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Back to Shelving and Storage Question List


A free-standing bookshelf can have any of the following features:

  • Adjustable or stationary shelves
  • As few or as many shelves as you want
  • With or without a back
  • Mounted on the wall (off the floor), attached to the wall (while on the floor, for stability), or fully free-standing
  • Elevated base or no base

A note about stability and safety...

If you choose to make your bookshelf without a back, realize that it is possible that it may collapse if overloaded.  (Definition: Overloaded... any amount of heavy books that may cause your bookshelf to collapse)

One way to still use a large bookshelf safely is to attach it to the wall.  If you install a wood board (1x3 or 1x4) to the rear and under the top board of the bookshelf (or even under the top shelf if your shelves are stationary), similar to kickboard described below, it will give you a place to screw through to attach the shelving to a wall.

You can also use small metal angles, attached to the top or underneath the top board, to accomplish the same thing.  The more sturdily they are attached, the more stable and safe your bookshelf will be.

Choose the shelf dimensions you need...

Once you have decided which of these features you want or need, you must decide on your dimensions. The millions of available plans notwithstanding, the outside dimensions are only as critical as the size of location you are going to place it.

If there are no rigid size constraints on your bookshelf, you may want to size it to minimize waste. For example, one ten foot board will supply three 3' shelves. This gives you breathing room in your measurements. Most boards you buy will have some level of damage on the ends, or not be cut squarely. Accept this as fact and always buy boards slightly longer than needed. You can always use the waste for kindling.

As a general rule, try not to exceed a 3' to 3 1/2' span between supports for adjustable shelving unless you plan to load the shelves lightly. This is especially true if you use particle board shelving, or a laminated shelving product such as melamine shelving, which has a particle board core. Particle board is not as dimensionally stable when compared to real wood or plywood, and will gradually and permanently deform over time, even if not loaded very heavily. Since stationary shelving is more easily reinforced, especially if you install a back on the bookshelf, this rule wouldn't apply.

Particleboard may not be the best choice for your shelves...

Particleboard was used for a period of time for subflooring in new home construction. However, if was found that the material would, over time, sag between the floor joists, giving a decidedly wavy appearance to the floor. And forget it if you had a piano... . The building code approval for this product was eventually modified to allow its use only if plywood was also installed to stabilize it!

Don't overuse glue... Be neat!!

Don't overapply the glue!! If it does squeeze out of your joints, or get anywhere else on your project, wipe it off with a warm damp sponge. Hmm... maybe I'll do that with my own weary joints later. Be even more thorough in your glue cleanup if you are planning to stain the wood instead of painting. Wood glues are generally paintable, but can seal the wood surface and prevent uniform absorption of the stain.

Buying the wood...

Check the boards you buy for width, and also for deformations such as warping, twisting, and cupping!! Boards are consistent in thickness, but inconsistent in width. If the width varies 1/8" or more, and you don't own a table saw to rip them, have the lumber yard rip them for you. Cupping is a bend in a board along the width. Look at either end of the board, and notice if it is curved rather than flat. Boards that cup more than a slight amount may be unusable for shelving. The same goes for warping, which would be crookedness in the board along the length. Anything more than slight warping is unacceptable.

Basic construction details... then do your OWN thing!!

If you are looking for a plan, you won't find one here. What I want to give you is basic layout guidance. You build the bookshelf you want, and I will try to help you to keep from making the mistakes commonly made. This basic approach can be modified based on your skill level and basic tools... for example, you can use a router to cut a slot or mortise in the sidewalls, rather than simply endnail into the shelves... a far stronger but more tedious assembly procedure.

I usually pre-drill the holes prior to nailing. Simply line up the wood pieces you wish to join, and, using a drill bit slightly smaller than the body of the nail you are using, drill through the top piece and 1/4" (or less) into the bottom piece. This helps to keep the pieces aligned by lowering the hammering force needed, especially if the wood is hard or has knots, and keeps the nails travelling in a straight path.

Be as daring as you want! Use this as a learning exercise for your next project.

This simple yellow graphic depicts a bookshelf with no back, stationary shelves, and a raised base. A power drill would be helpful, but not necessary. Use 1" pine boards or any width you want. This requires no more carpentry than being able to measure, use a circular saw, and use a hammer.

  1. Build a simple shelf - step 1Decide on your height and width, and cut the sides and top. Note the relationship between the dimensions of the unit and the cut boards. The sides are equal in length, but 3/4" shorter than the final height because of the thickness of the top. The length of the top is equal to the final width of the unit, and 1 1/2" longer than the base (lowest) shelf, to allow for the thickness of the sidewalls (3/4" x 2). The shelves will be the same length as the base shelf.
  2. Build a simple shelf - step 2Nail the top of the bookcase onto one of the sides using 2" finishing nails. For now, use two nails per shelf, one an inch or so in from each end. Apply some wood glue to the top end of sidewalls before nailing. Predrilling is helpful here, especially on the first few nails, because it gives the nails a true path to follow and lessens the force needed to drive the nails in. It is just easier to keep the boards aligned if you predrill. I am assuming that you don't have special clamps to hold the boards in perfect alignment. If you do, predrilling, though still desirable, is more of an option (at least with soft woods like pine).
  3. One, by one, starting with the uppermost shelf, nail them into place on the same sidewall.
  4. Build a simple shelf - step 3Locate the base shelf where you want it, and nail it into place. If you use a 1x3 for the kickboard, and it measures 2©" in width, then locate the bottom or the base shelf 2©" from the bottom of the sidewalls. If you want to get really fancy, you can stand the bookshelf (top and sides) up and use two pieces of the 1x3 to support the base shelf in its exact location. This allows you to align it in all dimensions with no measurement. You can also use the 1x3 as a ruler, aligning it with the bottom of the sidewalls and drawing a line across the upper edge of it as a guide for aligning the bottom of the base shelf. I could list more variations, but you get the idea... these projects can be built many different ways, and creatively!!
  5. Build a simple shelf - step 4Install the other sidewall, gluing and nailing.
  6. Install the 1x3 kickboard. I usually recess it a half inch or so in from the front of the base shelf for a dramatic visual effect.

You're done!! Let the glue dry overnight, and apply your choice of finish to the wood. Oh... and have fun unpacking those old dusty boxes full of books!!

Want to customize your bookshelf? Here are some suggestions!

Adjustable shelving??  Why not!!

The most flexible and fastest way is to install shelf standards onto the sidewalls. Shelf standards are 5/8" wide, 1/4" thick slotted metal strips. Small moveable clips lock into them to hold the shelves in place. They offers maximum shelf placement flexibility, and allow you to add or remove shelves at will!!

Standards can be surface mounted, or you can use a router with a guide to cut 2 slots of appropriate width into each sidewall. Surface mounting is the easier way to go, but the recessed mounting looks more finished and professional. Both methods are equally sturdy. Though they usually come packaged with stubby little nails, I always use screws myself. Use the longest screws you can, in the same finish as the standards if possible. Be sure the screws do not poke through the outside of the bookshelf.

Do all router work before assembly.

Putting a back on the bookshelf...

Of the last twenty or so simple bookshelves I have built for clients, none of them has a back, and all look just great and are plenty sturdy! The point is... don't do all that extra work putting a back on unless you really have a need for it!!

Backing a bookshelf can be no more complicated than cutting a piece of 1/8" paneling or plywood to size and nailing it onto the rear of the bookshelf. Nailing through the back into the shelves increases both the rigidity of the unit and the weight bearing strength of the shelves. Be sure to square up the unit before fully nailing the back on. One trick is to position the back about where you want it, and then hammer one nail into the upper left or right-hand side of the bookshelf through the back. This is the most critical nail and should be perfectly placed. Using this nail as a pivot and guide, reposition and square up the back to the unit (nailing the first nail has most likely caused the back or the unit to change alignment), and drive in a second nail. If you did this right, the unit is square now, so you can proceed to fully nail the back on. Space the nails no more than a foot apart.

For a more professional look, you should use a router to cut a notch into the back edge of the sides, top, and bottom (base) shelves, so that the panel can set into it. Each stationary or moveable shelf should be trimmed in width to compensate for the depth of the notch.

All the router work is best done before assembly. Be sure you make all your cuts on the correct sides of the boards, or you will get a grim surprise later!!

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