Introduction: Easy DIY Bookshelf

About: I'm an IT professional with a master's in library science. I enjoy woodturning, film making, and being frugal. Sometimes I make stuff that isn't horrible.

We love to read to our daughter and as such, have acquired quite a little library so far. What we hadn't acquired was adequate storage. Most of the books have been hanging out on my storage benches. Our requirements for the build were that it had to be reasonably inexpensive, fit our physical space, and work for our daughter. I also took on the additional challenge of designing this piece to be flat pack. In the end, I used plugs and a solid back, requiring some additional work to pack and reassemble, but the design is one that could be easily mass produced and shipped, as well as car transportable.

Be sure to check out the build video while you're here!

Step 1: The Plan

We luckily had a spot picked out for our shelf and it gave us a rough size of 40 inches in length. I decided to make it 40" square after sizing it up with our almost-4-year-old. A quick measurement of our current book collection showed that 13" was needed for our largest book. We could have gone smaller and shelved it spine up, but wanted them all spine-out. This book was the largest by an inch or two, so it ought to be fine for most/all future children's book acquisitions.

Past experience told me that I'd want an actual material thickness of 3/4" and a width over 10". I also wanted to incorporate some solid bracing (I later altered some of this).

Step 2: Materials

Having decided on dimensions, we went to the local home center to pick up materials. I've previously used 1/2" MDF for some storage benches, but wanted something with more meat for the fasteners to grab into. I was able to get all of the dimensions from 3 8" lengths of 1x12 Whitewood. I'd hoped to find 2 10" lengths, but this was marginally cheaper (like $.22 all summed) and left me with some great off-cuts. Even though these are "appearance boards" and not with the dimensional lumber, it took some sorting to find good candidates. The problems had less to do with warping, twisting, or cupping and more with knots, splits, and sap. Buying the 8" boards also mean that I'd have roughly 16" of waste and could trim the splits and defects off either end if necessary.

For the bracing, I grabbed a select grade 2x4. I could have bought a 2x2, but ripping the 2x4 made it cheaper. We also found some of the cheapest luan in the store for the backing. As the employee pointing us to the aisle mentioned, the pre-cut stuff is always priced higher. We got a whole sheet of luan (more than twice what we needed) for half the price of what we'd found in the half-sheet area.

Shopping List:

  • 2x4 : 1 @ 8'
  • 1x12 : 3 @ 8'
  • luan : 1 @ 4'x4'
  • 24 Kreg Pocket Hole Screws @ 1.25" Coarse
  • Glue
  • Staples/Brads

Step 3: Cutting the Pieces

Once home, it was time to cut everything to length. The 1x12's have an actual width of 11.25." My 12" miter saw has an effective cut capacity of 8" for flat stock. This required each piece to be flipped and the cut finished on the opposite side. These cuts could also have been done with a circular saw, probably more quickly. They were too long to do well on the table saw.

Not having a miter saw station, I used some pallet stretchers to lift the far end of the boards while I trimmed the ends, moving them closer for the final cuts.

Cut List:

  • 1x12 -1 @ 40"
  • 1x12 -2 @ 39.25"
  • 1x12 -3 @ 38.5"
  • 2x2 -2 @ 38.5"

Step 4: Brace Yourselves

For the bracing, I set the height of my table saw blade to a tooth's height above the thickness of the stud. The fence was then set to the thickness of the narrow dimension. I ripped the board to about halfway through the length and flipped the board end-over-end, pushing the same side of the board against the fence to complete the cut. This method keeps our hands furthest from the blade and removes the awkward use of push sticks or anything. After the first squared piece is cut, the remaining piece is run through the same way.

My fence shifted and left me with a less than perfect cut, but it was good enough and really not noticeable in the final product. When setting the distance with the board thickness, make sure both ends of your fence engage properly.

After they were made square, these were measured off the shelf length and cut at the chop saw.

Step 5: Testing

At this point, we wanted to do a dry mock-up. Some of the reasons we opted to do this now:

  • check measurements
  • setup clamps where needed
  • measure reveal for bracing
  • mark pocket holes
  • place the nicest faces forward
  • hide knots/imperfections

All the cuts were within a reasonably accurate tolerance. We used two sets of corner clamps to hold everything while we laid it out. A squeeze clamp was used to place the bracing against the front of the bottom shelf. Once we could see where knots and grain were as the boards would stand, we made changes to put knots at the back and gouges on the underside of shelves. After finalizing that, we marked faces for pocket holes.

Step 6: Assembly

Pocket holes were first drilled into each of the uprights. Using corner clamps to ensure square and hole the boards together, the uprights were each secured to the top with three pocket hole screws. Since this was 3/4 material, I used Kreg's 1.25" coarse screws.

We next ensured that the bottom was clamped securely to the uprights and flipped the whole thing onto the top. Each brace was removed and pocket holed on each end. We then glued and clamped them to the underside of the bottom shelf. The brace along the front has a reveal that was marked by the foot of the corner clamp.

Giving the braces time to dry, I drilled pocket holes in the top two shelves. I also cut down some of the 2x2 stock to 13" to use as spacers in a later step. Lastly, we removed the bottom shelf with the braces still clamped in place and drilled a single pocket hole in each end. The bottom shelf and braces were then attached with glue and screws. The clamps were then removed and the carcass flipped right-side-up.

Step 7: Assembly (cont)

Using the 13" spacers (to give the proper clearance for our biggest books), we were able to screw in the next shelf. Using scrap 1x12 may have given more even support, but would have blocked the pocket holes. We clamped two of the spacers in place to keep them from moving.

By this point, we'd decided against any additional bracing under the top. Even without the middle shelves, the box was very sturdy and did not suffer from racking. This changed the height of the shelves, so the remaining space was measured for accuracy. After subtracting the thickness of the shelf, the long spacers were cut to half the remaining distance and the final shelf was glued and screwed. Be sure to pay attention to the shelves and ensure that they aren't proud of the sides on the back or you'll have a hard time securing the backing material later.

Nearing the end, we had to plug the pocket holes on the uprights and underneath the shelves. The underside of the shelves won't really be seen, but after doing it and having folks unable to identify the joinery method, I'm quite happy with the decision. The plug come a little longer than needed for the 3/4 material, so they were trimmed to rough length, glued, and sanded flush.

Step 8: Finish Prep

I used some 120 grit paper and a random orbital sander to bring the shelves flush with the front facade of the uprights. From there, I rounded over all of the edges and corners. I could have used a router and a round-over bit, but still would have had to sand (by hand) and didn't want to deal with tear out, burning, or finding a metal fastener that had come through a little further than intended.

There were still some small gaps (the pocket holes really help to close up and pull joints tight). I believe most of this could be attributed to the warp and cupping in the uprights. I filled these where necessary with spackle. I'm planning to paint, so this should be fine, but if you're looking for a natural finish, definitely go with some wood filler. In a pinch, sawdust and glue could work, but the glue won't take the stain and will likely make the gap more evident than if it wasn't filled at all. I filled all of the voids before going back and hand sanding them flush.

Step 9: Apply a Finish

After I was satisfied with the filling and sanding, I took the shelf into a space were I wouldn't have to worry about bugs or leaves falling into the paint. I won't go into explaining how to do a great job applying the paint or whatever finish you go with -- I'm honestly not very good at it and being a cheapskate, I used some really crummy leftover paint. Rusty lid, paint separated, used roller... However, I was able to get a fairly even coat (I did something like 3 passes to cover everything with multiple thin coats). Using flat ceiling paint with some questionable texture, there was a certain tactile feel, so I sanded the paint down with 220 grit paper. I used an orbital sander on the main flats and hand sanded the edges and anywhere that wouldn't have gotten the same amount of paint. It did require a few touch ups, particularly on the knots and where I hit the corners with the sander.

I painted the back while it was still disassembled. Placing some bubble-wrap over a bench, I leaned the shelf over with the front facing down and used some quick clamps to hold the luan back against the braces on the bottom. This allowed me to line up the board with the shelf and hold it in place while I used an electric staple gun to affix it. I didn't feel the need to glue this on. My shelf was also solid enough that it didn't need the back to help with racking. The luan was the cheapest sheet good at my home center, but I could have also gone with a cardboard solution with similar results.

Step 10: Closing Thoughts

The shelf was very simple to design and build. The construction, my first time using the pocket hole jig, was super fast and easy.

I built this for less than $80 and have some materials leftover. I already had the screws, staples, glue, and painting supplies, so that would bring the total up if you didn't already have those on-hand.

I'm super happy with the idea that, should I want to, this piece could be broken down and flat-packed (once the plugs and screws were removed) and take up a space of around 11.5"x40"x 6" before packing materials. At that size, this solid wood furniture would fit in the trunk or backseat of most passenger vehicles. Obviously, a sheet of luan would not meet that sizing, but like many mass-produced pieces, it would be very simple to use something like hardboard and make a crease or relief cut to allow it to fold and be boxed up along with the shelving.

If you enjoyed this instructable, please be sure to vote, follow, and favorite. That helps me know what you guys enjoy. If you made something similar, I'd love to see it in the comments!

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