This article appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of This Old House Magazine. To become a subscriber, click here.
In the last 10 years, over 150,000 book-sharing cabinets have popped up in more than 100 countries. The one that started it all: a miniature schoolhouse-shaped library by Todd Bol of Hudson, WI, built in memory of his late mother, a schoolteacher and book lover. Bol went on to cofound the nonprofit Little Free Library, which has inspired similar book kiosks all over the world.
Tom and Kevin built this one after an elementary school class wrote to This Old House to ask for help setting up one of their own. The students suggested a simple box painted like a school bus, but Tom decided to take their basic plan up a notch, giving the cabinet a gently curved roof, clear window panels, wheels, and a front hood that evokes a vintage bus.
To see the installation, click here.
In this video, Tom makes the Little Free Library using mostly medium-density overlay (MDO), a weather-resistant plywood with a resin-impregnated paper surface. While paper-covered plywood may not sound rugged enough for outdoor use, it’s commonly used for long-lasting exterior projects such as highway signs. It also offers a smooth substrate for paint, all of which made it perfect for this project.
Make router template for the bus walls
A flexible strip of wood makes a good guide for drawing the arched top on the smaller side-panel template. After cutting the templates to size, drill the radiused corners of each window opening with a ½-inch Forstner bit and cut out the windows with a jigsaw. Finally, use a rasp, file, and sanding block to smooth out and straighten all the edges.
Steps for Building a Little Free Library
1. Prep the parts.
Following the cut list, cut the pieces for the sides, back, doors, and templates. Using the smaller MDF template (see Tip), lay out the arched top and cut it with a jigsaw. Stack the two sizes of panels under their respective templates, and clamp them to the bench.
2. Rout out the window openings.
Position a router equipped with a ¼-inch spiral bit and template guide inside one of the template window openings and plunge it ⅛ inch into the MDO, running it clockwise around the opening. Repeat for each window opening. Set the router bit ⅛ inch deeper, and repeat the process until you have cut all the way through the MDO. Repeat on the other panels.
3. Clean up the cuts.
Install a ½-inch top-bearing bit, and set it so the bearing rides against the edge of the template. Run the router inside every window opening and across the side panels’ arched tops. Clamp each of the MDO panels to the bench, and use a rabbeting bit to rout a ⅜-inch-wide- by-³⁄₁₆-inch-deep rabbet around the inside of each window for the acrylic windowpanes.
4. Make the windowpanes.
Cut the acrylic sheet into three 4⅝-inch-wide strips, then crosscut the strips into eight 4⅝-inch square panes and four 5⅛-by-4⅝-inch panes. Stack and tape together several panes, and use a belt sander to round off the corners until the panes fit easily into the window openings’ rabbets.
5. Cut out the doors.
Rip a ⅞-inch-wide strip from the top of one of the larger panels and a 3-inch-wide strip from the bottom of that same panel and set them aside. Then, cut this 12⅛-inch-wide panel in half to make two identical doors. From the outer edge of each door, rip off the thickness of a closed piano hinge—typically ⅛ to ³⁄₁₆ inch.
6. Add the floor blocking.
Cut pieces of 3½-inch-wide MDO a couple of inches narrower than each panel to support the floor. Align them with the panel bottoms; glue and nail them in place with brads. Glue and nail the floor to one panel’s blocking.
7. Join the three panels.
Glue and nail the floor to the remaining panels’ blocking; glue and nail the corners where the panel edges meet.
8. Add the two-piece header and sill for the doors.
Glue and nail the ⅞-inch-wide strip to the 1⅛-inch strip so they’re flush along the top, then nail the assembly between the side panels at the top. Nail the 3-inch-wide strip between the side panels’ bottom edges.
9. Hang the doors.
With the hinge barrel facing out, drill ¹⁄₁₆ -inch pilot holes and screw a hinge onto the edge of one door. Align the free hinge leaf with the inside face of the matching panel so the door is flush with the opening and has equal space at its top and bottom; attach the hinge to the panel. Repeat on the remaining door.
10. Add the roof.
Mark the centers of the roof and arched panel tops. Apply glue to the top edges, and center the roof with ½ inch hanging off the back and both sides. Working from the center of each arch, drill evenly spaced pilot holes through the roof into the panels with a #8 countersink bit. Follow each hole with a 1¼-inch screw to fasten the roof.
11. Add decorative features.
Apply glue to the side and top edges of the five mitered MDO pieces and the backing for the nose, and use painter’s tape to join them as shown. When the glue is dry, remove the tape and attach the nose piece onto the bus with 1½-inch screws from the inside. Drill ¹⁄₁₆-inch pilot holes through the wheels and headlights, and attach them all with 1¼-inch screws.
12. Build and install the post.
Attach the mounting plate to the post with 3-inch screws, then fasten two mitered braces between the post and the mounting plate. To install the library, dig a 2-foot-deep hole; insert the post, making sure that it’s plumb; and fill the hole with concrete. The next day, mount the bus on the plate—and it’s ready for books.
Exterior finish for the school bus
Tom enlisted his art director daughter, Kate, to give the bus its signature details. They removed, sanded, and painted the wheels, then sealed the outside with three coats of school-bus-yellow exterior enamel. When the paint was dry, Kate applied custom vinyl lettering from a local print shop and used vinyl tape and stickers to fashion the stripes, headlights, and emergency flashers. Tom bedded the plexiglass panes in a thin bead of silicone caulk along the back of each window opening and secured them with glazier’s points. Knobs and closure magnets finished the doors.
- 2×4 sheet of 1/2″ MDF sheets
- 4×8 sheet of 1/2″ Exterior-grade MDO plywood
- 2×4 sheet of 3/8″ Exterior-grade AA ⅜-inch plywood
- 18×24×1/8″ Plexiglass
- 8′ pressure-treated 4×4
- 18-gauge 11/2″ stainless steel brads
- 1 1/4″, 1 1/2″, and 3″ stainless steel screws
- Two 12″ Piano hinges
- CA glue
- Wood glue
- Two sets of round ¾” Earth magnets
- Silicone caulk
- Exterior grade paint and primer combo
- White spray paint
- Black spray paint
- Push-in glazier clips
At the studio, Tom and Kevin build a little free library for Brookside Elementary School. Then, Tom and Kate paint and decorate it.