Overview

Bookcase Overview
Illustration: Gregory Nemec
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Traditionally, built-in bookcases are made with solid wood boards, carefully routed to make tight grooves that accept each shelf. But sawn lumber is expensive — enough oak for a 8-foot bookcase, for example, could run into thousands of dollars. Plywood that has a hardwood veneer is not only less expensive but in many cases stronger than solid softwoods like pine. Most lumberyards stock the basics: birch, maple, and oak veneer plywoods. Birch is the best wood to use if you plan to paint your bookcase, and maple lends itself to a variety of stains. But there are also special-order lumberyards that make veneer plywood from any kind of wood, including mahogany, teak, cherry, or walnut. For these, it's best to use a clear finish and let the beauty of the wood shine through.

For the strongest frame, we used oak plywood and doubled its thickness for the bookcase sides, or legs, by gluing and nailing plywood shelf supports onto longer boards. (Cutting grooves in a single board would compromise its strength.) The rough ply edges are hidden by solid-wood finish trim.

The tricky part of working with plywood is ripping down the 4-foot-wide boards to the widths needed for the frame and shelves. Making a straight cut along an entire 8-foot sheet with a circular saw is difficult, and running plywood through a portable table saw is dangerous. Your best bet is to find out if your lumberyard has a commercial table saw to make clean, straight rips. Most yards will make the cuts for a dollar or so each. Calculate how deep you want the bookcase frame and the shelves to be, subtract 11/16 inches to account for the added depth of the 5/4 solid-wood trim, then have the lumberyard rip all your sheets into boards of that width. Once you get home, you can use a circular saw to cut these narrower pieces to length.
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    Tools List

    • circular saw
      Circular Saw
    • speed square
      Speed square,
      to guide circular saw as you cut support pieces
    • scribe
      Scribe,
      for transferring irregularities of the wall onto the trim so you can cut it to fit snugly
    • mallet
      Mallet,
      to coax tight-fitting shelves into slots
    • studfinder
      Stud sensor,
      to find where to attach bookcase to wall
    • jigsaw
      Jigsaw,
      to cut scribed trim pieces
    • 16-foot tape measure
      Measuring tape
    • hammer
      Hammer
    • nailset
      Nailset
    • four-foot level
      Level
    • drill
      Cordless drill
    • utility knife
      Utility knife

    Shopping List

    1. 3/4-INCH VENEER PLYWOOD

    Calculate how many 8-foot-long boards you can get from one sheet and use that to figure out how many sheets you will need to get enough board feet. (A plywood sheet is 4 feet wide, but keep in mind that a saw blade takes off 1/8 inch per rip.) You’ll need at least 3 sheets for a 4-by-8-foot bookcase.



    2. 5/4x4 TRIM

    for masking plywood edges around the perimeter of the bookcase front. Measure the length of the two legs, plus the width of the case, then add 10 percent for waste.



    3. 1x TRIM

    to make nosing for the front of the shelves. For more support, use thicker stock. Take the length of one shelf and multiply it by the number of shelves (including the bottom shelf). Add 10 percent for waste.



    4. YELLOW WOOD GLUE

    5. 1-INCH DISPOSABLE BRISTLE BRUSH

    for applying glue neatly to plywood edges



    6. 1 1/4-INCH (3D) FINISH NAILS

    for nailing the supports in place



    7. 2-INCH (6D) FINISH NAILS

    for nailing trim in place



    8. 1 5/8 and 2 1/2-INCH WOOD SCREWS

    9. SHIMS

    or leveling the bookcase



    10. WOOD PUTTY OR WAX PENCIL

    in a color to match the wood, to fill nail holes



    11. STAIN OR PAINT

    12. BUTCHER'S WAX OR POLYURETHANE