Build the perfect bookcase

Tips to help you to plan, build, join and finish your project

By Steve Maxwell

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The best way to begin a bookcase is with ideas, not ready-made plans. Optimal designs can be tailored to fit specific spaces and book collections. The design process of a DIY bookcase can be broken down into steps.

Planning your project
Start by considering how much effort and money you want to invest in the project. These considerations affect your choice of materials and joinery, which are the next things you need to think about. Medium-density fibreboard (MDF) works well for small to medium-size bookcases built on a budget and destined to be painted. Hardwood-veneered plywood brings elegant good looks, without the hassle of milling, edge-gluing and sanding solid lumber. That said, solid wood has an advantage when making shelves, which I’ll explain later.

Regardless of the materials you choose, determining the proportions of your bookcase is something that needs careful consideration. The best full-size cases I’ve built have 11 1/2″ of usable, front-to-back shelf width, although you can safely go down to a 9″ width for wall cabinets and smaller designs that need to take up minimal space. Allowing 12″ of vertical headroom for the tallest shelves handles most big books, and 10″ and 8″ spacing farther up will accommodate smaller ones. Measure your book collection and adjust shelf spacing using these numbers.

When you’re done designing, make a simple scale drawing of the front view, including the shelf locations and any base or top trim you have in mind. Scale drawings such as these have saved me more than once from building a design that seemed OK in theory but would have looked weird in real life.

Decide how you’ll support the shelves
You have four main choices when it comes to supporting shelves on bookcase sides: dados, biscuits, adjustable shelf pins and butt joints held together with decorative brass screws.

While the last option is suitable only for smaller shelves, dados are the traditional choice for bookcases. They’re stronger, although more challenging to prepare than other joints. The trick with dados is getting their width to match the thickness of the shelves exactly. Any extra space shows up as an ugly and obvious gap. If you’re working with veneered plywood, avoiding this glaring error is especially tricky because you don’t have control over the thickness of the shelves. All you can do is tweak dado width, and that’s not easy to do.

I sidestep this problem by using a shop-built jig-I call it the dado engine-that guides the travel of a router spinning a flush-trimming bit so it cuts the dado exactly right for a plywood shelf, regardless of what that might be. Do you have a thickness planer? Consider making your shelves out of solid wood even if the rest of your bookcase is made from veneered ply. With this method, you can cut a dado first, then use your thickness planer to mill down shelf thickness so it fits into the groove perfectly. It’s the best way I know of to achieve an absolutely perfect fit between shelves and dados quickly.

I know from experience that #20 biscuits, despite their small size, are strong enough to hold bookcase sides and shelves together-even on large designs. Three biscuits applied across the full width of the shelf work perfectly.

Regardless of whether you use dados or biscuits, you’ll save time and increase accuracy by preparing joint details in pieces of wood twice as wide as the finished sides of your bookcase. Simply rip this wood in half, lengthwise, and you have identical side pieces.

Adjustable shelf pins offer the easiest option of all, but I don’t like seeing a lot of unused holes in the projects I build. I prefer to install shelf pins only in those places where I actually want a shelf to be-at least, at first. Even if I do need to move the shelf to another height later, I can always drill another set of four holes.

Adding a back
Including a back on your bookcase adds a lot of strength and prevents books from falling down behind. The easiest material to use for this feature is 1/4″-thick veneered plywood, but it’s not the most beautiful. I prefer lengths of tongue-and-groove boards or, better yet, a frame-and-panel back assembly. Although the latter is more work, it does let you use the bookcase as a room divider because the project looks good even from behind.

The grand finale
Finishing a completed bookcase is a job I always dread. All those inside corners make it insanely difficult to apply a finish, sand between coats and clean up dust. You should prefinish parts before assembly whenever you can. Since all surfaces can be finished flat, there’s almost no risk of runs. Will your bookcase be joined with biscuits? Wait to plunge the slots after finishing is complete. If your bookcase is held together with dados, protect joint surfaces with masking tape before finishing.

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