Building a Built-in Bookcase
The Writings on the Wall
by Matt Weber
I’ve been a big fan of built-in bookshelves for a long time. I’m a guy who reads a lot and writes a lot, plus I’ve got all sorts of reference books for work that I need to store. A built-in bookcase provides a triple-duty solution to my storage needs—it looks good, it adds to the salability of the home and, by removing the studs and using the depth of a partition wall, it occupies limited space within the room. Storage shelves can be built of many different materials and designed in all sorts of styles. This article will touch on some basic techniques for opening a wall and constructing a basic shelf case from paint-grade materials outfitted with wood-stained shelves.
This particular case was built in a partition wall located in a finished basement and adjacent to a split-level staircase. Before removing any wall studs, make sure the wall is not load-bearing. Exterior load-bearing walls are not appropriate for built-in cases because removal of the wall eliminates insulation (and would require construction of a load-bearing header). If you want to locate shelves over a load-bearing wall, then build the case over the studs like a piece of furniture.
I decided to center the case on the wall and plotted my design on paper for a quick visual reference. I wanted a large case, so I designed it 6 feet wide and extending the full wall height from floor to ceiling. I had some large books, so I went for 12-in. deep shelves and planned for roughly 14-in. of space between each. Some of these measurements would “evolve” slightly throughout the project based on what obstacles I encountered during construction.
By the way, I’d like to thank Lowe’s Home Improvement Store (www.lowes.com) for sponsoring this project. I’m lucky enough to have a Lowe’s within two miles of mi casa, and that’s where I picked up all the necessary materials:
- 4×8 1/2” plywood for back
- 12” edge-glued side panels
- 4×8 stain-grade 3/4” birch plywood for shelves
- 1x oak hardwood for the shelf edging
- 1x No. 1 pine for the face-frames
- 2×4 studs for the bottom
- Baseboard, cove and stop molding
- Wire molding
- Minwax wood stain and wood putty
- Valspar Signature Paint/Primer
- Kreg pocket screws
I outlined my case area on the wall with painter’s tape, a T-square and a pencil. I would be removing a large square of wall paneling, plus molding at the top and bottom.
I knew this would be a dusty job, so I enveloped my work area with large vinyl sheeting held tightly to the ceiling with a couple of T-Jaks. The vinyl membrane kept most of the airborne demolition dust contained to my immediate vicinity and not circulating throughout the house.
Also, before cutting into a wall, always disconnect electrical power in case you accidentally cut into a wire.
My tool for slicing into the paneling was the new Rotosaw from Rotozip. With its small 3-5/8-in. wood-cutting wheel I was able to control the cut while penetrating quickly through the depth of material.
When it comes to demolition, it’s smart to work gingerly. People on remodeling TV shows like to swing a lot of sledge-hammers, but you can bet some other crew member is responsible for cleaning up the dusty mess. On our project the paneling concealed 5/8-in. drywall and, to keep the jobsite as tidy as possible, you should make surgical cuts and remove it in as large of sections as possible. Use a flat bar to pry it away from the fasteners whenever possible.
I then used a Bosch Multi-X with a flush-cut blade to slice through the nails that fastened the studs to the drywall on the opposite wall. The opposite wall was finished and painted, so I had to be careful when removing the framing.
I then repurposed a couple of the old studs to use as trimmer studs, which frame the new book case. I was able to relocate one of the electrical lines to the top of the bookcase area, but another line ran right through the center, which required me to drill access holes through the new trimmer studs. Make sure to install the studs perfectly plumb.
The lower section of the wall beneath the staircase was unfinished, and the stair stringers were not framed flush with the rest of the wall. Hopefully your project won’t have the same substrate problems, but this required me to add all sorts of creative shims and blocks to create a flush, plumb nailing surface for the plywood backing.
I laminated sheets of 1/2-in. plywood over the exposed drywall and blocking using a combination of Liquid Nails construction adhesive, plus some strategically placed drywall screws.
A little bit of forward planning was important at this phase of the project. I knew had to conceal both the seam of the plywood panels plus the electrical line which was routed through the bookcase to a light switch. Therefore, I routed the wire along the plywood seam so I could eventually conceal them both using a single shelf.
Note: When securing the panels I wanted to use as few screws as possible to minimize wood-putty repairs. So, to help hold the plywood in place while the adhesive dried, I tacked on a frame of temporary scrap 2×4 cleats along the edges.
I then screwed together a simple rectangular box for the case foundation made of 2×4 stud material and strengthened with blocking. This “toe-kick” box would raise the bottom shelf a few inches off the floor and provide room for some decorative base molding at the bottom. The box was screwed into the lower plywood panel.
Because I planned to build the shelves with a 1-1/4-in. nosing overhang (1/2 in. taller than the 3/4-in. shelves), I installed 1/2-in. plywood over the toe-kick box to serve as a shim for the bottom shelf.
The next step is installation of the side panels. Since I planned to paint the case, I used some economical edge-glued panels cut to fit over the toe-kick and flush with the ceiling. These required a little wood-filler and sanding prior to installation. The sides were mounted into the trimmer studs with 3-in. self-countersinking R4 screws from GRK Fasteners (excellent fasteners if you can find ’em). The sides must be perfectly plumb and square to the back.
At this point I puttied and sanded all fastener holes. I then primed everything with a coat of semi-gloss Valspar Signature, which serves as both primer and paint in a single product. For the plywood carcass I painted with a foam roller, which achieves thorough coverage without leaving brush marks or the stippling effect of a roller nap.
The shelves were made of stain-grade 3/4-in. birch plywood that I ripped to width and length in my shop. A nice, big table saw will do the trick of keeping the cuts straight and smooth, but I cut mine with a Festool plunge-cut saw equipped with a ripping guide. I ripped the shelves 3/4-in. narrower than the sides of the case to leave room for the nosing.
When it comes to drilling pilot holes for the pocket screws, you must decide if they’ll go on the top or bottom of the shelves. If the holes go on the top, you’ll need wood plugs to hide the screws. If they go on the bottom, the shelves won’t have as much holding power with the screw heads angled downward. I decided to hide the screws on the bottom, which would still cinch the shelves tightly to the cabinet case. Then, once installed, I would install additional support from the sides and below to bolster the shelves’ holding power. I used the General E-Z Pro Pocket Jig to guide the holes for the pocket screws, spacing them 12 to 18 in. apart along the sides and back.
Next, finish-sand the shelves in the direction of the wood grain, progressing to finer paper to at least 220-grit. Dust with a tack cloth, then apply wood stain and polyurethane until your heart is content.
I ripped the 1x oak nosing on my table saw to 1-1/2 in. and then cut at length to match the shelves. Note: Leave the nosing off the shelves at this time. I installed the first two shelves with the nosing pre-attached, and the extra material made it difficult to position the shelves when fastening. From that point forward I found it much easier to mount the shelves first, and then attach the nosing later.
Start at the bottom. The first shelf rests on the toe-kick box. Instead of using pocket screws, it’s fastened through the face to the plywood shim and 2×4 box using countersunk trim-head screws. The tiny screw heads are easy to hide with wood filler.
The next shelf must conceal the joint between the plywood panels in the rear of the case. To help guide the layout I used the Acculine Pro laser-line generator from Johnson Level to cast a guideline over the case and show exactly where to locate the shelf so the seam was hidden behind its edge. Once this critical shelf was mounted, I used it as a control point to install the remaining shelves at an equal distance apart from each other. (Note: The top shelf has extra overhead space—roughly 14 inches between the fascia board—to leave room for larger decorative items.)
When installing, make sure the shelves are level in every direction. It helps to have an assistant, but since I was working alone I had to stabilize the shelves with a variety of Bessey clamps and supports, such as a Mini T-Jak.
Fasten the shelves tightly along the edges using pocket screws and a pocket driver bit. (Later during construction the shelves will be strengthened with additional fasteners and support strips.)
Note: When locating the shelves, remember that if your shelf nosing is taller than the shelves, then the vertical midpoint of the completed shelf will not be the same as the center point of the plywood shelf. You must account for this during layout or your measurements will be off.
Once all the shelves were mounted I installed the nosing, which I had stained and varnished in my workshop. Make sure the upper edge of the nosing is flush with the shelf surface so it doesn’t snag your books.
I fastened the nosing with a combination of wood glue and finish nails.
Finally, I supported each shelf with a full-length horizontal support strip or “cleat” measuring roughly 1 by 3/8-in. I ripped this strip from some No. 1 pine and fastened it flush against the underside of the shelf with a combination of wood glue and pin nails.
I covered the edges of the side panels with vertical face-frames ripped to 2 inches wide. These face-frames were nailed to the case sides as well as to the nosing of the shelves, with their outer edges flush with the sides. The face-frames gave some visual weight to the case for a more substantial look.
I wrapped the 2×4 toe-kick box with baseboard molding mitered at the outside corners. The new trim matched the room’s existing baseboard profile and intersected with cope joints.
At the top, I nailed and glued a “cap” panel of plywood flush inside the case to hide the ceiling. I then wrapped the top of the case with 1×6 pre-primed MDF stock that was mitered at the corners. The MDF was installed flush with the ceiling and served as fascia for the case.
My original design called for crown molding at the top. How-ever, the existing crown that lined the room posed a problem. It had a small profile that seemed disproportionate to the size of the cabinet. However, a new larger crown profile for the case would not intersect with the smaller crown in a fluid manner. The junction would look mismatched. So, I opted to install an inverted base molding that had a flat face to intersect the crown at a square joint, which looked much more organic. Combined with the added girth of the fascia, the inverted base gave a “crown” impression. I added a smaller strip of inverted stop molding at the lower edge of the fascia, and the double-decker design seemed to pull the installation into a cohesive whole.
I chose a pre-primed cove molding to line the edges of the sides and conceal the small gap where I originally sawed through the wallboard.
After assessing my progress I found the 1×6 fascia to have a slight bend in the middle. To keep the fascia square without bowing,
I installed a 1×4 block at the midpoint flush between it and the back of the case. On each side of the block I then installed a small crown molding profile to conceal the joint between the back and cap panel.
Once all the trim was installed, I puttied all fastener holes and caulked all joints. I used Lexel sealant, which is a very adhesive and paintable product with excellent elasticity to resist cracking at the joints. I then sanded the repairs and added another coat of finish paint.
Lastly, I had to address the cable that ran right beneath one of my shelves. The “corner wire molding” I purchased at Lowe’s is a two-piece plastic channel with a right-angle strip that tucks beneath the rear of the shelf and fastens with adhesive strips. I ran the wire along the channel and snapped the face-piece over it to conceal the wires in an orderly manner. The plastic channels took a little massaging to connect, but once they were locked together they stayed that way, keeping the ugly wires out of sight while satisfying electrical codes in my area.
Finally my wall for reading was complete. As an afterthought, I ran a 6-ft. string of LED rope lighting through the top of the case, fastened with clips and concealed behind the fascia for a soft, ambient effect. I think it was a nice touch.
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