Book Tree

Grow a home for your book and magazine collection

To me, no room is complete without at least a few books at hand. But not every room needs or has the wall space for an actual bookcase. After seeing a free-standing book “tree” used as a promotional display in a bookshop, I set about designing one that would look good in a residential setting. After making a series of sketches and models, I arrived at the design presented here. Its various widths and lengths of shelves allow it to display a nice array of printed matter as well as three-dimensional art work. The unit is well-balanced and looks good from all sides, so it doesn’t have to be against a wall. There are enough subtle angles involved to make the build suitably challenging without it becoming a real headache. Because of the size and weight of the trunk and the need to clamp things to it, I found it easier to do most of the work atop saw horses instead on my bench. I made my book tree from ash with cherry shelves, but feel free to vary the wood selection to suit your decor. 

Order of Work

  • Make the trunk
  • Cut the branch joinery
  • Make the shelves
  • Assemble and finish

A stout trunk supports sturdy branches

The tapered center trunk is laminated from two pieces of resawn 8 / 4 stock. The main branches have half-lap joints at their outer ends where the “twigs” attach, and loose tenons at their inner ends to join them to the trunk. The shelves fit in dadoes cut across the trunk and are attached to the twigs with screws. The feet are also joined to the trunk with loose tenons.

Make the trunk

Mill two pieces of 8 / 4 stock to 61⁄4" × 93", leaving them as thick as possible. Snap a diagonal chalk line on one edge of each piece to serve as a guide for resawing. Bandsaw both boards along the chalk lines to make four matching wedges. Cut the points ends off, leaving the wedges 61" long and clean up the sawn faces on the jointer before face-gluing them in pairs into two trunk halves. This should leave you with two wedges that are about 3" thick at the bottom and 1" thick at the top. Edge-glue the laminated wedges together to form the trunk. Clean up the center glue line with a hand plane or belt sander. Also rip the trunk to its full 113⁄4" width. Measure the taper angle as shown and base all subsequent operations on this reading. Crosscut the bottom of the trunk with the blade on your table saw tilted to match the angle you just measured. Set the T-bevel aside to use throughout the build. Finally, mark the layout lines for the cuts that will taper the trunk in width, but leave the piece rectangular until after you rout the shelf dados. 

Layout is a snap. A carpenter’s chalk line will make quick work of laying out the resaw cut running from corner to corner of the blank. After resawing, you’ll cut away the pointy end of each piece.

From thick to thin. After resawing the pieces, clean up the sawn faces on the jointer, running the thicker end first. Face glue the resulting wedges to make the trunk halves. 

Find the angle. Set a T-bevel to the approximate taper angle. Draw intersecting lines from both sides. Adjust the T-bevel until the lines coincide. Preserve this setting—you’ll have an ongoing need for it.

Rout the dados

To make the shelves meet the trunk at the proper angle, their dados must be cut at a non-90° angle to the trunk’s faces. To accomplish this, attach an 8" × 11" auxiliary base to your plunge router. Then adhere a 3⁄16" thick foot at one end of the base with double-faced tape to tilt the router to the proper angle. Adjust the foot’s thickness with a block plane until a square held on the base matches the taper angle on your T-bevel. Then lay out the dado locations on both faces. Rout the dados, guiding the router along a T-square fence. Clamp blocks in place to stop the dados 1⁄2" inside the taper layout lines. 

Branch joinery

Mill the branches, twigs, and feet to the sizes specified on p. 32. You’ll be cutting the branches and twigs shorter later. (Yes, this wastes a little material, but it is worth it to be able to cut the joinery and tapers with the same setups.) Set up a 1⁄2" wide dado blade on the table saw and cut the notches for the lap joints in the branches and twigs. Switch back to a regular blade and taper the branches. Next, cut the branches to length by crosscutting the wider end with the miter gauge set to match the angle on your T-bevel. Each branch should be 21⁄2" shorter than its corresponding shelf. Also, cut one end of each foot at this slight angle. Then rout the branch and foot mortises in the trunk. Finally, rout the corresponding mortises in the ends of the branches and feet.

Cut the laps. Set the dado blade height to 3⁄8" and guide the pieces with the miter gauge. Make the notches in two passes: the first against a stop on the miter gauge and the second against a stand-off block against the fence. 

Taper the branches. Attach a fence and an end stop block to a carrier board to make a tapering sled. Taper each branch from 1" wide at the notched end to full width at the other end. Hold the pieces in place with a toggle clamp for added safety. 
Mortise the trunk. Rout the branches’ mortises below the shelf dados, using an edge guide to center the bit across the trunk. Clamp scraps of plywood to the trunk to serve as stops. Also rout the wider mortises for the feet. 

Mortise the ends. Clamp the branches and feet to the side of a mortising fixture to hold them as you rout the mortises in their ends. Center the bit laterally with help from the edge guide. Position stops on the fixture to control the mortises’ lengths. 

Make the shelves

Mill the shelves to size and sand what will become the upper face of each. It is important to sand these surfaces first as they will be the reference for the tongues that will fit in the dados you cut earlier in the trunk. If you sand after cutting the tongues, you’re likely to have a sloppy fit. To create the tongues, rabbet the underside of one end of each shelf. Then recut the shoulder with the blade tilted to match the trunk’s taper. Trim the ends of the tongues to fit in their mating dados paring the shoulders carefully to match the taper angle. If necessary, adjust the tongues’ thickness with a shoulder plane. Lay out the tapers on the shelf sides and the curves at their ends as shown in the Shelf detail (below) before cutting them to shape at the bandsaw. Sand away the saw marks to clean up the edges.

Rabbet on end. Set up a 1⁄2" dado in the table saw and set it to make a cut just shy of 1⁄2" deep. Position the fence 1⁄2" from the blade and run the shelves on end to cut the tongues. Adjust the fence as needed for a snug fit. 

Fix the shoulder. Switch to a regular blade and tilt it to match the trunk taper angle. Recut the shelves’ shoulders at this slight angle, positioning the cut with the fence. On my left-tilt saw, I had to put the fence to the left of the blade. 

Lay out the final shape. Lay out the tapers on each shelf. At their widest, they should be 1⁄8" inside the taper lines on the trunk. Then draw the end curves with help from a flexible drawing spline. I used the same curve for all eight shelves. 

Assemble & finish

Make the final taper cuts on the trunk at the bandsaw and clean up the sawn edges at the jointer. Lay out and cut the top curve. Sand the trunk before gluing the branches in place. Drill screw holes through the twigs then glue and screw the twigs into the notches at the ends of the branches. Check the fit of the shelves in their dados then glue them in place. Finish as desired, I used a wiping varnish. 

Shape the top. After laying out the gentle curve at the top of the trunk, cut it with a jigsaw. The piece is so long and heavy, cutting it at the bandsaw would be nearly impossible. Fair the curve with a block plane before sanding. 

Add the branches. Trace the end of a branch to make notched clamping blocks to protect the ends of the pieces as you glue them in place. You’ll need at least one relatively deep-throated F-clamp to apply pressure where needed. 

And finally, the shelves. Tighten two F-clamps at the edges to squeeze the shelves into place. Then add the screws through the twigs to finish assembly. A little paraffin on the threads helps lubricate the screws as you drive them home.

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