Before committing myself to a set of bookcase plans, I first decided to shop around for a pre-fab bookshelf, both online and at a few discount furniture stores in town. My plan was to look at a wide range of styles and prices before deciding what to buy. It didn’t take me long to discover that I really had only two choices in the matter; buy somewhat expensive crappy particle board bookcases with fake wood laminate, or buy very expensive wood bookcases that will stay in my family for the next 100 years. The good stuff would be nice, but since I can’t afford to spend $800 at Ethan Allen right now, I’m really left with just one option: the somewhat expensive crappy bookcases. It’s disappointing to think this is my only choice.
So now I’m looking at some bookcase plans, which means I’d have to take on the job of building something from scratch. I’m starting to like the idea, though. First, it’s the only other option I can find to buying expensive crappy bookcases, and second, I like the idea of deciding for myself what level of quality (and expense) I want to put into the project. I don’t want a bookcase made from the cheapest materials around, but I don’t need the most expensive either. Building my own bookcase will let me create something between these two extremes.
I’ve done a fair amount of researching on the Web, and I’ve come up with some pretty simple guidelines for approaching this kind of wood project. Overall, the good news is that you don’t have to be a hard-core woodworker to pull this thing off. In fact, a bookcase is a perfect starter project for someone just getting into building stuff from wood. Maybe it’s a little more challenging than making a sawhorse (which is also a good plan to start with), but I think it’s important for beginners to make something they can be excited about when it’s all said and done. So let’s get started with some of the basics of building a bookcase.
Three Tools – I assume that most people attempting their first bookcase project will not have a complete set of woodworking power tools in their shop – things like a table saw, drill press, router table, planer, and all that. What I do think first-time builders might (and should) have is a circular saw, a router, and a power drill. It’s pretty amazing what you can build with just a few reasonably-priced tools.
#1 Circular Saw – A circular saw will cut just about anything you can throw at it, and with a few accessories, some fairly complicated joinery. Even if you decide later to upgrade to more expensive tools, your circular saw will always get used in the shop. For a simple bookcase, you’ll be using the circular saw to cut all the boards to length, and to help make the dado cuts that hold your bookcase shelves. You’ll also use the saw to cut down a 4×8 sheet of plywood for the bookcase back.
#2 Router – I’m sure there are plenty of wood projects being built without the help of a router, but my question is, why go to the trouble? Sometimes you can pick up a decent router for under $100, and considering the extra work you’ll save yourself in the long run, that’s a good investment. A router will make easy work of cutting the dadoes for your bookcase shelves, and with a few accessories, let you try out a whole load of professional-style woodworking techniques.
#3 Power Drill – Everybody has a power drill of some sort sitting around in the basement or garage. You already know how much use (and abuse) this tool gets for literally hundreds of jobs around the house. Although it’s possible to build a simple bookcase without ever picking up a power drill, the no-screws approach to building a bookcase requires that you own an insanely large number of clamps to hold everything together while the glue dries. Really, we’re talking about 20 clamps or more at about $20 each. Ouch. At a fraction of the cost, you can unleash the same clamping power on wood joints by using wood screws (or even nails) to hold pieces together while the glue sets up. Of course, you’ll have holes all over everywhere, but most people just fill them in with putty and they look fine.
Plywood vs Solid Wood Shelves – Choosing the right wood for a bookcase plan can be a big topic to get your arms around, especially if you start reading the zillions of articles online about wood species and wood grades, plywood construction, shelving span calculators, etc., etc. This is all good stuff, but for now, let me narrow down the choices for a first-time bookcase project.
Hold off on plywood shelves… this time around – Sure, plywood is nice for bookcase shelves because it doesn’t have the warping problems that plague solid wood. But plywood comes in 4×8 sheets, which means you’ll be doing a LOT of cutting to make all the pieces for a simple bookcase. For experienced woodworkers, this isn’t really a problem. They’ll first cut down the sheet into more manageable pieces (usually with a circular saw) and then head over to an $800 table saw to get things perfectly square and perfectly sized for the bookcase plan they’re following. Not that you can’t do all this with another tool (like a circular saw or jigsaw), but at some point it just becomes too much work to make a zillion cuts in plywood without the bigger, beefy tools.
Solid Pine Shelves – For first-time projects, I like to use off-the-shelf dimensional lumber from the big box stores like Home Depot. Pine is relatively cheap (compared to hardwood) and is precut to standard-size widths and lengths. That means a LOT less cutting for me to get the basic pieces of my bookcase ready for assembly. Woodworkers might point out that dimensional lumber is inconsistent in width and thickness, which makes less-than-perfect woodworking joints without first planning and/or squaring the boards on a table saw. They’re right. Dimensional lumber is not perfectly square and consistent from one board to the next. But that doesn’t mean you can’t build a decent-looking bookcase otherwise. Sure, you might have some small gaps in the joinery, and maybe the case isn’t absolutely square and plumb. But more often than not, you’ll be the only one who knows any different. Save the more exacting work for nicer bookcase you’ll build next year.
Setting up to Cut Boards – It’s a little frightening to think about how precarious and unorganized a workspace can be when we start cutting boards. No one wants to spend time moving around tables, setting up sawhorses, adjusting work clamps… just to cut off the end of a board. Unfortunately, any less preparation than what I just mentioned will put you in a dangerous situation. Power tools can be evil… and I mean really evil. And it’s not about how much experience you have. Go online and search woodworking accidents. The most horrific stuff happens to people who have been building for 20-30 years without a scratch. Then out of nowhere things suddenly go wrong… boards go flying across the room, arms and fingers get cut, and worse.
Cutting Dadoes for Bookcase Shelves – By far the trickiest step in following bookcase plans is cutting the dadoes (that hold the book shelf ends). No need to be intimidated with this part of the project, though. If you’re really careful about setting up for the cut (that means using the right clamps and cutting guides for your router) this can be the most fun you’ll have with bookcase plans. I like to cut my dadoes assembly-line style. That is, I clamp down both sides of the bookcase side by side… so that each pass with my circular saw (and router) cuts both boards at the same time. This not only saves you tons of time and headache, it also makes sure that your shelves are perfectly aligned when you glue everything together.