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How to Build a Bookcase

Craftsman-style furniture designs are still popular today, and with modern tools you can build a bookcase like this classic from the Stickley catalog in a weekend.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Build it yourself and save $151,900!

My neighbor, CT, asked me to help him build a bookcase he found in an old Stickley furniture catalog. I love Craftsman furniture and CT is a great neighbor. How could I refuse?

This bookcase is inspired by a Gustav Stickley model that sold for $12 in 1910. One of the original Stickley models recently sold for $152,000, but you can build ours for about $100.

Using the picture in the catalog as a start, we sat down to do a little research and figure out the details. CT wanted a slightly larger bookcase, so we stretched the width from 22 in. to 36.

I told CT we could build it in his garage with nothing more than a table saw, a drill and a pocket hole jig. If you don’t own a pocket hole jig, you owe it to yourself to buy one. Pocket screws aren’t as strong as most other types of joinery, but they are plenty strong for this bookcase, and you can’t beat their speed and simplicity. CT agreed, especially when he found out that for $40 he could buy a complete pocket hole system. (For tips on using pocket screws, see “How to Use Pocket Screws.” ) You’ll also need at least four pipe clamps for this project, which will cost about $60 altogether.

Build this Craftsman-style bookcase with basic tools.

Build this Craftsman-style bookcase with basic tools.

Figure A: Bookcase

This is the perfect first-time furniture project—simple, useful and satisfying.

Overall Dimensions: 36" wide, 16" deep, 42" tall. For Materials and Cutting List, see Additional Information.

Wood selection matters

At the home center, we took our time picking through the oak boards. We wanted straight, flat boards, of course, but we also looked closely at grain pattern. Novice woodworkers usually skip this tedious process, but they shouldn’t when building a bookcase. It has a big impact on the final look of the project. For the legs, we examined the end grain and chose boards with grain that ran diagonally across the ends (see Photo 4). This “rift sawn” wood has straight grain on both the face and the edge of the board. (“Plain sawn” boards typically have wilder grain on the face.) Straight grain will give the legs a look that suits the Stickley style. Also, glue joints disappear in straight grain wood, so the legs—which are made from sandwiched boards—look better. For that same reason, we chose boards with straight grain along the edges to form the bookcase top (see Photo 11).

Build a box and add face frames

After cutting the plywood box parts to size (see the Materials and Cutting List in Additional Information), we added the 3/8-in.-thick edging (J) to protect the bottom of the cabinet sides (A; Photo 1). We applied the same edging (H) to the plywood shelves (C). Then we drilled the pocket holes in the box top and bottom (B; Photo 2). After that, we drilled holes for adjustable shelf supports in the plywood sides and—finally—we assembled the box (Photo 3).

With the box assembled, we turned our attention to building two identical face frames. (Since the bookcase has no back, it needed two face frames.) Unlike a standard face frame, which has vertical stiles, our face frame has legs (E) made from two layers of 3/4-in.-thick boards. We glued up the leg blanks (Photo 4), ripped both blanks into two legs and sanded out the saw marks. Like many other beginning woodworkers, CT figured that curves were complicated, so he was a little intimidated by the arched upper rails (F). But I showed him a neat trick for marking out a shallow arch (Photo 5). His curved cut (Photo 6) wasn’t perfect, but a little sanding smoothed it out (Photo 7).

Assemble the face frames

With the rails and legs complete, we were ready to drill pocket holes in the rails and assemble the face frames (Photo 8). It’s easy to make mistakes during face frame assembly, so—before driving any screws—we clamped the frames together, then set them on the box to make sure everything was aligned correctly. We used similar caution when we finally attached the face frames to the box: We dry-fitted the face frames (Photo 9) before we glued and clamped them into place (Photo 10).

Top it off and finish up

CT figured that making the top (D) was a simple matter of edge-gluing two boards together (Photo 11). That’s mostly true, but there are a few tricks that make it easier. First, always do a complete dry run by clamping up the boards without glue. That will alert you to any clamping or alignment problems before it’s too late. Second, start with boards that are an inch or so longer than the final top. It’s much easier to trim the boards later than to fuss with edge alignment during glue-up. Finally, to ensure that the tops of the boards meet flat and flush, use pocket screws on the underside of the top. A couple of pocket screws won’t provide enough pressure to substitute for clamps, but they will hold the board flush while you crank on the clamps.

When the top was trimmed to size and sanded, CT drilled elongated holes (Photo 12) and screwed on the top (Photo 13). When I asked him to remove the top, he gave me a look that said, “What’s the point of that?” I had two answers: Finishing is always easier when furniture is disassembled, and more important, both sides of the top need to be finished. Wood absorbs and releases moisture as humidity changes. Wood finishes slow that process. So wood with a finish on only one side will end up with differing moisture levels in the finished and unfinished sides. That leads to warping.

So we finished both sides of the top (and the rest of the bookcase) with a coat of General Finishes Mission stain ($14 a pint at rockler.com) followed by polyurethane. That’s it. Not bad for a weekend of woodworking. I wonder how much CT’s bookcase will be worth in a hundred years...

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