Nautilus Bookshelf





Introduction: Nautilus Bookshelf

About: Eric J. Wilhelm is the founder of Instructables. He has a Ph.D. from MIT in Mechanical Engineering. Eric believes in making technology accessible through understanding, and strives to inspire others to lear...

Children's books are all drastically different sizes. Putting them into a bookshelf seems almost futile because they're either too big and don't fit or are too small and waste space (plus they're only moments away from being pulled out onto the floor anyway). Rather then worry about this, I decided to embrace it and build a bookshelf where every shelf was different. This nautilus-inspired bookshelf isn't meant to be efficient or to pack books neatly, it's about willingly, enthusiastically accepting the chaos that is kids books.

The bookshelf is made of 15 sheets of maple plywood, jet machined, laminated together, stained, and finished.

Step 1: Inspiration

I broadly knew I wanted a bookshelf with variably-sized shelves. However, I was stuck on stuff that looked like off-kilter or crooked rectilinear shelves. I asked my 5-year-old daughter to draw the bookshelf she wanted, and she drew a spiral. Perfect!

Step 2: Draw Nautilus Outline

I used AutoCAD LT to draw the profile of the shelf.

First, I drew a logarithmic spiral and then cut it into regular sections while consulting pictures of nautilus shells to get the proportions approximately correct. Near the center of the spiral, the sections sweep out twice the angle because I didn't want the center shelves to become too small. I then offset the spiral 0.75'' as a thickness of shelves that seemed right.

The overall scale of the shelves is such that two profiles can be cut from a single 4' x 8' sheet of plywood. This makes the dimensions approximately 46'' x 36''.

Both the AutoCAD LT drawing and a .DXF are attached.

Step 3: Jet Machine Layers

I used 0.75'' thick maple shop-grade plywood and cut the profiles on the Pier 9Omax Jet Machining Center. I cut the the plywood above water so it didn't get fully soaked.

I cut 15 profiles from 8 pieces of plywood. The 16th profile was a solid outline of the bookshelf intended to be a back that I ultimately decided not to use. Each profile took almost 30 minutes to cut, so I monopolized the jet for 8 hours with this project.

Step 4: Scrap Wood

The very nature of my process generated lots of scrap wood. With so many other projects happening at the Pier, fortunately much of it was repurposed.

Step 5: 15 Layers Stacked

Here are all 15 layers stacked together.

The discoloration along the cut surfaces is garnet from the jet that has been forced into wood, probably as the jet passes over its steel slats. Moderate sanding did not remove the marks, so I chose to ignore them.

Step 6: First Layer

I wanted the exposed face to be free of marks, including nail holes. To achieve this, I glued it to the second layer and held the two pieces together with almost every clamp in the shop.

Step 7: Internal Layers

The internal layers are held together with glue and brad nails. Since each layer is the same shape, I aligned them by feel along the edges.

Step 8: Final Layer

Similar to the first layer, I wanted the final layer to be free of marks, so both sides were unblemished. I glued the final layer and, again, used every clamp in the shop that was big enough.

Step 9: Roughly Sand

Using 80-grit sandpaper, I roughly sanded the shelf until the individual layers were even. Where I could, I used a belt sander, and in the internal areas, a random orbital sander or sanding block. I only sanded the largest cavities -- the smallest ones were too difficult to access and are not easily visible.

Step 10: Fill Voids

Many voids in the plywood were exposed curing cutting. I filled them with wood putty and kept sanding.

Step 11: Sand Until Smooth

After filling the voids, I sanded with 100, 200, and 400-grit sandpaper. This step literally took weeks, since I would carve out 30 minutes a couple times a week to sand.

Step 12: Stain

We tested a few stains, and chose Miniwax classic gray. I was initially thinking I would not stain the shelf, but the gray stain looked good and did a great job covering the garnet marks.

Step 13: Finish

With so much surface area and the potential for lots of drips, I sought professional help finishing the shelf. My friends at Because We Can spray coated the shelf with a water-based acrylic lacquer. Pictured here is their HVLP gun in their spray booth.

Step 14: It's Also a Slide

I packed in the children's books, and they quickly discovered the bookshelf was also a slide!



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    44 Discussions

    This is amazing! Wow. looks really cool!

    I find this kind of project disappointing and contrary to the spirit of Instructables. I mean what normal, everyday DIYer has access to such equipment? I mean, I can make just about anything with that kind of sophisticated equipment. Cheater!

    10 replies

    I'm amused by the cheater accusation!

    Instructables is about inspiration. While you might lack the tools for this particular project -- jet, router, jigsaw -- hopefully it still might inspire you to do your own project with your available tools. I love getting ideas and inspiration even from projects I can't do for lack of resources, be it time, tools, materials, etc...

    With that said, Not all DIY projects are for everyone

    Well, Duhh...

    Eric J. Wilhelm (ewilhelm) is the founder of Instructables. So I suppose he knows the spirit of the site, That being said I dislike DIY's that average people CAN'T do too.

    I sorta agree: It's beautiful but would have been much less material
    inefficient and in better taste if it had been done with bending forms and
    laminating relatively thin( ~.25" or less ) layers of ply. My god Jim,
    I'm sounding like a troll and not an engineer..

    @ewilhelm My apologies! After being
    inundated in my own instructable by armchair know-it-alls, I will
    refrain from any judgmental commenting in the future( accept after the above sentence of course ).

    The items
    that were cut-out of this design could be used to make nice spiral
    staircases for cats or other pets. Or even spiral curio shelving for
    small items:-) Best Regards!

    I am honored to be chastised by the site creator with one of my own often used comebacks :-) I will. Once I copied some curved baffle speakers doing just that: I made forms and glued 2 sheets of 1/4" in plywood while clamping to the forms. It worked perfectly.

    I have a work chair design that I want to make using this. I'll try to get to that soon. Best Regards, -Lee

    Yeah, sometimes I find it frustrating to watch people create all those wonderful things with 3D printers and what not.
    But this design is a little different. I enjoyed shape and form so much that it got my mind racing how to make one of these without access to any hitech equipment.
    Either way, it's easily the most beautiful bookshelf I have ever seen!

    ... and on the flip side, think how frustrating it is to know that some of the wonderful woodworking/craft projects on here were made with JUST HAND TOOLS.

    For some people, even being able to afford/have access to those hand tools couldn't get the project done to those standards due to lack of skill. Me included!

    It's a case of use what you've got. If what you've got is a lack of skills, find ways to work smarter to bury that. Or learn the skill ... :)

    sorry, this may have sounded more serious than was intended. I was really only half serious. It WOULD be nice though to see how someone might create this piece in a more "low tech" way, like using the normal power tools one might find for less than $300. :-)

    instead of using so much wood couldn't you just glue together some 4x4s then cut it?

    I enjoyed being surprised at the way you had actually manufactured it; thanks for the perspective & inspiration!

    This would be an interesting alternative way using the waterjet to kerf panels and after, bend to the nautilus shapes. Some glue or thick resin( transparent or not?) might be needed to 'lock' the bends curvature.

    I think it would reduce the total consumed sheet count and look really cool too.

    This could become a cool contest: How to reproduce your "Nautilus Bookshelf" design in alternate ways. It is a beautiful design and end product for sure.


    Love It!. I am fortunate to have a decent sized laser cutter, so I plan to make a smaller version of this.

    Nice Work

    Kinda like showing how a Boeing Dreamliner is produced on a hobbyist experimental aircraft site.

    But damn, it really is inspiring and awesome. And it does make me want to find lower tech ways to simulate the results.

    Just staggering execution. A masterful job, and even if it is beyond my means, it isn't beyond my dreams.

    Thanks you!