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A Pair of Bookcases by Ken Greenberg

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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 the process. 

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 different rooms. 

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 been building.

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.

Dimensions

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.


 
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