Whether in a home office, bedroom, or living room, bookshelves are handy for storing and displaying books and decorations. But before you grab a saw and begin a DIY bookshelf project, there are a variety of factors to consider.
First and foremost, the wood you use for making bookshelves will impact the design as well as the cost of your project. ¾-inch plywood is considered the industry standard, thanks to it being strong yet inexpensive—especially when compared with some solid woods. Unfortunately, plywood is not very pretty, so look for primed, cabinet-grade plywood and expect to finish off the forward-facing edges with a veneer trim, using glue, and possibly nails, to hide any unfinished edges. Poplar trim is easy to work with—it takes paint easily and is also relatively inexpensive.
If you are making shelves where the color and grain of the wood is an important part of the design, look for oak, maple, or cherry plywood—these options will still offer durability, but will help keep costs down compared
to with non-manufactured hardwoods of the same species. Choose the same wood species to trim the edges, using glue, and nails if needed. Add a clear topcoat finish that will protect the wood from dents and scratches while allowing the color and grain to show through.
For solid wood options, each of the following has advantages and can easily be found at your local hardware center:
- Cherry—strong, lightweight, and easy to handle and cut
- Birch—widely used for cabinets and furniture; an excellent choice if you plan to paint your bookshelves
- Maple—lends itself to a variety of stains, so you can easily match it to existing wood in the room or customize the wood color
Which Wood is the Strongest for a Bookshelf?
If the cost of the materials is not a concern, woods like mahogany, African padauk, and koa are considered the best woods for bookshelves, thanks to their durability, strength, and longevity. Unfinished solid mahogany runs anywhere from $6 to $28 per board foot, while koa starts at $15 but can run as much as $140 per board foot. High-end specialty woods like these are typically available at millwork outlets
or and lumberyards that cater to woodworkers, but not at your local hardware center.
Woods and Materials to Avoid
Avoid using particleboard, MDF, and softwoods like pine for bookshelves. They sag under a lot of weight, dent and scratch easily, don’t offer long-term rigidity, and require extra support for long spans. When choosing wood, avoid boards that are rough-hewn or have knots or poorly graded sides, making them more difficult to finish and paint.
Design Considerations for Your DIY Bookshelves:
- If you would like your shelves to be thicker than the standard 3/4 inch, you can glue and clamp two pieces of wood together and finish the edges with a wider trim. The benefit of a thicker shelf is that the shelf ends up being stronger, so it can support heavier weight loads without sagging.
- How deep should the shelves be? Typically, bookshelves are 11 to 12 inches deep, but if you are building your own bookshelves, this is your opportunity to customize your shelves to fit your books. If you have a lot of oversized books, measure the largest one, and add 1 to 2 inches to the depth.
- A good lumberyard will cut the wood you buy to size—something to consider based on your project and circumstances.
The design of your bookcase will influence the size and the number of boards you’ll need, but in addition to the wood, you’ll need the following materials to assemble and finish your bookshelves:
- Safety Glasses
- Measuring Tape
- Pencil for marking shelf location
- Wood glue
- Finishing Nails
- Veneer trim if using boards that need a finished edge
- Table Saw
- Miter Saw
- Cross-Cut Saw (optional, if you do not have a table or miter saw available. Ensure that your cross-cut saw is in good shape. You can use a 2X4 clamped to the board that is being cut as a guide to ensure a straight cut)
- Paint or Stain