Stacking Barrister’s Bookcase

Comments (0)

This article is from Issue 24 of Woodcraft Magazine.

The grooved doors pivot and slide a pair of brass pins installed within the case.

Build as many boxes as you need to store books or display collectibles.

Designer/Builder/Writer: Andy Rae

Walk into any law office and you’re likely to come across a stacked set of old glass-doored bookcases stuffed with legal tomes. Originally called a barrister’s (British for lawyer) bookcase, the cases flourished around the turn of the last century. Sadly, most of the survivors now suffer with rickety doors, out-of-square cases, and antiquated or missing hardware.

Our updated version adds new life to this classic design and solves the problems that plagued the originals. We replaced the fussy flip-up door hardware with a simpler single-pin solution. In addition, we built in wood registration strips, instead of metal clips, to ensure that the cases stack solidly together. The modular design lets you build and stack as many cases as you like to suit the needs of your library. (See the Convenience-Plus Buying Guide on page 30.)

Start with the frames for the base, case, and top

1 MILL AND SIZE THE 36 PARTS FOR THE NINE FRAMES, including the frames (Figure 1) for the top and bottom of the cases (A, B), the base (Figure 4) and the top (Figure 6) referring to the Cut List and Cutting Diagram on page 31.

2 MARK CENTERLINES ON THE ENDS OF THE SHORTER FRAME PIECES. Next, cut the slots for #10 biscuits in the shorter frame pieces (B) by holding each piece against a panel clamped to the bench for support and centering your biscuit joiner on the ends of the frames. (See “Biscuit-Joining Basics” in our Feb/March 2008 issue.) To ensure that the joiner registers against the frame piece and not the panel, extend the pieces beyond the panel by about 1/4" as shown in Photo A. Dry-assemble the frames allowing for the 1/8" offset in Figure 1, and mark the locations of the slots on the longer frame pieces (A). Place the edges of these parts against the plywood and cut the mating slots. Set the parts for one bookcase top frame (A, B) aside for now.

3 ENSURE eight FRAMES ARE GLUED UP PRECISELY THE SAME SIZE by cutting a piece of 3/4"-thick plywood or MDF to the exact inside dimensions of the frames (in this case, 8×291/2") and using it as a clamping guide during glue-up. Test-fit the frame parts together around the plywood, apply glue, insert biscuits, and join and clamp the frames together, checking for square (Photo B).

4 CHUCK A 1/8" ROUND-OVER BIT in your table-mounted router. Now, soften the outside edges of the frames. (Later, you’ll use the same bit to round over the case edging, the front edge of the case bottoms, and the inside edges of the doors.)

Push or clamp the smaller frame pieces firmly against a panel clamped to the bench to safely cut the slot for a #10 biscuit.
To keep all the frames identical, glue and clamp each frame around a rectangular plywood guide.

Cut the case parts and top panel

1 CUT OUT THE PLYWOOD SIDES (C), BACKS (D), BOTTOMS (E) AND TOP PANEL (P). If making three cases, you can get all the plywood parts from a single sheet (see the Cutting Diagram). To keep the grain continuous from case to case, cut the parts in sequential order, and label them accordingly to establish the proper order and placement during glue-up.

2 MILL THE SOLID EDGING (F, G) TO THE DIMENSIONS IN THE CUT LIST. As you did with the case parts, keep the grain uninterrupted from case edging to case edging. Attach it to the sides and bottoms with glue. (I clamped the stock to the plywood parts, being careful to make the inside faces flush. If you wish, you can use biscuits to help register the edging to the case sides, and pin the bottom edging with brads or pin nails.)

3 CUT THE RABBETS IN THE BACKS (D) AND SIDE ASSEMBLIES (C/F) where shown in Figure 2, using a 3/4"-diameter straight bit and a table-mounted router. To cut the stopped rabbets in the side assemblies, clamp stopblocks to your fence, as shown in the Photo C. Be sure to reset the stops before routing the opposing side. Clean up the rounded ends of the rabbets with a chisel.

4 CUT MATING BISCUIT SLOTS IN THE SIDE ASSEMBLIES (C/F) AND BACKS (D) by first making a fence from a rectangular piece of MDF. When centered and clamped in place onto each frame, the fence should allow for biscuit slots to be centered 3/8" in from the inside back edges of both side assemblies. The three working edges of the plywood fence should fall directly where the inside rabbeted faces of the side assemblies and backs join with the frame. To allow for the stopped rabbet in the side assemblies, I tacked on a strip of wood to the sides of the fence, equal to the depth of the rabbet, or 1/8" thick. I also sized the fence so I could register its front edge flush with the front edge of the frames, allowing me to accurately clamp it in the same place from frame to frame. To cut the slots, align the joiner’s base with the edges of the fence as shown in Photo D.

To cut the rabbets in a side assembly, hold the trailing edge against the right-hand stopblock. Pivot the workpiece into the bit and move it forward until it reaches the opposing stopblock.
Clamp a MDF fence to the frame to guide the biscuit joiner. Hold a square against the joiner’s base to ensure that the slots are cut square.

5 AGAIN, USE THE JOINER’S BASE TO REGISTER THE LOCATION OF THE MATING SLOTS in the side assemblies (C, F) and backs (D). To slot the rabbeted areas, you’ll need to rest the rabbeted face on a scrap panel, and then place the joiner’s base on this surface, as shown in Photo E. The slots in the rabbeted areas will be offset by the depth of the rabbet, or 1/8"–not enough to affect the joint’s strength. Make the cuts.

6 IF MAKING THREE CASES, PLANE AND CUT THREE PAIRS OF LEDGER STRIPS (H) to the sizes in the Cut List. Locate the strips on the inside faces of the side assemblies (C, F) where shown in Figure 2 and glue and screw them in place. These serve to support the doors in the open position.

7 HACKSAW SIX 7/8"-LONG PINS FROM A 1/4" DIAMETER X 12" LONG BRASS ROD purchased at a local hardware store or home center. (These will serve as the key components of the door mechanism, allowing the stopped grooves along the door end to ride smoothly on the pins when opening and closing as shown in Figure 5.)

8 LAY OUT THE HOLES FOR THE BRASS PINS PRECISELY, referring to the location shown in Figure 2. The pin’s distance from the top allows room for you to get the doors on and off the pins, and its distance from the front leaves the doors recessed 1/8" when they’re shut. Now, drill the holes 1/2" deep using your drill press. Finally, test-fit the cases together, making any needed adjustments.

Position the face of the rabbet onto a scrap panel, and then hold the joiner’s base on the scrap panel to cut the slots. Use a scrap spacer the same thickness as the panel to support the opposite end of the workpiece.
Join the sides and back to the bottom and bottom
frame, then add the top frame.

Prefinish the Project

Although you can apply your choice of finish to the case after construction is complete, I prefer to finish the individual parts at this stage because it makes the process simpler and avoids the hassles of dealing with hard-to-get-at corners.

Mask off the areas that will receive glue with painter’s tape and apply the finish. I used a combination of a couple of coats of Waterlox, a wipe-on varnish that deepens cherry’s figure and color, followed by spraying a few topcoats of clear lacquer for protection. However, any favorite finish will work for this project. After finishing, peel off the painter’s tape.

Assemble the cases

1 GLUE UP THE CASE PARTS. As you do, break up the sequence into steps to make the glue-up less stressful. Start by placing the bottom assembly in position on the bottom frame with a few dabs of glue, and then join the back (D) and side assemblies to the frame with glue and biscuits. If you cut your back square, it should keep the case square during assembly. Pull the parts together with clamps, check for square, and wait at least 20 minutes for the biscuits to swell. Now add the top frame, and reposition the clamps as shown in Photo F. Check the assembly for square once more before putting it aside to dry.

2 PLANE AND CUT TO SIZE THE eight REGISTRATION STRIPS (I). (You’ll use two for each case and two for the top.) When ripping the strips to width, bevel-cut one edge at 30° to prevent chipped edges and make the boxes easier to stack. Next, glue and nail the strips to the inside edges of the frames where shown in Figures 2 and 5.)

Make the “groovy” doors and add the glass

1 MILL THE DOOR STOCK FOR THE STILES (J) AND RAILS (K). Select the straightest stock for the door parts, and joint and plane it flat and true. After ripping to width, compare the case dimensions to the Cut List before cutting the stiles and rails to final length.

2 CUT THE BRIDLE JOINTS following the instructions in “The Time-Tested Bridle Joint” on page 14. With their narrow frames, the corner joints on the glass doors are perfect candidates for this attractive and strong joinery type (Figure 3). Cut the joint so that the pieces fit together snugly, but can be pulled apart with hand pressure. 

3 GLUE UP AND CLAMP THE DOOR FRAMES. Before the glue sets, check for square by measuring opposite diagonals with a tape measure or a pair of pinch rods.

4 ROUT THE RABBET ON THE BACK FACE OF THE DOOR FRAMES using a 1/2" rabbeting bit with a guide bearing and a handheld router. An oversized baseplate on the tool helps stabilize the cut, as shown in Photo G.

5 CUT THE STOPPED GROOVES IN THE OUTSIDE EDGES OF THE DOOR ENDS on the router table using a 1/4" straight bit set for a 3/8"-deep cut. (See Figure 5.) Adjust the fence so the bit cuts at the exact center of the frame’s edge. Clamp a stopblock at the far end of the fence to stop the groove precisely 7/8" from the top edge of the door. Use a piece of scrap the same length as your door’s width to test your setup. Now cut the grooves as shown in Photo H.

Rout the rabbet in a clockwise direction. Place shims under the workpiece to keep the bit’s bearing clear of the benchtop, and make your cuts in two incremental passes to achieve the final depth of 1/2".

Rout the stopped grooves for the brass pins in the ends of the door frames. When the door contacts the stopblock, pivot the frame up and away from the bit. Use a handsaw to cut the pin’s escape groove.

6 LAY OUT AND SAW a 5/16" wide groove for the pin. Start the groove 3" down from the top edges of each door where shown in Figure 5. Cut partway with a fine-toothed handsaw; then finish the job with a chisel.

7 HANG THE DOORS. Round over the outside edges of each door so it clears the case when it pivots upward. I used an 1/8" round-over bit and some sanding to achieve this clearance. Test the fit by mounting the door on its pins, and make any adjustments necessary. Ease inside edges.

8 MAKE OR BUY THE PULLS. You can fashion your own wood pulls as I did from some walnut scrap as seen in Figure 3 and the accompanying Handle Detail. To make and install my pulls, I cut the tenons then shaped the length of wood to match the full-sized profile. Cut three pieces from this strip. Rout centered stopped mortises in the door frames where shown. Now glue the pulls in place.

9 PLANE AND CUT THE GLASS STOPS (L, M) TO ROUGH LENGTH FOR A CUSTOM FIT LATER. Now, finish the door frames and stops. Purchase glass panels from your local supplier. Size them to the rabbeted opening in the door frames minus 1/8" in length and width to allow for wood movement. (I used “seeded” glass for this project, which has an irregular surface filled with small air bubbles, giving the glass an interesting texture.) Now, fit the glass panels in the rabbets and apply a small bead of clear silicon caulk to prevent rattling. Secure the panels by pinning the glass retaining strips to the back of the door.

10 BACK UP THE DOORS WITH BUMPERS. Stick a few thin plastic or rubber bumpers on the back of the lower rail on each door to cushion its closing. Truth is, if your fitting goes well, the door will close on a soft cushion of air. But it’s nice to have insurance, especially with glass doors.

Drill countersunk holes in the frame and pilot holes in the feet, and then attach the feet with screws and glue. Be sure to drive a screw into each knee.

Making the base

1 MAKE THE FEET (N) AND ADD THE KNEES (o). I face-glued three pieces of 6/4 (11/2"-thick) boards together to make up the necessary thickness for the feet, then tapered the two inside faces on the bandsaw and cleaned up the saw marks on a belt sander. Cut the 10° miter at the top of the knees on the mitersaw, and simply glue and clamp them to the tapered sides of the feet, centering them on the foot’s width as shown in the foot details in Figure 4.

2 SECURE THE FEET TO THE FRAME WITH GLUE AND SCREWS, as shown in Photo I. Make sure to install a screw into each knee to strengthen the biscuit joint in the frame.

After spreading glue along the top and bottom edges of the soffit pieces, clamp the top and bottom frames in place.

Build and finish the top

1 GATHER one FRAME and the remaining Frame PARTS (A, B) cut in Step 1 under “Start with the case, base, and top frames” for the upper and lower frame. Now, cut the plywood panel (P) to fit within the upper frame as shown in Figure 6. Cut biscuit slots in the upper frame and panel parts where shown in the drawing. (I cut matching biscuits slots in the panel and frame to help with alignment.) Test-fit the parts; make sure the panel is flush on the bottom of the upper frame and recessed at the top by 1/8". Next, apply glue to the edges of the plywood panel. Apply glue to mating biscuit slots in the frame. Insert the biscuits and clamp the upper assembly (A, B, P) together.

2 CHUCK A 1/8" ROUND-OVER BIT in your table-mounted router. Now, soften all the outside edges of the two top frames.

3 CUT THE LONG AND SHORT SOFFIT PIECES (Q, R) TO SIZE. Arrange the pieces into a frame as shown in Figure 6 and toenail them together with 11/4" brads or small nails from the top and bottom surfaces where they won’t be seen. The nails only need to hold the soffit frame together while you glue it to the upper frame and panel assembly (A, B, P) and lower frame (A, B). After toenailing, center, glue, and clamp the soffit between the top and bottom frames (Photo J).

4 CUT AND NAIL THE REGISTRATION STRIPS (I) TO THE TOP where shown in Figure 6. Finally, sand and finish the base and top assemblies. Now, you’re ready to stack the cases, base, and top together and fill the bookcase with books.  

About Our Builder/Designer

Andy Rae has been working wood for almost three decades, during which time he developed an affinity for writing about, and taking photographs of the craft. He is the author of several books on woodworking, including Choosing & Using Hand Tools (Lark Books) and Working with Wood (Taunton Press). Andy currently works in Asheville, North Carolina, designing and building furniture as well as teaching and writing about woodworking. To see more of his work, go to philmechanicstudios/


Write Comment

Write Comment

You must be logged in to write a comment. Log In

Top of Page