Build a curious bookcase

Styled after European row houses, this bookcase is a fun way to organize your kids' room

By Art Mulder


Photo by Roger Yip

A child’s imagination can turn ordinary objects into exciting and creative things. They look at a big cardboard box and see a fortress; they turn a plain milk carton into a rocket ship. When I decided to build a bookcase for my children’s room, I wanted to make something that matched their creative spirit. Not only is this project a handy bookcase, it can double as a dollhouse or a hiding place for secret treasures.


Frame It Up

The core of this project is a simple plywood bookcase. Begin by cutting out the five shelves and two sides using your tablesaw. These fit together with 3/8"-deep x 3/4"-wide dados and rabbets. To speed progress and accuracy, start with one large piece of wood that's a little more than twice as wide as a single side piece. This way, when you cut one set of rabbets and dados, you've really cut two after you rip the sides to their final widths of 11". Use a dado blade mounted in your tablesaw to cut these dados, as well as a 1/4"-deep rabbet into the back edges of each side to receive the back of the bookcase.

Next, cut dados in the shelves themselves. These hold the two kinds of vertical dividers-tall and short-that you'll be cutting later. All shelf divider dados are located 9 7/8" from the shelf ends. Make sure you leave the saw fence locked in place while cutting all six dados. It's vital that all slots for the dividers line up vertically. See the plans for relative dado positions. When you're done, label the five shelf boards to keep track of the top and bottom, front and back edges. Normally this wouldn't matter with identical parts, except that the divider dados have to be placed in specific positions.

Dry-fit the bookcase using clamps, then take accurate measurements of the distances between the shelves to determine the actual size of the dividers and back panel. Cut these parts and add them to the project, then check and adjust for a snug overall fit. Mark the back, showing where the centre of each divider touches it. You should also label the three dividers, noting their front edges and locations. All these labels will be handy later, when you begin to paint.

Take everything apart and begin jigsawing some details, starting with the arched feet at the bottom of each side. There are three 3"-wide x 5"-tall windows in the sides of the bookcase. See the plans for their exact position. Drill an access hole in each window opening and use a jigsaw to cut out the waste, then round off the edges with sandpaper.

Painting: Round One

It's a good idea to stop construction now and do some painting. Starting to paint now, while parts are separate, is a lot easier than waiting until the whole bookcase is assembled.

Sand all the pieces with a belt or random-orbit sander, then apply primer. Don't paint the edges or the dados. Water-based primers raise the woodgrain, so once the primer is dry, use 220-grit paper to sand the surface lightly to a nice smooth state. Follow any painting pattern you like-I used primary colours for each house, then white for the top and bottom of the shelves, and grey for the roof, outer edges of the shelves and the skirt. You don't need to make a clean edge where the different house colours meet. This seam will be covered later, either by the dividers or by a grey stripe that you'll paint on afterward. You can leave the rear-facing side of the back white if your bookcase will always be against a wall, or paint it the three colours of the three houses.

Take the time now to mark the positions of the hinges that will hold the front skirt over the hidden bottom shelf. Predrill the screw holes now, while the area is still easily accessible; you can even go as far as installing the hinge mounts.

Assembly: Round One

Once the paint has dried, assemble the carcass again. The coats of paint you've applied will probably have tightened the fit of some of the dados. Sand along the joint edges to re-establish a good fit.

Glue the shelves into the sides, then glue the dividers into the shelves. Since the bookcase is prepainted, any glue squeeze-out will wipe off easily with a damp rag. Lay the bookcase face-down on a flat surface and check for square by measuring diagonally from corner to corner. Make any necessary adjustments, then clamp and let dry.

Run a bead of glue along the back of the shelves and dividers, and in the rabbets at the backs of the two sides. Secure the back panel with nails or #4 x 3/4" screws.

Sand the front edges of the bookcase, as well as the insides of the window openings, taking care to remove any paint drips. Apply iron-on wood banding to cover the front edges of the plywood, the inside edges of the window openings and also along the top of the sides. The banding offers a much smoother surface for painting than the edges of raw plywood. Use a flush-trim straight bit in a router to trim the banding flush where you can. A block plane would work as well, but you will need to use a chisel to get into the corners.

From the Rooftop

With the basic carcass complete, you're ready to tackle the roof. It's really composed of three separate sub-assemblies. Build the two side sections first, and then tackle the peaked middle portion of the roof.

Pattern routing is a good way to make the four identical gable end pieces. First cut out a 10" x 10" piece of plywood and draw the pattern for a gable end. (See the plans for details.) Carefully cut out the shape with a bandsaw and sand it smooth. Take extra care with this piece, as the other pieces will reflect every bump or flaw you leave behind. Now, trace out three more gable end pieces, and cut them slightly oversize. Don't bother being neat, just cut 1/16" to 1/8" beyond the pencil lines. Finally, affix the master pattern to one of the pieces with double-sided tape and lay it down on your router table. Chuck a flush-trimming bit into your router, adjust the height of the bit so the bearing rides only on the pattern, then switch on the router and rout the remaining waste from around the master pattern. Repeat the process with the other gable end pieces.

Next, cut the two inside roof base pieces, ripping two edges at 17º from square to match the angle of the gable ends. Glue and nail the bases to the gable ends.

These two roof assemblies contain secret compartments, hidden behind hinged roof sections. The hinges I used must be mounted at a 90º angle to the roof. Therefore, hinge mounting strips need to be added inside the top section of the roof compartments. Mount a scrap 3"x 9" piece of plywood between the tops of the two gables. Choose which roof section is going on the left and which is going on the right side of the bookcase, as the two need to be mirror images of each other.

Now, cut out the remaining parts of the left and right roof sections and attach them to the gables. The roofs should overhang the gables by 1/4" at the front and the back.

The side roof sections need to have two of their sides sawn 17º from square to match the gable angles. The two swinging-roof sections must be slightly shorter than their fixed counterparts to allow clearance for opening.

Mount the hinges for the two roof-top secret compartments. It may take some trial and error to find the optimum position for the hinges to get lids that close flush. A test roof section may come in handy at this stage. Experiment on it, then transfer the positions to the two roof sections.

Fasten the two side roof assemblies to the top of the bookcase. I brought them together with glue and clamps.

The peaked, centre roof section is your final challenge. It requires some careful measuring. Use a piece of 1/8"-thick hardboard to make a pattern. It's much easier to work with a thin panel to get the measurements right before trying to get the 1/2"-thick plywood to fit.

Again, use an angle 17º from-square, this time for the sides of the roof (forming a 73º bevel). The top and bottom need about a 30º angle, but take measurements from your actual project. The centre roof back section is a mirror of the front, with the top 1/2" cut off, so it can fit in under the centre roof front. Glue and nail the two roof segments into place. Fill any slight imperfections before you paint the project.

Keep a Secret

The last construction step is to make the skirt that wraps around the base of the bookcase. This conceals the third secret compartment. First, cut out the two side skirt pieces. Trace the foot cut-out from the bookcase, make the cuts with a bandsaw or jigsaw, then sand smooth. Use a hand plane to make a chamfer along the tops of these pieces. Finally, glue and clamp them into place on the sides of the bookcase.

Cut out the front skirt piece next, and give it a foot cutout similar to the side pieces. Mark the locations for the Euro-style hinges, 22.5 mm from the top, then drill 35-mm-diameter holes for the hinge cups. Wait until after final painting before installing the hinges.

Painting: Round Two

As I mentioned before, the paint detail is a large part of this project. It adds to the charm, and also the challenge. Take your time, don't rush and you will be rewarded at the end.

My paint pattern included a grey stripe in the place I marked off earlier to create the illusion of walls between the houses. You can also add paint to create two fake windows on the fronts of the two gables.

I recommend waiting a few days for the paint to dry fully, then apply two coats of clear urethane over the entire project for an extra layer of protection.

Now that you have flexed your imagination with this project, let your kids do the same as they fill it with their treasures.

Tools & Materials

Part Material Size (T x W x L*) Qty.

For the carcass

Back Plywood 1/4" x 31 1/2" x 41 1/2" 1
Sides Plywood 3/4" x 11" x 42" 2
Shelves Plywood 3/4" x 10 3/4" x 11" 5
Tall divider Plywood 3/4" x 10 3/4" x 14" 1
Short dividers Plywood 3/4" x 10 3/4" x 11" 2

Roof assembly

Centre roof front Baltic birch ply 1/2" x 10 3/4" x 16" 1
Centre roof back Baltic birch ply 1/2"x 10 1/4" x 16" 1
Large side roofs Baltic birch ply 1/2" x 10" x 11" 4
Small side roofs Baltic birch ply 1/2" x 3/4" x 11" 4
Top roofs Baltic birch ply 1/2" x 5" x 11" 2
Roof bases Baltic birch ply 1/2" x 9" x 10" 2
Gable ends Plywood 3/4" x 10" x 10" 4
Hinge mounting strips Plywood 3/4" x 3" x 9" 2


Side skirts Pine 3/4" x 6" x 11" 2
Front skirt Pine 3/4" x 6" x 33 1/2" 1


Concealed lid hinges
Euro-style cabinet hinges

* Length indicates grain direction

Recommended Tools


No comments

To leave a comment, please log in

Don't have an user account? Register for free


How do you heat your home?

Loading ... Loading ...