still fairly durable -- without the "dipped-in-plastic" appearance of some of the more protective coatings.

Surface finishes lie on top of the wood and provide protection in the form of a thin, durable shield. This kind of coating, often available in a number of sheens, may be glasslike in appearance, but it can be dulled down, if desired, by rubbing.
Enamels. Water-base (latex) and oil-base (alkyd) enamels are both used for interior surfaces. Latex paints are easier to use because water is their solvent, but alkyds are more durable.

Paint finishes range from flat, or matte, to high gloss. Since there's no industry standard for sheens, a medium gloss may be called pearl, semi-gloss, or some other name, and it can range from moderately to very shiny, depending on the manufacturer. The glossier the finish, the more durable and washable it is.

Lighting for shelves

Whether you use wall systems to conceal clutter or display treasures, you should pay attention to one other ingredient -- light. With the proper lighting, your wall system becomes not only more functional but also more aesthetically pleasing.

You can light shelves from either inside or outside the unit. If you're building a custom unit, consider adding recessed or indirect lighting during construction. Your basic options include recessed downlights, canisters, track lights, strip lights, and under-cabinet task lights. Commercial wall systems often include light "bridges" (soffits with downlights) or built-ins as accessory options.

Recessed downlights and tracks can be located either at the top of the unit or in the ceiling with light directed down to the unit. Most built-in canisters are low-voltage, meaning they require a transformer to "step down" power from standard household current to a more manageable 12 volts. Why go low voltage? The fixtures are much smaller and they use less energy. Most low-voltage fixtures house either halogen or xenon (a cooler-burning cousin) bulbs. For highlighting wall systems, it's usually best to buy swiveling lights or lights that can be aimed at a unit.

Strip lights resemble Christmas tree lights. Some are housed on a flexible backing strip; others, called rope lights, are tucked inside clear or colored plastic tubing. Put strip lights out of sight inside the unit or above the top, shining up to outline the unit. You shouldn't see the bulbs, just the glow.

Several kinds of under-cabinet fixtures are available: halogen, incandescent, and fluorescent. Most are compatible with standard household current and are available in switched (plug-in) and wire-in (direct-wired) versions. Designed for kitchen counters, they can light a wall system's work surface from above, or they can be mounted inside the top of the cabinet so that light washes down.

A dimmer switch is a big plus for any lighting scheme: it allows you to dial your wall system's lighting up and down as the mood dictates. A pressure switch turns the light on when you open a cabinet door.

Installing cabinet lighting may require the services of an electrician.


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