Introduction: "Steel Pipe" Bookcase

Anyone who attempts to buy bookcases usually encounters the following string of questions, "Why do these cost so much money?", "Why are they all ugly?", "Who ever thought laminated plywood looked good?", and "What are these archaic things you call books?".

It took over a year of looking at bookcases to finally find one that we liked however when I saw the price tag I nearly fell over. It was made of steel pipe and reclaimed barn wood, what would have been considered garbage ten years ago, was assembled into a bookcase costing a small fortune today. Then I thought, I can do it better and cheaper.

So instead of dropping several hundred dollars, I easily made one for a fraction of the cost out of lighter materials!

Step 1: Supplies & Tools

Your supply list will depend on the size of your bookcase, mine consisted of:

  • 1 ⅛" x 48" Pine dowel rods (6 @ $4 each)
  • ¾" PVC 90° elbows (4 @ $0.50 each)
  • ¾" PVC 3-way connector (4 @ $0.50 each)
  • 1" PVC end caps (4 @ $0.50 each)
  • Black hammered spray paint ($4)
  • Wood stain ($4)
  • Set of 8 shelf holders (2 @ $1.75 each)
  • Wood pallet(s) (free)
  • Wood screws

I picked all this up at my local big box home improvement store except for the pallets. You will also need the following tools:

For bookshelf construction:

  • Miter saw
  • Drill press or a drill with a jig
  • Contact cement or glue capable of bonding wood to plastic
  • Rotary tool with brass wire wheel and sanding drum
  • Brass wire brush
  • Sand paper (rough/coarse)

For individual shelf construction (optional depending upon your design):

  • Clamps
  • Wood glue
  • Nail gun or hammer
  • Brads (for nail gun) or finishing nails (for hammer)

For pallet deconstruction:

  • Reciprocating saw
  • Rotary tool (with cutoff wheel)
  • Pry bar
  • Sledge hammer
  • Flat head screwdriver

Step 2: Safety and Caution

Personal protective equipment is a MUST for this project. I can't tell you how many times each of the following came in handy on this project:

  • Shatter-resistant eyewear (preferably with side protection)
  • Work gloves
  • Dust mask (not pictured but definitely used)
  • Ear plugs

This safety gear was imperative for a lot of the preparation steps, especially dismantling the pallets. During this project splinters and particles will be flying towards your face and hands. Loud power tools will be used and hazardous dust and fumes will be created.

Step 3: Harvest and Prepare Your Pallet Wood

I was lucky enough to get my pallets from my local homebrew shop, they were junking them otherwise and were happy to see them used. As free wood comes, you have to put in a little work to get it where you want. Since I was looking for the rough look, the condition of the wood was fine however I needed to free it from the pallet.

There are plenty of great instructables on dismantling, disassembling and denailing pallets, so I won't cover that here. Once the boards were liberated from their pallets, I used a variety of files, planers and a rasper to get rid of errant splinters and maintain a rough aesthetic to the wood.

Please just keep safety in mind. That applies in all aspects of this project from swinging sledges, wearing goggles while sawing and picking the right pallet wood.

Step 4: Prepare Your Wooden Dowels

Your first step should be to sand down your dowel rods and measure them. The dowels are supposed to resemble steel pipe and while the texture of the spray paint will hide most of the wood grain, you'll still want to sand down anything that might show through. Also, don't trust that just because you bought 48-inch dowel rods that they are actually 48 inches. I found my dowel rods differed by about 1/16 of an inch, you'll want to try to keep tight tolerances on all your lengths to make sure everything remains square.

Step 5: Prepare Your PVC Couplings

When sizing all your components up you'll noticed that the inner diameter of the PVC couplings are just barely too small to accommodate the dowel rods. While at first glance of the supplies sheet you probably thought, "well of course a 1 ⅛ inch dowel rod isn't fitting in a ¾ inch PVC hole." Just remember that the sizing for the PVC couplings are based on the inner diameter of the pipes that they are designed for, so really the hole in the PVC coupling is closer to 1 inch.

To prepare the PVC couplings I did three things. First I used the rotary tool with the brass wire wheel to remove all raised surface markings that I didn't want in the finished project. Did you remember your eyewear, gloves and dust mask? You'll need them for this step, trust me.

Next I used the drum sander in the rotary tool to widen the couplings to accept the dowel rods. This has the added benefit of scoring the PVC to better accept the glue. You'll want to keep even pressure on the rotary tool while you go around the inside of each hole that will have a dowel rod in it (see next step). The rotary tool and sanding drum make quick work of the PVC so be careful that you do not remove too much; test fit the couplings on the dowel rods regularly during this step.

Finally, use the wire brush to rough-up and score the outsides of the PVC couplings and the inside of the PVC end caps so that they will better accept the paint or glue.

Step 6: Measure, Measure, Then When You're Sure, Measure Again

This step requires a macro-perspective on the bookshelf construction (see diagram). For the space that I want to put this bookshelf, I need a frame that is no more than 20 inches wide. Considering that is 20 inches including the wood dowels and the PVC couplings, it is necessary that we cut the horizontal dowels to a length that when combined with the PVC couplings at each end equals 20 inches.

The process to do this is simple, however it is complicated by the reality that each of the PVC couplings now probably fit somewhat differently than each other. To determine the width and height each PVC coupling will add, simply test fit each coupling by snugly fitting it on the end of a dowel rod marked at 5 inches (this length is arbitrary). Butt the end with the PVC coupling on it against a flat surface (I used a wood block) and measure from that surface to the marking on the dowel. The width/height each PVC coupling adds is whatever that length is minus 5 inches. Do this for every numbered PVC coupling in the diagram (E1 through E8 and T1 through T8), I've included my measurements at the bottom. It's a good idea to do this more than once at each coupling then measure and mark each section of dowel rod with the corresponding number on the coupling (see the diagram and the pictures in the next step).

Solve for the dowel (pipe) length for each equation in the diagram (P1 through P8). I used 20 inches as my width and the maximum height of 51.5 inches as my height, but you can use whatever dimensions you like that can be supported by the materials. This will be a light duty shelf, so I'm not afraid of it breaking under too much weight even though it's surprisingly sturdy.

Step 7: Cut, Sand & Test Fit

Once you are certain of your pipe lengths, cut the dowels to size with a miter saw.

Sand all the cut ends of the dowels and test fit everything by assembling it to the diagram in the previous step. All of the horizontal pipe sections should be the same length (see picture), as should the vertical pipe sections. Once everything is assembled, make sure all angles are square and that your overall dimensions are correct and match the diagram.

Once you are satisfied with the test fit, mark all of your pieces with the coupling label, and two alignment marks at 90 degrees to each other (see picture) to show where the coupling should line up on the dowel and how far the dowel should go into the coupling. Some of the coupling labels may have rubbed off or smudged, so relabel if necessary.

Step 8: Drill Shelf Support Holes

Before disassembling your test fit, take a framing square or guide line and draw a line down the middle of the vertical sections of dowel. Mark off where you want each shelf support hole to be (I chose 3 inches) on each dowel, making sure to measure from bottom to top on all four dowels.

Determine which drill bit to use from the packaging of your shelf supports, mine was a 3/16 inch bit. Drill each hole to a sufficient depth to completely take in the shelf support but not so deep that you go through the dowel (this is where the drill press or jig come in handy). Do this to all vertical dowel sections (P2, P4, P6, and P8) and tap the dowels to remove all the saw dust inside the holes.

Step 9: Assemble the Pipes

Now it's time to put all the "pipes" together. Wipe all pieces clean and follow the directions on your glue bottle. Some glues will expand when curing, so it's a good idea to apply it a little deeper in the coupling, then twist each dowel into place so that your markings match up. Wipe off any glue that has squeezed out and allow the pipes to cure the recommended amount of time.

Step 10: Paint the Pipes

Once the glue is cured, wipe everyting down one more time with a clean cloth and paint. I chose a hammered steel paint to resemble old steel or iron pipes. Follow the directions on the spray can. If you are using a paint that is not textured or does not adhere well to PVC, you may have to first use a primer to hide the wood grain and bind the PVC.

Step 11: Build the Shelves

The depth of my bookcase wasn't particularly important, just as long as it was deep enough to hold books and knick-knacks. Therefore I just collected two sets of five boards of identical widths, 5½ inches and 3½ inches, and of sufficient lengths (20 inches). They didn't have to be milled perfectly either, just as long as they fit squarely and weren't too damaged to support weight.

I cut ten 6½ inch braces out of scrap pallet wood to hold the shelves together, adding a bevel to each end to avoid catching anything as it's placed on the underlying shelf. The shelf boards were then placed side by side, clamped and joined on the underside by the braces with wood glue and brads. This is the easiest way to join the shelf boards, but by no means the prettiest or most space efficient. Ideally I would have either found wider planks to make solid shelves, planed the existing wood down and joined them in plies or joined the two planks with biscuits. That being said, I wanted to keep this project as simple as possible to make it more accessible.

Finally, you will want to choose your top and bottom shelves by selecting the two widest shelves (they should all be of similar width, but chances are there will be some wider than the rest). Cut four pieces of wood into 12 x 1½ inch strips, glue and screw them flush with the front and back side of the top and bottom shelves (see picture). Remember to drill a pilot hole for all your screws, you can countersink all the screws by using a bit the same size as your screw head and following the pilot hole in by ⅛ inch prior to screwing in the screw. Placement of the screws are not important except for the ones that will secure the bottom and top shelves to the pipes, those are at 11/16" from where the wood strip meets the shelf bottom (see pictures), place the pilot holes so that they are not blocked by your braces.

Ultimately I went with more than two strips of wood to secure the bottom shelf because I couldn't get good screw placement with just one.

Step 12: Staining the Shelves

Create a uniform shelf surface by planing or sanding down the tops of the shelves. I attempted to retain most of the rustic characteristics of the un-sanded shelf while still removing any lip between the planks to avoid snagging a book on it. It is necessary to sand the shelves, at least a little bit, or else the rough-hewn wood will absorb a lot of stain and look irregular (not in a good way).

Stain the shelves as recommended on the container, varnish them or leave them natural. Allow the shelves to fully dry before moving on to the next step. I initially used a foam brush for this step (see pictures) since I couldn't find my chip brushes but I wouldn't recommend it because the foam has a tendency to come apart on rougher surfaces.

Step 13: Assembling the Bookshelf

Get a friend to help you hold the pieces level while you mark out where the pilot holes should go into the wooden dowels from the pilot hole placement on the strips of the top and bottom shelf (see first picture). You can then drill pilot holes into the top and bottom wooden dowels using a drill bit one size smaller than the screw, make sure you don't go all the way through. Lay the bookshelf down while screwing in the top and bottom shelves, you may find that it's easier to do with a stubby or angled screw driver. Don't use a power drill for screwing in the screws because it could crack the wood.

You should always start your screws prior to assembly. Also, it's helpful to screw everything in halfway at first, then tighten once all screws are in place. This allows for some travel in the pieces so that everything lines up and you don't end up having to take everything apart just to fix one screw hole.

Step 14: Installing the Middle Shelves

Once the top and bottom shelves are secure, you can insert your shelf supports and add the middle shelves. Also, if your shelves are larger than mine, or supporting a considerable amount of weight, install cross braces in the back to avoid any unwanted torsion in the frame.

Step 15: Finished Bookcase

All done! Fill your shelves and enjoy your new bookcase!

Finished bookcase photos by my esteemed wife Sara (Miazen).

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