Jefferson Style Modular Bookshelves




About: Woodworker and maker in Central Illinois.

I have moved a few times and those crappy big box book shelves work fine for about a week, then the cheap particle board shelves begin to sag and go ahead and try to move them around, because the particle board acts like Velcro in carpet. Then comes moving time. Those things basically go into self-destruct mode when you move them. Who would have though a cheap cardboard back and particle board components wouldn't hold up!?

I started looking around for a better solution. I've wanted to make the shelves that Roy Underhill demonstrates in The Woodwright's Apprentice, which were based on a design found in Thomas Jefferson's home. But that's a lot of dovetails to cut and I needed something now. But digging deeper into this design concept, I found a couple other methods to do a similar design and decided I could easily build these with a few basic tools.

Step 1: Design and Lumber Selection

This design is based on a design I read about in Roy Underhill's Woodwright's Apprentice book. Thomas Jefferson used bookshelves in his house that could double as boxes for quick transport. In Underhill's book, the boxes are dovetailed together with a miter on the front corner to add a bit of design elegance. I wanted to make something like this, but I tend not to go all out when I'm making something for myself, so I thought I'd simplify the design a bit. I read a few different articles and landed on making the main box with a rabbit joint joined by cut nails. Why cut nails? Well, they grip wood better and they look cooler.

So that's basically all these are, a bunch of rabbeted, nailed together boxes. They all have backs of some sort, but are otherwise not fancy in any way. Most of my bookshelves are 24 inches across, but I wanted them a little wider, so I opted for 30 inches.

The other part of the design is simply getting together some books and deciding on heights and depths. I took my biggest big book and a couple other sizes and guestimated what I would need. For my shelf, I decided I wanted one big one at the bottom at 12" tall, 10" deep; a couple medium sized ones at 8" tall, 7" deep, and a small shelf at 7" tall, 5" deep. I ended up adding one more medium at 10" tall, because I underestimated a bit. That actually worked, though, to just make a few, see what I had, then add what I needed. My depths are all just based on standard board widths from the big box. So the 10" ones are made from 1x12s or whatever. You are lucky to get 10" of width on a 1x12 these days... I recommend seeing what's available in the big box and just fit what's there to what you have. You don't want to do a lot of ripping and making a bunch of extra work for yourself for no reason.

Take some time to pick through the stock and find the clearest (i.e., free of knots), straightest boards you can find. Sight down the edge to look for bending, sight down both faces to look for warping or twisting. There's usually at least a few pretty good boards. This will minimize the work you have to do later, so take your time. The less good pieces can be the backs of your boxes, where that stuff is less important.

Step 2: Lumber Prep

Once you have all your dimensions decided upon, time to do some cutting. I used a circular saw for rough cuts, because this low-grade pine splinters like crazy, and my handsaws just turn it into garbage.

For each shelf, my method is to cut 2 lengths of 30" from the board, looking for the clearest parts and making sure there are on knots at the ends. Then I cut two pieces of equal length for the sides. I add 1.5" to my desired height to get the length. Again, make cuts to ensure you don't have knots at the end, as this will make things very difficult for you. For the backs, cut them at 30.5", to account for the sides.

Step 3: Edge Work

Your boards should all come S6S (surfaced on six sides), more or less, so once you have them cut to length, you should only need to do some work cleaning up the edges to get them ready. I did have boards with marks and dirt on them and ended up going over them with a jack plane to clean them up. To square the edges and get the lengths precise, I use a shop-made shooting board. It's just a couple slabs of mdf with couple scraps of oak for the hook and fence. Maybe I'll post one on future instructable.

To clean the ends, I pick one edge as my reference and mark it with an X. Pick the least nice looking edge, but also the straightest. Straight is more important than aesthetics in this case. I square both ends to that reference edge with my combo square, then on the matching board I square one end, then mark it with the first board as reference and shoot it down to that mark. Then I just compare the boards until the lengths are the same. Be sure to compare with the x-marked edges going the same way. I've noticed lumber store board edges aren't always parallel.

The exact measurements aren't as important as making sure matching components are equal. The tops and bottoms of each shelf and the sides of each shelf each need to be the same length. If you do this, you should end up with shelves that are square on each corner.

Step 4: Rabbets

A rabbet is a groove cut along the edge of the board. For this I use three tools: a marking gauge, a crosscut saw, and a Stanley #78 duplex fillister plane. The plane has a little notching blade that pokes down to sever the fibers ahead of the cut so it works great for cross-grain work. I use the notch even when I go with the grain, because it helps pull the fence against the edge and keep the cut on track. You could also use a router, obviously. I only have routers with 1/4" chucks, and I'd have to make bunch of passes for this size rabbet and I don't have the patience. The 78 I can set once and do all my sides.

For measurements, you want the marking gauge set to 3/4" or just a hair above, which you can get by setting it to the thickness of any of your 1-by boards, you want the fence on the 78 or your router also set to 3/4" (I use the marking gauge to set the router fence), and the depth stop you want at 1/2". I tighten the fence and depth screws on my 78 with a pair of pliers. Not super tight, but just a little extra beyond finger tight. I find that is the only way to keep them from slipping.

You want to make these rabbets on the inside face of each side. The inside face is whichever face you want it to be, just be sure to cut the same face on each board, otherwise it doesn't really matter. I secure the end in my inset (or tail) vise, mark it with my marking gauge across the face, then down the far edge, then I use the saw to saw down about half an inch, to prevent the 78 from blowing out that edge. This way at worst you chip on end of the rabbet, not the whole edge. I reposition the side to get as much of it on the bench as possible, then go to down with the 78.

For crossgrain cuts, you want to pull back on the 78 for the first stroke, in order for the cutting notch to make its first cut, then push forward to slice with the iron. Another note if you use this tool is to check every so often to make sure your rabbet is square and you aren't rocking to tool to one side or the other. Stop when your depth stop bottoms out and double check that the rabbet is a uniform depth.

The last thing I do is put holes in the rabbet for the nails. I only put holes in the side - I don't put pilot holes in the top and bottom. I set them back about 2/3 of the way from the edge to the rabbet edge, because cut nails can split the wood if you aren't careful. For the narrower shelves, I did 3, for the wider ones 4-5. I used 4d nails (1.5" roughly) for the smaller ones and 5d nails (1.75") for the bigger ones. These are all fine finish cut nails from the Tremont nail company. I used a smallish hole, 3/32 I believe, maybe 1/8.

Step 5: Assemble Box

This is the fun part. Before assembly, I did any final cleanup on the board. I also broke the edges opposite the ones with the x mark with a block plane. However you wan to do this is fine. What I did was I sat on a tall stool, put the top and bottom (x-edges facing the same direction) on the floor, and put one side across, then secured the side to the first one part then the other, then drove the other nails home. I used the floor itself as a counterforce for my hammer. Again though, you be you, just nail the boards together. I've done two sets of these. I used glue on one and not on the other, both seemed very solid. A bit of glue probably won't hurt, though.

Note on cut nails - to prevent them from splitting the board, you need to drive them so that the narrow edge is parallel with the grain of the side. If you try it the other way, they will easily wedge your side apart. Maybe try a couple tests if you've never used them so you can see what I mean.

Once you have the sides assembled, you want to attach the backs. If you're like me, you waited until they were assembled before you cut the backs so you could measure off the actual final width, but it should be 30.5" if you cut the rabbets right. Either way works. I've done the backs in a number of ways. I think you need to use at least 1/2" stock for the backs. Thinner than than and they feel flimsy. My method on the first was to plane 1-by wood down to 1/2" on a power planer. Full thickness 1-by would also work, but is a little heavier. You can also leave the backs off, use plywood, use a single strip diagonally across the back, whatever you want. The backs add some stability, and they allow you to use the shelves and boxes, just like Jefferson. I used small fine cut headless brads, 3d size, for the backs, until I ran out of those and switched to 3d wire nails.

Step 6: FInal Fit

The last thing I do is a little fine tuning to make sure the shelves stack well. I just stack them the way the will be and see if there is any wobble or anything to adjust, then make some adjustments with handplanes. Once the fit is good, I mark the top of one shelf and the bottom of the other with the same letter, so I will remember how they go together. That done, it's probably a good idea to do the full stack and make sure it's not tipping or anything.

Step 7: Base

The base is optional, but it gives it a little flair.

I did both of my bases with scraps. Basically you want one board a bit longer than the total width of your biggest box, then 2 pieces a little longer than the total depth of that box, and a second long piece for the back that will fit in between the sides. I used a leftover 1x4 for one, and a leftover 1x2 plus some alder scrap for the other.

For mine, I used my Stanely 78 to cut grooves in the base front and sides. I kept the fence at the same settings as the sides, but changed the depth stop to 3/8" (half of 3/4"). I cut a groove in one edge of the base front and each side. Then, I cut a cross grain rabbet on one end of the front of the same depth and width that the 78 was already set to. Then I put the box on my bench and put the front and one side on (the side where the rabbet was cut), then put the other side in place and marked the front with the depth and length marked directly off the side, then trim the front to length and cut the other rabbet. I cut a decorative pattern on the front with a jigsaw to make it more interesting. To join this, I simple nailed the front to the sides. The final piece I used as a stretcher between the sides for stability. I attached this with nails as well.

On the other base, I did the same thing, but used scrap alder to make the feet on the front and back.

Step 8: Finish

I made mine with pine, so finish options are pretty varied. Really, pine looks fine even without finish. You could just let it age naturally no problem. I decided to do just a couple coats of Danish oil. There is storebought Danish oil, or you can make your own (1 part boiled linseed oil, 1 part mineral spirits or turpentine, 1 part polyurethane). I used some storebought type with a dye in it, just to try it. For that one I also put a layer of amber shellac on top. It looks fine, but the other one I did just standard Danish oil and I think it looks better. You could also use milk paint, spray paint, lacquer, old fashioned soap finish. Really, you can do whatever you want, have fun.

Step 9: Setting It Up

Set up is simple. You put the base down then stack the boxes up, matching the letters you marked while fitting to ensure a stable fit. I tried using dowels on some shelves to see if that improved stability or anything, but it ended up being an unnecessary hassle, so I wouldn't recommend it. If you are worried or want some extra stability you could try something like that, or use a flat steel tie to join the shelves. I haven't found it to be necessary, but I don't have a cat. You could also join them together with a couple of screws (1 1/4" would work best) through the top of one and the bottom of the one above it. Try it out, see what works for you.

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    16 Discussions

    Alex in NZ

    10 months ago

    These look really robust and solid. Thank you for sharing this :-)

    Actually I should have quantified that limit of boxes stacked to large boxes(fully loaded they can get amazingly heavy). I looked in my computer room and realized I have a stack much like yours(base of 2 or 3 large with mixed smaller ones on top). What I can't believe is how sturdy they have been for them being put together so simply. One thing I did was make the side bottom cleats proud(using 1x2) so they would stay together when stacked open side up(like milk crates).

    I like your boxes they look ready for prime time, mine are more like 2 steps above milk crates(maybe 3 steps because I gave them nice multi-coats of water-based polyurethane). Maybe when I have a chance to make more I'll use simple joints on the sides but I will probrably still use plywood and woodscrews<shrug>

    Thumbs up

    3 replies

    I was recently at a pro-woodworker's shop and saw his and got bookshelf envy. They were all dovetailed like Roy Underhill did, but in hardwood. Very nice.

    BTW Google "lighthouse traveling library" for variations and more challenges on a project similar to book boxes(I'd make something like them for the adults camp if I ever go to Boy Scout summer camp)

    I know what you mean, I've seen examples of book boxes like that while researching mine. But as I said while budget, skill and tools still limit me, but I have to admit I'm surprised how well these have worked(butt joints, screwed cleats and plywood). Need to build more soon for my other books soon after I get my workshop(garage) in order, plus I'm going to need that workspace to work on equipment and other things for my sons Boy scout troop also.

    2016-09-26 14.27.54.jpg2016-09-26 14.30.11.jpg2016-09-26 14.27.13.jpg2016-09-26 14.25.54.jpg

    Actually build some years ago(inspired by the same book). I took a simpler route for the build and based the size on milk crates. My skill level, tools available and budget led me to just use butt joints for the sides, 1"x1" pieces of wood for cleats to hold the bottom in and 3/4 plywood. I don't have pictures currently, but they have stood up pretty well.

    On the issue of stacking I tried to limit the number stacked to 4 and they seem pretty stable. I've considered using Velcro or double sided tape if I needed more stability but so far it hasn't been an issue(maybe it will when I build more for my books).


    2 years ago

    I was fully prepared to suggest dowels to hold them together until the last page. You caught me off guard there..
    Anyway, I love the idea because I need to build some workshop shelving and having the ability to use them for transport is a great idea. I even thought about removable doors that can be taken off and stowed away when not in use, but used as covers during a move or perhaps to keep sawdust out..
    Great starting idea.. Thanks!

    2 replies

    Reply 2 years ago

    Yeah, I did the top two with dowels, but I always have trouble getting dowels to align just right, personally. I think dowels would definitely do the trick if you are better at them than me. I decided just to see how it went and so far no problems. Plus without dowels it's much easier to just grab the boxes when you want to move them around. A couple battens across the back screwed into place might do the trick, too.


    Reply 2 years ago

    Someone else suggested an interlocking solution. Perhaps an oversized dado , perhaps 3/4 inch on the bottom of the shelf or something similar and a 1/2 inch cleat on top of the one under it just to keep the top shelf from sliding off from the one under it? Of course that space age stuff gravity will probably work too..


    2 years ago

    Good for use.


    2 years ago

    Nice tutorial! I do wish the picture of the finished product had been earlier in the I'ble, however. It would have been nice to see what it was building towards at the very beginning.

    2 replies

    Reply 2 years ago

    Yeah, that's a good suggestion. I made that change.


    2 years ago

    I like the way these turned out! I've got a 2 year old kid that's a climber, so I'd have to fasten this kind of thing all together. But I love the modular approach so much.

    Thanks for sharing this! :)

    2 replies

    Reply 2 years ago

    There are lots of ways. Two battens running top to bottom on the back (maybe use 1x2s or something similar) with screws at regular intervals. Screwing the shelves together would be okay. Metal braces across the shelves. Dowels to join them. You could even rework the design a little so that the top of one locked into the bottom of the other and drive screws into the overlap.