Many old homes were built with steam or hot water heating, rather than the forced-air heating we use today. Even some newer homes are built with hot water heating, as it is an extremely efficient form of heating a home. However, there is one problem with using steam or hot water heat, and that is the unsightliness of the radiators, which rarely fit into a room’s décor.
The obvious answer to that problem is to find some way of covering up the radiator, while still allowing it to do its job. This is much easier than it might seem, as long as we pay attention to the most rules of convection.
We should all remember from science class that heat rises and cold drops. This is probably the most critical natural law that affects how convection heating works. If we want something cold to get heated, such as heating air, we should allow the cold air to enter from the bottom and the warmed air to exit at the top. If we do that, we will get natural air movement, without having to add a fan or anything else to move the air.
So, whenever we are designing radiator covers, we need to provide some natural means for the air to move in that pattern. That means having an air inlet down at the floor, as well as an air outlet higher up. Putting that air outlet at the top of the radiator provides for the maximum possible heating; but it will still work if the majority of the radiator cover is open to allow air to flow out.
Types of Radiator Covers
Radiator covers are not normally broken down into types that have names assigned to them; but they aren’t all the same. There are a few basic differences that we find in how they are made and their style.
The first major difference to consider is whether the radiator cover is being used with steam heat or hot water heat. Steam heating systems use the old-fashioned cast-iron radiators that you are probably seeing in your imagination. These stand roughly 24” tall and roughly 10” from the wall. They can be any length, with longer ones installed in larger rooms. Modern steam radiators are made of stamped sheet metal, rather than cast iron, but the basic style is the same.
Hot water radiators are much smaller, and are often referred to as “baseboard heaters.” They are essentially a copper pipe, with radiator fins attached to it. As such, they don’t need to stand as tall as steam heat radiators, so are usually only about 10” tall and only stick out from the wall about 4”. Like steam radiators, they can be long or short, depending on the size of the room; but they are generally longer than steam heat radiators.
The other major difference we encounter in radiator covers is a styling difference. More traditionally styled radiator covers are made with decorative perforated panels for the warn air outlet. These come in a variety of sizes, are usually made of aluminum and can be painted to match the room’s décor.
Modern-style radiator covers don’t use the perforated aluminum panels, but rather use a series of wood strips, which can be mounted horizontally or vertically, but are usually mounted horizontally to better break up the shape of the radiator hidden behind.
When designing and making radiator covers for your home, you want to take into consideration the overall style of your home, including existing woodwork and furniture. Ideally, the radiator cover should make the radiator somewhat invisible, blending it into the style of your home. Some do-it-yourselfers add in storage or seating, making their radiator covers blend into the room better. The same basic style of radiator cover we’re going to talk about can be used for either steam or hot water radiators. The only real difference is that you will need to adjust the size accordingly to match your need.
Making Traditional Steam Radiator Covers
Any radiator cover is essentially four sides of a box, consisting of the front, both ends and the top. A bottom is not needed, as the floor acts as the bottom and the back is not needed, because it buts up against the wall. The front of this box is the part which is open, providing a means for the air to circulate in and out of the box. While some designs have open parts on the sides as well, this is not necessary. A lot depends on the style you are trying to achieve and how much material you want to use to create it.
To make a traditional-style cover, start by measuring your radiator. Your dimensions need to be from the wall and the floor, as that is what matters. You also want to be sure that you are measuring at the point farthest from the wall or floor, which may mean measuring at a steam pressure relief valve mounted on the radiator, measuring where the pipe goes into the wall or measuring at the base of the radiator (some have feet which stick out farther than the rest of the radiator).
At a minimum, you will want the inside dimensions of your radiator to be one inch higher, wider and deeper than the maximum dimensions of your radiator. While radiators don’t get hot enough to cause the wood to damage, they can cause damage to it over time, if they are in direct contact.
Side note: You always want to use well-seasoned wood, with a low moisture content, when making radiator covers. Due to the heat they generate, improperly cured or damp wood is likely to warp as it dries.
Assembling the Front
The front of the radiator cover should be made of 1”x 3” or 1”x 4” knot-free boards, while the sides and top can be made of sanded plywood, cabinet grade plywood or MDF (medium-density fiberboard). There is no real reason to make the radiator cover out of higher-grade wood, unless you are planning on staining and varnishing it.
Notice in the layout below, how the front panel is laid out in such a way as to prevent having any end grains exposed. This helps keep the appearance of the entire cover consistent and is common for the design of six panel doors, which is somewhat the same sort of design we are using here.
Attaching a frame of the type used for the front of this cover together can be difficult, as the pieces are wider than you can reasonably nail together. If you are using 1”x 3” pieces for the front frame, you can use 3 ½” finish nails or screws, through the sides to attach it. But it would be easier to attach the pieces together with a biscuit joiner (if you have one) or dowel pins. Another option is to drill pocket holes and use screws, but that is best used for putting corners together.
Once the frame is connected together, the perforated aluminum is attached to the inside of the frame. This can be attached with nothing more than a staple gun and ½” staples. However, to make it a bit stronger, you may want to use ½” long pan head sheet metal screws (yes, I know I’m recommending sheet metal screws for wood, but it works).
Assembling the Top and Sides
If you want to avoid any visible hardware, the entire project can be assembled by drilling angled pocket holes on the inside of the cabinet and attaching the pieces together with screws.
The ends of the cabinet are nothing more than pieces of plywood, cut to the dimensions you calculated earlier. You have a choice to make here; either to allow the cover to sit in front of the baseboard or to cut a relief in the lower back corner of these pieces, so that it will fit around the baseboard. This second option is my preference, as otherwise you’ll end up beating up the baseboard where the side pieces meet it.
The last piece to attach is the top. With the front overlapping the sides, the only end grain that will be visible will be for the top piece. There are three options to consider here:
- ⦁ Make the top out of MDF, in which case there shouldn’t be any end grain. The little bit of grain showing along the edge is easily filled and sanded.
- ⦁ Make the top out of plywood, in which case there is end grain showing on the front and sides. In this case, I’d recommend covering the edges with a veneer edging. This usually comes with hot melt glue on one side, allowing you to heat bond it to the edge of the plywood.
- ⦁ Made out of solid wood, in which case there is only end grain showing at the ends of the cover. This would probably be acceptable, especially if you did some decorative routing on the edge.
If you are not cutting relief notches in the two end pieces, you can assemble the top to the cover, before putting it in place. However, if you are not cutting relief notches, then it is best to set the radiator cover in place and then attach the top to the front and sides.
Making Modern Radiator Covers
Making a modern-style radiator cover is actually much like making the traditional ones, with the exception of the perforated aluminum. The trick here is coming up with the wood strips that you are going to use in place of the perforated aluminum. One option is to buy lathing strips, if you can find them. If you can’t find them, then you can rip a 2”x 4” into ¼” thick strips on your table saw. This helps keep the overall cabinet thickness down, rather than using ¾” thick material for the strips.
When ripping 2”x 4” studs for a project like this, you want to find the most knot-free lumber you can. Even so, plan on having a fair amount of scrap, as you probably won’t want to use the pieces which have knotholes in them. If you have trouble finding it, you can probably find 2”x 2” pieces that are select grade and will be knothole free. As mentioned before, there are two ways of doing this; mounting the wood strips horizontally or vertically. The methodology for the two is different.
For Horizontal Strips
Instead of installing the aluminum, make the cabinet just like before. Then mount strips of wood horizontally to the front, on the outside of the framework. The trick here is going to be in getting your spacing perfect. I don’t recommend using a spacer between the strips to space them out, as that can cause problems if there is any inconsistency. Rather, mark the spacing on the ends of the frame, so that you can be sure to keep them consistent.
For Vertical Strips
Vertical strips can be installed essentially the same way as horizontal ones, but it is better to cut a ¼” deep rabbet on the inside of the top and bottom rails of the frame and attach the strips there. Not only does this provide a cleaner look, but it hides the end grain of the strips, rather than having it exposed.
Most people paint their radiator covers, although it is possible to stain and varnish them as well. One thing that works out extremely well, with any of the above mentioned styles, is to paint the top, sides and front framework one color and the pierced aluminum or wood strips that make up the grating in another. In such a case, the casing could match your room’s trim, with the grating matching the walls or accent color that you are using in the room.
The top of the radiator cover makes a handy shelf for a variety of decorative purposes. If you are going to place a plant here, be sure to water if frequently, as the heat from the radiator will make the water evaporate faster than it does for other plants in your home.
Another option for low radiators, such as the type that are under a window, is to make a custom cushion to place on top of the radiator cover, turning it into a window seat. The cushion will provide sufficient insulation, so that it won’t seem like you are sitting on a hot seat.