a wood bookcase with heavy boards is built into a wall niche next to a fireplace. Books and miscellaneous objects fill the shelves and a potted plant sits on the floor next to the shelves.

How to Build a Bookcase

Fill a nook and display tomes and tchotchkes with easy-to-assemble built-ins

If your books and photographs are still displayed on a couple of boards held up by a pile of bricks, here's some good news: It doesn't require a master carpenter, a workshop full of tools, and thousands of dollars to add built-in bookcases to your home. All it takes, essentially, is some sturdy veneer plywood and a circular saw. By laminating a series of short support pieces to a longer strip of wood you can create the appearance of thick boards that have been routed to accept shelves. Some solid-wood trim covering all the plywood edges hides your clever trickery, leaving you with a piece of furniture worthy of a great library.


Steps // How to Build a Bookcase
1 ×

Bookcase Overview

 
Step One // How to Build a Bookcase

Bookcase Overview

annotated illustration detailing the many parts used to build wood bookcase built against a wall
Illustration by Gregory Nemec

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.

 
2 ×

Cut the legs, shelves, and supports

 
Step Two // How to Build a Bookcase

Cut the legs, shelves, and supports

person using a skill saw run along side a t-square to cut a stained plywood board for a bookshelf
Photo by Kolin Smith

Have the lumberyard rip your plywood into boards to the width that matches your bookcase depth. Before you cut and assemble any parts, sand all the wood. Stain or prime it and allow it to dry.

Measure the height of the space where the bookcase will go. Cut two bookcase legs to this measurement from the ripped-down plywood

Measure the width of your space in three places. Subtract 1½ inches from the smallest measurement. Cut the shelves to this length from the plywood. (Make sure you also cut a piece for the top.)

If you want your shelves to be different heights to accommodate different sizes of books, you must mark the legs where the supports will be. Hold one leg against the wall and mark where you'd like the bottom of each shelf to fall. Try to line up the shelves with nearby architectural details, such as baseboards, windowsills, and mantels.

Lay both legs on a table, butted evenly next to each other. Use a framing square to transfer the shelf marks from one board to the other. Then place a plywood scrap on edge at each line and mark the width of each shelf.

Measure between the lines to get the sizes of the support pieces. Use a circular saw guided by a Speed Square, ABOVE, to cut the supports from the ripped-down plywood. Cut the topmost supports ¾ inch short.

 
3 ×

Attach the supports to the legs

 
Step Three // How to Build a Bookcase

Attach the supports to the legs

a person's hands press together two cut pieces of stained plywood with glue between them to create supports for a bookshelf
Photo by Kolin Smith

The bookcase has a kickplate to cover the space under the bottom shelf, so the lowest supports need to be recessed. Using a circular saw, carefully rip them down in depth by ¾ inch.

Glue and nail the supports to the legs: Starting at the bottom of one leg, squeeze an S-shaped bead of glue up to the first layout line. Align the lowest support piece with the board's bottom and back edges. Nail it in four corners with 3d nails.

Using a scrap piece of plywood as a shelf-size spacer, position the next support. Glue and nail it in place. Continue attaching supports in this manner, left, until the top supports are in place, finishing ¾ inch from the top edge. Repeat on the other leg.

 
4 ×

Assemble the box

 
Step Four // How to Build a Bookcase

Assemble the box

one hand is setting a driver into a screw resting in a pilot hole to attach the plywood sections of the main box for building a bookshelf while a second hand steadies the wood being joined
Photo by Kolin Smith

To make the hanging strip that attaches the bookcase to the wall, rip a 2½-inch-wide piece of plywood. Cut it to length 1½ inches shorter than the shelves.

Lay the two legs on their back edges, supports facing each other. Place the hanging strip between the top supports, flush with their tops and back edges.

Using a drill fitted with a ⅛-inch combination bit, drill two pilot holes into each leg. Drill through the leg and the support, and into the hanging strip. Screw the hanging strip to the legs with 2½-inch wood screws.

Slide the bottom shelf into place for support. Tilt the assembled frame into place. Set the top of the bookcase onto the supports and the hanging strip. Drill countersunk pilot holes along the edges of the bookcase top — two into each support and one every 8 to 10 inches along the hanging strip. Glue and screw the top in place, above.

 
5 ×

Level the bookcase

 
Step Five // How to Build a Bookcase

Level the bookcase

 person kneels next to the partially assembled wood bookcase hammering a shim under one side of the box, with a level resting on a shelf above
Photo by Kolin Smith

Slide all the shelves into the frame. If some need coaxing, use a rubber mallet to gently tap them into place.

Check the bookcase for level. Place a level on each of the shelves. If one side needs to be raised up, tap thin wood shims under the foot.

 
6 ×

Plumb the bookcase

 
Step Six // How to Build a Bookcase

Plumb the bookcase

a yellow drill drives a screw into a hanging strip to the wall, so the shelves can be set in the bookshelf
Photo by Kolin Smith

Hold a level vertically to check the bookcase for plumb. Add shims, as needed. Once the whole piece is plumb and level, tap shims around the bookcase anywhere there is a gap against the wall to make sure the entire frame is tight in the opening. Score the shims with a utility knife, then snap them off flush with the bookcase edge.

Use a stud finder to locate and mark where the wall studs fall just under the hanging strip.

Using a combination bit, drill a screw-shank clearance hole and counterbore hole in the hanging strip at each stud mark. Securely fasten the bookcase to the wall through the pilot holes with 2½-inch screws.

 
7 ×

Attach the Kickboard

 
Step Seven // How to Build a Bookcase

Attach the Kickboard

a person leans one foot against the kickplate of the bookshelf while holding the bottom shelf in place. a second hand swings a hammer to nail the kickplate in place
Photo by Kolin Smith

Cut a piece of plywood — the same size as the lowest supports on the frame — to act as a nailer for the kickplate. Slide it under the center of the bottom shelf. Nail through the shelf into the nailer's top edge with 6d finish nails.

Measure the opening under the bottom shelf. Cut a piece of plywood to fit tightly into the space. Put this kickplate into the opening against the nailer and support edges. It should be flush with the bookcase front. Attach it with two 6d finish nails at each of the supports and the center nailer.

 

 
8 ×

Scribe the trim to fit

 
Step Eight // How to Build a Bookcase

Scribe the trim to fit

a hand runs a brass-colored compass along one edge of the bookcase to mark where the trim needs to be scribed
Photo by Kolin Smith

Use ½ trim to finish the sides and top of the bookcase. The trim can hang over the inside edge, or be flush.

Hold the trim over a bookcase leg, tight against the wall. Using a level, adjust the trim until it's plumb. Tack it with 6d nails.

Find the widest gap between the trim and wall. Open the scribe to span that gap. Run its point along the wall so the pencil transfers the wall's contours onto the trim. Remove the trim and cut along the scribed line with a jigsaw.

Attach the trim with glue and 6d finish nails. Repeat on the other leg.

Cut trim to fit along the top; glue and nail it in place.

 
9 ×

Apply nosing to shelf faces

 
Step Nine // How to Build a Bookcase

Apply nosing to shelf faces

one hand holds a shelf in place while another hammers a finish nail to secure the front edging of the bookshelf
Photo by Kolin Smith

Use 1x trim to create a recessed, finished edge on the front of the shelves. To make sure these nosing pieces will fit tightly between the side trim, hold the 1x trim against the front of the shelves and butted to one side. Mark the back of each piece where it meets the other side. Cut each strip at the mark.

Apply glue to the front of the shelf. Nail the nosing into place with 6d finish nails. Start nailing at one end and adjust the nosing as you move down its length so it's perfectly flush along the top of the shelf. Finish each shelf with nosing in the same manner.

Set all the nail heads and fill the holes with putty or a wax pencil to match the color of the stained wood. Finally paint, wax, or polyurethane the entire bookcase.

 
10 ×

Scribing Tips

 
Step Ten // How to Build a Bookcase

Scribing Tips

Illustration: scribing
Illustration by Harry Bates

Making a tight, gap-free fit between the side trim of a cabinet and the wall — a process called scribing— is one of those critical skills that separates the real craftsmen from those of us who rely on caulk. But it's not that difficult, once the cabinet is plumb and fastened in place.

1. Decide how you want the trim to cover the gap.

2. Set the compass to the widest part of the gap. Rest its metal point on the wall and the pencil point on the spot where you want the edge of the trim to land on the cabinet. Your trim must be at least this wide.

3. Plumb the trim piece. Hold the trim against the wall with a level on one edge, and adjust the trim until it's plumb and still touching the wall. Tack or clamp the trim to the cabinet.

4. Mark the edge to be cut.Without changing the compass setting, rest the compass' metal point on the edge where the level was. Keep that point and the pencil point level relative to each other and make a mark on the trim in the vicinity of the widest part of the gap.

5. Scribe the edge to be cut. Reset the compass to the widest distance between the mark and the wall. Without changing that setting, hold the metal point against the wall and the pencil point on the trim and run the compass the entire length of the trim to make the scribe line. Be sure to keep both points level the entire time.

Now take the trim piece down and cut it with a jigsaw along the waste side of scribe line. That way, you'll have some material to sand or plane down for a perfect fit. — Mark Powers

 
 
 

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