Build a Better Bookcase

Trim details transform a plywood case into a piece of furniture. 

I know what you’re thinking: Who needs bookcases in a world where newspapers and novels get read on smart phones and tablet computers? It’s a valid point. But it’s just as important to recognize that bookcases hold many items besides books. So if you’d rather refer to this furniture item as a “shelving unit,” that’s fine. But us old-timers will probably stick with the more literary label. 

No matter what terminology you use, a bookcase can provide valuable storage space anywhere in the house. There are plenty of inexpensive factory-made versions you can buy—an acceptable choice, if you like coated particleboard and knock-down fasteners that tend to work loose over time. But with a little time in the workshop, you can produce bookshelves that look better and last longer. Just as importantly, you have the advantage of sizing your shelving unit to fit a particular space and store particular items. 

The tips for better bookcases that follow just ahead can be applied to just about any bookcase you build, no matter the size. The construction sequence for the unit shown above begins on p. 38. To put a first-class painted finish on this cabinetry, you’ll also want to check out the article on p. 49.

Order of Work

  • Cut the plywood case sides, sub-top, back, and bottom to finished size.
  • Bore shelf pin holes in the sides.
  • Assemble the case: sides, sub-top, bottom, and back.
  • Add the face frame, applied molding, and base to the case.
  • Make and install the top, then detach it until the base has been painted.
  • Make the shelves, then paint the completed case and shelves. 
  • Finish and reinstall the top.
  • Done!

7 Design Tips 

The dimensions shown in the drawing are for the bookcase built on these pages. But you can use these design tips and the construction techniques that follow to build a similar version, sized to suit your requirements. Personalize your project by choosing your own panel molding, beadboard paneling, and baseboard.

A basic case comes first...

Before you begin to build, it’s smart to buy or borrow a finish nailer—preferably an 18-gauge model that can drive nails up to 2" long. With this project, the ability to join parts quickly with countersunk nails will make a huge difference. The plywood box that forms the core of the bookcase needs to be built square, so make the case sides identical in size; the bottom and sub-top should also be identical. 

Cut case parts in pairs. After ripping case sides to finished width, clamp both pieces together, then cut the stacked pieces to finished length. Repeat this technique to cut the bottom and sub-top to finished length.
Drill pin holes precisely. This work can get done quickly with a drilling jig and a specially designed bit (see Buyer’s Guide, p. 70). Because I didn’t need holes to extend all the way to the bottom of each side, I positioned the plastic guide against a spacer to start each column of holes. Always clamp the jig firmly in place before you drill. 

Connect the corners. I use a shop-made brace to keep each corner joint aligned while I fasten it together. After pinning parts with a pair of 2" finish nails, I pull the joint tight with two 23⁄4" washer-head screws.

Keep the right angle. Clamping a framing square in a corner keeps the assembly square while I tack a temporary diagonal brace across the front edges. Duplicate this bracing on the opposite corner, then flip the case over to attach the back.

Back up your work. Cut the back panel to fit flush with the outside face of the case. Install it with glue and finish nails spaced every 6-8".

...then it’s time for trim

Dressing up the case begins with the installation of some flat trim. Mirror-smooth cuts from your chop saw are important here, so make sure you have a finish-cutting blade that’s in good condition. I made my flat trim (corner boards, stiles, and rails) from poplar. Although individual boards could be simply nailed to the plywood, I prefer to join rails to stiles with pocket screws for a stronger, gap-free assembly. Allow stiles and corner boards to run long as shown below. Pocket-screw both front rails to corner boards, and nail this assembly to the case. Then put together two side trim assemblies and fasten them to the case.

Rails get pocket holes. With corner stile assemblies glued up, you can cut front rails to finished length and drill pocket holes in their ends. Then join front rails to stiles with glue and 11⁄2" pocket screws before nailing the assembly to the case. 
Add the side stiles and rails. Join the side rails to the rear side stiles with glue and pocket screws, then attach these side trim assemblies to the side of the case with glue and finish nails. Your side rails should be flush with the top and bottom of the case.

Add a strong and beautiful base

Baseboard molding comes in different sizes and styles. Instead of settling for stock home center baseboard, I chose a thicker, more detailed profile that I ordered from my local lumber yard. Although the baseboard gives the finished bookcase a solid appearance, the real support for the bookcase comes from the corner boards and stiles that extend down to the floor; that’s why you want these parts to run long when you install them. Take your time in laying out and cutting the miter joints for the 3-piece baseboard assembly. When you’re satisfied with the fit, move on to making the cutout and finishing the baseboard assembly as shown below. 

Complete your corners. Tight miter joints are important, and it’s easier to get them by gluing and nailing the 3-piece baseboard together on its own. 

Install the baseboard assembly. I position the preassembled base so its top edge is flush with the top surface of the bottom shelf. As shown above, make sure each side baseboard piece is installed square with the front of the case. Cutting the corner boards and stiles flush with the bottom of the baseboard creates a solid, four-point foundation for your case.

Add mitered inset molding. For tight miter joints, start by fitting the point of a miter cut in the corner where it will be installed, and mark the opposite end of the workpiece for its miter cut. Repeat this technique for each piece and you’ll end up with tight joints all around. A small amount of glue and a couple of finish nails are all you’ll need to install each piece.

Now it’s time to trick out the top

I designed this project to have a painted base and a contrasting top of varnished mahogany. The top detail includes a three-piece coved cornice with miter joints at the corners. I attach the cove pieces to the underside of the top, rather than to the face frame of the case. This creates the illusion of a thicker, more detailed top, while also allowing me to remove the top and cornice as a unit so that the case can be painted or refinished. For safety, rout your cove profile in a wider piece of stock, then cut it free on the table saw, as I’ve done here.  

Shop-made molding. After routing a cove profile in a length of 1"-thick mahogany, I create the finished profile with two rip cuts on the table saw. Use a zero-clearance insert when making cuts like this, so there’s no danger of stock catching in a wider blade opening. 
Attach the top. Drill a clearance hole near each corner of the sub-top for 11⁄4" washer-head screws. Size the two front holes to match the screws’ shank diameter. Drill 1⁄4"-dia. rear holes, to allow wood movement at the back of the case. Clamp the top in place with an equal overhang on both ends, then drive your screws.

Cove molding with mitered corners. Painter’s tape enables me to glue the molding to the top, but not the case. Glue only the front 6" of side molding pieces to the top to prevent problems with differential wood movement. Spring clamps and pin nails keep joints tight until the glue dries.   

Don’t forget the shelves. My shelf edging has a profile that includes a rabbet to fit over the front edge of the plywood, a roundover along the top edge, and a cove at the bottom edge. Secure each edging piece with glue and 11⁄4" finish nails.  

What about the paint?

Don’t worry—we’ve got you (and the bookcase) covered. See Paint Like A Pro for expert advice on applying a premium paint job.

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