Introduction: Bookcase Banister

About: Quirky gifts, colorful paintings, detailed drawings, silly graphics--I do it all.

My charming little brick house has a strange layout: the front door opens directly into the living room, which is separated from the kitchen by an open staircase to the basement. The first thing you see when walking into the house is an ugly, old, too-low-for-safety metal banister with a heart made of metal spirals in the center. It wasn't the first impression I was looking for.

After many mornings of sitting on my couch and staring at this mostly-functional-but-hideous banister, I dreamed up a better way to use the space. I wanted to make a custom piece of furniture: a built-in bookcase banister that would give me attractive storage for all of my beloved books (which were stowed away on a shelf in a dark corner), some hidden storage for smaller household items, and perform the necessary task of preventing humans from falling down the stairs.

This simple bookcase (with cabinet!) is built in two separate pieces, then attached to give the appearance of one big unit. It can be built with basic carpentry skills and does not require any kind of fancy tools or techniques. While I cut my wood on my table saw at home, nearly all the cuts are square and could be made by the helpful staff at your local home improvement store. Our materials cost was just over $200, and the project took about a day and a half to make.


While I'm sure your home is not exactly the same as mine (or IS IT? Are we house twins?!) and your own bookcase banister plan will vary, here are the supplies I used:

- 3/4 inch plywood for the shelves. Our bookcase is 10" wide, so we had our local home improvement store cut plywood down into 10" strips to make our at-home cutting easier.

- Scrap 2x4 for the base

- Thin sheet of veneer/plywood/masonite for the back panel. We had this cut to our dimensions at the home improvement store so that it would fit in my car.

- 1/2 inch MDF for cabinet doors

- four cabinet hinges

- two cabinet door handles

- small metal corner brackets (4 per shelf)

- shelf brackets for inside cabinet (4 per shelf)

- 3/4 inch iron-on veneer to finish plywood edges

- Wood screws

- Paint and painting supplies

Step 1: Plan, Plan, Plan

I would often sit on my couch staring at the banister and have to start sketching out what I wished it looked like. When I'm custom making furniture for my space that will be an integral part of my home, I take my time to go through a few design phases. I like to draw my idea, let it sit for a bit, and come back to it. This is a hugely visible and central part of my home, so it had to be done right.

Some of the things I was considering:

- I struggled with how to securely attach the shelf to the floor. Initially I had drawn up some ideas for raised feet, but decided that the most clean solution would be to create a solid base for the shelf to sit on.

- I wanted the overall height of the banister to match the half-wall banister on the kitchen side of the stairs, so I fixed that as my top height and worked down from there.

- I wanted the shelf heights to fit what I needed to store. The top shelf is 12.25" high to fit larger art books and the Wifi Bookshelf speaker. The middle shelf is 7.5" to fit the mass-market paperbacks my husbie loves to read. With the heights for shelf thickness and the base of trimmed 2x4, that left 10.75" for the bottom shelf (which fits my preferred trade-sized books).

- I had a bookshelf with a depth I really liked: 10" so that larger books fit well, but there also wasn't too much space behind smaller books if spines are pulled to the front. The wall where the banister was attached was only 5.25 inches wide. I decided to extend the front of the shelf beyond the banister to create a skinny cabinet next to my coat closet. At 4.75 inches deep, this cabinet is the perfect size to store candles, light bulbs, and other small household goods. There was a power outlet on the wall that would be covered by this cabinet, so I incorporated a way for a Wifi speaker to be sitting on the bookshelf with all of its cords nicely hidden inside the cabinet.

After a few iterations and many months of passively thinking about the banister, I felt like I had a good idea of exactly what I wanted and an idea of how to build it. My mechanically-brained friend Linden was coming to visit for a few days, so I asked if she would spend one of those days helping me construct the built-in bookcase banister of my dreams. She said yes!

Step 2: Out With the Old and Creating the Base

I had enough scrap 2x4 to use for the base, which sits directly on the floor. We cut the edges off of each 2x4 so that the angles would be nice and square. I planned for the bookshelf to overhang the base, giving it a little bit of a floating effect.

After trimming off the edges, we cut the 2x4s to length with 45s at any connecting sides. Before attaching, we painted the cut wood. We used corner brackets to attach the base directly to the floor, adding the brackets before final assembly of the base. After the base was screwed together and painted, we set it in place and screwed down the brackets into the floor.

Step 3: Building the Outside of the Bookcase

We had two sheets of 3/4 plywood cut to 10" strips so that it would fit in my Prius and we wouldn't have to run the huge sheets through my little home table saw. We cut the top and bottom of the bookcase to size, then cut four verticals of the same size: one for each side of the bookcase and two vertical dividers.

We painted everything, then brought it in to start assembling. Before putting in any screws, we measured and marked all of the spots for the shelves based on our planned heights. Then we attached the top and bottom to the two outside vertical sides using screws straight through the top and bottom (with counter-sunk pilot holes for easy patching and painting later). We attached the two interior vertical boards the same way.

Step 4: Shelves and Back

We cut the six shelves to size, painted their tops and bottoms, and attached four small corner brackets to each one with small screws. After screwing in the top row of shelves, we lifted the shelf onto the base and screwed straight through the bottom of the bookcase into the wooden base and screwed the side into the wall. Once we were satisfied that the case was well-attached, we added the remaining shelves.

We painted our backer board, which we had cut at the home improvement store to the dimensions from our plans. A nail gun made quick work of attaching the board to the back of the bookcase. It was starting to look real!

All of the pre-painting makes finish painting much easier. We didn't have to jam paint brushes into the corners of the shelves to try and get everything painted, and it gave us a consistent finish without brush strokes or extra heavy paint in the nooks and crannies.

Step 5: Cabinet Shelves

We built the small cabinet mostly out of plywood scrap. I decided that I wanted to be able to move the shelves in the cabinet since I wasn't sure what I was storing in there yet, so I got some moveable shelf brackets and drilled out a grid of holes on the side panels of the cabinet before assembling. We screwed together the sides and then put the cabinet into its rightful place next to the bookcase, screwing it down into the wooden base and into wall studs. We stacked the shelves inside before adding a center beam for the cabinet doors to close onto.

The cabinet hides an electrical outlet, allowing for mess-free hiding of cables inside. After deciding on some shelf heights, I drilled large holes through the side of the bookcase going into the cabinet and one of the cabinet shelves so that I could run a plug from the shelf into the cabinet and have access to the outlet for my bookshelf Wifi speaker.

Step 6: Finishing the Edges

Using plywood kept the cost down and gives our shelves lots of stability, but I'm not a fan of the raw edges of plywood. We used iron-on veneer on all raw edges. The veneer gives a consistent, flat surface, making the wood look like a solid piece rather than plywood. It's easy to use--we positioned the veneer section by section, and slowly ran over it with an iron. The excess was trimmed with a knife and sanded.

We used wood filler to fill in all screw holes and visible seams, then sanded everything down to prepare for painting. All remaining edges and seams were then painted, giving the whole piece a cohesive look as one big built-in unit.

Step 7: Making Cabinet Doors and Finishing

Wahoo, almost there! You may notice that as soon as the paint dried, I filled up my bookshelf. I didn't even wait to finish the cabinet doors. I was too excited.

We used some scrap 1/2" MDF for the cabinet doors. I wanted to match the cabinets in my kitchen, which are very simple and plain on the front with an angled routed edge on the backs. We used the table saw to cut the doors to size and cut the angles. The doors each got a few coats of paint before handles and hinges were attached. We hung the doors on the cabinet, and the bookcase was officially finished!

This built-in banister bookcase is now a prominent piece of furniture in our home, and it's the first thing anyone sees when they walk in the door. I love having all of my books out in an open display, and I'm reading a lot more now that I see the books every day instead of having them tucked into a corner.

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