Here are the full plans and step-by-step guidebook to build this bookcase, if you enjoy this article please do make a DONATION in return: a lot of trouble and time went into this...
Tools & Tooling Tips
This is a woodwork beginner's project with advanced results to build a unique and personal bookcase. Here you will find:
I've just started making furniture for the home, so this should be a good project for anyone else wanting to get started in woodworking. The nice thing about making bespoke furniture is that you can make it to your own needs and tastes. This bookcase was designed to fit an alcove; there's no other reason it needs to be this precise width, height and depth – it is worth considering the proportions though. Each shelf is as deep as it is tall (40cm x 40cm) and is twice that in width (80cm). The character of the bookcase is defined by these proportions, I feel it is neither too squat nor too tall in the space I have built it for. You can certainly experiment.
Before I started on the design for the bookcase I sat down and thought about all the irritations that the bookcases of my life had brought me over the years.
Generous shelf sizes (I hate it when a large book just won't fit on my shelves)
A strong backboard (the back won't pop-out after a couple of years like they do on flat-pack furniture)
An all wood construction with a light design that means it doesn't look like a big lump intruding in your room, and one person can lift it!
Hand woven side-panels that maintain the lightness of design, prevent things from falling off the sides of the bookcase and adds a truly unique and personal accent to the piece.
A top crown that creates a recess so that things placed on top are less likely to roll off or get knocked off.
A laminated scuff-resistant photographic image in the crown recess further personalising your furniture giving you the opportunity to make the furniture a part of your life.
Top crown quadrant frame inlay, so that dust doesn't collect and build up in the corners.
An all round skirt, so that things don't get kicked underneath and you don't need to worry about hoovering under it.
Front buffers, so that other furniture (coffee table, perhaps) doesn't get pushed right up against the shelves making the contents of the lower shelf inaccessible.
This gave me a list of 'features' that I wanted, and fully shaped the design for me:
The tools you will need and how I used them
These are the tools I used, listed in the order I used them.
I mainly use a 1m extra-wide aluminium ruler. The extra width (36mm versus the 25mm of most rulers) helps in securing the rule without finger tips over-hanging where you're trying to mark, or casting shadows onto the work-piece. It has two scales, the first marked in 1mm increments and the second marked in 0.5mm increments. The second scale can be hard for my eyes to work with so I'm mostly using the first. To ensure accuracy I find the nearest centimetre and place my pencil point on that mark on the ruler. I then lightly tap-off each subsequent millimetre mark on the ruler with the tip of the pencil until I arrive at the point I am measuring. This ritual slows me down just enough to be certain that I'm being accurate in the marking. I've heard that good woodworking starts with good cuts; good cuts of course, start with accurate marking.
I have a set of four with blades from 3 to 8 inch. Using a large set-square on a small piece frustrates the job as the weight of the blade overhanging the piece fouls the placement. I place the pencil tip at the point to be marked and bring the set-square to the pencil, rather than taking the pencil to the set-square. This ensures consistency as the pencil always meets the set-square at a predictable angle. But when bringing the pencil to the set-square there is a tendency to mess about with the angle of the pencil in order to "get the tip right in there" - and this means the actual line drawn can be displaced from the mark.
I use a compound sliding mire power-saw to cut all pieces to length, otherwise all of the remaining work is done with hand-tools. That's how it is. I suppose there will be purists who despise me for this. I refuse to change!
Power-saws are great for quick and repeatable cuts, but they're by no means delicate and they will readily rip-through a crafted piece with their ugly teeth if you try and use them for fine work (i.e. joints). They just don't have the finesse to ensure a joint fits snug, and the time spent trying to ensure fine cuts is as much as if you had made them by hand. So I power-saw lengths and hand-cut joints.
When cutting lengths I first screw a piece of spare timber (remember to order some spare!) to my saw's fence, extending the fence to be longer than the longest piece I want to cut. I also extend the cutting table with a plank, that passes across the cutting path. This plank will also be cut by the saw blade, but it leaves a bed of wood onto which the work pieces are placed for cutting. Because there is a solid bed beneath the workpiece tear-away is reduced.
When cutting pieces to length I measure the desired length on the extended fence and clamp a stop-block to the fence at that point. I can then cut all the pieces of that length that I need without having to screw-up measuring each one. Even if I do make a mistake in placing the stop block, at least all of the pieces are consistent and are probably still usable (so what if the bookcase ends-up being a centimetre taller than intended??). It may seem a lot of trouble extending the cutting-bed and fence, possibly counter intuitive as power-saws are supposed to be quick. But actually power-saws give quick repeat cuts, once the first cut has been set-up precisely with any necessary supporting 'jigs' that ensure the repeatability.
When hand-cutting joints I use a 16tpi (teeth-per-inch) 'Japanese saw'. It has a foil like blade with a 1mm kerf (kerf, is the hollow left behind by a saw cut). I always cut 'inside' my lines, aiming to leave the pencil marks behind.
Avoid cutting what you can't see.
I arrange the piece so I can see two faces and so that the lines on each face align, as if they were a single continuous line.
I start cutting at the corner where the two visible faces meet. I cut through, following both lines as though they were one, at a blade angle so that I have cut through to both other corners, but no further. Without removing the saw turn the piece round, or adjust your line of sight so that you can now see the rear edge to complete the cut.
When cutting the first few strokes are critical. Once the saw has 'bitten' the piece it will do a fine job of following the line, if those first few strokes are accurate. I will use the knuckle of my left-hand index finger to help position the saw blade before introducing its teeth to the material.
Chisels & Mallet
I have a set of 6 chisels (my first set of chisels in fact) in 6mm, 13mm, 19mm, 24mm, 32mm and 38mm widths. I don't know a lot about chiselling as yet, but with good saw cuts in to joints nothing very fancy is required to chisel the joint out. First I strike a medium blow along the line where I want the joint's notch to finish, with the flat side of the chisel blade facing the line and the bevelled side facing the cut-away material. I do this on both sides. Then from the top I knock the material out, placing the chisel always at the half-way point of the remaining cut-away material.
Take Half, Leave Half; Until it's all gone
Good for cleaning up a cut-out, don't overwork them though as a snug and square fit can quickly become loose and bevelled. Also with lap-joints the cuts don't need to be that clean as the cut faces do conceal each other. That said, the smoother they are the better the glue will hold the pieces.
Random Orbit Sander
Once all the pieces are made (cut to length and joints cut) each piece should be 'finished' before the final assembly. Primarily this is because the design calls for different treatments for different pieces and applying those in the finished unit would be impossible. It's also true though, that the individual pieces can be sanded more evenly when they're laying flat on a workbench than when in final situ.
When it comes to sanding everyone says “work through the grades”, but there's so many of them and sanding can seem to be so boring! There's a real temptation to cut-corners here. Also, whenever anyone asks “how long should I sand for”, there's always at least one 'expert' ready to pipe up “how long's a piece of string?”. I mean, they have a point, but it's not exactly helpful, is it?
The key to sanding lies first in attaining the right head-space for it. For me it is a time for singing! Either I work through my karaoke favourites or I listen to the melody of sounds that the sander makes with the wood. If the wood is quite dirty, there's also a real pleasure in watching the grain come through, and allowing it to suggest scenes of stories that have been frozen into the timber... It's at this point where you really get to know the material, and where you decide which pieces will be showcased at the front and which relegated more to the back. There's an intimacy in the sanding which shows through in the final piece.
I will sand each face of each piece at grits 40, 80,120,240,320 and 600. That's six passes. Once a given grit has done an initial sand further working at that grit is of less value in terms of achieving a smooth finish. Each grit knocks out imperfections larger than itself, but creates imperfections smaller than itself. Once all the large imperfections have gone further sanding just makes the material thinner, without getting progressively smoother. So each pass doesn't need too be very long. At the largest grit (40), I sand in sweeps 2-3x the width of the sanding head to an internal count of 12 (maybe 6 seconds) before moving on to sweep over the next section. As I move up in grits I reduce the internal count. At the final (600 grit) pass I'll give it a really good going over, kind of for luck.
Then we're meant to finish the sanding off by hand, aren't we? I must admit, whilst I do that on a large plain surface (like a table top), I haven't seen the need on 2x2 uprights and the like.
Before assembly you'll want to give each individual piece its required stain. I'm making everything out of pine (due to cost) and using a tritone stain: a deep mahogany, a lighter 'natural' stain and a bare wood Danish Oil. Here's the model I made of the bookcase along with the components of each stain:
Once the pieces are all finished the wet assembly can start. You almost certainly don't have enough clamps. It isn't really critical to get a super tight clamping force when gluing, but having clamps in the right place is vital. Each piece needs to be properly glued in place in all three dimensions: up/down, back/front, left/right.
When clamping a lap joint, the joint itself holds the piece correctly in two directions and you only need to clamp the two pieces together (1 clamp).
When clamping boards together (for the shelves) you need 3-4 long clamps to squeeze them together, but you also need to ensure the boards are laying flat. Two pairs of cauls with 2 clamps each will achieve that, and should also ensure the two boards don't slide laterally when the transverse clamping force is applied. So that's about 8 clamps to glue one shelf.
I'll give full details of the gluing later on, but do make sure that you have lots and lots of clamps.
Once glued I add the screws. All the joints in this project take 40mm screws and I use Spax since they resist head-stripping better than slotted or pozidrive screws. My impact driver is slightly large for this project so I can't always get the bit directly behind the screw head, so stripping of the head is a risk. If it happens I take the screw out, throw it away and use a new one. No one likes a stripped edge, especially not in the shiny screw cups I'm also using.
The various pieces of quadrant are fixed with panel pins so a small (8-12oz) hammer will be needed. Don't choke the hammer by holding it too near the head. The panel pins are visible in the final bookcase (if a pernickety person wants to look for them). You can use wood-filler if you like but the design basis for the bookshelf is to expose the nature of it's construction. This is why lap-joints work so well, as the interconnections of the pieces are a feature of the look of the piece. Thus why I highlight the screws with screw cups too. Filler is about hiding the essence of the construction, so I don't use it!
The bookcase is finished with hand-woven side panels, wherein threads connect to eyelets screwed into the end panels:I used a bradawl to create pilot holes for each eyelet. A ruler was clamped into place and a very light hole marked every 9mm. The ruler was then removed and each hole reinforced by a deeper penetration of the bradawl. This approach allowed me to get the holes in precise alignment along the edge of the ruler. If I made the holes initially deeper/wider the shank of the bradawl would push against the edge of the ruler, pushing it out of alignment.
The Materials you will need
This image shows the materials needed, and for the wood how piece each is cut and stained.
I used PAR, aka PSE (Planed All Round/Planed Straight Edge) timber, along with quadrant and birch-faced plywood. The order of construction was:
Shelves cut to sink into the side panels, then glued together.
Shelves glued into side panels.
Crown and skirt added.
Back glued into place and screw-fixed along back edges of the shelves.
Reinforcing quadrant added on the forward face of the back-panel.
Picture added into crown and quadrant frame added.
Buffers cut and added.
Side panel uprights and ribs, finished and wet-assembled.
The side panels are each made from 3 uprights and 4 ribs. The uprights are identical:
An upright is 1.3m long as I want 40cm high shelves using 20mm thick shelving planks and 20mm thick ribs. The bottom rib sits under the base shelf adding to the height of the bookcase. The other ribs intrude into the shelving cavity beneath them and do not add to the height of the bookcase. The total height then is given by:
(Number of Shelves x (height of shelf cavity + thickness of shelf plank)) + Thickness of rib
(3 x (0.4m + 0.02m)) + 0.02
You might want more shelves, or different shelf heights, or you might use a different shelf material that isn't 20mm thick – in which case you can use the above formula to workout how tall your uprights need to be.
The uprights are notched every 42cm starting at the bottom (ie. At 0, 42, 84 and 126cm). The notches are 2cm tall and 1cm deep to accommodate the ribs. There will be 2cm protruding above the top notch, this is where the top of the bookcase will fit.
There are 2 types of rib, the bottom rib and the other ribs:
Both types have 3 notches cut into one face to marry with those cut into the uprights (again, 2cm x 1cm). The upper ribs have an additional rebate cut on the opposite side. This rebate is half the width of the rib (22mm) and is 1cm deep. This rebate brings the back of the rib, that is not sunk into the upright, flush with the shelves (which are 39cm deep) – which means the shelves and the ribs provide a 1cm recess at the back of the bookcase into which the back panel will sit. The back panel will sit on top of the bottom rib (and the skirt) which is why that rib has no recess.
Sand all of the components before assembly. Note that sanding the ribs will make them thinner and so they should fit tightly when cutting so that you achieve a snug fit in the final assembly.
When gluing the side-panels use a clamp on each joint.
When the glue is fully cured (24 hours) apply a first coat of 80% Danish Oil and 20% white spirit. This allows the oil to penetrate deeper into the wood.
When dry add the decorative screw-cups and screws at the centre of each joint.
The shelves are cut from 195mm wide planks, so two planks are used for each shelf, the front plank and the back plank; they are not identical. The shelves will be 39cm and the side-panels are 40cm, with the shelves sitting flush to the front face of the side-panels.
There is a 20mm wide notch cut into each corner of both planks. The forward notch of the front plank is 44mm tall so that the whole of the forward upright of the side panel can sink into it.
The rear notch of the front plank is 27mm and the forward notch of the back plank is 17mm – so between them they provide a 44mm notch for the central upright of the side panel.
The rear notch of the back panel is 34mm, as we have a 10mm recess at the back for the back-panel to sit in.
Once the shelf panels have been cut it's a good idea to write 'Front' at the front of the front plank, and 'Rear' at the rear-side of the back plank – it does get confusing.
Once cut the planks can be glued together. 3 clamps (at 20cm, 40cm and 60cm) should suffice but you will also need cauls to ensure the planks sit flat. Cauls also help in preventing 'shear' – one of the planks slipping laterally when the clamps are fastened. When gluing tighten the caul clamps before the glue clamps to prevent the force of the glue clamps distorting the join.
Cauls are just long lengths of stiff wood that hold planks flat. Ideally they should have a crown to equalise the clamping force they provide along the length of the caul. In this case simple lengths of 2x2 are fine. Cover the face of the caul that touches the shelf with packing tape to ensure they don't become glued to the shelf.
Don't let your cat help. They really don't help.
Sand and stain shelves.
Next fit the side-panels to the shelves. This is a matter of gluing the shelves in place and adding any screws. Glue the shelves in place one at a time, but always have the unglued shelves in-situ to help ensure everything remains true. Use long sash clamps to clamp the carcass true whilst gluing a shelf. Clamp the shelf to the full length of the ribs. Be certain to clamp the front face of the shelf also.
When the glue is cured add screws at either side from beneath (i.e. Through the supporting rib and into the shelf) and behind each of the three uprights. Don't use screw cups on the bottom screws.
Crown and Skirt
The crown is made from simple 45 degree mitred butt joints. The crown is the full width of the bookcase (80cm) and the same depth as the ribs (40cm). The crown therefore provides the top edge of the recess that has been created for the back-panel.
The crown is then glued and screwed into place (using screw cups). The short edges take 3 screws along its mid-line at 3.5, 20 and 36.5cm.
The long edges take four screws along its mid-line at 3.5, 28, 52.5 and 76.5cm. These will align with the screws which fix the back-panel in place.
Note that the short-edge screws do not directly (0 degree) align with the side-panel upright screws, due to the mitre of the crown. They do however align along the mitre angle (of 45 degrees) and so the final effect remains aesthetically balanced.
The skirt is just two lengths (76cm) of 44x20mm stretching between the front and rear side-panel bottom ribs, glued into place and screwed (without screw-cups).
Clamping is straight-forward for both the crown and the skirt as the back has not yet been fixed in place.
The back-panel is a single piece of 6mm plywood (faced in birch) cut to size. The bookcase is 80cm wide with the back-panel sitting recessed between the two rear-most side panel uprights, which are each 20mm thick; making the back-panel 76cm wide.
The bookcase is 132cm tall, comprising a 20mm thick crown sitting atop of 130cm tall side-panels. The back-panel sits on the lowest (20mm thick) ribs of the side-panels and the (20mm thick) rear skirt piece, tucking under the crown; making the back-panel 128cm tall.
The back-panel is glued and screwed along the rear-face of each of the shelves. 4 screws are used across each shelf and these are spaced as per those of the crown.
There is no vertical attachment for the back-panel in the space of the shelf cavities, it is only affixed along the horizontal edges of the shelves, which means daylight will show between the edge of the back and side-panels. I therefore used a strip of 12mm quadrant to provide an additional bonding edge for the back-panel which is fixed in place with glue and panel pins.
These quadrant strips are stained to match the back-panel.
The bookcase crown is primarily design to help ensure that small items placed on top of the bookcase do not fall off. It also allowed me the opportunity to showcase a piece of my photography, my 'Tree of Knowledge' image in fact. I had this image printed on aluminium di-bond with a scuff resistant lamination. The physical size of the image is 71 x 31cm (which actually provides a 1mm clearance around the image when it sits in the recess), making the minimum pixel dimensions 8,386 x 3,661px (assuming a minimum print quality of 300dpi). You can of course use any image you like, but I felt that for an all wood construction an image of a tree was appropriate. I finished this off with an inlay of mitred 12mm quadrant which then sat flush with the crown due to the thickness of the di-bond substrate. This quadrant frame for the picture inlay was stained as per the shelves (and the buffers) in order to maintain some cohesion in the overall composition of the bookcase.
The final pieces in the construction are the front-facing buffers.
These are the full height of the bookcase, including crown, at 132cm tall. They are cut from the same 20x44mm used in the side panels, but facing forwards not sideways. The ends are chamfered at 50 degrees and the edges are rounded off. They are glued down the edges of the side-panels and screw fixed (with cups) to the ribs, therefore following the screw lines of the side-panels.
The buffers are stained as per the shelves and so pull all of the deep mahogany components into a coherent aspect.
The buffers also have the advantage of hiding any shonky lap joints of the side-panel ribs!
In order to prevent things falling off the sides of the shelves I part-filled the side-panel apertures with 'string art' weaving. I initially considered using cloth inlays, but I wanted to maintain the open 'airy' feel of the piece; string-art provides a low-density yet effective side-panel barrier – and provides the most excellent shadows.
To achieve the weaving I used 7mm silver screw-in eyelets at a 9mm pitch to give me anchor points for the threads. Create tiny pilot holes using the bradawl. To ensure these are in-line clamp a steel rule in place, and make the finest of marks every 9mm. Because the bradawl shank is tapered, driving it too deep with the ruler in place will cause the shank to displace the ruler and ruin the line. Once the pilot hole line has been initially marked, removed the ruler and work back-over the pilot holes driving the bradawl deeper. Then affix the eyelets.
To achieve a symmetrical pattern ensure that the number of eyelets used is divisible by 4, leaving a slight gap at the very top if necessary. In the pattern I wove there were 40 eyelets in each vertical run and 28 in each horizontal run (i.e. 108 eyelets for each shelf end, 648 eyelets in total).
Weave between the eyelets with embroidery thread (or any flexible filament) in a pattern of your choosing. I used two colours, weaving half the panel in black and then the other half in red (I did not inter-weave the colours). With 108 eyelets I wove from the 'first' to the 55th, back to the second, down to the 56th etc... continuing to the 27th/81st eyelets. I then repeated this pattern from the opposite side in the second colour. The full weave pattern is shown in this photograph.
For the lower two shelves I used doubled-thread and for the upper shelf single-thread, thus reducing the density of the pattern; which adds a dynamic to the composition of the piece.
After tying each thread off, cut away the excess and apply a dab of fabric glue to secure the knot.
...and that's it, job done. If you've done it right you should get the final approval of any house cat(s).