A good bookcase is more than a set of shelves. It’s a home for your most treasured volumes—a place to not only store and protect, but, more importantly, to display. In fact, while it may be designed to hold books, it’s also the perfect place to show off photographs and collectibles.
The problem is, a bookcase with such a daunting responsibility won’t make the grade if it’s built of plywood or pine. What you need is something that lives up to the objects it holds. With this in mind, we’ve created the third piece in our Popular Mechanics 100th anniversary furniture series. Like our dining table and chair, our bookcase is constructed of solid mahogany and features details of pomele sapele veneer and wenge.
The case’s finished back allows it to be used either against a wall or in the center of a room as a partition. The exotic woods used in our commemorative line of furniture are not likely to be stocked by your local lumberyard. But, they are available through mail-order sources. One such source is A&M Wood Specialty Inc., 358 Eagle St. N., Box 32040, Cambridge, Ontario, Canada N3H 5M2; www.forloversofwood.com.
This project was originally published in the July 2002 issue of Popular Mechanics. You can find more great projects at Popular Mechanics DIY Central.
Step 1: Materials
Step 2: Building the Case
Begin by cutting the case parts to finished dimension. Try to match the color and grain of the pieces for a uniform
Mark the locations of the front and back rails on each side. Note that the front rails are set back 1⁄8 in., while the back rails are flush. Use a marking gauge and square to lay out the mortises for each joint.
Rout the rail mortises with a spiral up-cutting bit (Photo 1). Make two or three passes to reach the full mortise depth to avoid breaking the bit or overloading the router.
Then, rout the back-panel grooves (Photo 2). Lay out the mortises in the edges of the top and bottom back rails. Maintain the router’s previous edge-guide setting and readjust the depth to cut these mortises. Clamp two rails together to provide a wider, more stable base for the router, but be sure to register the edge guide against the outer face of the rail being cut. Readjust the bit depth again to cut the panel grooves in the rails, and then rout the panel grooves in the back stiles. Square the mortises with a sharp chisel (Photo 3). Use a dado blade in your table saw to cut the tenon cheeks on the rails and stiles (Photo 4).
A stopblock clamped to the saw table ensures that all tenons will be the same length. Since most dado blades leave small ridges on the surface of the stock, cut the tenons about 1⁄32 in. heavy and pare them to size with a sharp chisel. Readjust the blade height to cut the shoulders at the edges of the tenons (Photo 5). Mark the locations of the joining-plate slots on the inner surfaces of the bottom rails and cut the slots (Photo 6). Adjust the joiner fence so that the slots are set back the proper distance from the rail edge. Note that the front rail has four slots while the back rail has three slots.
Next, lay out the slots on the edges and ends of the bottom shelf and cut them. Use a flat tabletop as a registration surface for locating the slots. Be sure that you hold both the joiner and workpiece tight to the table when cutting. Use the same technique to cut the slots in the top ends of the case sides as well as the top edges of front and back upper rails. Mark the case sides to indicate the positions of the slots for the bottom shelf joint, then cut those slots (Photo 7). Clamp a guide block to the case side to aid in locating the joiner for these cuts. Make a template out of plywood or hardboard for the shelf-pin hole locations. Note that the edge-to-hole distance is different for the front and back holes. Position the template on each case side and use a depth stop on the drill bit to bore the shelf-pin holes (Photo 8).
Install a chamfer bit in the router table and cut the 1⁄8-in. chamfer on the front edges and outside back edges of the case sides. Then chamfer the front rails and front edges of the adjustable shelves. Install a straight bit in your router and cut the rabbet around the edges of the back panels (Photo 9). To make the wenge feet, first rip a strip of 1-in.-thick wenge to 21⁄2 in. wide. Adjust the table saw blade to 45˚ and chamfer the end of the strip (Photo 10). Readjust the blade to 90˚ to cut a 1⁄2-in.-high foot off the strip. Repeat the procedure for the remaining feet. Bore and countersink screwholes in the case feet. Spread a bit of glue on each foot and fasten them to the bottom ends of the sides with 11⁄2-in. No. 8 screws (Photo 11).
Step 3: Decorative Panels
Cut the wenge panel cores larger than finished dimension—they’ll be trimmed to exact size after the veneer is glued in place. After cutting the wenge stock to width, clamp a fence to your band saw and resaw the thin panel cores. Cut the pieces about 1⁄32 in. thicker than indicated and plane them smooth.
To cut the veneer, first place a scrap plywood or particleboard panel on your worktable and lay a sheet of veneer over it. Lay out the outlines of the veneer pieces to match the wenge cores. Place a straightedge guide over each cut line and hold a veneer saw against the guide while lightly scoring the veneer (Photo 12). It will take several passes with the saw to cut through the veneer. You can easily press the veneer onto both side panels at the same time. Use a roller to spread glue onto the wenge cores (Photo 13). Place a veneer sheet over each core, then cover each with wax paper.
Stack the two panels with edges and ends aligned and sandwich them between 3⁄4-in.-thick cauls. It’s best to use double cauls on both sides of the stack to evenly distribute the clamping pressure. Apply clamps, beginning at the center and working toward both ends (Photo 14). Space the clamps 3 to 4 in. apart. Allow the panels to sit in the clamps for at least 2 hours. Then, remove the clamps and let the panels dry overnight. Follow the same procedure for the front-rail panels.
Don’t be alarmed if the panels show a slight warp. Usually, veneer is applied to both sides of the core to avoid this. When the thin panels are glued and clamped to the bookcase, they’ll flatten out. After the glue has cured, cut the panels to finished size and chamfer the edges. Sand the panel edges and outer surfaces of the front rails and sides to 220 grit. Mark the location of each panel on its case part. Spread glue on the back of the top-rail panel, place it on the rail and clamp it in position (Photo 15). Use plenty of clamps to ensure a good bond between the panel and rail. Repeat the procedure for bottom rail and side panels.
Step 4: Assembly
Dry fit the front and back bottom rails to the bottom shelf (Photo 16). Then glue and clamp the assembly.
Slide the two back stiles over the edges of the center back panel. Next, apply glue to the mortise-and-tenon joints for the stiles and upper and lower back rails, and assemble the parts (Photo 17). Take care to keep glue off the panel edges. Use long bar clamps to pull the back rail/stile joints tight and let the glue set. Slide the two remaining back panels into the rail and stile grooves.
Then, apply glue to the joints for one of the case sides. Assemble the side to the back subassembly and front rail, and apply clamps (Photo 18). When the glue is dry, add the other side. Mark the locations of the joining-plate slots in the case top and cut the slots. Clamp a straightedge guide to the top to aid in positioning the joiner. Set the table saw blade to a 15˚ angle and bevel the case top edges (Photo 19). Use the miter gauge when trimming the ends, and the fence when cutting the front and back edges. Sand the case and top to 220 grit, spread glue in the slots and on the joining plates, and clamp the top in place. Mark the locations of the shelf-pin notches in the bottom faces of the adjustable shelves. Use a router with an edge guide and straight bit to cut the notches, and sand the shelves.
Step 5: Finishing
We finished our case with Waterlox Original Sealer/Finish. Apply the finish liberally with a brush or rag and allow it to penetrate for about 30 minutes. Use a lintfree rag to wipe off the excess, leaving only a damp surface. After overnight drying, lightly scuff the surface with 320-grit paper.