How to Build a Bookshelf

Build a traditional bookshelf, without the usual time and effort

About this project

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Build the box and the shelves

To get started building the bookshelf, cut the 3/4-in. plywood box parts as shown in the cutting diagram on (see Fig. A and B, and Additional Information, below). The grain on the box lid (B) runs the “wrong” way, but it's well below eye level and only your pets will see it. To avoid splitting the plywood, drill pilot holes before you screw the box together (Photo 1). No need for glue; three screws at each joint will make the box plenty strong, and you won't have to deal with glue squeeze-out.

Drill holes for adjustable shelf supports (Photo 2). I made two shelves, used only one and tucked the other away in a nearby closet—better to have a second shelf than to wish for it later. When you edge the shelves (Photo 3), cut the strips of screen molding a bit longer than the shelves and trim off the excess after the glue sets. To complete the box, add the back (D). Make sure to cut the back perfectly square so you can use it to square the box. After cutting the back from a half sheet of 1/4-in. plywood, you'll have more than enough left over to cut the spacers you’ll need later (see Photos 5 and 7).

Figure A: Shortcut Bookshelf

Overall Dimensions: 32-1/4" tall x 37-3/4" wide x 11-1/8" deep For Cutting List, see Additional Information, below.

Figure A
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Add rails, stiles and trim

“Rails” are the horizontal parts that frame the outside of the shelf box; “stiles” are the vertical parts. Cut solid wood boards to the widths given in the Cutting List (see Figure A and Additional Information, below). Nail the corner stile parts (E and F) together with 1-1/2-in. brads (Photo 4). Next, cut the spacers that go behind the side rails and stiles. I made all my spacers 1/8 in. smaller than the parts that go over them. The purpose of the spacers is to make the rails and stiles protrude an extra 1/4 in. from the sides of the shelf box. Without them, the 3/4-in. cove molding (see Photo 6) would be flush with the faces of the rails and stiles—and that would look bad.

Glue and nail the spacers with 1/2-in. brads, then switch to 1-1/2-in. brads for the rails and stiles (Photo 5). Trying to fit a rail between stiles that are already fastened is difficult, and you won’t get tight joints. Here’s how to avoid that: Nail on one of the corner stiles, followed by the side rails (H and J) and then the rear side stile (G). Note that the lower rail overhangs the box by 1 in. Next, lay the box on its back, set the front rails (K and L) in place and check the fit of the other corner stile. Shorten the front stiles if necessary and nail them into place. Then nail on the second corner stile, followed by the side rails and stiles.

With all the rails and stiles in place, you're ready to install the cove molding (Photo 6). To avoid tedious work later, sand all the molding before you start cutting it. Installing the molding is the slowest phase of building a bookshelf because cutting it to the right length on the first try is almost impossible. Instead, you’ll cut each piece, test-fit it and shave it shorter until it fits. Don't nail any of the moldings until they're all in place. Then attach the baseboards (Photo 7) and add cove molding above them.

Figure B: Plywood Cutting Diagram

Follow this diagram to make the most efficient use of the 3/4-in. plywood.

For the complete material list, see Additional Information below.

Figure B
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Crown the box with a fancy top

Don't be fooled by the large number of small parts that make up the top assembly—it's showy but not difficult. Start by rounding the edges of the top (P) with a 1/4-in. round-over bit (Photo 8). Then assemble plywood and solid wood parts of the frame with nails and glue. When you drill pilot holes to screw the frame to the top (Photo 9), mark the depth with masking tape on your drill bit so you don’t poke through the top.

Shape the bead molding with a 1/8-in. round-over bit (Photo 10). Keep in mind that the 3-ft. length of molding is just barely enough for the front piece; there’s no room for error. To complete the top assembly, add the cove molding and the filler blocks (Photo 11). Fasten on the top with 2-in. screws (Photo 12) and you’re ready for finishing. I used General Finishes Mission Oak stain (rockler.com) followed by three coats of Minwax Wipe-On Poly (satin).

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