Introduction: Nautilus Bookshelf

About: Eric J. Wilhelm is the founder of Instructables. He has a Ph.D. from MIT in Mechanical Engineering. Eric believes in making technology accessible through understanding, and strives to inspire others to learn …

Children's books are all drastically different sizes. Putting them into a bookshelf seems almost futile because they're either too big and don't fit or are too small and waste space (plus they're only moments away from being pulled out onto the floor anyway). Rather then worry about this, I decided to embrace it and build a bookshelf where every shelf was different. This nautilus-inspired bookshelf isn't meant to be efficient or to pack books neatly, it's about willingly, enthusiastically accepting the chaos that is kids books.

The bookshelf is made of 15 sheets of maple plywood, jet machined, laminated together, stained, and finished.

Step 1: Inspiration

I broadly knew I wanted a bookshelf with variably-sized shelves. However, I was stuck on stuff that looked like off-kilter or crooked rectilinear shelves. I asked my 5-year-old daughter to draw the bookshelf she wanted, and she drew a spiral. Perfect!

Step 2: Draw Nautilus Outline

I used AutoCAD LT to draw the profile of the shelf.

First, I drew a logarithmic spiral and then cut it into regular sections while consulting pictures of nautilus shells to get the proportions approximately correct. Near the center of the spiral, the sections sweep out twice the angle because I didn't want the center shelves to become too small. I then offset the spiral 0.75'' as a thickness of shelves that seemed right.

The overall scale of the shelves is such that two profiles can be cut from a single 4' x 8' sheet of plywood. This makes the dimensions approximately 46'' x 36''.

Both the AutoCAD LT drawing and a .DXF are attached.

Step 3: Jet Machine Layers

I used 0.75'' thick maple shop-grade plywood and cut the profiles on the Pier 9Omax Jet Machining Center. I cut the the plywood above water so it didn't get fully soaked.

I cut 15 profiles from 8 pieces of plywood. The 16th profile was a solid outline of the bookshelf intended to be a back that I ultimately decided not to use. Each profile took almost 30 minutes to cut, so I monopolized the jet for 8 hours with this project.

Step 4: Scrap Wood

The very nature of my process generated lots of scrap wood. With so many other projects happening at the Pier, fortunately much of it was repurposed.

Step 5: 15 Layers Stacked

Here are all 15 layers stacked together.

The discoloration along the cut surfaces is garnet from the jet that has been forced into wood, probably as the jet passes over its steel slats. Moderate sanding did not remove the marks, so I chose to ignore them.

Step 6: First Layer

I wanted the exposed face to be free of marks, including nail holes. To achieve this, I glued it to the second layer and held the two pieces together with almost every clamp in the shop.

Step 7: Internal Layers

The internal layers are held together with glue and brad nails. Since each layer is the same shape, I aligned them by feel along the edges.

Step 8: Final Layer

Similar to the first layer, I wanted the final layer to be free of marks, so both sides were unblemished. I glued the final layer and, again, used every clamp in the shop that was big enough.

Step 9: Roughly Sand

Using 80-grit sandpaper, I roughly sanded the shelf until the individual layers were even. Where I could, I used a belt sander, and in the internal areas, a random orbital sander or sanding block. I only sanded the largest cavities -- the smallest ones were too difficult to access and are not easily visible.

Step 10: Fill Voids

Many voids in the plywood were exposed curing cutting. I filled them with wood putty and kept sanding.

Step 11: Sand Until Smooth

After filling the voids, I sanded with 100, 200, and 400-grit sandpaper. This step literally took weeks, since I would carve out 30 minutes a couple times a week to sand.

Step 12: Stain

We tested a few stains, and chose Miniwax classic gray. I was initially thinking I would not stain the shelf, but the gray stain looked good and did a great job covering the garnet marks.

Step 13: Finish

With so much surface area and the potential for lots of drips, I sought professional help finishing the shelf. My friends at Because We Can spray coated the shelf with a water-based acrylic lacquer. Pictured here is their HVLP gun in their spray booth.

Step 14: It's Also a Slide

I packed in the children's books, and they quickly discovered the bookshelf was also a slide!