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How to Build a Bookcase

Updated: Feb. 24, 2022

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A veteran woodworker and a beginner team up to build a classic bookcase

FH12JAU_SSBKCE_01-2Family Handyman
Craftsman-style furniture designs are still popular today, and with modern tools you can learn how to build a bookcase like this classic from the Stickley catalog in a weekend.

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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.

Figure A: Making a Bookcase

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

Overall Dimensions: 36″ wide, 16″ deep, 42″ tall.

Making a Bookcase: 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).

Making a Bookcase: Build a box and add face frames

Photo 1: Add edging to the sides

Cut the plywood box parts to size, then glue strips of wood to the bottom edges of the box sides. This edging keeps the plywood veneer from chipping. Trim off the excess edging with a handsaw and sand it flush with the plywood. Take care not to sand through the thin veneer.

Photo 2: Drill pocket holes

Pocket hole jigs are super easy to use: Place the jig where you want the holes; clamp and drill. The stepped bit bores a pocket hole and a pilot hole at the same time. The holes on the ends are for attaching the top to the sides. The holes along the front and back are used to attach the box to the face frame.

Photo 3: Assemble the box

Drive in the pocket screws with a drill. To avoid stripping the screws in plywood and softwoods, switch to a screwdriver for the final tightening. Long clamps make assembly easier, but they aren’t absolutely necessary.

Photo 4: Glue up the leg blanks

Sandwich two 1x4s together and later cut the legs from this stock. Use scrap wood “cauls” to distribute clamping pressure evenly.

Photo 5: Mark the arches

Make an “arch bow”—simply a 3/16-in.-thick strip of wood with slots cut into both ends. Hook a knotted string in one slot, tighten the string to bend the bow and tie off the other end.

Photo 6: Cut the arches

For a smooth cut, use a fine-tooth blade and move slowly, putting only light forward pressure on the saw. If your saw is variable speed, cut at full speed. If the saw has orbital action, switch it off.

Photo 7: Sand the arches

Smooth the arches with an orbital sander. Keep the sander moving so you don’t sand too deep in one spot and create a wave in the curve.

After cutting the plywood box parts to size, 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).

Making a Bookcase: Assemble the face frames

Photo 8: Assemble the face frame

Clamp the face frame together and drive in pocket screws. Pocket screws rarely strip out in hardwood, so you can skip the screwdriver and use only a drill.

Photo 9: Dry-fit the face frames

Align the face frames, pocket-screw them to the box and check the fit. If your alignment is a bit off, you can drill new pocket holes and reattach the frames. If the fit is right, you’re ready to remove the face frames and add glue.

Photo 10: Glue on the face frames

Apply a light bead of glue over the box edges and screw on the face frames as before. There are no screws fastening the legs to the box sides, so you’ll need to clamp them.

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).

Making a Bookcase: Top it off and finish up

Photo 11: Glue up the top

Edge-glue the boards together to form the top. Choose boards that have straight grain lines along one edge and place those edges together. A glue joint with straight grain on both sides is almost invisible.

Photo 12: Drill slotted screw holes

Drill screw holes in the shelf box to fasten the bookcase top. Rock the bit back and forth to bore elongated slots that will allow the top to swell with changes in humidity.

Photo 13: Screw on the top from below

Drive the screws snug, but not so tight that they won’t allow for seasonal wood movement. Remove the top for sanding and finishing.

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 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…

Required Tools for this Making a Bookcase Project

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

  • 4-in-1 screwdriver
  • Clamps
  • Cordless drill
  • Drill bit set
  • Framing square
  • Jigsaw
  • Miter saw
  • Orbital sander
  • Pocket hole jig
  • Safety glasses
  • Table saw