Nomadic Life 1: Bookcase (Trial & Error)




I just finished the Nomadic bookcase prototype I've been working on and I have to say I'm quite pleased.

After construction, I then moved it into its final destination, where I then performed a load test on it (Fig C): The heaviest books are on the bottom (1), while thinning out to the lightest books on the the third shelf (2), thus evenly distributing the weight. The fourth shelf (4) will serve as a display and to hold unusually large books, like those for coffee tables. 

For those curious about this bookcase, it is inspired by a style of carpentry known as Nomadic Furniture, very much akin to Irish Carpentry and other nail-less technology. This style is exactly how it is defined: a type of furniture that could potentially have existed in Nomadic times. I chose this style for it's solitary implementation of mortise and tenon joints (Fig D). The concept is very simple (Fig E): the tenon slides into the mortise (1) and both are pinned together through the peg (2). This design has several advantages: there are no moving parts; no nails or screws are involved, to prevent cracking; it is easily assemble-able/disassemble-able, allowing for ease of movement. I based my designs on these two designs I found: Nomad Bookshelves Desk by WhyIsThisOpen & Nomad Corner Desk by hobbssamuelj.

I won't go into great detail over my craftsmanship, but I will note a few key differences where my design differs from theirs (and others) that I believe make for a better piece:
1. I've set the minimal thickness to 2". I did this to allow for sturdiness over time. Potentially, this bookcase will never warp.
2. This includes the shelves themselves. Most other designs employ plywood instead, which does still allow for a decent bookcase. But I intend for this to last as long as I do and hopefully something I can pass onto my kids. 
3. I made the tail of the pegs longer. This allows the peg to act as an additional brace, to help straighten and reinforce the integrity of the bookcase.
4. I've narrowed the width of the peg. This allows the previously mentioned tail extension to not snap under the pressure, should unexpected force be applied to the bookcase from the sides. 

In addition, this bookcase only costs $22 to construct. After a love-hate relationship with over a dozen particle board bookcases, I decided to do call it quits and find a solution. Seeing as I how I have the time and money to do so, I thought now was the time. 

So yeah, just to point out the absurdity of modern commercialism: $22 and 12 hours of my time and labor to make a bookcase that will last indefinitely versus $30-35 for a bookcase of the same relative size made out of particle board which will fall apart after 1-2 moves or 3-4 years of age. 

Further details will be provided when I construct a tutorial soon, which will go on here. 



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    19 Discussions


    2 years ago

    Cool Shelves! Especially for their take down and put up again ease. One thing though caught my eye: there is nothing accounting for the diagonal. Which usually stops any side to side wobble, which can wear out those joints. One small suggestion, if you're interested: you might try putting in some kind of locking board placed diagonal to the other boards. The angle is not important, as long as it is not 90 degrees to any of the other boards, (but the closer to 45 degrees the farther it is from 90 to any other board.)
    Maybe you could add a couple of small corner boards at the back that are pinned in the same way as the shelves, with a mortise, tenon and a wedge (peg pin).

    Ugh, particle board! That stuff is HORRIBLE! I had two pieces of furniture completely fall apart during a move several months ago, and I hadn't even had them very long. If anyone is thinking of buying those cheap, put-it-together-yourself furniture kits, I guarantee you will be disappointed. When I was putting together my bed, the corner of one piece splintered just from the pressure of the screwdriver! I had to order a replacement, only to find chips and scratches from careless packaging and shipping. I wish I had seen this tutorial back then--I gladly would have paid someone to make my cabinet and bed this way, and probably would still have them!

    2 replies

    I worked for a moving company for 6 years. We prided ourselves on professional and quality work. Particle board is such terrible stuff that we actually ended up adding a non-liability disclosure to jobs where folks owned it. I felt bad for the customers, but when a 300lb desk breaks in half walking out a door, it's not really a controllable event.

    Garbage falls apart in your hands...

    You made my day with this comment. It's just horrible stuff. And when you sacrifice a weekend of your time for the same amount of money, why not make something better?!

    The beauty of my designs is they're designed with movers in mind (hence, the Nomadic). you can dissassemble my work and load it into a truck without need of an instruction manual.

    Covert Koala

    6 years ago on Introduction

    Awesome work. I hate particle board furniture, I had a $250 Ikea bedframe literally crumble at the joints, didn't even last until the first move. Metal and wood all the way.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Very cool project. You're bookshelf looks very sturdy and I love how you were able to construct it without using nails or glue. The pegs are a great idea, something so simple it never crossed my mind. Definitely something I will try to replicate. Goodwork.

    Hi Zazenergy,

    Thanks for the compliment. As I mentioned at the bottom of this instructable, I hope to have a step-by-step up soon. I'm planning to make two more of these for mine and my fiancée's apartment before she moves in, so it should be up in the next few weeks, I promise!

    The only reason I didn't document this one is because it was a practice one which just so happened to turn out very nicely.

    2 replies

    Hi Zach,

    Just wondering, did you ever write up a full Instructable for these bookcases? I'm dying to build one and will work out the math on my own if need be, but why bother if it's already done, right? :)

    Also, how is the bookcase working out a year later?

    Hi Beardmancer,

    If you look in my other tutorials, you'll find a step-by-step, including a section that includes the blueprints, as well as additional blueprints. Here's the direct link:

    It is working out brilliantly a year later. In fact, I have built 4 more of slightly varying thicknesses and lengths, including an entire bookcase designed just to hold DVDs.

    These things remain unaltered and strong. My wife & I even just moved and were able to carry them in one solid piece from the old place to the new without so much as a peg trying to come out. Rock. Solid. Best idea I've ever had.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Where did you get 2" thick wood in that quantity for only $22? What kind of wood is it? I would like to make this for my apartment next year and am tight on cash. Thanks!

    1 reply

    Any Home Depot. Look for 2X8-16ft. #2 Prime Pine. Costs $8.29. If you're clever and you make the most out of each board, you can do this job in 2 boards.

    2 x $8.29 = $16.58

    Plus another 2X4-12ft for the pegs = $2.50.

    All together something like $19.08. With tax in my area, an extra dollar or two.


    Hey, that's an awesome bookcase!

    I notice that the holes in the mortise for the tenon aren't snug. Does this make it wobble (side to side)?

    I'm soon to be embarking on a similar project and wondering if not being super snug will affect the stability of it.

    1 reply

    Hey, thanks man!

    No, they are not snug. In fact, in my next design (soon to be published late next week) I have made accommodations for that.

    However, given the weight of the material, the snugness of the other 2 sides (left and right vs. top and bottom), & most importantly the role of the pegs, this still doesn't present a problem. The pegs pin the shelves tightly to the inside of the bookcase sides whilst the weight of the shelves themselves keeps them from flopping around.

    All in all, it's about the love and art of the craft. The super snugness doesn't horribly affect it; however, if you're going to the trouble of constructing a high quality sturdy bookcase, you'll want to be thorough and eliminate all room for error.