Shelving diagram
Illustration: Ian Worpole
Supports for adjustable shelves
The very permanence of a built-in bookcase—custom-designed and stocked to your needs and tastes—adds to a house's character and substance in a way that freestanding bookcases simply can't.

Enormously flexible, built-ins can fit just about anywhere. Besides familiar locations like lining a wall or flanking a fireplace, a bookcase can create an alcove, surround a window or door, sit under a stairway, follow you up the steps, even gracefully divide a room in two.

The slideshow here offers a sketchbook of practical building advice on supports, size, and veneers, to ensure that your bookcases will both look good and function right.

In addition to these factors, you'll want to choose the proper shelf material. Choices include:

1. Solid wood: Hardwoods make the strongest and stiffest shelves, but they are more costly than plywood or MDF. Softwoods are weaker and cost less than hardwood boards of the same size.

2. Hardwood plywood: These strong 4x8-foot sheets have minimal defects. Available in a wide range of face veneers suitable for paint or clear finishes.

3. MDF (medium-density fiberboard): The most affordable alternative. Not as stiff as solid wood or plywood, but won't cup, warp, or splinter. Takes paint beautifully. Use special MDF fasteners for best anchoring strength.

Strength Comparison: The amount of weight a 3-foot 1x12 shelf can hold without sagging more than ¼ inch:
Oak: 313 lb.
Pine: 200 lb.
Plywood: 129 lb.
MDF: 87 lb.

Note: With these weights, shelves will sag another 1/8 inch over time.
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