A better looking return air grille

Psst…I’ve done it again! Check out another DIY return air grille solution here.

Return air grille before and after. Great tutorial from The Friendly Home | friendly-home.net

Do you have a baseboard return air grille that looks like this?


Not especially attractive, right? I’m pretty sure ours was original to the house and I see it every time I walk in and out through the garage. When we started re-painting the inside of the house a few weeks ago, I took the grille off to paint behind it and decided that there was no way it was going back on.

I grabbed some sheet metal from Lowe’s. The metal already had this cool pattern (which is called Union Jack) cut out of it.


I figured out how big to cut the metal (very scientific, as you can see above). I held the metal up to the intake and used my best judgement to cut the sheet using the tin snips pictured below. I cut two long narrow strips to cover the space.

IMG_1747Once I had the metal the right size, I took it out to the garage to prime and paint it the same color as our baseboards.

(FYI, I use Restoration Hardware’s The Right White color matched in Sherwin-Williams ProClassic Semi-Gloss paint. I’d love to switch to a no-VOC trim paint, but that would mean re-painting all the trim in the house to guarantee that the sheen stays the same everywhere.)


To paint the metal, I used a 6″ foam roller and laid the metal directly on the construction paper on the floor. If you’re thinking about doing this, I’d highly recommend picking up the metal immediately after you paint it and then transfer it to some scrap wood to dry. If you let it dry on the paper, you might end up picking little bits of paper off the back of your metal. Don’t ask how I know that. Let’s just say I’ve got a feeling about it.

Once the metal was dry, I set it up against the intakes and then framed it in 1×2 pine. Our wall is pretty round, so framing the metal was not easy and required a good bit of caulk and drywall compound to get a seamless look.

return air grille after

Once it was sanded, caulked, and painted I gave it a coat of our white trim paint and then (finally) moved the furniture back. It’s obviously not removable now so each time we re-paint we’ll have to paint around it. (Pssst…there are tons of great ideas for how to make it removable down in the comments! Check it out if this is a concern for you.) I’ll also have to be good about vacuuming it each time I vacuum the floor, to be sure I remove as much dust and pet hair as possible since I’m no longer able to remove it to vacuum behind it. I did that…um…once. The extra vacuuming is totally worth the charming grille, though, don’t you think?

Do you have an ugly return air grille in a spot where you have to see it regularly? Is this a project you would consider for your home?


  1. says

    Thank you for the solution to my problem. Now I just have to figure out how to adapt it to my problem area, my high-traffic spot in my kitchen floor! Any futher suggestions? Thanks.

    • says

      That’s my problem too! Only in the walkway between two rooms. The grill in my floor is huge – about 24″x36″. I’ve been trying to figure out a more attractive solution for this ugly spot!

    • says

      I have no solution but I do remember growing up, one of the neighbors had a huge floor grill – for the heat of the wood stove to go upstairs. I always avoided walking on it – it felt kind of creepy. ;)

      You would have to make sure that whatever you used, it would be sturdy enough to hold the weight of… probably at least 300 pounds, just to be safe.

    • says

      We got some wood heat vents from lumber liquidators to replace some of our ugly metal ones. They are seated into the opening and look much better. I don’t know if they make anything that size, but you could check.

  2. says

    I love it! I have the giant square grill – and I don’t want to fasten something permanent to it, but This is a great idea for what to use when building a new cover for it. Great work!

    • says

      I’m glad you like it! You might be able to make it non-permanent with a countersink bit, screws, and wood plugs. Or, like the person below suggested, use velcro. What a great suggestion!

    • says

      Hi, tammigirl! I love when I see a familiar face around the web :). I’ve also been looking at ways to deal with the lovely (and I say that sarcastically) air returns we have in our homes.

    • says

      That’s a great idea — I hadn’t thought of it. My only concern would be that if your walls aren’t straight (like that wall in the photos is pretty warped) then you’ll have some gapping between the frame and the wall. But for people who don’t live above old silver mines like I do (crazy, I know — we have tons of settling issues) then maybe that would work perfectly.

      The other option I thought of today was to build the frame away from the wall and then use a countersink bit to drill holes into the face of it, attach it to the wall with screws in those holes, and then use removable wood plugs to fill the holes. It would be harder to get off than velcro, but not totally permanent. Thanks so much for the suggestion!!

    • says

      I’m late to the conversation…. but as I am thinking of how to make mine removeable the thought struck me that if I used velcro then the 2 yr old foster child would be able to remove it and my hole would be big enough for him to fall into… just a thought.

    • says

      I do like this idea!…. How ever return air grille’s are sized for a specific amount of air. And if you restrict the air at the return it may cause the unit to go off on limit for heat and freeze up for air conditioning…. Just be aware

  3. says

    Looks great. I have that same inspiration picture pinned! I’ll have to figure out how to make mine accessible, though – there’s an air filter behind it that requires changing.

    • says

      That’s a good idea — I should probably have a filter in mine! There are a couple suggestions in the comments above for making it accessible. One person suggested velcro (smart!) and I thought of screwing it in from the front with countersunk screws and wood plugs. Good luck! If you do it, I’d love to see a photo!

  4. says

    This is an awesome idea! I so need to do this with my return air grills. They are so ugly! I too have warped walls so I feel your pain. To make it so that they are removable, what if you framed the wall with wood and then also framed the piece of metal separately so that it was the same size as the wall frame? Then you could just velcro the grated frame to the top of the wall frame. That may help with the wall issues. The grate may stick out a little bit but no more than the original return air grill would have.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • says

      That is a fantastic idea!!! Even if you built the first frame separately (so it would be plumb) and then caulked around it, and then built the second frame with the metal in it…and used 1/2″ lumber instead of 3/4″ for the part that is permanently in the wall…

      Lots of great ideas here!

  5. says

    This looks beautiful! You made it look perfect, even with warped walls :) I want to know your opinion on something: I thought about doing this but my boyfriend said I would be covering up too much of the vent and preventing air flow. Do you think you’re losing any efficiency or do you think it’s pretty equal to standard covers? Thanks!

    • says

      Hmmm…that’s a good question. I haven’t noticed a difference with our furnace. I suppose there is slightly less surface area on a standard cover (so more space for air to pass), but I don’t think it’s enough to compromise efficiency. I’m not an expert, though!

    • says

      Ideally you’d want to pick a metal with the same free area as the original grille. It looks like this particular sheet has less that 50% free area (which is a good number to shoot for) plus your frame looks larger than the original, this decreasing your free area even more. You won’t really notice a drop in your efficiency, but noise may be problem due to an increase in air velocity. If you don’t notice an increase in noise you should be all set.

  6. says

    YES YES YES!!!!!! I too have the orginal updated return air vent pinned too! But we have 2 of these ugly floor ones next to each other on 2 different walls. This is perfect!!! Thank you so much for the new idea & I can’t wait to check out all the patterns of the metal although I do like the union jack.

  7. says

    We have a big square one similar to the original pin, and man is that thing ugly – it’s old & mangled! I love this idea – yours looks so nice! I just need to make a removable version since we have to take ours off every time we replace the air filter (although I’m sure I could make it easier to put back on than our mangled one!)


  8. says

    This is so brilliant and just what I needed! I did some gorgeous board and batten trimwork last year and there is a hideous grill right in the middle of it! Totally detracts from my lovely mouldings. This is such a great solution! I am so doing this!

  9. says

    Totally awesome, and I will be copy catting. There is a vent covering the plumbing access to my spa tub. The access happens to make a sore spot in the master suite. This inspiration would make such an beautiful difference!

  10. says

    This is *beautiful*, but is there really no filter??!! I so love it, but you really need to look into whether you are supposed to have a filter. My dad worked in HVAC, and you could be ruining your system with dust that will settle and clog your system. Just trying to save you a HUGE headache!

    • says

      We do have a filter, but it is on our furnace, not in the wall. This intake is about 12 or 15 feet from the furnace, then hits a big filter, then the furnace. The intake was inspected last year when we redid the basement (actually, the inspector made me seal the other side of the wall because the intake used to be double-sided) and the inspector didn’t say anything about a filter. Thoughts?

    • says

      Apparently it is against code. I didn’t understand his explanation (and still don’t), but he was quite adamant that it had to be sealed. So I got the cardboard stuff with the foil on both sides, nailed it to the studs and sealed the nail holes with this goopy duct sealer that the inspector told me to get. He was satisfied with my work so it passed inspection!

  11. says

    great idea & a nice look! an option to make it removable would be create the wooden frame for the metal cover, then attach peel & stick magnets to the back of the frame. attach the attracting magnet to the wall & there you go! i’ve used the magnets on a roll type & they are very thin so it would not stand our from the wall at all. i’m going to try this for my floor & ceiling returns (i don’t have wall ones) & post back if it works. but nicely done!

  12. says

    I wonder if you could simply take your original metal grill, cut out the inside leaving just the frame, add the union jack metal to the inside or that, paint all, and replace as usual. It would make it easier to remove and replace filters if necessary, and the whole process might be simpler, assuming you had the right metal cutting tools handy. I haven’t tried this, but usually the metal for those grills is pretty lightweight stuff. Seems like it could be cut easily. Anyone tried that idea? I really love the idea of sprucing up the look of the whole grille!

  13. says

    I’m thinking this just got added to the To Do list (and pretty near the top!). I’ll be sure to link back if I use as inspiration for blog fodder. Thanks! ~ Dee @ deeconstructed.com

  14. says

    We live in a very old farmhouse and we have very ugly grates I don’t mind their style, but they’ve been dented and painted and probably kicked so many times that they’re just flat out ugly. I may take heart and try this project, thanks to your initiative!!

  15. says

    I love this idea! I have a heat grate in the floor of my kitchen and it had to be removed because the metal tines broke off from getting stepped on. I need help in solving this problem. Do you think this would work for a floor application?

    • says

      Hi, Rin. This metal is too thin for a floor — I would look into some of the stronger, decorative registers available at Lowe’s and Home Depot. Good luck!

  16. says

    Just a thought…you could probably attach the metal to the framing and then just screw that to the wall like the older grills, that way you could still remove if needed and vacuum behind it. It will not be caulked and smooth against the wall, but you will still have access if necessary. LOVE this idea!!

  17. says

    Looks really nice. I’m with Joseph, pre-drill a hole and screw it on like the original. You can paint the head of the screw if you don’t leave it white. My thought was that the louvers are usually installed so you don’t see behind it. With some of the decorative patterns you might need to paint the recessed area all black or all white so you aren’t seeing the unfinished area in the wall or the ducting.

    • says

      I like the idea of painting the inside black. Great thought!

      If I could have built a frame and screwed it on in one piece, I would have. But my wall is so warped that was definitely not possible. I had to piece it together so it would curve with the wall. :) And then caulk. And caulk. And caulk some more…

  18. says

    Funny, we had an ugly bathroom fan cover, and I went to IKEA and bought one of their lacy metal shelf units, drilled a couple of holes, and viola! White, pretty, and inexpensive.

    Love your grille! That’s a great idea for our hallway, which has quite a large return.

  19. says

    Here’s an idea for making the grill nonpermanent–attach the same hardware that is used to keep a kitchen cabinet closed, there are many different types, all inexpensive. Just look inside your own cabinets. If could place one in each corner to hold the cover in place you could easily pop it in and out for cleaning.

    • says

      Ahh, yeah…like magnetic catches. They wouldn’t work on my wall b/c it is so warped, unless I made two frames, one with the grille and one without. But they’d be great for a straight wall!

      Great idea! Thanks for sharing.

  20. says

    I have an intake grill in the floor (old house). It had a rusty metal grate over it that hurt our feet, so I finally bought a black, wrought iron looking rubber door mat to put over it. Works like a charm and doesn’t block the air flow.

  21. says

    what about a grill up towards the top of your wall in direct view of anyone that walks into the room? Should we paint it the same color as the wall?
    Also wondering of the direction of airflow. All grates we have now, the air flows from top to bottom. The grate you used just flows out.

  22. says

    There are some potential long term downsides to this solution:

    1. From a typical standing or sitting height, one looks straight inside the vent ducting behind it. the angled louvers of the original grille provide some “hiding” of what is behind it. What is back there is usually not pretty.

    2. Cleaning this surface is a “bite me” job as all the sharp edges of the pattern will catch on anything (brush, cloth, sponge, etc.) that is used to wipe off the oily dust and residues. This is a particularly bad problem if the grill is in a kitchen or bathroom space.

    3. Actual airflow through this new patterned grill may not be as good as the original.

    4. If the intake grill also holds a filter behind it, that filter will be very visible from the room, particularly when sitting down.

    I am not trying to rain on anyone’s parade but sometimes function trumps form and this may be one of them for most people. Good luck to those that try this. Hope it works for you in the long run.

    Having mentioned all this I still think it is more pleasing to look at the surface than the original grill.

    • says

      Hi, Bud. Yeah, I thought about the louvers of the original grill hiding what’s behind the grille better than this one. Other than one 2×4, which I should have painted black, I actually don’t see anything through this.

      And cleaning it has been easy — just a quick sweep with the vacuum hose whenever I’m doing the floor. Cat and dog hair seems to get sucked up against it but comes off really easily. I just cleaned the screen on the fan above my stove last night and know what you mean about oily residue! I’m glad this grille is away from the kitchen.

      I still wonder about the airflow, but we haven’t had any problems with the furnace this winter, and our utility bills haven’t changed so I take that as a good sign. :)

      I think some of the removable suggestions above are great for people who want to try it out and see whether it works for them. It’s working even better than I expected for us.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  23. says

    I saw your post and thought it was so genius that I created my own return vent. Our return vents are at the top of walls all over the house and are bent, ugly, and are terrible dust and dirt collectors! You could see through them and see all the pipes and vents too. My new vent fits perfectly and you cannot see through it. I do not anticipate any differences in air flow either. I can remove them at any time because I used the same screws that held up the old vent. I would like to make them throughout my home, but I’d like to find sheet metal at a lower cost. Any suggestions?

    • says

      Yay! Kelly, that’s so fantastic! I’d love to see a photo if you can upload one somewhere and post the link, or send me one at hillary dot dickman at gmail.com.

      I think someone said that Hobby Lobby has the same (or similar) kinds of sheet metal? With the 40% off one item coupon, you might get a good deal. Also, I’ve seen them at both HD and Lowe’s, but in different sizes — that might make a difference for you. Other than that (and buying online somewhere), I’ve got nothin’.

      Keep in touch — I’d love to hear how the rest of the vents go!


  24. says

    I love this! I have been looking for a good EASY tutorial that used a decorative material like the sheet metal (I could have sworn about a year ago, I found plastic sheets at home depot with similar designs).

    Since reading this, I am thinking about making a removable one too. My walls are decently flush, so I’m thinking not velcro, but those picture hanging command strips?!? And maybe liquid nails to glue the 1×2 wood to the sheet metal.

    Was there any particular reason why you didn’t glue the 1×2’s on to the sheet metal first, and THEN do all the painting at once? Wondering if you painted the items separately for a reason…


  25. says

    My return air grilles look exactly like your before picture. I have gone to every home store around to find replacements, but they don’t make those sizes anymore. I could custom order them for $$$. I refurbished mine, and they look good, but I would love to do something like this to give them a more modern look. I’m not crazy about the Union Jack design, but I’m sure other patterns are out there.

  26. says

    Just a thought, why not use a hinge on each side & velcro on the other side, then it wouldn’t be removeable, but it would be accessible. If you do the hinge on the top thrn it would just pull up to open & easyily close

  27. says

    Great job it looks awesome. My only concern is that it is not moveable. I’m pretty sure you will run into issues when you get your furnace cleaned, if I recall when my was last done they removed the vents for cleaning the air return. I would recommend just screwing it into the wall. Just wondering if you could make a seamless look by making it custom fit the wall and then attach it? Don’t get me wrong, I totally love the idea. I also have those ugly vent covers and I want so badly to get rid of them. Let me know what you think.

  28. says

    I do like this idea!…. How ever return air grille’s are sized for a specific amount of air. And if you restrict the air at the return it may cause the unit to go off on limit for heat and freeze up for air conditioning…. Just be aware

  29. says

    I LOVE your idea and I’m going to do that in our dining room and living room this weekend!! Thank you for Sharing your project with us DIYers :-)

    • says

      Check out the comments! There are lots of ideas there for how to make it removable. If my wall were flat instead of curved, I would have made mine removable, too.

  30. says

    This is absolutely great idea. Another way to do this is cut on the grills out of the original air grills, then glue the new design inside the frame of the original air grill. And you’re back to normal.

  31. says

    I like the look – but a couple of cautions. 1) Don’t make it un-removable. That’s a big mistake. You need to be able to take RA grill off the wall to clean the ductwork, etc etc. 2) Make sure you’re not restricting the airflow too much with this type of metal – which actually cuts the square inches of free air space roughly in half. If it’s shy of the free area you need – there are tricks you can do such as mounting the grill in such a way to let air in around the frame, or under the frame (if your RA duct opening runs all the way to the floor).

  32. says

    Install it permanently on 3 sides. You could use an extra piece of small wood to make a “groove” on the 3 insides pieces. Attach the metal to the 4th side and slide it into the “groove” (similar to removing a filter). You can then pull the metal out for cleaning. The 4th side could have a small piece of velcro to secure.

  33. Cindy Auler says

    I am concerned that this is metal, and appears sharp as knives. Am I correct? Can a small child cut their little fingers if they try to put them through the new grill?

  34. lisa g says

    Love it. Looking at my grill now… yup gonna totally change it. I wonder if i could take the measurements of the grill then find a picture frame roughly the same size and just replace the glass with a pretty painted metal sheet. Hum…

  35. Sarah says

    I hate to be a Debbie-downer but this is actually a really bad idea and can cause harm to your furnace.
    The return air grills are slats because it is easier for the furnace to suck the air back to it.
    When you change the design of it it makes it harder to suck air and depending on how big your home is it needs a certain amount of air returned to the furnace.
    Since the holes are smaller on your “diy” design the furnace will need to work harder to suck air back causing your furnace to run more And work harder. BUT if you want your furnace burning out in 5 years then by all means, go ahead and DIY away.

    • says

      I’ve heard similar thoughts from a few others but it’s been in place for quite a while and we’ve had no problems, and our HVAC guy has looked at it and didn’t have any objections. I’m thinking it’s not any worse than having furniture in front of it, which is how the room used to be set up. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  36. Crys says

    I just completed this project. Your idea is perfect as a heat exchange for water pipes that are prone to freezing in my cottage bathroom. Heat from inside the cottage can now circulate to the lines, whereas before, those lines were sealed and inaccessible behind drywall. Thanks much for a brilliant solution to a worrisome problem! Love the look too! :-)

  37. Lisa Smith says

    We are in the midst of a similar project. We are replacing the ugly 20″ X 40″ louvered cover with one made out of open heavy mesh. We considered a pattern like yours but it would have caused too much restriction on our 3.5 ton AC unit. We are spot welding a leaf and branch wall sculpture to the frame of the unit to further obscure the framing behind and beautify the cover but not significantly impact the airflow. We will be painting the framing and plenum floor and walls black. I am a little worried about dust and dog hair and how hard it might be to clean, but am hoping frequent vacuuming will be sufficient. Will post some pictures when the project is done.

  38. Lisa Smith says

    By the way, the requirements of open area for your return vent are: 200 sq. inches of open vent per ton of AC unit. If you are using perforated metal, you need to consider you are effectively reducing your airflow by roughly half, so measure your vent square inches, halve that number for the perforated metal and then check to see if you still have sufficient flow for your tonnage of AC condenser. For example, our 3.5 ton unit required at least 700 sq. inches and our rough opening was 18 X 40 = 720 inches, so using a restrictive perforated metal was not an option, requiring us to go for less restrictive expanded metal mesh: http://www.pixelab.be/blog/wp-content/uploads/Metal_mesh_fine_close.jpg

    The sculpture is off the mesh and should not restrict the airflow significantly: http://www.ebay.com/itm/191508890560?_trksid=p2060778.m2749.l2649&ssPageName=STRK%3AMEBIDX%3AIT

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