Nomadic Bookshelf





Introduction: Nomadic Bookshelf

The idea for this project bore out of the reality that many of us, "the millennials", suffer with all to often. Since leaving for college, I've moved (on average) every 9-10 months. As a result, this meant outfitting my apartment/studio/place to lay my head with cheap furniture. Cheap furniture is great... for one or two moves. However, after assembling and disassembling several times, the particle board begins to flake, the surfaces scratch and wear, and the fasteners tend to strip out. Also, you have to keep track of all the little bolts and brackets which inevitably get lost during the shuffle of moving. To remedy this problem, I wanted something that would be easy to assemble with no fasteners. I wanted something that would stand up to the abuse of my nomadic professionalism. The bookshelf needed to break down small enough to fit into my hatchback. And I wanted something in the same ballpark price range as a comparable piece from the Swedish furniture store.

After searching through Instructables I came across a design by zachsoniasummers and it was everything I was looking for. I ripped off Zach's design and made a few minor modifications.

The design is based on mortise and tenon joint that has been used for thousands of years and is especially useful for those on the move. The shelves have a tenon cut into the ends which slide into the mortise on the vertical supports. The tenon has a through hole to accommodate another tenon (tusk) on the outside of the vertical support to lock in the shelves and provide rigidity.

Step 1: Bill of Materials

Use this link to pull all the dimensions. I quickly slapped this together so a few of the shelves are off by ~1/16", no big. I created half a shelf and mirrored it so they are chopped in two pieces. Again, it was quick and dirty.

I decided to use 2x12 pine for this project. Yes it is heavy. And yes it is probably overkill. But recall my requirement for a rigid and cheap shelf. I started by CADing up a simple model. The bottom shelf has a span of 48" and the angle on the vertical is 8 degrees. This actually makes the shelf stronger as the load increases. The shelf spacing in variable, starting at 14" at the bottom to carry the heaver textbooks and decreasing 1" at each shelf. The total height is 72". The model provided the dimensions for my shopping list. The total cost was approximately $65.


  • 2"x12"x12': 3 boards
  • 100% Tung oil
  • Red Mahogany Stain
  • Polyurethane
  • 1" brush: x 3


  • Jigsaw
  • Angle tool protractor thing (not sure the proper name)
  • Drill
  • Miter saw (although a circular saw or table saw would work as well)
  • Router
  • Belt sander

Step 2: Vertical Supports

For the vertical supports, I translated the dimensions from the model to the boards. This is the moment where I realized that the decision to angle the supports was going to make life difficult. Each mortise had to be cut at an 8 degree angle. To achieve this, I started by drilling out 7/16" holes each end of the mortise. Then I used the jigsaw to rough cut the mortise. I used the angle tool to adjust the jigsaw blade to 8 degrees and properly sized the mortise.

Step 3: Shelves

For the shelves, I started by cutting the tenon. Again, dimensions from the CAD model. I then cut the through hole to accommodate the peg. Lastly I routed the shelf edges to quickly identify which size was up.

Step 4: Test Assembly

Once the verticals and shelves were cut to size, I attempted a quick assembly to check for alignment and proper sizing. Some minor cutting was required, but for the most part the pieces fit together like a puzzle. Big win for CAD!

Step 5: Finishing

I went to town with the belt sander, 80 grit followed by 120. Its pine so I didn't feel the need to go smoother. At this point in the build I got a little lazy and I was antsy to wrap it up. Sanding and staining tends to eat up time and energy. I used one coat of tung oil on the shelves because it takes too damn long to dry. The verticals received two coats of stain and one of urethane.The pictures show the final assembly empty and loaded with my junk. Hope y'all enjoyed it!



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    Would it not be easier to cut the through mortise square and make it a bit taller than the thickness of the shelves to accommodate the slight angle? The friction from the pin/tusk would hold it tight regardless. This way the angle of the shelf is determined by the length of the individual shelves and how accurately you cut the tenons. The tenons being much easier to make exact since you cut them from the outside of the board. The tusk could be simplified as well by using a thick dowel with a flat tapered side sanded into it and you only have to drill a round hole instead of cutting a square one. Any thoughts?

    5 replies

    Would you mind making a diagram of how this would be cut and put together? I don't know the terms well enough to visualize it, but it seems like it would be much easier to execute.

    I added a link to a Fusion 360 file. You can play around with it to better understand how to cut and assemble. Cheers.

    Oh! That's cool, I'll check it out. I meant EthanL22's adjustment to your design, as your instructable has enough pictures that I had the general idea, but when I read Ethan's comment my eyes glaze over after mortise and tenon and I can only get the sense that the cut you put the shelves through isn't angled, which sounds easier? I was hoping he'd clarify what parts of the design he suggested be changed with a simple napkin diagram.

    Man, where were you a couple months ago? You could have saved me a ton of measuring and frustration. I do like those suggestions. I arrived at the design by working it out on a computer. But in reality your design is significantly easier to produce. Thanks for the feedback.

    Easier to produce perhaps but dowel is more expensive for the tusks and you won't use up your scrap wood using dowel. Aesthetically it may not be as appealing. Since the mortise is straight, the shelf sides at an angle of 8˚ and 2" thick, the shelf/tenon being 2" thick (approximately) you'd need a mortise 5" wide vertically to get the tenon through (if my math is correct). This giant gap could be covered up by creating a tusk shaped appropriately, ie. not a dowel tusk. There's certainly an aesthetic sacrifice to doing it this way.

    He said he angled it so it would get stronger as he added weight to it.

    Probably also because it looks good.

    Thank you all for your replies.

    A shelf with parallel walls is actually pretty weak to shearing forces, which is why most parallel shelves have either a full back or some sort of bracing to keep it from collapsing to either side. Having angled sides significantly increases the shelves resistance to collapsing without adding extra bracing material and maintaining an open design. It looks good and increases strength in many ways.

    I certainly like the look and wanted to make this a little more difficult. Kidding. The thought is that as the shelf load increases, so does compression on the shelf from the vertical support. The pegs slide deeper into the slots increasing the rigidity.

    good job !!! it's funny because it's a medieval design ! :) and we still use it today in our medieval camps, i have plenty of friends who made it !!

    This looks great! Nice job. Which blade did you use for jig saw? My blade seems bending due to heat. So it doesn't cut straight. .

    1 reply

    If I recall correctly, I believe it was a 12 tooth high carbon steel blade. Nothing special about it, I just took it slow. Good luck!

    I wonder if you could leave out the 3rd and 4th shelves so you could put your flat panel tv and cable box or Wii or whatever on the lower or upper shelves? With a little extra work you could really make this into a nice entertainment center.

    Good design but more dimensional specs would have been nice. I know it can vary according to each individual's need but a baseline would be a good starting point.

    Nice build....

    Nice design. For the pedantic among, you, this type of joint is called a tusked mortise and tenon. Typically there's no stop on the tusk; it's usually just a simple wedge shape, and you tap it in until it's tight (rather than having a hard stop like your design). That way it's adjustable and never loosens up as the wood shrinks/expands; just tap it in a little tighter--which is why it's a really good joint for the legs of sideboards and dining tables (and bookshelves!).