A Bookcase Tutorial

Evan and I were both English majors in college.  Therefore, we’ve got books.  A lot of books.  There are 15 boxes of novels, anthologies, and textbooks stashed in an upstairs closet that we have yet to unpack simply because… we only have one bookcase.  It’s a large bookcase, too.  But it’s not nearly enough.

We have plans to convert one half of our upstairs bonus room into a home office / library.  With a strict budget in mind, Evan decided to experiment with our new power tools and build a bookcase.  He spent all day one Saturday building it, and it looks fantastic.  I am so proud.  Here’s his tutorial!
I started this project a while ago in my head. I wanted something that would go well with the bookcase we already had, which was one of two custom made for my family when I was about 10. 
Considering the short walls in our bonus room, I couldn’t make a tall bookcase, and I didn’t feel that we had enough space right now to allow for one the same length. With these limitations in mind, I decided to make one that was short (three-shelves) and half the length of our other bookcase. Also, this would cut down on the amount of lumber I would need and (I hoped) simplify the project a bit, since it was my first shot at building anything from scratch.
I sketched out a plan, taking measurements from my current bookcase as a starting point. I hoped to buy just the right amount of lumber, and since I tend to jump right into things and figure them out as I go, I decided doing the planning before I had the tools would cut down on the chances of me getting ahead of myself and making a mistake. 
The day we went to Lowes they had a cart of “cull-wood,” which were pieces of pine lumber with flaws that they were selling for a discount. After talking with the guy manning the cart and doing some measurements, we determined that most of the lumber would work for me since I could work around the cracks and chips. 
In the end, while I got more lumber in linear feet than I needed, I got it all for 50% off, so it was cheaper than if I’d bought the exact lengths, and it also would provide scrap wood for future planned projects. 

I started my build by identifying what each piece of lumber would be in my bookshelf and then measuring the lengths I wanted. After I’d measured (twice), I cut the piece for the base, and then cut four pieces of the trim wood to frame it. 

I used our brad-nailer to secure the frame, then drilled holes and used wood screws to make sure the frame would be strong. I opted to not use screws on the front piece since 1.) I wasn’t sure how well I would be able to cover the screws, and 2.) I figured the weight would be slightly shifted to the back and those screws weren’t as vital (though I did probably use twice as many nails). 

Once it was assembled and set on the ground, I found that it wobbled slightly. I quickly discovered that one of the base pieces was wider at one end. A good pass with the orbital sander and I was able to level it out, while also rounding out the corners and give them a nicer look.

Not the base, but you get the idea.
Next, I turned to the sides and the shelves. The original plan called for cutting niches into the sides that would give extra support to the shelves. I realized I had absolutely no idea how to do this with the tools I had. A quick Google search told me that the cut I had in mind was called a Dado, and that there are a couple ways to make them, all of which required tools I don’t have; namely, a table saw with a specific blade set or, less favorable, a dremel. 

As a result of my lack of tools, I had to make some minor adjustments to my plan. Not having the niches would make the shelves about 1/2″ longer than I’d planned, but the base and top were intentionally overlapping. so I opted to not cut the 1/2″ off the shelves and go with my original measurements. I was prepping to attach the shelves when I remembered that my bookshelf had a bit of a wave cut to the sides. If I went with flat sides, it wouldn’t match at all.

Side-shot of our existing bookcase.

Scared just a little bit by the prospect, I traced the base side on my cut side, and then used a jig saw to cut out my pattern. I then traced my cut on the other side and cut it to match. After a go with the sander, I was pleasantly surprised by how it turned out. I’d free handed it without true clamps (I improvised and clamped one end with the miter saw’s stand), so it wasn’t perfect, but I was happy with the result.

Once I’d attached the shelves to one side, then the other (a bit easier said then done, but got it eventually), I wanted to attach it to the base. Something I overlooked in accepting the 1/2″ increase in width was that now the sides overlapped the sides of the base. Not a big deal, but it prevented me from using screws to secure the sides and I had to rely on a heavy dose of brad-nails, which were difficult to get in at the right angle. 

Hindsight: Building the sides and shelves first, then attaching a base that isn’t framed in would have been easier. Live and learn.

Next came the top, which was pretty straightforward. 

The last piece was the backing. I’d opted to go with plywood, but could only find 2’x4′ sheets. As a result I’d have to cut them to fit side by side. I opted to have them sit next to each other rather than on top of each other because it would have made it more difficult to attach them both to a shelf (Once again, in hindsight I think I could have worked it out better that way; but I learned something, which is part of the point). I opted to leave one piece full width and then cut the other since I would have to freehand cut with the jigsaw. It definitely wasn’t perfect, but it was a piece that was going against the wall, so I wasn’t too worried. I then cut it a little shorter than I wanted it and wasn’t able to secure it to the top. 

I didn’t make the same mistake with the remaining piece of plywood and kept it at the right height. Somehow, my measurements were slightly off and it overlapped the other backing piece. Once again, because it will be against the wall, I was ok with this. 

After admiring my handiwork, I decided that since I couldn’t do the dado joins I wanted, I’d add a little extra support to the shelves. To do this, I simply cut short lengths of the wood I used for the frame and secured it under the edge of each shelf. 

The remaining steps were making it presentable. I picked up some wood-filler and covered the screws as best I could (along with any other chips or flaws I found). 

Once this dried, I gave the entire bookshelf a once over with some fine-grit sanding and then moved on to stain.

I opted for our tried and true favorite, Rustoleum’s Ultimate Wood Stain in Cabernet, since it best matched my other bookcase. 

I quickly learned it best to start at the top, since the stain had a tendency to drip down. That way I wouldn’t be re-smoothing out the lower pieces a dozen times. After it had dried, I found that the “Stainable Wood Filler” wasn’t as stainable as I’d hoped, and turned out a lighter/grayer shade than the wood. I used a few Q-tips and dabbed the spots, which got them much closer to the same color. All in all, I was very satisfied with my project.

What do you think?  I’d say it’s a pretty close match!  
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9 thoughts on “A Bookcase Tutorial”

  1. This is AWESOME!!! Great job!!! Thanks for stopping by earlier and for your sweet note!!! Looks like we share the same hobby!!! Helping our hubbies make great furniture!!! LOL! I'm excited to be your newest follower and would love for you to share the 'love' when you stop by for your next visit!! XO, Aimee


  2. Thank you so much, Aimee! I'm still totally gushing over your fabulous kitchen! And OF COURSE I'll continue sharing the love on your blog! I'm your newest follower, as well! 😀


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