Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I'm slowly working on covering every wall of the dining room here at Roseholme* Cottage with bookshelves. The corner between the recently-built window seat and the doorway to the kitchen was next up. Here's what I started with: A sad old set of butt-jointed Luan shelves, slapped together from stock lengths in an excess of enthusiasm and lack of funds over 15 years ago. They don't even have stabilizing pieces (we'll get to that); side stress could fold them up. All that wasted space! (And those newspapers have gotta go). Step One: Measurements and a worksheet. This one's fancied up with colored ink but the basic notion is to set down the essential dimensions. I already know 8' lumber will clear the ceiling, so a plan view (top left) and a simple reminder of the shelf spacing (bottom left) plus a detail of the routed joints and some scratch calculations are all it takes. (I left woodscrews off the bill of materials. 1- ¼" flathead wood or drywall screws, #8 or #6 will do. They mostly hold it together while the glue dries).

The shelves are easy to run off with a power saw. Stabilizing pieces are just additional shelves, one mounted vertically at the top back, the other at the bottom, set in 1-½" from the front edge as a kind of kick plate (a refinement is possible here, which I'll get to later). They help the shelves resist side stress. It works pretty well -- here they are, assembled and stacked on their sides in the garage:The verticals are another story. The actual measurement is 95-¾" to allow cutting the bottom square and it's not uncommon to end up with an eighth of an inch or so left over at the top. Leave it be 'til the shelves are all together; it's easy enough to trim away with a sharp saw. Establish a consistent measurement point for the spacing (my worksheet reminds "bot. to bot.") and lay with out with a tape and square. Mark it right on the wood. The router will cut the marks away.

Next step is to cheat: take a scrap of wood with one good edge and clamp another scrap to it as a guide, square with the edge. Make a mark along it, then take your router (you'll want a ¾" cutter for nominal 1" lumber) and plow a groove, bearing the router base against the guide. Once you're done, measure from the guide to the nearest and farthest edges of the groove and make two spacers from scraps of the shelf material, one each of those widths. You use those with your marked locations to set up a guide for the router! Rout a notch for each shelf -- don't forget to do them for the stabilizing pieces, too. The one at top, back will have to be longer than the lumber is wide by half the diameter of the router bit, unless you are willing to do some chisel work to make a nice square corner. (I had to do so by accident, with a pocket knife: I didn't catch that I'd done one of them too short until I was assembling the shelves and glue was setting! White pine is soft enough it wasn't difficult to make a few quick slices and get everything to fit). I do rough sanding as I rout, a quick scrub to round the corners next to the groove and another to slightly chamfer the edges of the groove itself.

When you've got all the pieces cut and routed, it's assembly time. A flat and level floor is a great help in this, as is a wooden mallet and some wood blocks to buffer the shelves from the mallet. A couple of pipe clamps longer than the shelves are wide are a great help; you can do without if you must. Or if you've several, the assembly can be glued, clamped and pinned together with finishing nails or even dowels. I usually start with one side, with the shelves laying on their back, tapping the shelves in place from the top to the bottom and securing them with screws as I go, then move to the other side. One or two screws per shelf per side hold it together. The routed grooves will tend to pull everything square. I use ordinary, inexpensive dimensional lumber, and sort out the worst warped ones, but they're never perfect. Check to make sure it is square as you go!

Once it's done, if there's any need to clear baseboards, those cuts will have to be made. If it won't show, a simple rectangle (7" by 1-½" for the old-fashioned ones at Roseholme) will do. I used a semi-coped one for the quarter-round and baseboard on the side next to the kitchen door: (A little blurry, sorry). All the trim cuts were done with a Japanese backsaw, which cuts fast and leaves a smooth edge. The shelves are only 5-½" wide, so I end up with a 1-½" gap at the bottom; I could have used a wider board, or I can cover that with another piece. At present, it's handy for retrieving cat toys.

A quick sanding/scraping to remove any rough spots and slightly round the edges, and it's ready for the finish (if any; I leave them raw and let the pine pick up some color. Plus I don't have to worry about the finish affecting the books).These are very tall, narrow shelves. I secure them to the walls when possible. The photo has arrows pointing to the (ugly) angle brackets presently holding the shelves to the door and window frame, and to the screws that hold the shelves to hidden blocks at the corner where they meet. A wedge under one upright takes care of a slight irregularity in the floor; careful pocketknife work makes it less obvious.

And there you are: bookshelves! The design started with one from Nomadic Furniture, meant to be cut from a single 4' x 8' sheet of plywood; I've always built them from dimensional lumber instead. The routed joints for the shelves are a later refinement that really helps stability and speeds assembly. The book is a very handy source for homemade furniture ideas; it's a bit hippieish but the stuff works, so who cares? It's got a lot of basic measurements for furniture design, too. My "copy" is just that, handwritten notes and a few photocopied drawings. I was happy to discover it and its sequel have been reprinted in one volume! (Buy it via the Amazon link at Tam's and do a blogger a favor).
* The name is actually a reference to a grant of arms to the family name, a "naturally-colored" rose on a silver background. Does that mean the rose is white, or red? I don't know.


  1. Very nice indeed.
    I have a copy of Nomadic Furniture, and have
    found it very helpful over the years. The
    slotted chair was very comfortable with a pair
    of well-stuffed cushions. Easy to move, too, when
    I was trying to keep one step ahead of the housing
    Anon, Don

  2. Very nice indeed.

    I'm pretty sure bare pine, oak, maple, or poplar is pretty safe. Any paint or finish, I'd put down wax paper before setting the books in. I lost a couple dustjackets to the (I thought, completely dry) paint i put on some shelves long ago.

    If you hinge the shelves agt the corner, that would make an awesome secret storage space for a well protected long gun!

  3. Pretty nice! I'm way too much of a Wood Butcher to make anything that nice!

  4. "Nice" is simply the result of not getting in a hurry. It's not any special skill.

    My woodworking projects used to come out a lot more crude-looking; when I started spending about 3X as much time measuring, marking and setting up guides as I did actually cutting, the end result looked 10X better.

    Sometimes that means not being finished in a weekend; the window seat was laid out one weekend and I built the base; I cut most of the arts later that week, set them to one side -- and lost my drawings! With one thing and another, it was a couple of months before I finished it.