Bookshelves You Can Build Yourself


Books, books and more books — we’ve had that problem for years. Books stored in boxes in the closet, books in the attic and some in the basement that eventually became ruined. As a result we started looking for places to build a home library, and actually utilized several areas. One spare bedroom turned into a “study” with a hide-a-bed for the grandkids and a wall for bookcases. The entry door to the master bedroom had narrow spaces on each side, which we turned into bookcases. And, a hallway off the kitchen now houses a pair of bookcases just for cookbooks.

All the bookcases were made of No. 2 white pine boards to match the trim in our old house. The cases were made without backs, anchoring them to the painted walls with cleats on the back of the shelves. Construction is fairly simple, standard cabinet case construction. A 1 1/2-inch facer added around all edges not only finishes off the fronts, but also adds stiffeners to the shelves. The bookcases in the master bedroom reach to the ceiling. The bookcases in the study reach to the window trim height, providing a shelf above for decorative items. The study bookcases are constructed modular, building the case on either side of the window, installing them and then installing a shelf across the window and between the two cases. A full-length trim piece across the top ties it all together. You can build a single module bookcase, or construct two to flank a window as shown here, or even several to fill an entire wall. You can also use the basic design and adjust the width of the modules to fit your situation. Regardless, each divider section should be no more than 24 inches wide to provide proper support for the books. The shelf and bookcase height can also vary to suit your particular wall, book height and design.


Left: First step is to rip 1×10’s for the shelves and uprights and to create facers.

Right: Joint or plane all sawn edges.



First step is to rip a 1 1/2-inch piece off each 1-by-10 for the front facers. After the piece has been ripped to the correct size, the sawn edge of both pieces should be run over a jointer to smooth it up. If you don’t have a jointer, the pieces can be clamped in a vise and a hand or power plane used to smooth up the edge. Smooth up the edges for all the verticals and horizontals. Note the bottom front facer is made wide enough to accommodate the baseboard and allow for about 1/2 inch above the baseboard. The top facer is wide enough to accommodate the top trim board.

Left: The uprights have dadoes cut in them to hold the shelves.

Right: Sand all boards before assembly.

The book shelves are held in place with dadoes cut in the uprights. Once all the boards have been ripped and planed, lay out the shelf dadoes on the side and center uprights. The easiest way to cut these is with a dado head on a radial arm or table saw. You can also use a table saw or radial arm saw to cut the sides of the dadoes to the proper depth and then use a chisel to cut between. Sand the surfaces of all before assembly. This makes it easier to stain and finish the inside of the case once it’s constructed. 

Begin construction by fastening the top and bottom shelf in place between the two side shelves of one bookcase module. Note the top comes only to one-half the thickness of the upright near the window on each module. This provides support for the window shelf. Then position the center upright between the top shelf and the bottom shelf and fasten in place with screws through the bottom and top shelves into the ends of the center upright.

Left: The case is assembled with glue, screws on the unexposed ends and finish nails on the exposed ends.

Right: 2×4’s screwed to sawhorses provide extra width for supporting the cases during construction.

Cut the shelves to the correct length to fit into the side and center upright dadoes. Make sure the case is square, and then glue the shelves in position. Do not apply an over abundance of glue because it is extremely hard to remove and sand for a clean finish on the inside of the cases. Use a damp cloth to wipe away any excess glue before it dries. Cut the side facers to the correct length and fasten in place with their outside edges flush with the outer edges of the sides. Use No. 6 finish nails and woodworker’s glue to fasten in place.

Left: The casings are installed with finish nails.

Right: The nail heads are set below the surface, the holes filled with wood putty, and the facers sanded smooth.


Fasten the bottom and top facers between the uprights. Fasten the center facer over the center upright, positioning it centered over the upright. Then fasten the shelf uprights in place over the shelf edges. Install with No. 6 finish nails. Keep the nails at least 1/2 inch from the shelf edges. Drive No. 8 finish nails in from the edges of the outside facers to secure all shelves and the center facer ends in place. Set all nail heads below the wood surface and fill with wood putty.


A corner-round router bit is used all around the inside

edge of the facers to create a decorative edge.

Use a sander to sand the fronts of the facer ends flush and smooth. Using a corner-round bit in a router, rout around the inside edge of all facers. This creates a nice finishing edge. You can eliminate this step if you prefer flat-faced shelves. Fasten the back cleats to the bottoms of the shelves. Stain and finish or paint the module to suit.



You’re now ready to install the module. Position the module in place and shim it if necessary to make it plumb. Then drive wood screws through the cleats into the wall studs, after first locating the studs with a stud locator. Install the other module or modules. Position the window shelf across the window trim and resting on the ends of the modules. Fasten in place with screws down through the shelf into the upright ends. Add the decorative top trim piece. If you add modules, a decorative vertical trim piece should also be installed over the joining edges. Finally, install the baseboard around the bottom of the cases. If the bookcases extend to the ceiling, install any room ceiling trim around their tops to match.

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