How To: Build a Custom Bookcase




We have fun with woodworking no matter what the project is, but the most rewarding thing for us is making our own furniture. Let's say you wanted a solid oak bookcase but didn't have the four to six hundred bucks a retail store would want for one. You can achieve the same effect for less than half the cost, using a bit of solid oak trim and some veneered ply.

Note: As this is a Craftsman-sponsored project, you'll notice a number of Craftsman tools in the photos. But here's a secret: we already owned 'em all. You can, of course, attack this project with tools of your choice.

After a bit of figuring, we decided to make our bookcase 34"x12"x92" with eight shelves in it. Though we strongly urge you to design for what suits your needs best, in our case we wanted a tall bookcase with a maximum of storage space. We calculated that this setup will hold about twice as many books as most units on the market, so that was a big bonus.

Vibra-Free Sander (Craftsman)
Drill, Multi-Saw, and Worklight Combo (Craftsman)

Step 1: Layout and Cutting

Based on a quick layout, we made a breakdown of the lumber we'd need: two sheets of 3/4 4'x8' oak-veneered ply, four 82 sticks of 33x3/4 solid oak trim, four 8' sticks of 3/4 decorative trim, and one sheet of 1/4oak-veneered ply. Even paying retail this totals to somewhere in the neighborhood of $190 plus the rail system which will run about $8. Figure around $200 for the entire stock list.

Smaller bookcases will of course be cheaper, but this is about as large as you'd want to go, so we're giving a worst-case scenario here. Note, however, that this is still $200 cheaper than the next best solid oak candidate.

A bookcase is basically a five-sided box with the front part open, so to begin constructing one, first cut the pieces for the first four sides. With the first piece of 3/4" ply laid out, mark out the first 11"x92"piece which'll serve as the sides and cut it out. Then do the same for its mate. Measuring and cutting them out separately may seem like a pain, but unless you're really good at figuring kerf, this way is much safer.

Step 2: Cut the Pieces and Shelves

Now our top and bottom pieces, each 11"x32-1/2", will come from the leftover sheet. There should still be a little of the first sheet left, leaving you enough stock for the important fixed middle shelf and one removable shelf, both of which should measure 10"x32-1/2. From the second 3/4 sheet you can also cut up to eight 10"x32-1/2 removable shelves.

You've now cut the basic building blocks for your bookcase box - but before we move on to assembly of the box, we need to add our shelf-hanging system in the sides.

There are any number of ways to fix shelves in your bookcase, but for this project we chose the method that gives you the most flexibility in shelf positioning: adjustable rails. To install them you just need to rout a few 3/4"slots in each side piece.

Step 3: Rail Slots

For that task we set up our trim router with a 3/4" straight bit and side guide attachment. We got the slot where we wanted it by using a small piece of scrap to align the guide and the bit to run a 3/8"slot about two inches from the side on the inside - though whatever looks and feels good to you will work just fine. A quick test-fit of our rails put our minds at ease; we'd gotten the right width and height for the rails, and the screws that fasten them weren't going to stick out of the slots and play havoc with the removable shelves.

Step 4: Mark for Rails

Once the router is set up, mark the six-foot area on the board where you'd like the two rails to go, and do the same for the other sideboard.

Step 5: Rout the Slots

Rout the two rail slots into each board. Take your time here -- there's no need to rush.

Step 6: Square the Slots

After the routing you might notice that the slot has rounded ends from the router bit. To remedy this we grabbed a 3/4" chisel and squared off each edge to make the slots square, so they'd fit the rails.

Step 7: Attach the Rails

Next we attached the rails to the boards, which was short work with a few 5/8" wood screws and our Craftsman drill. Take care not to strip the screws out when tightening them, or your shelves won't carry much weight.

Step 8: Sanding

You won't have this kind of access to the inside of these sideboards again, so now might be a great time to hit them with a bit of sanding. Palm routers like this Craftsman Vibra-Free Orbital Sander are made for this sort of thing. With 80-grit and a little time, we gave each piece we'd cut a good once-over to get rid of the pencil marks and rough spots.

Step 9: Assemble the Basic Box

It's time to assemble the basic box. Lay out the top, bottom, middle shelf, and sides, and pick a corner to start on. We recommend the top. There are many ways to fasten wood together but we hate waiting so we chose glue and a finish nailer -- glue for strength, and the nailer so we don't have to use clamps and wait for the glue to dry.

Step 10: Fasten the Sides to the Top

Lay down a bead of glue and line up the top, then fasten it to each side. When the glue dries it'll be much stronger than just the nails.

Step 11: Cut a Spacer

Next cut a 1-3/4" spacer out of scrap to serve as a guide piece for the bottom shelf.

Step 12: Attach Spacer to the Bottom

Attach it to the bottom rear of the sides. Then fasten the bottom shelf on top of it and use another spacer to gauge the same height for the front, and glue/nail the bottom shelf in place.

Step 13: Fasten the Fixed Middle Shelf

Fasten the middle shelf in place about four feet up the sideboards, and you've put together the basic frame.

Step 14: Cut and Attach the Back

Cut and attach the back (1/4" Oak Ply) to the bookcase using the same glue and nailing method. If you're going to go crazy with the nail gun, now is a great time. The back piece adds a great deal of strength to the project, and adding a few extra fasteners can't hurt.

Step 15: Hide Your Shame (Ply)

Now it's time to start hiding all that plywood with trim. The first step is fixing the shelves. Remember that 3/4" decorative trim? Cut a piece to go across the front of each shelf, and attach it. Make sure you do the middle shelf in the bookcase as well. After the front trim goes on, it'll be very difficult to get to the edges of the shelf.

Step 16: Add Soild Oak Front Trim

The front trim pieces will cover the rest of the ply. Cut two vertical pieces of the 3 solid oak trim (which is actually 2-1/2) to 92, and attach them to the bookcase.

Step 17: Add Trim

Add pieces in between on the top and the bottom, and the front fascia is starting to come together.

Step 18: Decorative Trim

You could stop here, but we went a bit further and added a little extra decorative trim on the top and bottom and front, by ripping a piece of 3" and routing it with a Roman Ogee bit.

Step 19: Vertical Trim Routing

To make the overall look more eye-pleasing we added a roman ogee edge down the inside of each vertical trim runner as well.

Step 20: - Note -

Note: This bookcase is one in a series and will be lined up with others, so we didn't add any side trim to finish out the look. But you could do it simply enough -- finish it out with routing on the outside, and continue the upper and lower trim around the sides.

Step 21: Filling the Nail Holes

After some more time with the palm sander you're ready to fill all the holes. Though it might seem like a herculean task, filling the 18-gauge nail holes is very simple and will make a good project look great. Just smear some filler in the hole and sand off the excess. Doing this for each one will get you a lot further in the overall polished look of the finished product than you might expect.

Step 22: Finishing

The best way to finish a wood project is hotly debated among woodcrafters. There really isn't a bad or incorrect way to go about it. Whatever looks good to you is fine. We chose a cherry finish oil stain that we think looks rather stately.

Step 23: Conclusion

It didn't turn out too bad for a project that can be completed in a weekend. The best part is you can adjust the size, color, amount of shelves, or trim work to fit your need. Considering the alternative -- buying bookcases for twice as much that don't hold as many books -- this type of construction project starts to look pretty good.

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    26 Discussions


    9 years ago on Introduction

    I love this instructable, but I'd like to add something to it I learned years ago from a very accomplished woodoworker.  When you cut or buy boards for the shelving *not the frame* you should note which way the warp bends the wood.  In many cases the warp may SEEM straight, but you will most often find that there is a slight curve to it. 

    My friend always looked for the curve in the wood by laying it on a reliably flat surface to discern the direction of the curve.  He positioned his shelves so that the curve was toward the top.  In this way, the weight of the books, tchotchkies or other items resting on the shelf would bear down on the upward curve and give the items a straight surface to rest on.

    Just something to keep in mind. 

    If your wood is "straight" as far as you can tell, be prepared to reverse (turn the shelf over) when it begins to sag.  It's not the fault of the builder or the quality of the wood that will do this.  It is the weight of the items we place on them.  Especially books.  I tend to want my shelves to rest on a support that will let me turn them as I notice sag developing.  I got LOTS of BIG HEAVY books.

    1 reply

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Laying supports certainly adds stability to a unit, but the looks does not work as well in classic settings as it can in a modern or industrial setting. I know that the rails used in this instructable aren't as appealing as having the panels line-bored, but if you have access to a CNC take advantage of it! Otherwise, using a jig, you can bore an additional row of holes in the backing to provide the additional support for shelves wider than 36''. The additional support goes a long way, limiting the need to rotate the shelves.

    @Toolmonger: Great instructable! Very easy to read and good pictures.


    8 years ago on Step 8

    These are nice shelves, built with a minimum of tools. That takes planning and ingenuity. Good job. I would like to suggest one thing though, if you do use the random orbit sander, I'd use a higher grit, say 220, unless you've dinged them up or something. Also, going over them with a scraper to take out the swirl marks is a good idea. No matter how good the random orbit or one's technique, there are always swirl marks that show up when you stain. Or do it by hand, going with the grain. Just a thought.

    80 grit is a carpenter's bread and butter, which is why I quit shopping at Home Depot. For a long time they quit stocking 80 grit. I asked why and they told me that they sold more 100 grit and not enough 60 grit. I shook my head and said, "Okay, buy why did you quit selling 80 grit?" He just stared at me. Needless to say, it was Lowes for me after that. Man, do I miss a decent lumber yard.

    I used to do things like this all the time when I lived in an apartment and didn't have the luxury of using a table saw and other equipment like that, which one can use if you have a garage or shop. I made a lot of neat things, which just goes to show you that if you have a little motivation and DIY skills there is a lot open to you regardless of your situation. Thanks for sharing this.

    1 reply

    You are so right! I only recently started making furniture and learning about woodworking and now I can't even think about buying something without contemplating whether or not I can make it instead. :) I started with a custom desk and just recently built a platform bed. I was going to buy one but when I went to look at them I kept thinking "I could trim those legs a little bit and then do this..." which told me I should be making my own custom bed from scratch, not spending hundreds of dollars on a pre-made on I was going to alter. Best decision too. I love my bed and it made me feel so good to have made it.

    I also find myself wishing there was a lumber yard instead of going to Lowes or HD. I feel like I would have more of a selection of wood. I also feel like the selection of connective hardware is less than what it used to be (kinda like how radio shack used to sell everything an electronics tinkerer could ever want and now all they sell is cell phones and pre-made crap).

    I'm about to make a set of book shelves for a corner in my bedroom, a TV stand, coffee table, custom record player cabinet and recently put in a simple workstation in my recording booth (walk-in closet turned into a recording booth).


    8 years ago on Step 23

    Absolutely gorgeous. Can't believe you can make this for $200!! What a feeling of accomplishment!! Am hoping to work my way up to this within a few years. :-) Thanks for the great instructions!


    8 years ago on Step 16

    Sorry for the very very very beginner comment, but exactly HOW did you attach the trim to the bookcase? (i.e. nails, screws? through the side?) Thanks!


    9 years ago on Step 23

    Excellent instructable!  Not too complicated, but enough info to do the job.  A favorite for sure.  The extra detailing really adds a touch of class.


    9 years ago on Step 21

     just a little tip when sanding try to put the sand paper on a block so you dont end up sanding finger shaped grooves into your work


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Try 34" to 36" shelves with staggered supports between shelves.  You can use 3/8" supports at random positions between the shelves.  They can also be handy to use to separate your "series" and authors.  I like mine moveable.  I'll post a pic soon to show you my divider/supports.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    And... when it comes time to rearrange the furniture, you'll find it's a lot easier than trying to make a big shelf fit a small wall.


    9 years ago on Step 23

    Finally a proper 'normal' bookcase Instructable!!

    Thanks a lot, pressed the favorite button before I even started reading! Now all is left is to fill that 3.5m x 2.5m empty wall...

    fin saunders

    9 years ago on Introduction

    A suggestion if you make your shelves longer than 30 inches.

    Instead of using the 3/4" decorative trim on the front of the shelves, use ~1"x1-1/2" trim boards glued to the front of the shelves.  Use the trim router (step #19) to put a decorative edge on the front to keep it nice looking like the rest of the shelving unit.

    This will stiffen the shelf so that you won't get swayback shelves over time while storing those Encyclopaedia Britannicas that you got from Grandma for your 10th birthday.

    A 3/4"x3/4" under the back edge of the shelves would help when showing off your decorative engine blocks and glass scupltures, or if you just have to beef things up to feel better when making things.

    Advanced skill suggestion.

    At steps #15 and #16, use more side trim to cover the front of the fixed middle shelf.  It'll be harder to make it look nice, but may be worth it.  If you make this change, consider making the height of this shelf the same as the window ledges in the room or at kitchen counter height.

    Most important of all, start cutting wood using this wonderful Instructable!


    9 years ago on Introduction

    A nice one indeed. Can you post e-shop where I can order the rails? Thanks!


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Good instructable. You probably shouldn't make your submissions a giant sears commercial, though. Will get you a lot of spam flags.

    1 reply

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Your comment has the only "sears" word in it (now mine too). Everyone adds some links to shops like Radio Shack etc. Its not spam.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    nice work.... too bad, even at 50, i'm told i need adult supervision around power tools ;) later...