Hardwood Shelves




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 lear...

When you graduate from milkcrates, but cannot bring yourself to buy disposable Ikea furniture for ethical, environmental, or repressed-childhood-memories-of-parents-who-loved-the-Swedish-crap reasons, build some hardwood shelves. Woodworking is often relaxing, and you'll end up with hand-made furniture you can be proud of.

Step 1: Get Lumber

Go to a nice lumber store and get some hardwood. In the Bay Area I go to PALS and buy certified hardwood. Certified means that the wood was grown and harvested in a sustainable way.

The wood will be measured in board feet. Roughly, a board foot is a measure of volume equal to 144 cubic inches; however, as with any trade specific measurement, it's not quite that simple. Rounding errors need to be dealt with properly.

Step 2: Straighten the Lumber

The wood will be bowed and crowned. You can fix this with a jointer. Next use a thickness planer to make all the pieces the same thickness. I skipped this step because I don't have these tools.

Step 3: Rip the Lumber to the Same Width

Rip the wood to the same width using a table saw. Make a smooth flat cut on one side of all the pieces. Set a stop just thinner than the thinnest piece and rip all the pieces to the same thickness cutting on the opposite side.

Step 4: Cut the Pieces to Length

I like lots of low, narrow bookshelves. I usually aim for two shelves 23 inches wide, 12.5 inches tall, and around 8 inches deep. This yields an overall shelf 28 inches tall and 25 inches wide.

Use a miter saw with a sharp blade. A blade in nearly any condition will cut pine from Home Depot, but hardwood is much easier to burn.

I like to hide the end grain on my shelves, so I cut the outside pieces on a 45 degree angle.

Step 5: Layout

Layout the shelves to check all the dimensions and mark attachment points. You can connect the piece with wood screws, but I prefer using a biscuit (or plate) joiner because there are no external marks.

Step 6: Cut Slots

Cut the slots for the biscuits.

Step 7: Pre-assembly

Put in the biscuits and pre-assemble to check all the joints.

I use a set of tie-down clamps to avoid damaging the corners of the wood.

Step 8: Back-stop

I like to be able to see the color of the wall behind a bookshelf, so instead of a solid back, I put a 2 inch high back-stop, which is also attached by biscuits.

Step 9: Sand

Sand all the faces of the pieces, but not the edges. Save the edges until after it is assembled, so you can smooth corners that are not quite a perfect fit.

I use 100 grit paper with a pad sander.

Step 10: Glue and Clamp

Glue and clamp the back-stop first.

Use a piece of scrap wood to prevent the clamps from damaging the wood surface. When these are dry, glue and assemble the whole shelf.

The tie-down clamps come in very handy here. Again, be really careful not to nick or dent the wood. It?s a lot harder to fix once glued.

Make sure you have all the necessary clamps, tie-downs, paper towels, and scrap wood ready before you put glue on the biscuits.

Step 11: Sand the Edges Smooth

Sand the edges smooth with 100 grit paper paying special attention to the interfaces.

Step 12: Hand Sand

Hand sand the entire project using 220 grit.

Step 13: Test Stain Choice

Test your choice of stain on a scrap piece of sanded hardwood.

Step 14: Remove Dust

Remove all dust from the shelves.

Step 15: Stain

Stain the wood according to the stain's directions. Typically you brush the stain on and let it sit for a period of time before wiping it off with a rag.

Step 16: Polyurethane (or Otherwise Protect)



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    32 Discussions


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Anyone else read the word "Biscuit" and think these people are just wanting something to snack on while building these shelves? Great Instructable though. If you're more advanced in the woodworking area


    12 years ago on Step 10

    You should have gone with rabbits and a dado for the center shelf it'd have aided you greatly in your assembly. Both joints are self aligning. You wouldn't have ended up with that gap in the center of the shelf like I see in step 11 with a dado either. Proper joint selection is the most important step in any woodworking project to me. Oh, and as for dented wood try wetting the spot, then heating the spot with an iron it should steam the absorbed water expanding the cells and raise the wood. Your router is your friend, leave that biscuitter for kitchen cabinet carcasses like it was intended to be used for!

    1 reply

    Those joints would compromise the appearance, though. To keep the same clean look but use self aligning joints would require stopped dados on the shelves (easy enough but still much more work than the biscuit) and a mitered mortise and tenon for the corners -- much harder to do! More work + more opportunities to mess up.


    12 years ago on Step 2

    Wait, let me get this straight... You have a Powermatic tablesaw with extension table, but you don't have a tickness planer?? Wow...

    1 reply

    13 years ago

    A *jointer*? a *thickness planer*? *biscuits*? those are tools for experienced woodworkers, man, not for casual readers who want to knock together a bookshelf in a day. neverind that you also need a biscuit jointer to make holes for biscuits. seriously. plywood, screws, some 1x for facing--that's a simple project.

    6 replies

    Reply 12 years ago

    I find woodworking to be extremely relaxing. This project took me many days to complete and I built helpful tools along the way that made it even more relaxing. With some glass blocks and bull-nose MDF you can have reasonable looking bookshelves in 15 minutes (someone post an Instructable!). This project was about the asthetic.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    it's so true, working with wood is so nice, and the physical effort and focus you delegate to each task makes the finished produce the more worthwhile. :]


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    lol not that experienced, I took a year in set design and building in highschool and I know what those all are... just watch Yankee Workshop on PBS for a day and you'll know what they are lol But yeah, it would be hard for some of us to get those tools, they can break bank sometimes.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    You are going to so love my "how to make a stub spindle shaper cutter" instructable. You only need two tools for that. A metal lathe and a shaper. After that will be "build a front door with through tenon joinery".


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    hey man it may be a little too "experienced" for some but the finished result will hold up better with heavy books and will actually look better so you have bragging rights to it dont dis it cuz of the biscuts and all that other junk you said this is really a cool project and im gonna try and make it but im gonna modify it :\


    Take your wood to the local high school, they might have a thickness planer for you to use.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    "I skipped this step because I don't have these tools." a problem that comes up all to often in my woodworking projects.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    this is great. it's good to have projects for different skill levels.


    13 years ago

    hatsix - if you're on an Ikea budget but want a nice sturdy bookshelf, try down grading this project some. It's beautiful and no doubt done right but definitely a professional job done with a lot of pro tools. On a buget, I would: a) use 3/4 plywood b) upgrade your hacksaw (sorry ;o) to a decent circular saw with a metal straight edge guide and clamps to make your cuts c) blow off the the beveled edges and keep to straight cuts d) sand all surfaces with 120 grit before assembling e) use gorilla glue and trim nails before any finish is applied f) if a router is handy, I like to use a 1/4 round on plywood edges (unless using a veneered edge, that's stepping back up) to keep them from splintering as plyood tends to do important for side-to-side ridgedity is the two inch (or larger) backboards For a finish, use a thick sandable primer. This will seal the wood and the end grains. Sand to your liking and paint. It probably won't be a heirloom like the example but can turn out to be a nice solid and attractive peice of furniture if you spend some time on it. If you are or have an artist friend, a artsy paint job can make it an original. Good Luck!

    3 replies