Tools & Materials
These days, everyone seems to have more stuff than places to stuff it. We’ve heard complaints of a house-wide shortage of nooks and crannies, and a dearth of handy bins and baskets. Fortunately, we’ve got a stylish solution: Build a compact, adjustable-shelf bookcase.
The great thing about this freestanding piece of furniture is that it’s suitable for any room. You can paint it to match your decor, or stain it to look like natural woodwork. And even though it provides over 10 square feet of shelf space—counting the top surface—it takes up less than 3 square feet of floor space.
You don’t need to be an accomplished cabinetmaker to build this bookcase. As This Old House general contractor Tom Silva shows here, all you need are some skills with a saw and a router and the patience to be exacting with your measurements and cuts. Following Tom’s expert guidance, you’ll be able to put this piece together just in time to clear the junk off the living room floor.
The main box and both adjustable shelves of this bookcase are cut from ¾-inch birch-veneer plywood, with lightweight ¼-inch plywood covering the back. “Birch plywood is an excellent choice for bookcases,” says This Old House general contractor Tom Silva, “because it accepts paint or stain.” It’s also relatively affordable compared to solid lumber, ranging in price from about $39 to $98 per 4×8 sheet, depending on grade. Cabinet-grade birch plywood, used in this project, runs on the high end of that range. To cover the hidden back of the bookcase, ¼-inch plywood is an economical choice. The thin panel fits into a groove rabbeted into the back edges of the bookcase sides. Birch-veneer edge banding hides the exposed edges of the plywood in the front of the box. The back of the banding is coated with a heat-sensitive adhesive, so the only “tool” you need to adhere the veneer is an ordinary clothes iron.
Pocket screws fasten the outer case of the piece together. These hidden fasteners, screwed into angled holes, leave no exposed screw heads.To drill the holes, you need a pocket-hole jig, which comes with a specially designed step drill bit and a depth-stop collar, but not the pocket-hole screws. You must purchase these specialized pan-head screws separately; a box of 100 coarse-thread, 1¼-inch-long pocket screws costs about $5. Pocket-hole jigs and related supplies are available at any well-stocked hardware stores and most woodworking suppliers, such as woodcraft.com.
Although this bookcase is simple to piece together, it does have a bit of style. Gently curving arches are cut into the front toekick and each side panel to create “feet,” which help make the piece appear visually lighter and less bottom heavy. And the top of the bookcase is trimmed with decorative molding, which casts shadow lines while adding a little architectural interest.
Rip the bookcase sides
Using a circular saw, rip a piece of ¾-inch birch plywood into a 12½-inch-wide strip. To ensure straight, accurate cuts, clamp a straightedge guide to the plywood.
TIP: Use another piece of 8-foot plywood as your saw guide.
Make the rabbet for the back piece
Using a router fitted with a ball-bearing-piloted rabbeting bit, cut a ⅜-inch-wide by ½-inch-deep rabbet into one edge of the strip.
Cut the other plywood pieces
Rip a 12⅛-inch strip from the ¾-inch plywood to make the sub-top and bottom of the bookcase. Then rip another strip 11⅞ inches wide to make the shelves.
Using a circular saw guided by a Speed square, cut the routed strip into two 41¾-inch pieces to make the two bookcase sides. Cut the other two strips into 30½-inch pieces to make the sub-top, bottom, and two shelves.
Also cut from ¾-inch birch plywood the narrow upper rail, 30½ inches long by 2 inches high that spans the front of the bookcase, just below the top.
Cut the toe kick and side arches
Cut a piece of plywood to 30½ inches. Place this board good side down. Mark off a width of 2½ inches across the plywood, but don’t rip it to this width yet.
Find the center of it and measure up from the bottom 1¼ inches at this point. Make a mark. Then place the board over another scrap piece of wood. Tap a nail into the scrap wood 1½ inches from each end of the toe kick and butt the bottom of the toe kick against the nails.
Place a strip of ¼-inch-thick hardboard in front of the nails, then push the center of it back until it meets the center mark to form the shape of the arch. Trace along the bent hardboard to mark the arch onto the toe kick.
Using a jigsaw, cut the arch. Then, using a circular saw, rip the toe kick to 2½ inches.
Mark and cut arches into the two side pieces in the same manner. To make sure the side arches are even, clamp the pieces together and cut them at the same time.
TIP: It’s easier to cut a curve in the toe kick before it’s ripped down to its narrow width.
Drill the shelf holes
Prepare to drill holes in the side pieces for metal shelf pegs by first making a hole-drilling template out of ¾-inch pine cut to the same length as the bookcase sides. Using a drill/driver fitted with a ⅝-inch spade bit, bore a series of equally spaced holes in the template board.
Mark a line at the center of the template board and on each bookcase side piece. Clamp the template to the inside surface of one side piece, lining up the center lines. Outfit a plunge router with a ¼-inch straight bit and ⅝-inch-diameter collar.
Set the collar into one of the template holes, turn on the router, and plunge down to make a ¼-inch-diameter by ⅜-inch-deep hole in the side. Repeat for each template hole.
Unclamp the template, flip it over and drill mating shelf-peg holes on the opposite edge of the bookcase side. Repeat this hole-drilling process in the other side piece.
Cover the plywood edges
Using an iron set to a low heat, apply iron-on birch veneer edge banding to the front edges of the plywood sides, shelves, top and bottom.
Immediately after ironing on the veneer, use a J-roller to press the veneer tightly to the plywood. Cut the veneer to length with a utility knife.
Using a veneer trimmer, slice off the overhanging edges of the veneer.
Hand-sand the edges of the veneer flush with the plywood with 120-grit sandpaper.
Drill pilot holes
Clamp a pocket-hole jig to the backside of the toe kick. Using a drill/driver fitted with the special bit and depth-stop collar that come with the jig, make two angled pilot holes in either end of the toe kick.
Drill similar pocket holes into the back of the upper rail (2 holes on each end), the top face of the sub-top (5 holes across each side) and the underside of the bottom piece (5 holes across each side).
Assemble the bookcase
Using a drill/driver and 1¼-inch pan-head pocket screws. fasten the toe kick to one side piece, making sure the screw pockets don’t show on the front of the bookcase.
Continue the assembly, using pocket screws to fasten the bottom to the side (from underneath), the top to the side (from above), and the upper rail to the side (from the back). Make sure the top and bottom are tight against the upper rail and the toe kick. There should be a ½-inch gap at the back to match the rabbet on the side piece.
Flip over the partially assembled bookcase and attach the top, bottom and upper rail to the remaining side.
Nail on the back
Turn the bookcase face down and lay the ¼-inch birch plywood back into the rabbet at the back of the sides. Attach the back using 3d nails.
Make the decorative top
Cut a piece of ¾-inch plywood into a 35-by-14-inch rectangle. Cover the exposed front and side edges with birch iron-on veneer.
Set the finished top on the bookcase, holding the back edge flush with the rear of the bookcase; be sure it overhangs equally on each end.
Attach the decorative top
Using a drill/driver and 1¼-inch pan-head pocket screws, attach the decorative top to the sub-top from underneath.
Add the finishing touches
Using a miter saw set to a 45-degree angle, cut pieces of pine bed molding to fit around the front and sides of the bookcase, under the decorative top. Nail the bed molding on with 6d finish nails.
Lightly sand all surfaces with 120-grit sandpaper. Then prime and paint, or stain and varnish the bookcase, as desired.
Once all the parts are dry, install shelf pegs into the holes bored in the bookcase sides, and set the shelves into place; four pegs are needed to support each shelf.