Introduction: BookCASE: Travel Bookcase in a Suitcase!

This Instructable will explain how I made a travel bookcase that folds up into a suitcase. Construction is pretty basic--you fit wooden shelves into an old wood-sided suitcase. Below you can read a bit more about my inspiration for the project, but if you'd rather just get crackin' skip to the first step!

Initial concept (written months ago):
I’m moving to the United Kingdom in less than a month. I know books are heavy and cluttering and I should just join this millennium and get an e-reader, but I love real books and have faith they will make me feel at home in my soulless grad-school dormitory housing. In order to claim my new space quickly and limit my book collection, I created the BookCASE--a tiny portable library made from a vintage, wood-sided suitcase.

I’m not the best at decluttering, especially when it comes to books. Somehow, even though I really only purchase books I use as references or that I can’t find at my library, I’m convinced that my collection reproduces while I’m not watching. In order to tame my library I like to employ the  volume-based method of decluttering--that is, outlining a space or container for a certain type of item that places a physical limit on how much stuff I can have. I like to call this approach the “carrying capacity” and enjoy designing specialized spaces for my possessions. The BookCASE is just one example of a specialized space and it takes the concept of “carrying capacity” quite literally--when I have it filled with books it weighs around fifty-pounds.

I took a vintage wood-sided suitcase and tried a variety of arrangements, selecting books I didn’t think I would be able to find so easily in the UK or that I couldn’t live without. Based on the books I wanted to bring, I customized the shelves to fit my collection. Mostly I have small paperbacks (these go along the top row) and some larger squarish books with large photographs. These larger books presented a slight challenge in that they can’t be arranged during moving with the spines facing upward, as they are wider than the suitcase.

To adapt to these varying book dimensions, I created a small shelf extension that rests alongside the books when they are on-the-go but can be attached to the bottom shelf so the books can be turned spine-out for the ease of browsing. I also have a small easel that stores away and can be used to display a large book. During moving the large books are laid flat on top of one another, meaning that there is additional space for library books when the books are lined-up spine-out.

I experimented with ways to create storage in the lid of the suitcase but settled instead on adding a small lithographed bookplate which I printed myself. I made some other decorative modifications to the case, lining it with navy corduroy and dark leather. Because of the added weight of the books, I added additional brass hardware.

I generally agonize over selecting how many books to bring for even a trip of a couple days but somehow, the fact that this project is so absurd helped me to enjoy paring down my books for my trans-Atlantic move.

How it's been working out:
I've been using the BookCASE for about five months now. I've only taken it on one major journey--flying from the US to the UK and then by traveling by train from the East to West of England. All in all, it was my least troublesome piece of luggage. It's been working well in my flat--as a student I definitely need as much bookshelf space as possible. The shelf-extension mechanism doesn't exactly work as I had intended, it holds up alright but it's definitely something that could use with some improvement.

Step 1: Supplies and Tools

All suitcases are different, so you're going to have to estimate quantities for materials based on the suitcase you select. Don't go crazy with size on the suitcase. Stick with a case that can fit in a carry-on bin.

Supplies and tools:
--a wooden-sided suitcase, I found mine at a church rummage sale, I stripped out the existing lining as it was moldy and full of pockets and things. Alternatively you might build your own wooden suitcase using seamster's instructable.

--wood for shelves, I used 1X4 oak boards I found in a dumpster

--finish for the wood, I used Rosewood-colored One-Step Wood-sheen Minwax stain and finish that a friend was going to throw out

--a hand saw and miter box

--sand paper, although a power sander or Dremel tool will save you a lot of grief!

--rags for applying finish, and something to protect the surrounding area from stain

--material for lining the case, I used leather I bought from a shoe repairman and some navy corduroy fabric

--a rotary cutter, sharp exacto knife and ruler, or heavy duty scissors capable of cutting fabric and leather

--leather or similar for making additional "washers"

--some cardboard for lining the case

--liquid nails or silicone caulk and a caulk gun (at least two tubes)

--spray adhesive

--hinges to reinforce the case, holding books means the case needs to be able to carry more weight

--at least two simple draw latches, don't want the case bursting open in travel! My case had two quite strong latches at the front, you may need additional latches depending on the design of your case.

--two barrel bolts for the shelf extension, this is something that could do with improving. Another type of latch might be better. Please comment with any experiments you might have!

--a drill and screwdriver

--screws (oval head) and washers (cup-type) for screwing in the shelves, I think I used size 8/32 diameter screws about 3/4 or 1 inch long. If you are attaching a bookplate, you will want similar washers and very short screws.

--a small easel (optional), I was able to fit a small easel between the shelves when packing the case. This let's you display a larger book once you've unpacked.

--(optional) some thin plastic and a book plate so you can let people know whose case it is! You will also need washers and short screws for fastening.

Step 2: Add Hardware

Although in the end my BookCASE ended up being lighter than similarly sized suitcases filled with clothing, I wanted to reinforce the hardware to deal with the weight of filling the case with books.

First strip out the existing interior of the suitcase, if you haven't already.

Because the case walls are quite thin (less than 1/4 inch) you might want to back all hardware with leather (see photo). Just cut a piece of leather to be slightly larger than the hardware to be attached. Glue the leather to the area you want to attach the hardware with some liquid nails. You also want to drill pilot holes before affixing screws as the wood used in these cases tends to be prone to splintering.

To reinforce my case I added two small hinges to the back and two draw latches to each side. Depending on the hardware on your case, you might want to add additional latches to the front, or replace the existing latches--leather backing can also be helpful for covering marks left by previous bits of hardware. If any screw tips penetrate into the inside, cover them with liquid nails before relining. You should be able to cover such blemishes during the re-lining process. Which luckily is the next step!

Step 3: Reline the Case

Firstly, you will probably need to reline the case to make sure interior space is smooth and space is maximized. Also, it just makes everything look classier.

After removing the lining, you will want to put in some cardboard inserts to make everything smooth before relining. Cut out some cardboard to fit the lid and bottom of the case. I did this by tracing the exterior of the case and then trimming away until it fit snuggly inside. If it is slightly smaller, don't worry because you will caulk along the edges. Once you've cut the cardboard, glue it in with some liquid nails or silicone caulk. Then caulk along the edges where the bottom/top meets the sides of the case (see image) to fill any gaps and to reinforce the edges slightly--on mine the edges were slightly worth and some of the threaded binding was falling away.

Then cut some fabric to cover over the cardboard. Cut the fabric generously so that it goes up the sides. Spray adhesive on the inside of the case and smooth the fabric from the center.

Then cut some leather to fit along the sides of the case. I also cut out some strips of leather to cover the hinges--some of the screw tips stuck out from the hinges so I covered them in liquid nails and covered with leather strips. Then I glued the sides in very carefully using liquid nails. Be sure to have a warm, damp rag at hand for any liquid nail accidents.

Step 4: Create the Shelves

Before creating the shelves, I would play around with fitting books into the case to decide what kind of layout you want. I made one shelf for smaller books of trade-paperback dimensions and a taller shelf to fit cookbooks and other fancy books.

Cutting the shelf pieces:
My case has slightly sloped sides, so my first task was to create a shelf that would make the bottom shelf level.

In fitting the shelves I followed the following process:
1. Lay a piece of wood over top the case where you want the shelf and mark an approximate width.
2. Using the mark as a guide, cut a piece of wood slightly larger that the shelf you will need.
3. Try fitting the shelf into the case.
4. Sand and trim to create a better fit. In my case, I had to sand and trim to create a slight angle to fit the shelf edge to the suitcase wall.
5. Repeat steps 3-4 until you get a nice snug fit and a fairly level shelf. The shelves should work with the leather lining to fit snuggly enough to bear weight without screws--although you will fit screws later!

Once you've gotten a good fit on the bottom shelf put some books in the case to help measure where you want to place the higher shelf (see photo). Repeat the same shelf fitting process as above.

Once you have the bottom and middle shelf in place, you want to cut a piece of wood that fits vertically between the two horizontal shelves (see photo). This piece should fit loosely between the two shelves. It is used as the shelf-extension when you set up the bookshelf. I had a lot of very wide books which are packed flat when closing the case, but this makes them difficult to find quickly. The shelf-extension allows you to turn out these books so you can see the spines easily when you set up the bookcase when you reach your destination (see photo).

Step 5: Stain And/or Finish the Shelves

Before affixing the shelves with screws you probably want to finish them. I used Minwax Wood-sheen as I had obtained a partially used bottle of it for free. I applied three coats using the instructions on the bottle.

You can use whatever finishing technique you like, just be sure to sand and finish the shelves before screwing them in.

Be sure to prep the wood before finishing!
1.Sand with fine grit paper.
2.Wipe with clean damp cloth rag to remove dust.
3. Onward to finish time!

For more finishing ideas, you may want to consult Popular Mechanics' Instructable on Wood Finishing, read some labels of stains and finishes, or ask at a local hardware store!

Step 6: Add Hardware for Shelf Extension

As mentioned in Step 4, I created a shelf extension piece. I used two barrel bolts to attach the two pieces of wood. In future I might use another type of latching system, a combination of bolt latches and draw latches. The problem with the barrel bolts is that the extension piece can just slide forward. However, I found that the pin that you grip to move the bolt just happened to be exactly the right size to fit between the ground and the shelf when the shelf was extended and this stopped the two pieces from sliding apart.

Note that I attached the barrel bolt latches so they face opposite directions. I'm not sure that this is necessary, but it is what I did. Remember the bolts will be on the bottom of the shelves, so face down the side of the wood you think looks most attractive when screwing the latches to the back.

Please comment if you improve upon this part of the project. I will reference you in future edits.

Step 7: Final Assembly

Do a dry fit of the shelves, then affix them by screwing from the outer sides of the case into the shelf. As mentioned on the material page, I used oval head screws with cup washers, backed with leather washers because I thought this looked classy and was least lightly to mar the exterior finish of the suitcase. I used two screws for each shelf. I just eye-balled them.

You may also choose to add a bookplate to the lid of the case as I did. I just cut some leather backing, laid the bookplate over top, and put some clear plastic from a broken picture frame overtop of that. I drilled pilot holes and affixed the whole thing with tiny ovalhead screws, cup washers, and leather washers (I think I stacked a couple of them to avoid going through to the outside of the case). I made the bookplate myself through a lithography class at Fleisher Art Memorial--definitely a place to check out for those who live in or around Philadelphia, PA!

Now choose some books to fill it and away you go! Or get to work on a Nomad Desk and create a traveling office! Or check out Wade Tarzia's other ideas for furniture that travels.

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