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How to Build a Bookshelf

Updated: Jun. 03, 2022

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Build a traditional bookshelf, without the usual time and effort

FH13DJA_SHBOSH_01-2 how to make a bookshelfFamily Handyman
Need a great-looking bookshelf with classic lines by tomorrow? Using clever shortcuts and standard materials, you can build a bookshelf like this in a day.

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About this project

Gary Wentz: Editor in Chief

There’s nothing I like better than spending weeks on a complicated woodworking project. But I rarely have time for that. So instead, I take shortcuts that produce handsome results but simplify the whole process of learning how to make a bookshelf. This little bookcase showcases some of my favorite shortcuts: Some save time, some minimize mistakes and others are low-effort paths to high style. It all adds up to a project you can build in a day, though finishing will add a few hours after that. You’ll find all the materials in stock at most home centers.

Build the box and the shelves

Photo 1: Nail the box first, then screw

Holding corners together while driving screws is clumsy. So tack the corners together with a brad nailer first when you learn how to make a DIY bookshelf. The nails will hold the parts in position while you add screws for strength.

Photo 2: Adjustable shelves keep it simple

Adjustable shelves are easier to make and finish than stationary shelves. A scrap of pegboard is a perfect template to position the support holes. Mark the pegboard holes you want to use and label the end of the template that goes against the bottom shelf.

Brad point bit

A brad point bit reduces splintering when drilling shelf holes. Wrap the bit with a masking tape “flag” to mark the depth of the hole.

Photo 3: Easy shelf edging

Spread a light bead of glue over the front edges of the shelves. Set the screen molding in place and “clamp” it with masking tape. Pull the tape tight as you apply it.

To get started learning how to make a 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.

Add rails, stiles and trim

Photo 4: Assemble corner stiles, then cut to length

Start with corner stile parts (E and F) that are about an inch longer than their final length. That way, you don’t have to worry about aligning the ends as you join them. Then trim the ends to length.

Photo 5: Attach rails and stiles instantly

Traditional rails and stiles require clamps and time-consuming joinery. A brad nailer eliminates that whole process. Just glue and tack the spacers into place, then glue and nail on the rails and stiles. Use only enough nails to hold the parts in place while the glue sets.

Photo 6: Classic style, the simple way

Common cove molding gives the sides a classic frame-and-panel look. Miter one end of each piece and hold it in place to mark it. Cut the piece a hair long and test the fit. If it’s too long, take it back to the miter saw and shave off a smidgen.

Photo 7: Use basic boards for the base

The base of the shelf unit is just boards topped off with cove molding. Glue and tack on spacers, then add the baseboards. Sand the joints flush and add the cove molding.

“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.


Crown the box with a fancy top

Photo 8: Shape the top—without wrecking it

A wide slab of solid wood is expensive, so take extra steps to avoid mistakes when you build the bookshelf. To prevent splintering at the front corner, make a reverse-direction “climb cut.” Screw blocks to the back corners to prevent gouging as you begin and end routing.

Photo 9: No need to miter the frame

The square-cut butt joints at the corners of the frame make cutting and joining the parts a lot easier. (The same goes for the baseboards shown in Photo 7.) Assemble the frame with glue and nails, then center the assembly and screw it to the underside of the top.

Photo 10: Make bead molding in five minutes

Round over both edges of a 1/2-in.-thick board, sand the edges and then cut the completed moldings off the board.

Photo 11: Simple moldings for a fancy top

Trim the frame with cove molding and homemade bead molding. Then glue in two layers of plywood filler blocks. The blocks allow the top to be screwed to the shelf box.

Photo 12: A screwed-on top is better

Mount the top with screws only—no glue. That way, you can remove it for easier sanding and finishing. Center the top and drive screws through the box lid and into the filler blocks.

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 ( followed by three coats of Minwax Wipe-On Poly (satin).

Additional Information

Required Tools for this Project

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

  • Air compressor
  • Air hose
  • Brad nail gun
  • Circular saw
  • Cordless drill
  • Countersink drill bit
  • Drill/driver - cordless
  • Dust mask
  • Forstner drill bits
  • Framing square
  • Hearing protection
  • Level
  • Miter saw
  • Orbital sander
  • Router
  • Safety glasses
  • Table saw
  • Tape measure

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.

  • See Materials List in "Additional Information"
  • Wood glue

Additional Information