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How to Build a Kids' Bookcase

Use oak stair treads and pine boards to create right-size shelves that keep books and toys within easy reach of small hands

The best way to encourage youngsters to take out and return their own books and toys? Make a creative case that speaks to them at their own level. We scaled ours so the highest shelf is about 24 inches above the floor—perfect for the average 3-year-old, yet useful enough to keep up with her needs as she grows.

Wide, deep shelves accommodate a range of books or craft supplies, low-slung cubbies corral toys, and the whole thing rolls on wheels to make rearranging the furniture easier.

Download and print the cut list and dimensional drawing for this project.

  • Decorative shelving: oak stair treads, about $28 each.
  • Casters: Everbilt 3-inch polyurethane locking casters, about $8 each. Both, The Home Depot

Steps for Building a Kids’ Bookcase

Follow along as This Old House senior technical editor Mark Powers uses basic home-center parts to make a custom storage solution that will inspire kids to tidy up. Maybe.

Step 1: Project Overview

Illustration by Gregory Nemec
  • SATURDAY: Build the cabinet and cubbies (Steps 2–8).
  • SUNDAY: Join the two halves and paint the back (Steps 9-13).

Download and print the cut list and dimensional drawing for this project.

Cut List for Building a Kids' Bookcase

  • Oak stair treads: two @ 1x11½x36-inches
  • 1x12 pine shelf: one @ 33-inches
  • 1x12 pine sidepieces: two @ 22¾-inches
  • 1x12 pine shelf dividers: two @ 11x11-inches
  • 1x12 pine cubby ends: See diagram; cut two.
  • 1x12 pine cubby dividers: See diagram; cut two.
  • 1x18 pine edge-glued panel base: one @ 33-inches
  • 1x6 pine fascia: one @ 34½-inches
  • Lauan back: Cut to fit.

Step 2: Size the Parts

Photo by Kolin Smith

Use a circular saw to rip and cut the pine boards to final dimensions according to the cut list.

Step 3: Rabbet the Edges

Photo by Kolin Smith

The sides of the cabinet are grooved along the rear edges to accept the backing. To cut the rabbets, fit a trim router with a ¼-inch straight cutting bit and adjust it with ⅜ inch extending below the base. Clamp a sidepiece to the work surface and set a straightedge so that the router cuts a ¼-inch-wide L-shaped channel. Starting at the corner, push the router forward along the right side of the straightedge so that the clockwise-spinning bit bites into the wood. Rabbet cubby ends, too.

Step 4: Mark the Treads

Photo by Kolin Smith

Use a combination square to mark lines 1 inch in from each end of the stair treads, on both faces, to indicate where to screw them to the sides of the bookcase. Drill two pilot holes on the line, each one an inch or so from the long edges of the board; be sure to go through the best face of the top tread and the hidden face of the bottom one. Stain the treads, prime and paint the pine parts, then let everything dry.

Step 5: Attach the Sides

Photo by Kolin Smith

Stand the top tread on edge with its bullnose up and slip a scrap piece of backing beneath it. Add a bead of construction adhesive to the end grain of a sidepiece. Then bring that sidepiece perpendicular to the tread and use a scrap of 1 as a spacer to inset it from the end of the tread. Now screw through the pilot holes in the tread and into the top edge of the sidepiece with 1⅝-inch trim-head screws. Repeat on the other side. Attach the bottom tread, screwing up through it and into the bottom edges of the sidepieces.

Step 6: Add the Shelf and Dividers

Photo by Kolin Smith

Slip the center shelf between the sides, use the shelf dividers to set its position at one end, then screw through the sidepiece and into the edge of the shelf with the trim-head screws, as shown.

Reset the dividers at the other end and screw it in place. Now position the shelf dividers with their front edges flush with that of the center shelf, then screw through the shelf and into the dividers. To attach the dividers' opposite ends, drill pilot holes through the treads and secure the dividers with the trim-head screws, using a rafter square to keep them perpendicular to the treads. Set the upper cabinet aside.

Step 7: Add the Ends

Photo by Kolin Smith

Rest the base for the cubbies on the work surface. Position a rabbeted cubby end with its front edge flush with that of the base. Screw through the end and into the edge of the base, as shown, with the trim-head screws. Attach the opposite cubby end. Now split the base into thirds, marking the locations of the two dividers, and attach them by screwing through the underside of the base.

Step 8: Square the Cubbies

Photo by Kolin Smith

Position the fascia against the front edges of the cubby ends and dividers; drive trim-head screws through it and into the end edges, then the divider edges. Use a rafter square, as shown, to square up each divider before screwing it in place.

Tip: To make squaring the cubby dividers easier, screw the fascia to the ends first to prevent racking.

Step 9: Attach the Brackets

Photo by Kolin Smith

Center an angle bracket on the inside face of one cubby end and hold it flush with the piece's top edge. Fasten it with 7/16-inch pan-head screws, as shown, then repeat on the other end.

Step 10: Mark the Upper Cabinet

Photo by Kolin Smith

Center the upper cabinet on the base so the lower tread has a ¾-inch overhang on each end, using your 1 scrap to check. Move the upper cabinet forward so the rear of the tread is flush with the rabbeted edge you made. Reach through the back of the cubbies and drive pan-head screws through the bracket and into the underside of the lower tread, as shown—no pilot holes required. Repeat on the other side.

Step 11: Paint the Back

Photo by Kolin Smith

Measure the opening of the back, then cut the lauan to fit. Use painter's tape to temporarily hold the back in place between the rabbeted edges. Use a pencil to outline the rectangles that get the accent color, as shown. Paint the accent color, paint the rest of the back white, then let everything dry.

Step 12: Attach the Back

Photo by Kolin Smith

Tip the cabinet on its face and drop the painted back in place. Drive pan-head screws into each corner and then several between them, along all four edges.

Step 13: Add the Casters

Photo by Kolin Smith

Hold a caster in position on a corner and mark the mounting holes. Drill ¼-inch-diameter holes through the underside of the base. Attach the caster with carriage bolts, lock washers, and nuts, using a wrench, as shown. Repeat the process for the remaining casters, then turn the bookcase right-side up. Add wood filler to screw holes and give the bookcase a final coat of paint.