Woodworkers like to see how things work, right out in the open. We love looking at gears, levers and cams, and when it comes to furniture, there’s nothing more fascinating than exposed joints, like dovetails and wedged tenons. This bookstand is held together entirely with wedges: no glue, screws or dowels. When you give the wedges a satisfying tap home, the stand is solid as a rock. These joints are extra strong because the wedges fit into precisely tapered holes.
Wedged joints look awfully complicated to make, but take heart. We’ve worked out a surefire method that’s really quite simple. The key tool is a router equipped with a top-bearing flush-cutting straight bit. It works so well with a shop-made jig that you could use it to build virtually any size bookcase or shelving unit with tenons that extend all the way through the sides.
Tools and materials
The machines you’ll need are the basic equipment for building any piece with rough lumber: a tablesaw and crosscut sled, jointer, planer, drill press and router. A bandsaw is handy, but a jigsaw will do. As for tooling, you’ll need a slot-cutting router bit ($33), a 1/2-in.-dia. top-bearing pattern bit ($20), a 3/4-in. Forstner bit ($6) and a 7/8-in. Forstner bit ($7). You’ll also be doing some handwork with chisels. We recommend using 1/2- and 3/4-in. bench chisels and a 3/8-in. mortising chisel ($30), but you could get by with only a 1/2-in. bench chisel. (See Sources, below, for all of these items.)
This bookstand is built in the Mission style, popular about 100 years ago. The wood of choice back then was 1-1/4-in.-thick quartersawn oak. We used cherry, a common substitute today, because it’s easier to find than extra-thick quartersawn oak. Like oak, cherry holds a crisp edge, but it’s easier to pare with a chisel.
You’ll need about 50 bd. ft. of 5/4 (1-1/4-in.-thick) lumber, which costs about $400. For the bookstand’s sides, we selected cherry boards that showed little or no light-colored sapwood on front and back. (You can see both faces of the sides when the bookstand is empty.) Sapwood-free boards are hard to find these days, however, and they’re not strictly necessary. Sapwood is okay if it faces in. After all, once the bookstand is full of books, the insides really don’t show.
Prepare the lumber
1. Mill all the lumber for the sides (A) and shelves (B, C, D and E) at the same time. Plane the pieces in stages to make absolutely flat boards. First, joint one face and plane the wood to 1-1/8-in. thick. Let the wood set for a few days.
2. Re-joint all the boards and plane them down to 1 in. (Photo 1). Joint one edge of each board and rip it to width. Joint the second edge.
Glue the sides and shelves
3. After gluing, the sides and shelves should be flat and the joints even. The key to making even joints is to align them with a spline. Use a slot cutter to rout 1/4-in.-deep grooves down the full length of all the edges that will be glued (Photo 2).
4. Make splines that fit tightly in the grooves. Use cherry, because it will show on the tops of the sides. Sand the edges of the splines so it’s easy to tap them into the grooves (Photo 3).
5. Glue the sides and shelves together (Photo 4).
Lay out the sides
6. The sides remain rectangles until all the joinery is complete. Rip the sides to width and cut them to length with a crosscut sled.
7. Draw the dadoes that receive the shelves on the inside face of each side (Fig. J, below). Draw the angled top and front of each side.
Cut the dadoes
8. Make a router jig to cut dadoes for the shelves. (Fig. D, below). Assemble it on a bookstand’s side to ensure it’s square and fits tight.
9. Cut dadoes 3/8 in. deep with a top-bearing pattern bit (Photo 5). Line up the jig with the dadoes as drawn on the sides. Start the bit in the hole in one end block. Insert different filler pieces into the jig’s slot to make dadoes of different lengths.
10. Square the end of the dadoes with a chisel. Use the jig as a guide.
11. Rout the dadoes for the slanted top shelf (Photo 6). Line up the end of the jig’s slot with the end of the dado as drawn on the workpiece.
Cut the mortises
12. Cut a set of spacing blocks to guide your router when making the mortises (Fig. G, below). Start from the open end of the dado and screw the blocks in place one at a time. Remove the mortise pieces (Photo 7).
13. Drill the mortises with a 3/4-in. Forstner bit (Photo 8). Stay 1/8 in. away from the spacing blocks. Drill two outer holes first, then drill a center hole.
14. Carefully place the router in the hole so the bit doesn’t touch the sides, then rout all around the mortise with the top-bearing pattern bit (Photo 9).
15. Square the corners of the mortises with a 3/4-in. chisel (Photo 10). Use a flat file to ensure every corner is truly square. Sand over the outside edges of the mortises so they don’t chip out.
Cut the tenons
16. Rip the two long shelves (C and E) to width and cut them to length. Try fitting their ends into the dadoes. If they’re too tight, sand or plane the underside until they drop in place. A slightly loose fit is ideal.
17. Assemble and mark the shelves and sides. Draw the ends of the tenons on the shelves (Photo 11). Remove the shelves and continue the tenon layout lines onto the face of the shelves.
18. Saw the tenons (Photo 12). Raise the blade so it cuts 1/32 in. above the tenon’s shoulder line. Overcutting eliminates the need for fussy cleanup work later, and it doesn’t show.
19. Remove the rest of the waste with a jigsaw or bandsaw, staying 1/16 in. away from the shoulder lines. Then guide the router right on the shoulder lines with a 1/2-in.-thick template (Photo 13 and Cutting List, below). The template ensures both shelves are the same length.
20. File or chisel 45-degree chamfers on the end of each tenon.
21.Test-fit the tenons in the mortises. If the tenons are too wide, take the shelf back to the tablesaw and cut them a little bit narrower. Fine-tune the fit until the shelf drops through the mortises without any persuasion from a mallet.
Cut mortises in the tenons
22. Draw a centerline down the length of each tenon (Fig. E, below). Mark the centers of the holes and drill (Photo 14).
23. Build a small sled (Fig. F, below) and cut the wedges on the tablesaw (Photo 15). Hold the wedges with toggle clamps (see Sources, below).
24. Glue up an angled guide block using an extra wedge (Fig.H, below). Just rub the two pieces together, without clamping. Chop the end of the mortises with a 3/8-in. mortising chisel (Photo 16). Take light shavings to begin; then hold the chisel tight to the angled block for the final cut.
Complete the wedges
25. Re-assemble the sides and two shelves with tenons. Tap in the wedges.
26. Mark each wedge above each tenon and label them (Photo 17).
27. Make a copy of the wedge’s profile, and cut it out (Fig. B, below). Line up the tenon mark on this pattern with the mark on each wedge blank. Trace around the profile and saw the wedge on the bandsaw. Chamfer the bottom of the wedge on all four sides.
Complete the sides
28. Rough cut the front and top of the bookstand’s sides. Make a 1/2-in.-thick straightedge, then finish up these edges with a router (Photo 18). Take light cuts, because the bit only has a 1/4-in. shank.
29. Draw arcs on the bottom of each side and cut them out.
30. Chamfer the top corners of the side with a block plane or file and sandpaper (Fig. A, below). Slightly round over every edge with 120-grit sandpaper.
Add the rails and sliding shelves
31. Assemble the bookstand and tap all the wedges back into place. Cut the rails (F) so they fit tight in between the sides. Rip the top edge of the front rail so it matches the angle of the sides (Fig. A, below).
32. Draw an arc on the bottom of each rail (Fig. C, below). Saw the arc and smooth it with a file, large sanding drum or sandpaper.
33. Glue each rail to the underside of the lower shelf. The rail is set back 1/4 in. (Fig. A, below).
34. Rip the loose shelves (B and D) to fit the case. Rip the back edge of the top shelf to match the angle of the case (Fig. A). Trim the shelves 1/16 in. shorter than the inside distance between the bottoms of the dadoes. This clearance gives you a little wiggle room to slide in the shelves. If a shelf is too tight to slide, plane or sand the bottom.
35. Take the bookstand apart and sand each piece up to 180 grit. Seal with a wash coat of shellac (two parts standard 3-lb. cut shellac thinned with one part denatured alcohol) and sand with 240-grit paper. Apply a wiping varnish (Photo 19 and Sources, below). The shellac slightly seals the surface, helping the finish to go on much more evenly. We used Minwax Antique Oil, because it gives the cherry a beautiful warm color. We put the second and third coats on with fine synthetic steel wool (see Sources, below). Rubbing back and forth many times over with steel wool eliminates the need for further sanding and makes a velvety soft surface.
36. Let the finish dry for a few days before reassembling the case (Photos 20 and 21).
Jeepers! These two boards make an unhappy mismatch: one’s light and the other’s dark. I didn’t see this problem coming until I put the finish on. Believe me, they looked the same color when I glued them together!
I’m stuck with this mistake, but next time I’ll check the color of all my boards first and cut and glue later. Simply wetting a planed board with a damp sponge gives a good idea of what color the board will be with a clear finish on it.
(Note: Product availability and costs are subject to change since original publication date.)
MLCS Woodworker, mlcswoodworking.
3-Wing slot cutter, 1/2" shank,
1/4" wide cut, #18648; Additional
bearing to make 1/4" deep cut,
#12113; Top-bearing pattern bit,
1/2" dia., 1/4" shank, 1" cutting
length, #16506; Toggle hold down
clamp, #9058; 3/4" Forstner bit,
#9209; 7/8” bit, #9211.
Lee Valley, leevalley.com,
800-871-8158, 3/8" mortise chisel,
800-523-9299, Antique Oil Finish.
Beall Tool Company, bealltool.com,
800-331-4718, Singe Grade Box
Fibral Wool, Fine (800 Grit).
Fig. A: Exploded View
Fig. B: Wedge
Fig. C: Layout of Rail
Fig. D: Dado Jig
Fig. E: Tenon Details
Fig. F: Wedge Taper Jig
Fig. G: Spacing
Blocks for the
Fig. H: Mortise Guide Block
Fig. J: Layout of the Sides
Click any image to view a larger version.
1. Plane every board 1 in. thick. To prevent snipe (that nasty depression at the end of a board), butt one piece up against another as you feed them into the planer.
2. Rout grooves down the entire length of every glue joint for the sides and shelves. A slot cutter with a bearing on top makes a consistently accurate cut. Offset the groove from the center, so you can always be sure which side is the face.
3. Push a spline into a groove, without glue, then spread glue alongside the spline. The spline aligns the boards amazingly well when it fits very snugly in the groove. If you put glue on the spline or in the groove, you might have trouble assembling the joint.
4. Clamp the boards together and check for flatness with a straightedge. Be fussy and adjust the heads of the clamps up or down until the boards lay absolutely flat under moderate clamp pressure.
5. Rout stopped dadoes with a jig and a top-bearing pattern bit (see inset). Scrap pieces of shelf built into the jig make the width of the dado exactly match the thickness of the shelf.
6. Rout the dado for the slanted top shelf. Remove the guide boards from the end of the jig and screw the jig directly to the side of the bookstand. The screws go in waste areas that will be cut off later.
7. Screw temporary spacing blocks into the dadoes. Remove two of the blocks. The openings outline the mortises you’ll be cutting through the bookstand sides.
8. Drill out the bulk of each mortise with a Forstner bit. Support the workpiece on a large board attached to your drill press table. Drill over a clean area of the support board so you don’t get any chip-out.
9. Rout all around the mortise with a top-bearing pattern bit. The spacing blocks and the edges of the dado guide the bit. You get mortises with perfectly straight sides.
10. Finish the mortises by chopping the corners square. Guide your chisel with the spacing blocks. Chop only halfway through from this side, then flip the workpiece over and chop from the other side. Remove the spacing blocks.
11. Mark the ends of each shelf’s tenons directly from the mortises. Also, clearly mark each piece so you can put them back together the same way.
12. Cut the sides of the tenons. Fasten a tall backer board onto a crosscut sled for support. The backer board has a 1/4-in.-thick ledge attached to its bottom. Line up the tenon marks with the kerf on this piece to make an accurate cut right on your line (see inset). Make four cuts side-by-side.
13. Rout a straight shoulder on each shelf with a plywood template and pattern bit. You don’t have to rout the area where the four saw cuts are.
14. Drill out the mortises in the shelves with a Forstner bit. Hold the shelf against a fence. Drill the end holes first, then come back and clean out the middle.
15. Cut wedges on the tablesaw. Build a simple jig with toggle clamps and a stop to safely hold these small pieces. Bandsaw most of the waste first so there’s no dangerous offcut. Caution: The guard must be removed to use this jig.
16. Chop the end of each mortise at the same angle as the wedge. This jig uses an actual wedge to guide the chisel. Just as it comes off the saw, the bottom end of the wedge has exactly the same taper as its long side.
17. Assemble the bookstand and mark each wedge for a specific mortise. Some wedges may go in a bit farther than others. Cut them all so they stick up the same amount.
18. Rout the front and top of the bookstand’s sides with a straightedge and pattern bit. Cut close to the line first with a jigsaw or bandsaw. Fasten the straightedge to the side by screwing it into the dadoes.
19. Finishing is easy because you can tackle each piece separately. This way, you won’t have any troublesome inside corners to deal with.
20. Assemble the bookstand and pound in the wedges with a few hard taps. The power of the wedges to stiffen the case is truly awesome!