Bookcase Storage Cubby Unit




My wife wanted a cubby from Ikea, but two problems: they don't make it anymore, and it's junky white laminate to begin with. Having taken a woodworking course at the local community college, I decided I had the necessary skills to tackle it myself. You can see the results in the picture, and I'd say it turned out quite nice. So without further ado, let's get on to my first Instructable...

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Step 1: Background

I couldn't find plans for a similar cubby on line. Ana White has something like this over at her website here:

There's a nice little video there and it all looks quite easy.

Her plans use a bunch of pocket holes to hold everything together, but I wanted to do something a little more "woodworkery" with some joinery and finishing. This is for my daughter's bedroom, but I wanted something that would be beautiful and substantial--something you could proudly display in your living room if you wanted to. I also thought this would give me an excuse to buy some new tools!

Caveat: I am very new to woodworking, so this is a pretty basic project. There are some people on this site who do some beautiful, complex work. Although I think this bookcase turned out nicely, it's a pretty simple plan. I get frustrated with plans in magazines and on line that assume you know a lot of basic steps. I am going to list all the mistakes I made and things I learned on the way. These will be listed in italics, so if you want to skip them, ignore anything written on a slant.

Step 2: Plans

I wanted to make a symmetric, cubic structure, and I wanted to make it out of a single piece of plywood. The piece is a cube of nine 1 foot by 1 foot boxes, so the overall dimensions are approximately 3 feet by 3 feet and one foot deep. The cubbies are a good size for books, or alternatively for storing toys or items in little baskets. If you use good wood, this would also look nice in a living room with pictures or other items displayed in the cubbies.

Step 3: Materials

One 3/4 inch 4' X 8' sheet of A-1 red oak plywood--$70 (Generally available plywood comes in 3 types, A has veneers on both sides and can come in oak, birch, etc., C has veneer on only one side and is more poorly constructed with additional defects, and standard/non-veneered plywood. It gets way more complex than this, but that's the basics. Your big box stores are likely to only have C and standard, and you should go to a lumber yard for anything else. You could also use regular 3/4 inch pine lumber for this as Ana White does, but it will never look like true hardwood furniture.)

1/4 inch birch or other plywood for the back--$20

Red Oak edge banding veneers--$10 for 25 feet

Pocket hole screws

Red Oak wood plugs--$5 for 100 (you'll only need 12)

Wood glue

Tung Oil

Step 4: Cutting

I don't own a table saw, so I bought an 80 tooth blade for my circular saw. I also built a simple jig out of hardboard to rip the plywood into straight pieces approximately a foot wide. The jig is super simple to make and really effective. There are tons of plans on line, but the basic idea is to make a straight edge that abuts the base of your saw, and a leading edge that marks where the blade is going to cut. (If the waste side is to the left [on the blade side], then place the mark and the jig right where you want to make the cut. If the piece you want is to the left, then add the width of the blade [probably 1/16 inch] to the measurement). I made all of the rip cuts first and then cut down the lengths.

I have a miter saw, but I don't have a sliding miter saw, so technically I can only cut a board 8 inches wide. (sliding miters typically cut 12 inches) A lot of the true woodworkers on this site would probably shake their head at this, but, you can cut a board 2/3 the way across with your regular miter, then flip it over and just site down the cut line and get a really consistent cut. If I were buying a new miter, I would buy a sliding bevel miter, but I couldn't justify getting a new saw when mine still works pretty well. Also, I built a table for my miter saw that has flip-out arms with an aluminum track and a stop block on it. So if I'm making repeat cuts, the stop makes them very consistent.

Step 5: Routing Dadoes

Most plans for similar cubbies/bookcases have supports for the shelves and the shelves are removable. Again, I wanted this to look like furniture, not like something from Ikea or Target, and I didn't feel a need to have adjustable shelves, so I went with the dadoes. I also wanted to justify the router purchase to my wife.

It's important to get all of the dadoes aligned properly or the shelves are not going to fit right and the supports are going to be crooked. If you have a router table, you can build a sliding jig to cut the dadoes. Alternatively, you can do like I did and just set up a straight edge at the right distance. I cut a board nine inches wide and used it the measure for the dadoes. So I ended up with two dadoes 12 inches from either end which left slightly less than a foot in the middle (The base on the router is three inches, so the nine inch straight edge lined up with the edge of the board puts the center of the router bit at 12 inches Also, notice the backer board behind the piece I'm cutting. This is very important. It prevents tear out and you can also hear the difference when you get through the board you are cutting and you know when to stop and pull the router up and away from the boards). I measured obsessively during this step and checked each board against it's partner to be sure everything was lined up perfectly. Once they were all cut out, I put tung oil on the inside faces of everything (3 coats total with 8 hours to dry in between) before gluing it up.

(My wife really wanted a back on this thing, and I'm ultimately glad that I put one one, but it makes it WAY more complicated. You have to cut a rabbet in the back edge of the sides, top and bottom, and you have to do it perfectly or the back won't fit on properly. I cut the rabbet with the router on my table and basically took of 1/2 inch a 1/4 inch deep all around [bit set 1/2 inch high and 1/4 inch out from fence. This is wrong on two counts: one, the 1/4 plywood is really .200 inches so it ends up inset in by .05 inches, not a big deal, but noticeable from behind. Secondly, [and this is harder to visualize] you're left with a gap between the sides and the top/bottom, that I had to fill in prior to applying the edge banding. I'm not even going to give the details of how I did it because it's very wrong. Alternatively, you can just nail the back on with brads, but you will see that 1/4 inch from the side which may look shoddy. If you plan on having this up against a wall, you can leave the back off all together, I didn't have that option---the wife, but, again, I'm glad I did it [is she reading this?])

Step 6: Gluing Up, and Screwing Up (the Good Kind)

I initially was not going to use any scews, but ultimately decided that was a bad idea structurally. (Glue is great and very strong, but you can't effectively glue END GRAIN pieces. [I learned this the hard way when I glued up the end grains on a squat stool for my toilet that collapsed with disastrous results, but that's another story] You can definitely glue sides, faces, and joints. I was initially going to do a half lap joint on the top, but decided against it because I thought it would break up the symmetry. The way I applied the edge banding, I think you could have hidden it, but I chose to do the screws. I used to see wood plugs in furniture and I thought it was some sort of fancy wooden dowel connection. It's not. Basically, you countersink a screw and then tap in these premade wooden plugs and sand and finish them down and it looks really nice.)

I predrilled the countersink holes for the pocket screws in the sides. I then dry fit everything to make sure it all lined up. I then put glue in the back half of the dadoe groove and the front half of the center pieces and slid those in. Before that glue set up, I turned the whole thing on its side and drove screws into the holes (before driving the screws, make sure the front and back edges are lined up, it's not always obvious when they're not. I messed one up, but it was not a problem to take the screw out and reset it. I had even already put in the wood plug which I thought would be a disaster. However, if you ever need to get a plug out [and it hasn't been glued, and I don't think they ever need to be glued, they fit really snug] just drive a wood screw into the plug and it will either lift it out or at least attach tightly enough to it that you can take pliers and pull it out). Then flipped it onto the other side and drove screws in there. Then turned the whole thing right side up and applied the clamps after making any adjustments to the center pieces.

Step 7: Attaching the Back

I had to do this in two pieces because I could only find 1/4 plywood that was 2 feet wide. I measured by placing the piece into the rabbet and marking where it hit the other side. I then use a brad nailer to attach the pieces. (Be sure you know exactly where the brads come out, a few of mine missed the marker and had to be redone.)

Step 8: Cutting and Adding Shelves

I measured the distances between the sides and the center supports for each shelf and then cut to that length. It's a bit complicated as to why they're not all the same, they're just not. Suffice it to say, it's just best to measure what your spaces are to be sure they fit properly. I then stained all the shelves and let them dry. Lastly dry fit to be sure they fit, then glue up. (I dry fit the widths and they were all spot on. However, I didn't push the shelves all the way in, so there were a couple that stuck out about 1/16 of an inch. It's a pain to take of that extra wood off once everything is put together, so be sure you push the shelves all the way in to test the fit before gluing. If anything needs to be taken off, it's way easier to do it before you put it together).

Step 9: Edge Banding

This makes a huge difference and is really worth the time. Though a little time consuming, it's pretty easy. They make all sorts of edge banding veneers in different grains. When applied to the edge of a piece of plywood it gives the illusion that the whole thing is made out of solid wood. The banding just glues on with an iron, and then you trim off the excess. They even make a cool $5 tool for trimming the edging that I highly recommend. I ran the edging along the exposed end grain on the top, and all along the front.

Step 10: Finishing

I sanded the outside up to 150 grit and then covered it all in tung oil. Even though this is for a kid's room, I didn't want a bullet proof polyurethane finish. I wanted something more natural that would show its age over time; I wanted some of my daughter's history to show on it. I waxed the outside, set it up, and filled it with books.



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    22 Discussions


    3 months ago on Introduction

    Great job; thank you. I’d like to build the same thing but with 12 units. Doug Arnold, Mansfield, MA This would be for our choir in Walpole for the women to place their handbags in.


    1 year ago

    Nice work - turned out very well. BTW, regarding glue and endgrain...plywood doesn't have any "endgrain" and edges glue up very nicely.


    2 years ago

    How is the rigidity of the case? I want (two of) something like this as the base for a desk - shelves facing in and all. Would this be rigid enough and not collapse sideways?

    Thanks! Very fine piece you ended with, and just like I want!


    2 years ago

    You sound a lot like me. But I've not taken any formal classes in woodworking, and I have the same problem with plans I see online; assuming we all have nice, usually expensive tools at the ready. I do have a table saw, orbital sander and jigsaw, along with drills, and other hand tools. All of a sudden, I wanted to do something with all the wood I've been collecting and I've built boxes, a crate for dog food, and a bed for said dog, all without plans. I'd like to find other sources for newbies like us that explain things a bit more and easier to understand. It's difficult to follow sometimes when you're not seeing it done in real time. The cubbie cabinet you made is beautiful. Keep up the good work and come back often to tell/show us who don't have much sawdust under their fingernails what else you've made.


    3 years ago

    That looks like excellent work! The finishing on this cupboard unit is one of the best I've seen here!


    3 years ago

    This does indeed resemble the original piece but building one by yourself is definitely more rewarding as you are able to customize every feature from the size of each compartment to giving it a coat of your favourite paint colour. Have you seen another instructable in here from another contributor whereby he placed this cubby horizontally and put a mattress on top to create a storage bed combo?


    3 years ago

    This bookshelf storage cubby looks a lot like the classic IKEA Expedit! But I bet there's a greater sense of satisfaction with this one because you made it yourself!


    4 years ago on Introduction

    A very nice looking piece.

    -- Some here appreciate that it was made without lots of expensive tools. You don't need the router, if you cut the dadoes with a circular saw. It takes more time, and you have to clean up the bottoms of the dadoes with a (sharp!) chisel, but if you don't have a router, multiple cuts with a circular saw will do the trick. It's about using the depth setting, and making trial cuts to make sure you have it right.

    -- It's also about clamping a straightedge to the work as a guide. Make a test cut on some scrap to measure to both sides of the kerf. The left side of your kerf defines one side of the dado, and the right side, the other, with the straightedge adjusted accordingly. My old saw has a distance from the edge of the base of the saw to the left edge of the kerf that's about 6-5/16" plus or minus a hair, depending on the thickness of the blade. If you have one of the older, wider, carbide tip blades, it makes the job faster. Cut one side of the dado with the left edge of the blade, the other side with the right side, and then make multiple passes in between them. If you're careful you won't need the straightedge for the inner cuts.

    -- Most circular saws' bases get a little chewed up over time. Make sure yours is flat, and make sure it doesn't have any of those little nicks that create protrusions-- these will scratch the surface of your wood. A little quick filing will take care of the larger ones, and putting a few strips of masking tape on the base (parallel to the blade) will create a pad that prevents damage from the little ones. Any metal straightedges you clamp to the piece should get the same treatment.

    -- Some might decide to go out and buy a router after reading all this. But if you only make a dozen or so dadoes a year, then this is not a bad way to go.

    -- It's probably best to try this technique on a more informal project first to get a feel for it. Make some shelves for the garage.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    Well done! I prefer pieces such as this to sit on a recessed base, but you can easily add that later. A base 2-3" high keeps dirt out of the lowest shelf. In some cases, a base also allows you to deal with something that always concerns me -- dealing with the baseboard, i.e., how it looks from the side. If the baseboard isn't too high; a base equally high will make it so your case can be against the wall, which I think looks best. Your baseboard looks too high for that -- I think a base as high as your baseboard would not look good. For me, that means I will remove the baseboard -- neither fun nor easily reversible.

    1 reply

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    I agree about getting it up on a base. Even a 1" or 1-1/4" base helps to keep floor-dust off the bottom shelf. It doesn't need to be recessed, and it doesn't need to be attached, either. Just a rectangle made of strips of wood on edge, on which the unit can sit.

    -- You also mentioned using a base to raise a bookcase up past the top of the baseboard. I used this method once (with unattached bases) in an apartment with a 2'7" wide, 17' long hallway. I have lots of books, and it was a shame to waste all that wall space. I made some shelves out of pine 1x6s for paperbacks and some DVDs, and boosted them up over the 9" high baseboards. It was an old building, with true-1" baseboards, which had leaned inward in spots due to some movement of the plaster-&-lath walls behind. The hallway width that was preserved allows me just enough room to walk comfortably down the hallway, and left me with a net width that matches the width of the doorjamb at the end of the hall. They actually look kind of cool. I painted the bases to match the baseboards.


    4 years ago on Step 10

    I am SO glad to see a nice project done without a shop full of expensive tools. Thanks for telling us how you made do with what you had. And thanks for sharing your blunders so the rest of us can benefit. Beautiful results!

    2 replies

    Reply 4 years ago on Step 10

    Agreed, I'm really glad to see something that doesn't require me to run out and buy a bunch of tools!


    4 years ago on Step 5

    Having the 1/4" (or even .20") back on your shelf set makes it MUCH more rigid. Even with your dado joints, square or rectangular shapes tend to "rack", becoming parallelograms and, ultimately, flattening down to nothing! This is why the cheap stuff from Ikea or Target has a masonite or even cardboard (!) backing.


    4 years ago

    I agree with the others. This is a high quality finished piece. I really appreciate your inventive use of the tools you already have since many of us don't have all of Norm Abram's tools. (I hate it when I see a great instructable I can't do because I have to spend thousands just to get started.) Thanks for sharing!


    4 years ago on Introduction


    Made a similar thing years ago, having no woodworking skills and i'm still frustrated i could not get all the shelves aligned perfectly, this method is simply rock solid an di wish i had known it than.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    brilliant! and the perfect step in getting organized in the New Year - thanks for sharing this great Instructable!