Building Cabinets – Three Useful Bookcases

When customers inquire about having a piece of furniture made, it’s part of my job to ascertain what quality of furniture they’re looking for and to translate their desires into a dollar amount that will equal the time and materials needed to complete the piece.

The quicker the joinery and construction and the cheaper the materials, the less expensive the piece. The woodworker building furniture in his or her home shop faces this same dilemma. Regardless of your skill level, you must first decide how much time and materials are worth putting into a piece.

Even if it’s a project that’s as straightforward as a bookcase, those considerations come into play. It’s also worth thinking about where the case will reside and what it will be used for, whether you want a simple piece that fits in most any room or an upscale design that fits well in a formal living room. In this article, I’ll show how to make three variations of bookcases: a simple but sturdy case made of premilled pine purchased at a home center; a case with adjustable shelves made from hard-wood plywood with solid-wood facings and moldings; and a solid-wood case with elegant moldings and classic ogee bracket feet.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide which case is the right one for your time, budget, and circumstance.

1. Pine bookcase with classic lines

You can build a simple, functional bookcase in no time using ¾-in.-thick stock from a local home center. Look for 1-in. by 12-in. clear pine, the boards that have the fewest knots. Make sure the boards are relatively free of cup, bow, twist, and crook.

Locating the shelves on each side piece is crucial. To make sure the dadoes line up properly, stack the side pieces on top of each other and mark each shelf location on the edge of both boards. You can cut the shelf dadoes with a router, but I prefer to use a dado set on the tablesaw so I can dial in the width of cut. Adjust the width of cut to match the thickness of the shelves.

Rearrange the dado set to cut a 5⁄16-in.-deep rabbet along the rear edge of each side to accept the plywood back. Lay out the decorative curves on the top and bottom of the side pieces using a compass or by grabbing a can, cup, or anything round that will form the shapes. Cut the curves with a jigsaw and clean them up with a file or sandpaper.

Before assembling the case, sand all of the parts and test the fit. When you’re ready, run a bead of glue in each dado, set the shelves in place, drill pilot holes with counterbores, and drive in 1 and 5⁄ 8-in. coarse-threaded drywall screws. Screwing the back into position will square the case as the glue dries.

Finally, glue and screw the backsplash above the back. Then plug the holes and trim the plugs flush. After a final sanding and the easing of all the sharp edges, the case is ready for finishing.

DADOED SHELVES: To avoid having too much of the side pieces overhanging the tablesaw top when cutting dadoes, work from each end toward the center.

2. Dressed-up plywood bookcase

A hardwood plywood bookcase with adjustable shelves is a versatile, attractive piece. Preparing a scale drawing – with full-size details of the dadoes, rabbets, facings, and moldings – and selecting the right materials will help the process move along smoothly and efficiently.

A good-quality sheet of 3/4-in.-thick hardwood plywood won’t be cheap – the curly maple sheet I used cost about $200—but you’ll only need one piece for this case. You’ll need a couple of boards of solid wood for the facings and the base.

A tablesaw with a fine combination blade works well for cutting the parts from the sheet of plywood; it will leave edges with very few saw-marks. Rough-cut the solid lumber to length and width. The parts for the base should be planed to their finished thicknesses, but the parts that will become the facings should be planed only to within 1⁄16 in. of their finished thicknesses. The facings will be scraped to the same thickness as the plywood after they are glued in place.

When gluing the facings to the front edges of the sides and shelves, bar clamps and a long bat-ten (strip of scrapwood the length of the shelf or side) will help you apply even
pressure along the length. Once the glue has cured, cut away any extra length to even up the facings with the ends of the plywood pieces. Note that the extrawide facings applied to the top have mitered front corners.

Set a marking gauge to the thickness of the plywood, and scribe lines across the side pieces to locate the rabbets for the subtop. Scribe with a heavy hand so that the gauge will cut through the plywood’s face veneer. The scored line has the added benefit of helping to prevent chipout as the rabbets are cut. Also, scribe lines across the sides to locate the dado for the bottom piece.

Cut the rabbets and dadoes on the tablesaw using a dado set. Use shims to dial in the exact width of cut. First, cut the rabbets and dadoes in the side panels for the top and bottom. Next, cut grooves from top to bottom for the metal shelf standards and then rabbets along the rear inside edges for the back.

The construction of the carcase, prior to adding the molded top and base, is similar to that of the previous bookcase, in that dadoes and screws are used, but only to connect the top and bottom to the sides. Before the top and bottom are glued and screwed to the sides, lightly sand the exposed surfaces to their finished state (be sure you don’t sand through the thin hardwood veneer of the plywood). Now attach the top and bottom to the sides. Use 1 and 5⁄8-in. coarse-threaded drywall screws, countersunk to keep the heads of the screws below the surface. The screws will be covered by moldings.

The molded profile of the base is cut on the router table. It’s safer and more efficient to cut the profile in one pass in a larger piece of stock. After routing the profile, cut the blank into three pieces, miter the ends, and test-fit the joints at the front corners. Then lay out the curves of the bracket feet. I made a plunge cut on the tablesaw for the straight section of the front base piece and cut out the curves on the bandsaw.

At the rear of the base (see drawing, bottom right), cut a stop dado and install a bracket to help prevent the foot from breaking off if kicked. Glue the base to the bottom of the carcase and then install glue blocks in the inside corner of the joints to add strength.

Using a router, shape the molding around the top piece into the extrawide facings that have been applied. The plywood top has molding on the front and sides, and a solid facing on the back. It’s safer to rout the molding profile after the strips have been glued to the top. The molded edge on the top piece itself is a cove and quarter-round, run with the quarter-round to the top. When molding a top with solid facings, it’s best to make the first cut across the left side, beginning at the front corner and working toward the rear. Make the second cut across the front, beginning at the right corner, and then the third cut across the right side, working from the rear to the front.

This progression of cuts helps eliminate tearout at the corners.

The narrow submolding applied just below the top should be shaped on a wider board. Then you can rip the thin molding from that board. I shaped the edge molding on the base and the top submolding with the same ogee bit (when applied, the sub-molding is turned upside down).

CONSTRUCTION OF THE BASE: A plunge cut is the surest way to cut a straight line between the curves at either end of the base. First, raise the tablesaw blade and mark the fence at the blade’s farthest point. Retract the blade and position the base piece to the mark. Clamp a stop to the fence to avoid kickback. Now, carefully raise the blade through the base piece (left), then push the base piece across the blade. Finish by cutting out the curves at the bandsaw (middle). Glue and clamp the front and side base pieces to the carcase at the same time (right).

3. Mahogany bookcase with a period pedigree

With its elegant bracket feet and dovetail joinery, this mahogany bookcase is more challenging to build. But in the end, you’ll have an heirloom piece that will last for generations.
Locking the carcase together with dovetail joints makes for a solid foundation onto which to attach the top, back, shelves, and ogee bracket feet. I used lapped dovetails to attach the top stretchers to the sides and to attach the rear bracket feet to the ogee bracket feet. The bottom shelf connects to the sides with sliding dovetails.

The face frame is of simple mortise-and-tenon construction. The top rail should be wider than the other pieces because a portion of it will be covered by the sub molding below the top. A face frame gives the bookcase front a substantial appearance. The drawback is that books can get trapped behind the frame.

Begin by assembling the sides, stretchers, and bottom shelf, being sure to keep the case square. Next, apply the face frame to the front and filler frame at the bottom (the filler frame pro-vides a mounting place for the bracket-feet frame). The filler pieces can be assembled with biscuits or mortise-and-tenon joints. Now assemble and attach the bracket-feet frame, which is a mitered assembly reinforced with splines.

The ogee bracket feet added to this case certainly elevate its design. The feet are made from one long blank. First, mark the shape on the end of the workpiece. Rough out the concave area. Raise the sawblade to the height of the concave curve and then position the blank diagonally until the blade fills the curve. Clamp a straightedge to the table, parallel to the piece, lower the blade, and take very light passes, biting off no more than 1⁄16 in. at a time. If the blade starts to sing wildly, the cut is too deep or the pass across the blade is too rapid.

Once you’ve completed this series of cuts, remove the temporary fence and replace it with the regular fence. Angle the blade to 45° and set the fence so that the square corner at the top of the foot can be cut away by running the blank on its top edge. Then adjust the blade angle to 22½ ° and cut a second bevel, taking away the sharp corner of the angle you’ve already cut. Cut at this angle two more times, first with the blank lying flat on the table, profile down. The second cut is made with the fence moved to the left side of the blade and the blank run between the fence and the blade. For this final cut, raise the blade to remove the hard angle where the cove meets the round.

Once all the tablesaw work is completed, clean up the curves using handplanes, scrapers, and sandpaper. Now cut the blank into three lengths, each long enough for two halves of an ogee bracket foot. Each front foot is formed from two halves mitered together; the back feet each have an ogee-shaped half dovetailed to a flat rear bracket piece shaped with a simple curve. Miter-cut four ends of the lengths for the front feet and leave two ends straight for the rear feet.

Now glue the mitered sections together, dovetail the flat rear brackets to the ogee sections, then attach glue blocks to each section. You can then glue the feet to the mitered base frame.

Shiplapping is an excellent means of attaching solid boards to the back while allowing each board to move with seasonal changes in humidity Determine the width of the boards by dividing the width of the opening by the number of pieces you prefer. I settled on six boards for this case.

Each rabbeted board will hold down the board next to it if you position two screws (one at the top and one at the bottom) near the edge. Two screws will leave each board free to move seasonally. And if you’ve had books piled on the floor, the bookcase itself will provide you the same freedom!

1. Cut the concave section first. Mark the profile on the end of the workpiece. Next, adjust the blade height and angle of the workpiece to match that profile. Clamp a fence to the table at the correct angle, lower the blade completely, and then raise it 1⁄16 in. per pass.
2. To shape the convex curve, set the blade at an angle. Make successive rip cuts, adjusting the blade angle each time. For stability, be sure to use a tall auxiliary fence.
3. Refine the curves. At the bench, shape and smooth the curves, first with a plane, then with a scraper, and finally with sandpaper. When you’re finished, cut the sections to length.
4. Attach the feet. Miter each section and glue the halves to each other, then the whole foot to the bottom of the case. Add glue blocks as reinforcement.