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Build It | Simple Bookshelf from Stair Treads

Ask This Old House general contractor Tom Silva and host Kevin O’Connor use stair treads to create a simple bookshelf in Build It


  1. Measure out desired lengths; in this case, Tom measured out 38 inches and made a cut point using a straight edge.
  2. Cut stair treads for shelving to length using a circular saw.
  3. Leave two stair treads at 48-inch length for use at the sides of the bookshelf.
  4. Rip each shelf down by 1 ½-inches using a straight edge and a circular saw.
  5. Rip both sides down by ¾ of an inch using the same method.
  6. To inset the plywood into the sides and hide the end grain of the plywood, make rabbet cuts by setting ¼” cutting depth on the circular saw and a straight edge to mark the width of the cut.
  7. After the first pass, move the straight edge out just a little to remove some of the waste on a second pass with the circular saw.
  8. Remove the remainder of the waste using a utility knife.
  9. The top will also need a rabbet cut, however this one will not run the whole length of the board. This stop rabbet will start and stop within 1” of the end of the top piece. Cut the rabbet like on the sides, but starting your saw 1” in and finishing your cut 1” from the end.
  10. Clean up the stop rabbet and square it off using a chisel.
  11. To lay out the measurements for the bookshelf, place each side piece side-by-side.
  12. Lay a 1x4 toe kick at the base and hold the first piece of shelving flush against it. Mark where the top of the shelf will lie.
  13. Measure 16 inches between the top of the first shelf to the bottom of the second shelf. Mark the top and bottom, then repeat it on the next shelf up. (Note: you can make the distance between shelves any dimension you wish at this stage based on what you plan to store).
  14. Pre-drill holes on each side piece between the marks you made for the shelf locations using a drill/driver.
  15. Use 3 1/8” trim head screws to fasten each shelf to the sides using a drill/driver.
  16. Do the same for the toe kick.
  17. To match the sides of the top shelving piece to the stair tread nosing, mark the center of the nosing and the distance to the back of the nosing.
  18. Use those markings to hand plane, rounding the edge as you go, until nosing matches that of the stair tread.
  19. Fasten the top shelving piece onto the bookshelf using trim head screws and a drill/driver.
  20. Nail the plywood portion onto the back using 5d box nails and a hammer.
  21. Sand, prime, fill nail holes, and paint the finished bookshelf (Note: using the materials shown, this shelf is only paint grade and cannot be stained).