Introduction: The Impossible Bookshelf

About: Where there's a will, there's a way! Never give up, never give in...BE the good you want to see in the world. :)

This impossible looking bookshelf is actually very easy to make!

Part illusion-part serious bookshelf, it creates an effect that will have your friends and family trying to figure out how all the books stay on it.

It's also very versatile, so you can easily make it bigger (or smaller) should you need to.

Let's begin...


Supplies you will need for this project include:

  • 6" - 12" clamps
  • Circular Saw (aka Skilsaw)
  • Jigsaw (with a "metal-thick" blade)
  • 3/4" countertop or shelf plywood (at least a 30" long x 17" wide sheet -- I used wood I had on hand)
  • 3 metal flats each having a base flap that's 1" or less in depth (to connect it to the shelves) -- I used an old napkin holder I had on hand that I originally bought at Goodwill
  • Sandpaper (150-220+ grits)
  • A level and/or speed square (I ended up using a speed square)
  • Measuring tape
  • Drill (with drill bits -- I used a Phillips head bit for the screws)
  • 1 1/2" Construction or Wood screws, or nails if you prefer (I used screws)
  • Wood glue
  • Painter's tape
  • 2 Keyhole hangers (not pictured) for mounting the bookshelf to the wall
  • Optional: Electric sander
  • Optional: Wood filler (to cover up screw holes, but I found that you couldn't see them in the finished piece)
  • Optional: magnets to hold book covers to the metal (but, again, I found that these were unnecessary in the finished piece)
  • Optional: hammer (if using nails instead of screws)
  • Optional: paint, stain, or other finishings (but I liked the look of the natural wood)

Step 1: Plan It Out

First, it's important to start with the design of your impossible bookshelf.

The impossible bookshelf is basically as many alternating 90 degree shelves as you want. The first shelf will be at a 90 degree angle from the perpendicular shelf below it. The second shelf (the one that is perpendicular to the first shelf) will be at a 90 degree angle from the perpendicular shelf below it. And so forth...

When you are done, it will kind of resemble stairs in its appearance (see the drawing for clarity).

To make this exact bookshelf, I planned for the following:
3 - 17" long x 10" deep x 3/4" thick shelves

3 - 4.5" long (by a shorter width than your books) strong metal holders

Step 2: Mark Your Wood for Cutting

The wood I used was 17" wide and had a break in the middle. So I planned 10" sections around the break along the longest edge. This gave me three 10" wide x 17" long shelves.

Step 3: Clamp It

Clamp your wood down to a workbench if possible to prepare it for cutting.

Step 4: Add the Cut Lines

On my measuring tape, I already have the saw line pre-marked for cutting with my circular saw.

This line is around 1-1/2" (technically it's at 1-17/32"). This line represents where I will add my straight edge to so when the circular saw's shoe brushes up against the straight edge it makes a perfectly straight cut.

Step 5: Add the Straight Edge

Add and clamp down the straight edge on top of the wood to be cut. This will line up with the cut lines you made in the previous step.

Step 6: Cut

Cut along the straight edge. This is shelf number one. Repeat steps 4-6 until you have all your shelf pieces cut.

Step 7: Glue It Together

Add a good amount of wood glue to the first edge of your first shelf (the horizontal one that will attach to the vertical shelf below it at a 90 degree angle).

Use a speed square to ensure the boards meet at a perfect 90 degree angle. Tape it together to hold it up, and wipe off the excess wood glue with a lightly damp cloth (or your finger).

Step 8: Add Screws or Nails

If you want to further stabilize your shelves, you can add screws or nails now.

If you can get them to indent a little bit into the wood, you can fill them to flush with wood filler later for a completely unnoticeable joining. However, most everyone will be so interested in the illusion of the books on the shelf that they probably won't notice the screws anyways (mine aren't noticeable barely at all in the finished piece).

Repeat the gluing and screwing steps until all shelves are joined.

Step 9: Allow to Dry

Allow the glue to dry for at least 24 hours while you proceed with the next steps.

Step 10: OPTIONAL: Making Metal Flats

The next few steps are optional.

If you don't have pre-fabricated metal flats, now is the time to make them from whatever metal you are using.

I used this napkin holder because the metal was already in the perfect shape that I needed, and was very sturdy.

First, I found the center of the base and marked it.

Step 11: Clamp It

Then, I clamped it down to the top of a sawhorse. I kept the base raised up a few inches so the saw's blade wouldn't hit the sawhorse as it cut.

Step 12: Cut

Using a "metal-thick" blade in my jigsaw, I cut the base of the napkin holder in half lengthwise.

NOTE: Use safety goggles and worker's gloves (with grips) when cutting metal and handling cut metal.

Step 13: Cut in Thirds

Next, I clamped the half of the napkin holder to my workbench corner and prepared to cut it in thirds.

Mark roughly the 1/3 and 2/3 marks. (To have each be an exact match in width to the next isn't crucial as no one will see these metal flats because the books will fully conceal them.) Then, carefully cut the metal vertically with the same jigsaw and blade.

NOTE: The lack of a great way to secure this metal piece to the workbench may cause the clamps to violently shake off and the metal to flail around. Use extreme caution when proceeding with this step and take your time! Also, it may be necessary to re-clamp the metal several times until it is fully cut.

Step 14: Finished Pieces

Here are my three cut pieces. The first picture shows a before and after.

Step 15: Remove Danglers

Anywhere you find a metal "dangler," remove it now. I used needle-nosed pliers for this.

Step 16: Smooth Sharp Edges

I used 150 grit sandpaper to sand down the sharp edges along cut lines on each piece. It may not be the perfect grit or type of sandpaper, but it worked great.

Step 17: Trace the Bases

Trace the bases of the metal flats onto each shelf, and label them 1-3 on the corresponding shelves and metal flats.

I also added an arrow pointing in the direction I wanted the base flap to go on each shelf. This was basically pointing away from the edge of each shelf.

Step 18: Glue and Tape

I used E6000 glue to adhere the metal flats to the wooden shelves. Then I used painter's tape to keep it held down while I proceeded quickly with the next step...

OPTIONAL: you can additionally add 1/2" screws through the bases of the metal flats into the plywood (so it doesn't come out the other end) if you want the extra stability or assurance. But I didn't use anything except E6000 glue.

Step 19: Move It Inside & Heat It Up

Because it's winter, the garage was too cold to allow for a quick seal to be had, so I moved the project inside the house. Then I used a hairdryer (while pushing down on the flaps over the tape to give it a tight seal) to set the glue quicker so I didn't have to try to clamp it down while it cured completely.

Step 20: Let Dry

Allow the glue 72 hours to cure completely for the absolute, maximum strength. I didn't want to take any chances of the metal flats coming off of the shelves with the weight of the books. So, I let the glue cure as long as possible. You can remove the painter's tape (that's holding the metal flats to the shelves) after the first 24 hours.

Step 21: Mark the Back and Top

While it was drying, I made sure to add "Back" to the backside of the shelf that would be mounted to the wall (since both sides look alike). I also labeled the top edge that would be mounted at the tallest point on the wall.

Step 22: Sand

OPTIONAL: add wood filler to the screw/nail holes, if desired, before proceeding with this step.

I waited until now to sand the shelves and edges of this project. In hind sight, I could've done this before adding the metal flats, but it worked fine for me at this point too. I used 150 - 220 grit sandpaper. Wipe off excess sawdust with a lightly damp cloth.

Step 23: Test It!

Once the glue has fully cured, it's time to test the shelves.

This is the slightly nerve-wracking, slightly exciting part! Will all that hard work pay off?

As you can see from the picture, IT DID!!

To add the books to the metal flats:

  • Use a hard cover book that is roughly one to two inches taller than the top of the metal.
  • Open it to the very front or very back cover (dependent on which way your books will face on the shelf)
  • Close the book around the metal flat and slide the book until the binding of the book is about an inch away from the metal flat (that makes the cover stay pushed up against the book so it doesn't hang open).
  • Stack your other books down against the first book (making sure that they are of equal or lesser size to the first book).

That's it!

*No books have been harmed in the making of this bookshelf! :)*

NOTE: You can add more metal flats along each shelf so that you can keep adding book stacks to the same shelf and it will look like a continuous book group, but it won't put all the weight onto one metal flat. For example, you could have 3 metal flats per 17" long shelf so that the entire shelf could be filled with books, giving an even greater illusion to the finished bookshelf.

Step 24: Mount It

I used keyhole fasteners (aka keyhole hangers or keyhole switches) to mount the bookshelf to studs in my wall. These have a maximum weight limit of 17-22 pounds each and come in packs of 2 for $1.98 at my local Lowes (they only come with the screws to mount the fasteners to the bookshelf, so you will need two #8 1-1/2" construction/wood screws to mount the bookshelf on to the wall).

  1. Choose a great spot to hang your bookshelf. Preferably one where you can brag about it! ;)
  2. Attach the keyhole fasteners to the bookshelf where the points/corners are directly over each other. See picture for clarity. Make sure to hang them with the smallest end of the hole facing up so the keyhole fastener can sit "down" on to the screw in the wall.
  3. Find a stud in the area of where you want to hang it. You can find a stud: with a stud finder; via the ole knock and listen tactic (less accurate); by finding an outlet and going directly to the left of it (outlets typically are secured into studs where the left of the outlet is in a stud); or even by looking closely at the trim (typically the trim is secured into studs, so find the filled-in holes where it was nailed into the studs at).
  4. Once you've located the stud, mark where your screws (that will connect with the keyhole fasteners on your bookshelf) will be. First, measure the distance between the two keyhole fasteners. Make sure to measure from the top (aka the middle of the smallest part of the hole) of the first fastener to the top of the second fastener. Then, transfer these dimensions along the line of the stud.
  5. Drill the screws into the wall at the points you marked. Leave a little "lip" of the screw out (for hanging in the keyhole fasteners).
  6. Carefully (it will be easier with two people), hold up the bookshelf over these screws, line up the keyhole fastener holes with the screws (the big hole bottoms to the screw heads) and slide the bookshelf down onto these fasteners.
  7. Done!

Step 25: Admire!

Simply replace the books and admire your Impossible Bookshelf!

Now we have a wonderful book nook for our kids to enjoy their library books. :)

Shelving Contest

Second Prize in the
Shelving Contest