How to Make a Bookshelf Mountain!




About: Completed a masters in mechanical engineering and then realised I didn't want to be an engineer. So I'm a freelance propmaker and costumier for film, theatre and music videos. Occasionally, I need to find ...

My girlfriend has a lot of books.  A lot of hardback books.  A mountain of books.  Our apartment has exactly zero shelves.  But there is sixteen feet of clear wall space that a bookcase can go up against and none of the shop bought laminate versions appealed.  So these are my plans to make an appropriate bookshelf.  The entire project cost $220 for all the materials.

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Step 1: Tools and Materials

Safety glasses
Circular saw / table saw / jigsaw / cross-cut hand saw
Power drill
Hand sander
Work bench
Wood drill bit
Angle drill guide
3/8” dowel centres
Measuring square
Measuring tape

5x - 8’ lengths of 1 x 10 softwood
14x - 6’ lengths of 1 x 10 softwood
132x - 3/8” x 2” hardwood dowels
24x - 2½” x ½” corner braces
4x - 2” corner brackets
4x - 4” straight braces
Wood stain and protection of choice
Wood glue
Wood screws

Another option instead of solid Spruce/Pine/Fir is to use a good quality ¾” thick plywood.  An 4’x8’ board ripped into 1’x8’ boards by the store could be slightly cheaper in price if you don’t mind seeing the plywood edge.

Step 2: The Design

I opted for a slightly unusual design in a mountain-like shape.  The left side is a set of straight bookshelves in decreasing lengths with one of the shelves shorter in height to receive DVDs.  The right side is a set of various sized compartments for books, tall things or other such knick-knacks.  Each shelf is 12” tall except the bottom level which is 18” tall.  The T-section sticks out 4’ from the shelf and 2½’ high and helps divide the room into sitting room and a study area.  The SketchUp design shows how the boards sit and are arranged.

Step 3: Get Cutting

Remember the words of the guru Norm Abram:
“Before we use any power tools, let’s talk about shop safety. Remember to read, understand and follow all the safety rules that come with your power tools. Knowing how to use your tools properly will greatly reduce the risk of injury. And remember that there’s no greater safety rule than to wear these *points to face* safety glasses.”

I didn’t have a table saw or a router for this project, so there are no dados or mortise & tenon joints.  The boards are connected with dowels set into the ends and some corner braces on the back side to support the external corners and prevent the entire construction from racking.

I planned out the cuts by hand as I couldn’t find a good board calculator.  Having the 3D model is useful for pulling dimensions for the cutting which already take board thicknesses into account.  I used a circular saw to do all the cross-cuts to cut the boards to length.  49 cuts in total.  To help speed things up, I made a sled that my saw rides in to make perpendicular cuts with my mark out line.

The boards were the cheapest you can find from a big box store so careful selection of the straightest and least cupped boards were pulled from the piles.  Arrange the boards so that the best side is visible.  And take care to label the boards with their length after cutting.  The cutting list should give you all the pieces for the plan.

Step 4: Get Drilling

I bought a discounted drilling guide for $11 to help me drill the holes for the dowels as close to 90° in the ends of the boards.  It also provided me with stops for drilling depth.  Majority of the holes are 1” in from the edge of the board.  Vertical pieces have the hole in the end grain 1 3/8” deep, horizontal pieces are 5/8” deep.  Clamp the board down and secure two scrap pieces on either side to provide more surface for the drill guide to rest upon.   If you have proper dowel centres, drill the 3/8” hole in the end grain of the vertical pieces first and offer them up to the horizontal pieces with the drill centres in place to mark where the corresponding holes will be.

I didn’t have drill centres so cut the heads off of two screws to leave the thread and point, covered the thread with masking tape to fit my 5mm pilot hole.  The pilot hole is drilled so that only the tip of the screw protrudes and when lined up with the mating plank, will put two marks that I can centre my holes with.  This ensures that my dowels will always fit together and line up.  If you can measure and drill perfectly accurately, then this is not required, but it is rarely perfect so this provides a best case scenario.

Whereas the outer vertical boards have dowels and braces to connect them, the internal vertical pieces between the shelves on the left side have no dowels or fixings at all.  These pieces simply float like book ends between the shelves and can be placed and shifted according to the shelf’s needs.  The weight of books will keep the boards in place and I recommend not having a span of shelf longer than 3 feet, lest a particularly heavy encyclopaedia snap the shelf in half.

With the holes drilled, drop the dowels with a bit of wood glue into the end grain holes (i.e. the dowels are in line with the boards).  This facilitates the bookcase to deconstruct into flat, easily transportable pieces.

Step 5: Assemble!

With the pieces cut, drilled and dowels inserted, do a dry fit of all the pieces to ensure it fits together in the right order.  With the dry fit complete, take time to label the back side of the boards to aid in assembly later.  I labelled the boards “V” for vertical and “H” for horizontal and then numbered from the floor up and left to right.  This gives each piece a unique designation.  At the intersection of each piece, write the piece it connects to on the ends to give a specific position and order.  Place corner braces on the external corners (i.e. the outer most intersections around the perimeter) on the back side to prevent racking.

Step 6: Disassemble!

After you’re done admiring your shelves, you could stop there and be satisfied.  However, the soft wood is unprotected and will dent and mark and take on water without some sort of protection.  I opted for a dark stain and polyurethane finish to add some depth and substance to the relatively thin shelves.  Take the shelves apart and place them back side down onto some scrap wood cleats to raise it off the floor and allow better access.

Step 7: Stain Away

I detailed my staining method in another Instructable (Introduction to wood staining) with more detailed instructions.  I used Minwax Bombay Mahogany Stain & Poly in one applied with a folded piece of t-shirt cotton with the grain.  The first coat is dry overnight and then sanded back with 80 grit paper and an electric sander to remove the stain from the high levels of the grain and make it pop.  I then applied another coat of Bombay Mahogany mixed with Minwax Ebony stain in a 5 parts Mahogany to 1 part Ebony to darken the stain.  This is applied to the boards to give more depth to the colour and give the wood a more aged appearance.

As a note, the Bombay Mahogany was not the expected colour on application and required the Ebony stain mixed in to get the desired colour.  They call this the finishing stage, but it easily took the same amount of time as the woodworking, if not more.

Step 8: All in the Details

With the stain dry, I chamfered all the edges of the boards with a plane and utility knife to leave approximately a 3/16” (2mm) chamfer.  Where there were intersections, I left the edge square so the pieces joined together flush and continued the chamfer on the other side.  This left a nice lighter coloured line around all the pieces which helped give more depth than just one shade of colour.

Step 9:

Join all the pieces back together in the order you’ve hopefully marked.  The T-section that sticks out is also joined by dowels at the intersection but also has flat connecting plates screwed on the underside to keep them joined.  There is also a corner bracket on the outermost vertical panel to keep it aligned with the other pieces.

Step 10: Security

As the entire unit is over 16’ long and 6.5’ high, it needs to be anchored to the wall to prevent falling over and trapping any small plants or children.  Use the 3 remaining corner brackets screwed to the underside of a shelf and then to a wall stud. 

Wall studs are commonly found on one side of a power outlet.  Knock on each side to hear a solid noise instead of a hollow noise.  The edge of the 2x4 stud will be to the outlet.  Measure 16” from this point to find the next stud, and 16” again to find the next.  You can drill a small hole in the wall and ½” in should be the wood of the stud.  Secure the bracket with at least a 2” screw.  In some older buildings, the studs may be 24” apart if you can’t find it.

Step 11: Actually Finished!

With the shelving secure, you can admire your alternative shelving solution and put all your books and pieces on display.  Behold your mountain of books!  I was a little concerned about weight distribution with the offset shelves, but it is all holding up very well with the immense mass of books.

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    28 Discussions


    1 year ago

    Nice design and good to see projects like this being done with minimal tools for those of us without a proper shop. Were I to build this (and I just might) I would nix the center perpendicular part and make the bottom two rows wider (possibly taller as well) to add weight and stability. Thanks for sharing this project.

    1 reply

    Reply 3 years ago

    Orrr. Just use these plans without having to buy plans, maybe?


    3 years ago

    very nice work. I liked the whole design.


    4 years ago

    Awesome job buddy. I live in England & I had the same problem, my girlfriend & I have a mountain of books on all kinds of subjects with very few shelves in our large apartment. I followed your instructions & made my own shelf mountain. Thanks for sharing buddy, take care.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    I love that Bombay Mahogany finish (I used it on a built in book case and a desk). I have a Kreg jig that I got from my son-in-law, which might be a bit easier for a neophyte to use than a dowelling jig as nothing has to be lined up except for the wood but it is a bit more expensive as you need special screws and plugs. I love the look of your project.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    really cool! I did something similar but not as epic with small different shaped book cases from thrift stores or ikea and screwed them into place, they were all the same color so it came out pretty nice, quick, and affordable!


    6 years ago on Step 11

    This is a great project on a budget!! Some other woods that may not require as much finishing are maple, cherry, oak, and walnut. They are more costly than pine, but not terribly so.

    Here are a few suggestions. Instead of relying on a couple of metal angle braces to prevent racking, strategically place some vertical boards perpendicular to the supporr boards, and anchor from the back with three screws per intersecting shelf. These "flat" boards could then be anchored to the studs, without the use of metal brackets.

    However, in lieu of anchoring to a wall, especially in a rental situation, use the short tee section to brace the longer section. This would requre some "flat" boards, as well, and some stronger connections between the two sections.

    Design loads for shelves of books usually run at about 50 lbs per lineal foot, and most of your supports seem adequate. Typical spans, depending on wood species, usually max out at about 4 feet with such loads.

    Finally, when I used to have those monstrous stereo speakers with flat bottoms, I would place adjustable screws in the bottom panel to minimize contact with flooring materials, such as carpet. While this was done for acoustic reasons, it also made the speaker more stable, as the tilps of the screws were supported directly by the subflooring, instead of the carpet. And it didn't damage the carpet.

    Your design of the spaces on the shelves is quite appealing, and adds a great deal of interest to what would otherwise be a boring rectangular shape.

    2 replies

    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    I did look at the fancier woods but was only able to find choice pine, poplar and red oak in the big box store and were 2.5x the price putting this project into a much higher band.

    I'm sorry, I don't quite understand how the vertical boards are anchored to the studs from behind? Do you mean to make the vertical boards as brackets themselves for the shelf support? The T-section does help support the shelves, but you're right that the joints are not strong enough to support it entirely. Very interesting values for bookshelf loading though!

    I will agree that having just the flat boards on the bottom is not ideal. I now want to raise the bottom with 4" feet and then a footer board around the bottom to cover the gap. 20:20 hindsight! Thanks for the comments.


    Reply 6 years ago on Step 11

    This looks great. I've been considering doing something similar for months, but I was only going to make a simple square design. Way to go.

    I think what chuckyd was saying is that you could put a piece inside of "apparently" random shelves, perpendicular to the rest of the structure to add strength. For example, if you cut a piece that was the exact dimensions of one of your opens, you could "blank" that shelf. You'd still have the use of 90% of your shelf space, but wouldn't be able to see the wall behind that section. Those back pieces could then be anchored to your wall, in place of the brackets. As for the T section, maybe a divider could be put in place, spanning the split, that could bear the load. It would also turn the T section into a buttress, preventing the whole set of shelves from tipping. Hope that helps.

    Again way to go. Having seen your design I think I'll start drawing up plans of my own. Thanks!


    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    Would depend on the material of the doors, chipboard might not be suitable for supporting the weight. The other issue would be any mouldings or panelling on the doors will make it difficult for the pieces to butt up flush with each other.

    But I can only encourage that you give it a go! A small scale staggered shelf would make a great feature piece.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    meticulous, beautiful project! how many holes did you have to drill?

    i did a project like this, but it was not as long. my biggest mistake was using plywood, and it's glued and screwed.

    Whats wrong with that?

    well, i had to get it upstairs to where it will sit, and it's wicked heavy. all one piece, more than two sheets of 3/4 ply. it took 3 guys.

    plus, i can never take it apart!

    nice job!


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Well done & great pictures. As a lover of books, I applaud you for creating such a lovely storage medium.

    However, as a professional translator with over 20 years experience I am appalled by the French translation on the Madison Mill "dowel pin" container.

    The translation provided makes absolutely zero sense in French. An approximate translation into English would be "Fluted Fingers". What the heck is that ???

    The time tested AND correct word for a dowel in French is "cheville".

    It is very common for companies to completely disregard proper translation on products and ask anyone with access to Google translate to come up with something, no matter how wrong it is. That is just a personal peeve when it comes to translation... don't let it stand in your way of enjoying this "instructable".

    Cheers !!

    1 reply

    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    Technically, the spline on the dowel is called "fluting", so would say that part is more correct than the English. But the use of "finger" is questionable to me. We're allowed pet peeves; I get frustrated with the term "lightyear" used as a unit of time.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    If you have cats, don't plan on having anything on the "tops" of each level of shelves. I promise you that within 30 minutes of building and installing this (and possibly while still building it) your cats will have conquered the mountain and claimed it as their own. That said, this would make a truly badass cat tree that you could also keep books on....

    1 reply

    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    Great scott, you're right! Cats are normally good about not jumping up anywhere that isn't clear enough for all feet, but any small space will see the crystal go flying. I have seen bookshelf cat habitats before. One day!


    6 years ago on Introduction

    This is a very impressive piece of work. I would love to build something like this....but I would hate to stain it! Great job!

    1 reply

    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    I can't say I enjoyed staining it, but the finished effect is nice, especially with the chamfer. You could also quite easily paint the whole thing which is much less labour intensive. A nice white basecoat and then a nice emulsion would be just as nice.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    The bookshelf is beautiful. I also think putting a flat screen onto an easel is genius.