Above is a bare wall minus the baseboard and crown molding trim that I forgot to take a picture of before snapping this picture. It is at the base of our stairway, near the office to the immediate left and near the family room with the fireplace to the right and behind me as I took this picture. It just screams built-in-bookcases to me. I come from the camp that there can never be too much shelving in a house. They are just so darn useful for getting stuff off the floor and organizing it a manner that is easy to find. So I quickly determined to build a bookcase on this wall when I reached a good point in my house remodeling project and the weather was cool enough to work in the garage. Not in my wildest thoughts did I think that we would have the coolest weather in recorded history for the last week of July which made it just about perfect.
I also want to say that you just can't find any decent bookcases as a pre-made solution. They are all cheaply made out of particle board and within months of use, are full of sagging shelves, not to mention their cheap laminated wood finish that doesn't hold up to a sneeze. I built some built-in-bookcases on either side of my fireplace at our old house and they got rave reviews by everyone who looked at them and were a major selling point when it came time to sell the house. Hopefully if we ever sell this house, the same thing will occur here. They are pretty easy to make and I think look beautiful when completed so I thought I would write a few posts as kind of a how too guide in case others might be so inspired.
This is my raw materials for this project. I bought 3/4" cabinet grade red oak plywood for the bookcase sides and shelves and 1/4" cabinet grade red oak plywood for the back. The 2 x 4's are to built a platform on which to set the finished cases that can be shimmed and leveled to get the lowest shelf up off the floor a bit to give it a finished look. I also use it to block between the top of the uppermost shelf and the ceiling to attach trim to later. All told, this project cost me about $400 for all my raw materials, including the stain and polyurethane.
Once you have a nice workbench to use as a build surface, it saves a lot of wear and tear on your back. The last built-in-bookcases I built at the old house, I didn't have such a workbench and built them on the family room floor. It wasn't the best situation because as you can see, it generates a lot of dust and I always had to be careful not to scratch the floor. Out in the garage, I can be as dirty and as careless as I want too. Plus I can stand up while doing all the work which makes it much easier on my body. You can also see my only other workbench in the background. It most certainly can't help me with this project.
I don't have any fancy equipment for this project except for possibly a router. For ripping the plywood down into side panels and shelves, I cut off a strip of the 1/4" plywood to use as a straight edge for my skill saw. I made everything 15-3/4" wide to maximize the plywood usage and also because my wife likes the shelves extra deep so I can store my books and she can display knick-knacks. I just have a regular old blade on the skill saw and it does a good job when ripping the plywood and doesn't splinter it much. Since I was alone on this project, I used an adjustable height stand to hold up one end of the plywood as I ripped down the length of it. I used my offhand to run the saw and used my right hand to catch the piece. The hardest part of the entire operation is sliding a whole sheet from the floor to the workbench table.
Each strip of plywood destined for shelving could make three shelves once crosscut to size. I again used my skill saw but used a 4 feet clamp on saw guide that can be bought at most hardware stores. They are worth their weight in gold at making lots of repetitive straight cuts up to four feet long. As you can see, I use a framing square to make sure it is square to the board. Another note is that because I was using a general purpose blade on my skill saw with fewer teeth than I really needed, I put the display side of the shelf down when cutting because when cross cutting plywood, it splinters the top side of the board pretty good. I don't mind this because the splinter side is on the underside of the shelf and is stuck into a dado on the side panels anyway.
To make the dados on the side panels, I did two boards at once to speed up the process and because they were sized to fit on my workbench table and still be able to clamp them to the surface to prevent them from moving around. I added the offset of my router from the edge of the bit to the flat side of the guide to my measurements from the top of the side panel to each shelf. I put all this on a piece of paper so I simply had to put down my tape measure and make a mark where the cross cut guide goes to make the proper located dado. After cutting all the dados, I cut the side panels to their final length. I purposely left them long while doing the dados in case I made an error and put a dado in the wrong location. I figured I could then just flip over the boards and have a second chance at correcting my mistake. As fate would happen, I did make a mistake and have to flip one set of boards, cut off a few inches from the top and recut the dados. I ended up making one shelf with a little over 16" of height and five other shelves with 13" of height.
Once all the parts where cut out and to proper size, I glued and nailed them together. On my previous shelves, I used glue and screws. The screws had superior holding power but required me to pre-drill all the holes ahead of time to prevent the plywood from splitting plus it was time consuming. Last year with some of my severance pay from my old employer, I bought a pneumatic air kit from the local box store. It had a pancake air compressor and two pneumatic nailers for 16 and 18 gauge finish nails. I've used them several times already and I can see why people who have them love them. The one drawback is that I occasionally had a nail that would fly out of the board at a weird angle. Because they are too thin to drive out and redo, I would cut them off below the surface of the wood with a dremel tool. This left small scars on the wood but when it was stained later, they were awfully hard to see unless you got your head inside the shelf and were staring at it. Also, when books are in place, they are all but hidden.
Another thing I did differently is how I cut the dados in the plywood. On my previous shelves I made a template with a slot in it and hogged out everything in the middle with a smaller than the dado bit. This time I actually bought a set of plywood dado bits that are sized to the finished thickness of plywood so I just needed a straight edge and one pass. Once all the dust was blown off the boards, I would apply glue to the dado, place my shelve up to the slot taking care to place the display side of the shelf in the right direction and tap the backside of the side panel until it was seated in place. I would then nail it five or six times with the finish nailer from the outside of the carcass. When I am finished, there will not be a fastener in sight.