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How to Build a Built-in Bookcase

Learn how to use inexpensive materials like birch plywood and standard trim to build a classic, built-in wooden bookcase.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Project overview

You would have loved the library in my old hometown. Its beautifully paneled wood bookshelves were as inspirational as the books they held. This handsome bookcase features those same classic elements—the curved brackets, column-like partitions and crown molding. Now you can add them to your living room or study with this simply designed bookcase project.

You can build this built-in bookcase by following our clear drawings and step-by-step photos, or use these techniques to modify the dimensions for your own space. The partitions shown in Photos 8 and 9 can be placed wall to wall as shown or can stop halfway into a room and then finish off on the open side. Or you can extend the length by building additional partitions and shelves.

This project is made from hardwood plywood, 2x6s, hardwood boards and standard moldings available at home centers and lumberyards. We chose birch boards and plywood along with maple moldings and then used a gel stain to give the project a cherry wood appearance. You'll notice we've also rubbed away stain to create highlights for an antique look. The materials we used are listed in the Shopping List (see Additional Information) and illustrated in Figure A. You can preassemble nearly all the parts of this modular-type project in your garage or shop and carry them into your room for assembly.

Figure A: Bookcase details

Figure A: Bookcase Details

This cutaway drawing of construction details shows how to construct the built-in bookcase. See Additional Information for a printable PDF of Figure A, along with a complete Cutting List and Shopping List.

The sandwich-style partitions

Cut your plywood lengthwise to the dimensions in the Cutting List (see Additional Information) to make your exterior partition skin. Equip your circular saw with a new, thin-kerf 40-tooth carbide blade. Use a long cutting guide clamped to the plywood sheet to guide your saw for straight cuts. Also rip straight 8-ft. 2x6s to 4-in. widths with your table saw for the core of each partition. NOTE: Buy your 2x6s about a week in advance and bring them inside to dry out and adjust. You may have some that'll warp or twist as they adjust to the dry environment inside the house, so buy a couple of extra pieces just in case.

Assemble the partitions on a flat surface as shown in Photo 2 and then set them aside for the glue to dry. Once the glue is dry, drill the 1/4-in. holes for the shelf pins as shown in Photo 3.

Notice the 2-in. gap at the back of the sandwich. This is crucial. It'll allow you to slip the partitions over cleats attached to the wall with room to spare, as shown in Photo 7. TIP: The extra 1/2 in. of space between the cleat on the wall and the recess in the partition is convenient for running wiring for low-voltage lights in the soffits of the bookcase. We were just storing books, so the lighting wasn't necessary.

Save time: Preassemble the shelves while the glue sets for the partitions

While the glue is drying on the partitions, it's a good idea to get other parts cut and ready to assemble. Start with the shelves. From measuring the room in Photo 1, you'll have a good sense of the shelf length. Make them all about an inch or more too long and trim them later for an exact fit. By making the shelves a bit long, you don't have to fuss with perfectly aligning the moldings on the front and back of the shelf as you glue and nail them together. Also, save time by forming an assembly line. NOTE: Don't make these shelves more than 42 in. long or they may noticeably sag. Our shelves are 39 in. long.

The 1/2-in. anti-sag cleat glued to the rear of the shelf is not a stock item, but you can make it on a table saw. First cut 1-1/2 in. wide strips from a wider board. Then tip this piece on end and cut the 3/4-in. width down to 1/2 in. This step is called resawing and can be tricky because the workpiece gets narrow. Use a push stick to keep your fingers clear of the blade. If this is beyond your adventurous spirit, have the lumberyard folks cut it for you for a nominal fee, and stick to the fun parts of the project. And don't forget, while you're resawing (or having someone else do it), make parts Q.

The front molding of the shelf (5/8 in. thick and 1-1/8 in. wide) covers the nasty plywood edge and also stiffens the shelf. This molding came from a local home center. Match it with the profile shown in Fig. A or feel free to use any similar profile with the same dimensions.

Trace the curved brackets using the grid method

Mark your first bracket (K) on a piece of 1x8. First lay out a 1-in. square grid on the 1x8, then mark the shape intersections with the grid and draw a smooth line connecting the dots. Once the lines are drawn, cut out the shape with a jigsaw and use your first cutout as a template for the rest. Smooth the curve with a drum sander or sanding block.

The partition faces are like super-narrow face frames on cabinets

Because they're so narrow and don't have to support weight as real cabinet face frames do, you can just nail the face frame parts together as shown in Photo 6 and Fig. A. Once they're nailed, you'll need to sand the front and back completely flat to get them to lie nicely against the partition fronts. The tool of choice for this is a random orbital sander. You can start with 80-grit paper and finish with 150-grit.

Glue and screw the partition cleats to your wall

In this article, we're assuming you have wood or tile floors, but if you have carpeting, you'll need to roll it back, remove the tackless strip, and then stretch and trim it later. We've also assumed that most of you have drywall over wood studs, but if you don't, use the right anchor for your wall, whether it's concrete, brick or plaster. If you have drywall with wood framing, you probably won't hit a stud as you try to screw the partition cleats to the wall (Photo 7).

Before fastening the wall cleats, screw a 1x2 cleat to the ceiling so the front edge is 10-1/2 in. from the back wall. This cleat serves two purposes: It helps support the partition and works as a cleat for the fascia (Photo 9). Our ceiling joists ran perpendicular to the wall, so we could get a solid connection into the ceiling every 16 in. (your joists may be 24 in. on center). If the joists are running parallel to the back wall, you'll need to use anchors and construction adhesive.

Next, drill four 3/16-in. diameter holes along the length of each wall cleat, plumb the cleat into position and then drive a nail through the holes to mark the anchor locations in the drywall. Screw in your wall anchors and then smear construction adhesive on the backside of the cleat and screw it to the wall. Measure top and bottom to the next cleat to ensure they'll be parallel. Install the rest in the same manner. NOTE: Keep the end wall cleats 1-1/8 in. from adjacent side walls.

Slip the partitions over the wall cleats and screw them into place

Carry the partitions into the room and tip them up carefully to avoid scarring the ceiling. The partitions are fastened only at the top and bottom, as mentioned in Photo 8, so the screwheads will be covered by other parts later. Once the partition is fastened to the cleat, screw the angle brackets to the partitions at the top and bottom 10 in. from the back wall as shown in Photo 9. Use a framing square to ensure the partitions are perpendicular to the back wall. Once the partition is perfectly aligned, drive a screw through the brackets into the ceiling cleat and then into the bracket on the floor.

Install cleats to hold the fascia, soffit and base shelf in place

Before you screw the fascia pieces (P) between the partitions, screw a 1x2 cleat (N1 and N2) to the backside of each fascia 3/4 in. up from the bottom. Next, fasten the matching wall cleats parallel to the fascia cleat against the back wall. To finish the top of each section, cut the soffit pieces R and nail them to the cleats.

Screw 1x2 strips (U1) to the bottom of the partitions and make center floor supports (V) from scrap plywood to support the lower base shelves (Photo 15). If you have a floor heat register, remove the cover and install an extension boot (Photo 17).

Dressing up the plain boxes with the right trim makes all the difference

Start by nailing the fillet trim (Q1 and Q2) on the bottom of the fascia. The fillet is wider than the fascia, so center it so it extends equally on the front and back of the fascia. Next, glue each bracket (K) to the partition side and nail it to the partition and to the fillet above. Working your way down the side, continue with the small fillet (Q3). Glue this small piece to the bottom of the bracket with carpenter's glue. Cut the bracket supports to fit between the fillet and the floor to support the curved bracket. These supports are designed to nestle the shelves and hide the gaps between the shelf ends and the partition sides. Cut the center seat (Photo 17) and fit the brackets and fillets underneath as shown in Fig. A (the seat height is 22 in.).

Cut the partition face frames as shown in Photo 11 and fasten them to the partitions. Notice that the plywood front of the partition becomes the background for the face frame. It's not necessary to get a tight fit against the ceiling because the crown molding will cover the ceiling joint and the exposed screws along the top of the fascia.

Crown molding can be fussy, so buy an extra piece of molding (you can always return the unused piece). The small pieces can be a bit challenging if the ceiling is irregular. The key is to cut the pieces uniformly. Draw a line right on the bed of your miter saw and always align the molding edge with the saw. Small gaps at the joints can be filled with putty and sanded, so don't drive yourself nuts seeking perfection against a ceiling that's not. Don't bother coping the crown pieces (Photo 13), because they'll be tough to fit; miter them instead.

Fitting the base and making a secret compartment

This project will tie in with the rest of the room better if you replace your existing base molding and carry it through along the bottom of the bookcase. We made a two-piece base with 1x6 capped with bifold stop for the top member. To create a small gap between the two base pieces (Photo 16 and Fig. A), we chamfered the top edge of the 1x6 and the bottom edge of the bifold stop slightly with a block plane. This lends a traditional custom molding look.

To create the secret compartment panels, cut some 12-in. blocks and glue them to the back of the 1x6 base pieces and nail the stop molding to the blocks (see Fig. A). Glue a pair of small blocks to the backside of parts S to create a stop for the secret panels. Install a magnetic cabinet latch to the center base shelf support (V) to hold the secret panel in place.

Fill all the nail holes, then sand and finish the bookcase

Sand the bookcase with 100-grit sandpaper followed by 150-grit. Paint the bookcase if you'd like or create the handsome antique finish we did. We used gel stain and mixed five parts cherry to two parts red mahogany to one part special walnut. Blend these in a separate container and apply them to the sanded surface with a clean rag. Apply enough to cover, and remove the excess after a few minutes. Gently remove just enough stain to enhance the grain pattern. A dry brush works to get the excess stain out of the corners. You can rub a bit more aggressively if you'd like to reveal some highlights or simulate wear. Let the stain dry and finish the cabinet with two coats of polyurethane varnish.

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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

    • Miter saw
    • Air compressor
    • Air hose
    • Brad nail gun
    • Cordless drill
    • Circular saw
    • Caulk gun
    • Level
    • Framing square
    • Jigsaw
    • Orbital sander
    • Safety glasses
    • Speed square
    • Table saw

For a complete list of materials, see the Shopping List in Additional Information.

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