Everyone needs bookcases.
Those of us who are book lovers need a lot of bookcases.
Over the years, I have built a number of different
bookcases, sometimes just to see what I could learn about
These include a very small version of
Jeff Gorman's A Bookcase In Oak, and a set of barrister's
bookshelves derived from one owned by my mother-in-law.
But in the background, I was always on the lookout for a
good basic design that could be built with reasonable speed
and minimal cost, and could be adapted to meet the needs of
The closest I have come in the past
is a basic design for a short bookcase for a set of Great
Books of the Western World. This design was replicated
and modified when I moved into a house with short upstairs
walls. But I was pleased to note a well-written
article in the June 2005 issue of Popular Woodworking by
Robert Lang, called Build Better Bookcases. This
design fulfilled many of my criteria and was more suitable
for the conventional tall bookcases I wanted than what I had
The basic design uses one sheet
of 3/4 inch plywood plus hardwood trim to build a reasonable
sized bookcase. In my case, the project list called
for a pair of them to go on the sides of my fireplace.
My mother-in-law had a Mission style bookcase with doors
that I have always wanted to replicate, but I decided to
replace the two projects with one.
All I had to do was
build two bookcases to fit under the mantle, add doors, and
I would be done. The original article provides four
possible style variations - Arts and Crafts, Shaker,
Contemporary, and Formal.
Since the room already
contained some Arts and Crafts tables (admittedly in company
with a lot of mixed styles of furniture), I chose that
route. Of course, I had to adapt the design to the
space available. I also had a lot of red oak in the
shop, so I decided to use that instead of white oak.
And I had some experience with Jeff Jewitt's Mission Oak
Finish, which I wanted to use here. Finally, being a
hand tool kind of guy, I needed to make some changes to the
way the joinery was done. So there you have it - other
than dimensions, materials, joinery, and finish, it's
exactly the same as the ones in the article. Except for
the doors. Ahem.
I refer everyone to the
original article anyway, as it will tell you how to build
this in a very straightforward way. And when I ran
into some confusion due to my intentional lack of
familiarity with how to do some table saw operations, Bob
Lang was very quick to get back to me and show me how to
accomplish what I needed to do.
While the original
article was fairly power tool oriented, this was a bit of a
hybrid project for me. I traditionally use the table
saw for rough dimensioning of stock and move to hand tools
for most operations anyway. Here's another example -
this project uses pocket screw joinery for the face frame.
While I have made plenty of face frames by hand using M & T
joints, I wanted to give this a try. I used a power
drill to drill the holes, but drove the screws in with a
Yankee driver. That's a pretty typical blending of old
and new technology in my shop.
In this article, I will try to
focus on what I did that was at variance with the original.
I have already mentioned that I used red oak instead of
white oak, but the design would work equally well in both
materials. I was just trying to use what I had on hand.
The original layout resulted in
a bookcase that was five feet tall and 30.5 inches wide.
The original bookcase design is a bit short for some rooms,
and isn't very deep. But in my case it was too tall and too
wide for the allotted space. Luckily, I rechecked the
width, as the bottom molding had to clear a side wall and a
row of bricks that are guaranteed to tear up the side piece
when moving the bookcase into position.
I ended up
making the bookcase only 29 inches wide, which allowed me to
reallocate the space available on the 4 x 8 sheet of red oak
plywood. This gave me an extra inch of depth. A
good thing, too, as I still have books that are too deep to
go in this case. I was also lucky enough to obtain
some very nice plywood that turned out to be a true 3/4
inch, so I did not have to adjust any dimensions.
The side effect of this
bookcase having to fit under the mantle was that I decided
it did not need to have the center shelf attached. The back
provides sufficient rigidity to keep the sides straight. I
would follow the plan if I was building a five-foot-tall
bookcase, but I believe a four-foot one can do without. All
three shelves are unattached in this implementation.
Joinery and Construction
Since I don't own a biscuit joiner, I went with a more
traditional cleat under the top and the bottom shelf.
This is simple a small block of oak, about 3/4 inch
square, screwed into the side wall and the bottom of the
shelf or top. Two screws in each direction provide
enough strength. The overall design is very forgiving,
with the back (a full 3/4 inch thick) providing
effective prevention against racking.
In the picture on next page, you can see the carcass
going together with the cleats in place. Note the use of
corner clamps to keep things in alignment.