Lets Make the Jefferson Book Boxes




Lets Make The Jefferson Box Boxes!

Wait...You have no idea what Jefferson Book Boxes Are?? No worries allow me to tell you a bit about them.

Today we don't care too much for books. We have our tablets and our phones and books are of little consequence to most. Books require time and effort and we just don't have the patience for that sort of thing anymore. But 300 Years ago, book were expensive (VERY EXPENSIVE) and typically reserved for the wealthy and elite of society. Since there was no electricity and modern conveniences like we have today. Household disasters were much more common than today as well. Floods from living by a river, fires from reading by candle light both typical disasters that could bring a house ... and its expensive book to ashes in moments.

Because of this they needed a way to move these (expensive books) items quickly. I don't know if you have ever tried to move a book shelf but it is a nightmare. Its 400,000 pounds and never wants to fit through the door way.

Well in the 1700's Thomas Jefferson, the man who donated his library to found the Library of Congress, had a capital "shelving" idea. Why not build a modular book shelf that was stackable and therefore unshakable and portable. That is exactly what he did. His design, While we are not sure he actually invented it, his design that was incorporated into his home at Monticello called for pine boxes to be made of a certain size that would stack on top of each other to hold his books. Then when the time came to move. All you must do is unstuck them, slap on a lid and off you go. Each row of books was indeed its own box. This was in fact how his library was transported to Washington. In his "book boxes" as they are called today.

Monticello keeps a record of his actual dimensions for construction here. Jefferson Book Boxes

There is also this excerpt in his hand writing calculating the materials. Jefferson Calculations

When I stumbled across this I thought "How Cool" Something sturdy, attractive and modular. I could expand it or move it any time I wanted. I thought this idea was great for expanding the shelving in my sons room. But since I dreamed this up as somewhat kid furniture. I wanted to add a bit of a modern twist. So I decided to make it out of plywood and give it some cool trim and joints that would be fitting of a young boy Thomas Jefferson living in 2015!

This Instructable is dedicated to my son and my father on our journey through making the Jefferson Book Boxes.

I hope you will enjoy as well.

Step 1: Here Are Some of the Tools You May Need


  • 2 - Sheets 3/4" birch or pine plywood.
  • Wood Glue
  • 1-1/4" Nails or Screws
  • 2 - Cans Shellac (Substitute Poly if you prefer)
  • Sand Paper (80, 120, 220 grits)


  • Table Saw (Or Circular Saw in a pinch)
  • Hammer
  • Drill
    • Bits and Drivers
  • Rubber Mallet
  • Combination Square
  • Framing Square
  • Paint Brushes
  • Butane Torch
  • Sanding Block
  • Pencil
  • Dado Set

This list is just the bare essentials for this project. I am sure I could have gotten by with less and I am sure that I likely used a few more things I had lying around.

I will say that the right tool goes a long way. For instance a good Dado Set can be in excess of $300. I bought a used dado set from a chap online and I didn't think it was very good when i installed it. The next day I went out to a discount freight store and bought their version for $50. This set was worse than the used one and the joints were anything but flat bottomed. Subsequently I spent a lot of time sanding smooth the bottom on my dado'd finger joints.

Just saying that with the right tools this project can be a breeze without them it can be a real test!

Step 2: Set Up Shop

Ok before we get started cutting and drilling and hammering... we need to get our tools ready for the task at hand.

On thing that will be of Jefferson Importance in this build is the set up of our table saw.

If you want all you finger joints to fit snuggly then you need to make sure everything is square.

1. Make sure the fence is square with the table. Using your framing square.

2. Make sure the blade is square with he fence. Marking the blade at the front and the rear with a combination square should yield the same results. As in the distance between the front of the blade and the fence is the same as the back of the blade and the fence.

3. Make sure the blade is perpendicular to the table. This one is easy to over look. Many people forget to look at the bevel angle and end up with squirmy cuts. Use your combination square to make sure the blade is straight up and down before cutting.

4. MOST IMPORTANT MAKE sure you have your safety gear out and ready. Especially Eye and Ear protection!

Step 3: CAD Drawings and Cut-Sheets


With the above cut sheet you can cut this entire project out of just two pieces of plywood. You actually have enough left over in case you make a mistake and need to re-cut a piece. I'd also like to suggest that you use the excess to create a matching stool or a nice base of the book boxes to sit on.

I have also included the side diagrams of the Bottom, Middle and Top boxes. All of which are 35" wide.

Last Thing: I'd like you to note how the pattern is cut on the cad drawings. This rendition starts with the back and the finger joints are symmetrical. Giving a dashed black line look. In the end I chose not to do this in order to achieve a zig zag pattern with the ends. Notice how in the close up drawing all the black boxes butt up against each other. This is because the finger joint pattern is symmetrical.

If you prefer the zig zag pattern you will cut the bottom of the side piece opposite of the top. So if you were looking at a side and the bottom rear started with a tooth.... you would have to make sure to cut the top with a gap.

This will have the black lines making a zig zag and looking good. Ultimately its all up to you. I think it would look great if you left it unlisted as well.

Step 4: Cut Material to Size

Now its time to cut.

Since ripping full sheets of plywood can difficult, even if you have a table saw I recommend having the long rips done at your local big box hardware store on their panel saw. In the above pictures you can see the cuts I had them make. Everything else was manageable, between my wife and I.

ONE NOTE OF CAUTION: If you have a big box make your cuts make sure they measure twice and cut very slowly on the panel saw. These saws are typically outfitted with a ripping blade and it will cause a lot of tear-out on your plywood if the operator is not careful and does not take his time.

Once you get all the box bottoms, sides, Tops and backs cut. Then its time to start working on the joinery.

Step 5: D̶a̶n̶c̶e̶ ... Build a Jig

Finger Joints

For this project I really liked the look of the plywood finger joints. What is a finger joint you ask??

A finger joint (sometimes called a box joint) is just a series of alternating teeth that over lap at the corner to form a box. The finger joint is very popular because it is relatively easy to cut and very strong once glued into place.

However, In order to cut these joints you'll need a jig similar to the one in my above picture.

Not to worry building one is easy! I was going to show you how I built mine but there's an even better instructable on building a finger joint jig. By mistermocha Box Jig Inscrutable

Once you get you jig built you'll be ready to start cutting.

One note on the jig. You must be very precise on the size of the dado/the key/distance between them. The distance between the dado and the key must by slightly smaller since it represents the teeth (or tongues) and needs to fit properly.

You don't want to walk around with your box joints falling out right!

Step 6: Cut Finger Joints

Ok now its time to cut the joints.

Be very careful at this step. (WEAR SAFTY GLASSES)

Not only are you using the table saw, but one small slip up can ruin an entire piece.

  • Make sure the work piece falls all the way down to the table and doesn't sit up on sawdust or chips.
  • Try to use a sacrificial piece behind the workpiece this will help prevent tear-out.
  • Also pay attention to the sides you want facing the exterior and the ones you want interior.
  • If you followed the cut sheet all you boxes will have the same grain pattern and this is important to think about when building anything out of wood.

If you do decide to build this out of solid wood and not plywood. Make sure the grain of the boxes is the longest length. Wood is hydroscopic and expands with humidity changes, but only laterally. If you make your boxes run across the gain they will tear them selves apart over time.

Once everything is cut I recommend stacking the material into its respective shelves. 1 back/ 2 like sides / Top / Bottom. This makes it easy to see what is where and what pieces go with what.

Step 7: Get Help Sanding

After you cut the finger joints you will no doubt have some sanding to do.

I hired a grandpa to assist and over a few hours we sanded all the finger joints smooth with progressively finer sand paper until each was smooth and tight fitting.

The grit's we used were 80 then 120 then 220.

Be careful sanding plywood as its easy to burn through the top layer of veneer.

Thanks for the help Dad!

Step 8: Finishing

For this project I wanted a natural wood look, lots of gloss and black edges.

There are hundreds of great types of finish out there but I really like using shellac. My reason being is that it is environmentally friendly and very safe for human contact. It also tends to dry really fast and gives a good water proofing.

This bookcase is intended as children's furniture so water proof and durability are a must.

To get the ends black like I wanted them I needed a bit of ingenuity. I decided to burn them! Yup that's right.

I started with a butane torch and meticulously went over the fingers with the torch until they were nice and toasty. I then rubbed off any excess black and sealed it over with shellac.

In the end I was very happy with this process, it was fairly easy and it looks great. Especially in contrast with the light wood boxes. Reminds me of a charred oak whiskey barrel! HA

Step 9: Assembly

Once everything is finished its time to assemble.

You'll need a rubber mallet to tap the finger joints into place. WARNING if you have really tight joints its always better to sand than to break something!! Lesson from personal experience.

After, I got the boxes together. I predrilled the holes in the back and nailed them into place. I had a hard time deciding between nails and screws for this project.

Screws hold better but the nails will allow some room for the wood to shrink and swell. I'm not sure I'd love to hear how you guys approached this problem.

Step 10: Stack

Ok when they are ready so are you.

All you have to do is take them inside and stack them up.

If you notice I also cut some 1" slots in my boxes to act as handles. These turned out to be a really nice feature. They look good and some interest as well as functionality.

That is the great thing about theses cases! They are modular. They make moving books very easy.

Having these shelves... just remember....next time there is a flood you are going to thank me!!

Step 11: Sit Back and Enjoy!

There you have it the Jefferson Book Boxes in all their splendor!

Over all I thought this was a really cool project.

  • They were easy to build
  • The are very durable as well as functional
  • They come in really handy when you need to move them (unlike most book cases)
  • And there's some cool history behind them.

How often call you tell your kids they have the same thing in their room as Thomas Jefferson had in his!!

Oh well. I hope you enjoy this instructable as much as I did.

As always happy trails! :)

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    9 Discussions


    3 years ago

    "I'm not sure I'd love to hear how you guys approached this problem."

    Ha ha! I think you meant to have a period in there, but with the internet it is probably smart to be a little apprehensive.


    3 years ago

    These are great looking shelves! Very nice build techniques, and very well presented instructable too. I hope you'll share more of what you make!


    3 years ago

    Nice shelves. The edges/finger joints painted that way are very attractive.

    One thing that would worry me is the possibility that the stacked shelves, which are not connected together in any way, might topple over if they're bumped, especially if there are a lot of the more shallow boxes piled up. Just think about a couple of kids rough-housing, and one falling and hitting the front/top of the second shelf really hard. It's likely to move backwards until it hits the wall, causing the upper shelves to fall over.

    1 reply

    Reply 3 years ago

    I was worried about this too before the build. Surprisingly they are very sturdy even empty so that really doesn't bother me anymore. Perhaps a good addition to this project would be to add a key block in the back to lock them together. Thanks for the comment.


    3 years ago

    Great ;)


    3 years ago

    Nice shelves. A suggestion on box joints: Low production & one off use a sharp chisel to clean up the fingers and a plane to knock down the protruding fingers. It's quick. Nice design toutches

    1 reply

    Reply 3 years ago

    Good Idea. I am all about traditional wood working and love using my hand tools. However, chiseling and planing doesn't work so well on plywood. So this project was relegated to the sanding block.


    3 years ago

    Really cool! I've always loved the look of finger joints!