I would be the most content if my
children grew up to be the kind of people who think
decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.
-- Anna Quindlen
Seat of the pants bookcase construction:
or Why use boards and cinder blocks when your dad likes to play
in the basement?
I had a request for a bookcase, about 2 feet wide by 5 ft high,
depth not specified.
I have several 3/4 in oak boards, but not enough of the same
thickness to make 2 matching sides that tall, even glued up.
Checked prices at Lowes - it would cost $70 - $100 for that. Too
much, so make do with what I have, and make it shorter.
I have several boards circa 4 ft by 8 in, and some shorter
pieces. Some are table leaves, possibly antique, certainly old.
Some are pieces of a church pew, fairly new. (No, I didn't rip
it out of an active church.) Some are leftovers from a recent
project, and a bit thicker. One scrap of stair tread, about 1.25
in thick. I don't have a thicknesser, but could use a router and
table saw if really necessary, but it wasn't.
Tools: Ryobi BT3000 table saw, Porter-Cable router, orbital
sander, drill press, hand tools
1. Look to see what size books come in, to see how deep the
shelves should be, and how far apart. 11.5 in by about 9 is a
standard textbook size. Shelves are 12, 10, 9 1/2 and 8 1/4 in.
apart, in the end.
2. I need sufficient boards for 2 uprights about 10 in. wide, 4
shelves about 9.5 x at least 24 in, 1 top about 11.5 x (shelf
length + 3), 2 feet about 11 x 1 1/4 x 1 1/2 in. The final
bookcase width/shelf length was based on the lengths I finally
had available after glue up.
3. Board preparation: the boards are flat, but the edges need
work - I cut plugs with the drill-press from cutoffs for the
dowel holes in the edge of the table leaves. Some of those end
up being cut away in the scrap later, but it's easier to do them
all now. Used boards require more juggling than new ones to get
sound, good-looking sections. I have a jointer, as an attachment
for my Shopsmith knockoff, but it's a pain to set up, so I
don't. The 80-tooth laminate blade on the table saw burns the
wood, and does not leave a clean cut, surprisingly, but the
regular carbide combo blade works well to get flat, smooth
Check the edges I want to join for gaps when placed together,
while matching grain direction and board source. Spread edges
with wood glue, clamp with light duty bar clamps overlapping the
seam, then squeeze boards together with pipe clamps. Scrape off
glue squeeze-out when it sets up, before it gets hard. The seams
are not perfect, but pretty close, when the panels are
checked later. Sand away glue, old finish, etc.
4. Decide which boards go where. The sides need to match, and
the top can be different if needed (it is). The uprights will be
supported on feet, and the stair tread is just right for that.
5. Shape the uprights, since they determine several other
important dimensions. Rip to the same width. Remember to
carefully adjust the cross-cut table on the table saw so it is
accurately 90 deg (the Ryobi needs this). Trim the ends of both
uprights at once, while clamped together, and flip to cut the
other ends, with the same long edges against the fence. When
squared up, the uprights are 10 in wide by about 46 inches.
6. Cut the feet from the 1 1/4 in. stair tread, 1 1/2. x ~12 in.
Square 3 sides (the extra length will be cut off later.) I
cut 4, thinking this might be a finicky part, which was a good
7. Calculate the top size, 3 in. longer than the shelves, 2 in.
wider than the uprights. Cut to size. Do not cut shelves yet.
8. The uprights will be held in the feet and top by dovetail
mortises. The feet and top will extend in front of the uprights,
so the mortises are to be cut from the back, and ended blind.
This is too large a quantity of hard wood to hog out all at
once. Looking at the 3/4 in. dovetail bit for the router, I see
that if the depth is about 3/8 in., the neck will be about 1/2
in. across. So using a 1/2 in. straight bit in a router table, I
routed just under 3/8 in., along the center of the feet, in 2
passes. I had intended to stop the mortise before the end, but
started from the wrong direction on the 2d pass, so the mortise
went all the way. The dovetail bit was then used, stopping
before the end. I cut & glued matching pieces to plug the
straight-bit mortise section, which allowed the end of the
mortise to be square without chiseling.
9. Set-up error for the upright ends: I thought it would work
well to pass the uprights between the dovetail bit (unmoved from
cutting the feet) and the fence. Wrong. It did work for
some, but with a low fence and tall boards there was not enough
control, and too much was cut. I had to cut off the bad section
and do it the
Right way: a sacrificial fence was pushed into the bit
until only a little was exposed, tested with scraps and adjusted
until the tenon fit the mortise.
10. The top required the router to be hand held. I measured the
wood "carefully," but forgot that the Porter-Cable router base
is 5 3/4 in. across, not 6 (poor design choice). The dovetail
mortises were to have their centers 1 3/8 in. from the edges,
and a slot mortise along the back. So the uprights were a bit
closer together than intended, and the slot for the plywood back
a bit farther from the rear edge than intended. However, not a
serious error. Again, the straight bit was used to hog most of
the material, making dead-end mortises. (A stop block
would be a good idea. So would a mock router template) The depth
of the dovetail bit was tested on scrap to fit the already-cut
tenons of the uprights before cutting the top. The mortise along
the rear was with a 9/32 straight bit (sized for typical "1/4
11. Cut dadoes along the length of the uprights, on what
will be inside rear, using 3/8 in. bearing bit, 3/8 in. deep,
which will seat the back panel.
12. Cut blind mortises from the back, 1/4 in. deep, to about 1/4
in. from the front edge, with 23/32 straight bit (made for "3/4
in". plywood), in the uprights, for supporting the shelves. Important:
remember the uprights are mirror images, not identical. I have a
jig for making such cuts: 2 pieces of wood, each about 16 x 1 x
3/4, crossing at right angles about 1/3 along their length,
sandwiching a triangle of Plexiglas between their long arms. The
lower arm is a fence along the board edge, and the upper one is
the router fence. The board fence is clamped across the board,
and the face is clamped down to the board with light-duty bar
Spacing is tricky, with varying shelf heights, plus shelf
thickness, plus router offset. Work it out on paper first, then
along the board, then do it again.
My shelves have their bottoms 1/2, 13 1/4, 24, and 34 1/2
in. from the bottom of the uprights. I should have started
1/4 to 1/2 in higher, to be more confident the bottom shelf is
13. Measure for shelf length. Do this by waxing the upright's
top tenons and sliding then into the waxed mortises. This is
also testing the mortise and tenons, of course. I did not need
to adjust them. Clamp the bottoms of the uprights to a
crosswise board at exactly the same distance the tops are
apart. Measure across the shelf mortises, cut a stick to
test that, and repeat until satisfied. Cut shelves to length and
width (final size was 9 3/8 x 23 1/2).
14. My shelves were all a bit thick to fit the mortises, as
expected, but a piece of 3/4 in. birch plywood was exact. I used
that to set the saw to the fence, and tested with scrap to get
the right depth. The shelf sides are run thru the saw on end,
trimming the bottom side, and fit the mortises.
15. The front edges of the shelves were notched with a dovetail
saw and chisel to fit over the blind part of their mortises.
17. The feet were shaped to cut off the plug excess, cut to
length, then their "toes" rounded with a sanding disk.
18. Ease all the edges that will be exposed with a plane or
sander. Final cleanup of surfaces with sander and scraper. This
is the best time to stain the pieces, if desired. Mine needed
it, because they were of different ages and previous finishes.
Maybe this would be a good time for the first urethane, varnish,
19. The feet were waxed, slid over their tenons, and screwed
into place with one 2-inch brass screw drilled and countersunk
from the bottom, near the front. (This allows the uprights and
top to expand and contract with the weather.)
20. The shelves are slid into place (no wax), checking the
blind-end fit. Clamps were needed to held the uprights together.
The bottom shelf was screwed into place, to hold them all in,
with 3 2-inch brass screws per side, drilled and countersunk.
(The other shelves and top are still movable, and need
adjustment. It might a good idea to staple them in place
temporarily from the back.)
21. Cut a panel for the back. I had a piece of lauan plywood,
rather than oak, but the color is similar, and I stained it,
22. This is when I applied urethane finish. It is much easier to
do it now than before the back is attached. Doing it at the time
of staining might be premature - it might get marred. Two
coats of water-based clear urethane floor finish.
23. Attach the back. It should slide into the slot in the top,
locking that in place. It is screwed down with 1-inch pan-head
screws to the back edges of the shelves. It is trickier than it
seems to get the screws into the shelves. Try marking the
locations with lines on bits of tape on the uprights.