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Cottage Bookcase


Cottage Bookcase

Reclaimed Douglas fir gives rustic charm.

By David Radtke

Every board of this bookcase is full of character— nail holes, gouges and even hammer marks. That’s because each piece was pulled from an old Montgomery Ward warehouse in Baltimore.

Originally part of a large shelving system built more than 75 years ago, our reclaimed boards still retained a dusty aroma and had mellowed to a rich warm color. These unique characteristics influenced the design of our bookcase—straightforward and reminiscent of rustic folk furniture. The bookcase is constructed from 3/4" boards. Unlike most plywood-backed bookcases, the back of this bookcase is assembled from individual pieces splined together.

To build this piece you’ll need a tablesaw, a jointer, a router and a biscuit joiner—although you could use a doweling jig. See "Reclaimed Timber" below for more information about acquiring and using this unusual lumber. A large assembly table or a make-shift work surface made from a 3/4" plywood sheet laid over sawhorses is a must. Figure on spending about three days in your shop to complete this piece.


Working with reclaimed fir

Because the surface of the boards was in pretty rough shape, each 3/4" thick piece was first surfaced to 11/16". To keep everything simple, the dimensions in the illustrations and the Cutting List assume 3/4" thick material.

When you buy reclaimed wood, keep in mind you may not be able to get all the lengths or widths you’d like. Be sure to specify longer pieces to make the sides and face frame. Shorter pieces can be made into shelves and moldings. Order about 30% extra to make up for a lot of end cuts and just plain bad stuff (too much character!). Because you’ll be making wide panels, choose pieces that are cup free. Nearly all the wood I picked up was flat, dry and after that many years, well seasoned.

Douglas fir splinters easily—even more so when it’s as old and dry as this stuff. Keep a tweezers handy.


Prepare the case sides

After matching the grain—the sides (A) are the most critical)—be sure to joint the edges for a straight and square edge glue-up. Make the panels a bit wider than needed, then rip them to exact width on your tablesaw. Next cut the dadoes (Photo 1) in the top of the sides. Now cut another dado 8" up from the bottom of each inner side panel. Finish the grooving process with rabbet cuts along the whole length on the inside backs of each panel.

Make the vertical shelf standards

Rip two pieces 2-1/2" wide from your stock to make parts C. Keep them longer than needed and trim to length later. Mark them every 3" (Photo 2) with a square. Set up a fence and a plywood base attached to your drill press table. Set the fence so the 1" Forstner bit will drill holes in the center of the piece. After drilling the length of holes for each standard, cut them to length. Leave equal distance from the holes on the top and bottom ends. Mark the tops.

Rip each piece in half on your tablesaw. Finish sand these pieces, then glue and clamp them to the cabinet sides, as shown in Fig. A. Don’t cut the horizontal shelf supports (D) yet.


Assemble the case

Lay out the side panels (A) and the top and bottom panels (B) on a large flat work space. Apply glue to the dadoes and ends of the bottom panel. Clamp this lower assembly face up (Photo 3) and make sure the top and bottom panels are flush with the front edges of the sides. Screw the sides to the top panel (they’ll be hidden by the cornice). Before the glue sets, make sure the case is square.


Make the back

Rip your back pieces to 5". Make sure they’re good and straight. Install a 1/4" rabbeting (slot cutting) bit with a 3/8" depth of cut. Make a simple jig like the one shown in Photo 4 to hold the pieces flat to your workbench. Cut the slots in the center of the edge moving from right to left to avoid tear out. A couple passes should do the trick. Finish routing each slot with a left to right pass to make sure the bit has cut its full depth. Flip the piece end for end and rout the other edge. Mark the front and back of each piece. From new pine boards, rip the splines (F) a hair thinner than the slots. Don’t use the fir to make the splines because it may split and new pine will be more forgiving during assembly. Glue the splines into the slot on one side only. Leave the spline out of the last board (Fig. B) because you’ll need to rip it to width later. Let the glue dry.

Now flip the case over so the back faces up. Screw some blocks into the workbench tightly against the case after rechecking it for square. The blocks keep the case from shifting out of square as you nail the back pieces to the top and bottom panels. Make sure the back pieces are cut to length.

Don’t glue the three center panels together—just nail them in place with #4 common nails leaving 3⁄32" space between the edges so you can see the splines. Now measure for the remaining pieces. Rip the outer two pieces. Glue the splines of the two outer panels, as shown in Fig. B (maintain the 3⁄32" spacing). Fit them in place, then glue and nail each outer pair of panels to the case sides. Biscuit and glue the diagonal corner brace (K), as shown in Fig. A.


Build the face frame

Rip the stiles for the face frame from wide stock. Choose pieces with similar grain. Cut the wider horizontal rail pieces about 1/16" longer than the width of the case (minus the stiles) so you’ll have a bit extra to trim after the face frame is glued to the case.

Now align the edges of the rails with the stiles and mark your biscuit locations (or use a doweling jig). Glue and clamp the assembly, check the diagonal measurements and square it. Set the assembly aside to dry.

Finish sand the face frame and glue and clamp it to the front edge of the case (Photo 5).


Make the moldings

Cutting the profiles of these moldings is simple. The lower cornice molding (L) is cut from a 1-3/4" wide by 3/4" thick board. Set the tablesaw blade at a 45° angle. Set the fence so you’ll leave a 1/4" flat section at the bottom of the molding, as shown in Fig. A. Use a similar technique to make the base moldings R and S. Notice that the lower base molding is first resawn to a 1/2" thickness.

To make the wider center cornice molding (N), rip a 6' long piece at about 3-1/4", as shown in Photo 6. Then set the tablesaw blade at 45° and the fence at 3" from the middle of the cut (3/8" up from the table surface). Now make a 45° rip on all four sides of the piece. Finish sand all the edges of the moldings.

Install the cornice and base moldings as shown in Photo 7 and Fig. A. Do not glue these pieces to the case. The sides of the bookcase will move with seasonal humidity changes and because the grain direction of the side moldings is running opposite, any glue joints here will fail. It’s okay to use nails here because the wood is full of distress marks and any additional holes won’t be noticed. Nails will adjust themselves in the moldings to counteract any wood movement. If you don’t want to use nails, you can use screws from the inside of the bookcase, but you’ll have to drill elongated screw holes to allow for wood movement.


Finishing touches

The shelf supports mentioned earlier are cut from 3/4" stock to a 1" width. Cut them 1/8" longer and belt sand a rounded edge on each end to fit into the shelf support. A little trial and error works best. Work for a snug fit.

Glue up and clamp boards to make the shelf blanks (P). Next glue the nosings (Q) to the shelves. The nosings add extra stiffness to the shelf as well as a heftier appearance. Finish sand the shelves once the glue is dry and notch them to fit around the shelf supports.

Sand the entire bookcase with 150- grit sandpaper followed by 220-grit. Clean away the dust with a tack rag before finishing.

Because of the beautiful natural patina of the wood, I simply used a clear wax finish. I avoided oil because the oil would darken and make this softwood blotchy. The wax gives a clean even look and a sealer isn’t necessary. Rub the first coat on with a cloth, let it sit for 10 minutes, then buff it out and repeat the same process the next day. The wax gives the wood a very light sheen. Colored waxes are also available if you want a deeper color tone on your piece.

Cutting List

Fig. A: Assembly

Fig. B: Back Detail

Click any image to view a larger version.

1. Cut 3/8" deep rabbets and dadoes into the side panels to accept the solid wood back pieces as well as the top and bottom panels. Use a featherboard to keep the panel tight to the fence to ensure an even edge on the rabbets. The bottom horizontal panel should fit snugly into the dado, so adjust your dado blade precisely or make multiple passes.

2. Bore evenly spaced 1" holes for the shelf supports. Mount a board onto the table of your drill press and attach a fence to it for exact centering of each hole. Once the holes are drilled, cut each piece to length, then rip it down the middle to make a matched pair for each side. Glue and clamp each pair to the inside edge of each side panel.

3. Screw the top into the upper dadoes of the sides and glue and clamp the bottom into the lower dadoes. Measure the diagonals. They must be equal to square the case. Once the glue is dry, flip the case face down. Make sure the case is square and screw blocks along the sides and top into the work surface to keep it square as you install the back panels.

4. Rip, then joint the edges of all the back pieces. Rout a 1/4" groove into the center of each side edge. Glue a slightly thinner than 1/4" by 11/16" pine spline into one side of each back piece. Once the glue has dried, fit each back piece to the back of the case. Start in the center and work your way to the sides.

5. Glue the face frame to the front edges of the case. Be sure it’s perfectly aligned, then clamp it to the case every foot along the perimeter. Trim the slight overhang on each side with a block plane once the glue is dry.

6. Shape the cornice moldings on the tablesaw. Set the blade at 45°. Run each board through on both faces to create bevel edges, then repeat for the other edge. The other narrow cornice molding is a simple 45°piece cut from a 1-3/4" piece of 3/4" stock.

7. Fit the center cornice molding (N) to the upper cornice molding (M1) and to the lower cornice molding (L). See Fig. A for exact dimensions.


Reclaimed Timber

For an instant antique, try recycled wood!

By George Vondriska

Wood doesn’t just grow on trees, you know. It also comes from barns, warehouses, factories and railroad trestles that are being torn down. This wood, called reclaimed timber, just might be an alternative material you can use.

Reclaimed timber offers some unique opportunities. Because of its original application, the boards probably have a lot of “character.” This means nail, screw and even bolt holes. Instead of trying to work around and eliminate them, you might try using them to give the project a unique look.

The wood itself is different, too. This lumber was almost always cut from old-growth trees. These trees grew very slowly in dense forests. The resulting growth rings are close together, making the wood more dense and stable. In addition, today’s softwoods are dried to around 12- to 14-percent moisture content, making it unsuitable for cabinets and furniture. This old stuff is generally drier than that.

Most suppliers are able to attach a history to the reclaimed timber they sell. Not only can you create a unique piece, you’ll also be able to identify what building, city and era it came from.

Salvage wood from old buildings is primarily softwood. You’ll find southern yellow pine, redwood, Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, incense cedar, oak and even bird’s eye pine, to name a few. Species availability varies, because the salvage companies take whatever they can find.

In its first life, the wood may have been used for anything from flooring to shelving to structural beams. Metal detectors are used to find and remove hardware. Timber coming from flooring and shelving, commonly 4/4 to 8/4, is generally abrasive planed (sanded to thickness) and sold by the board foot in random length and width lots. Large beams may be sold as beams, or resawn to a customer’s specifications.

It’s a good idea to let the supplier do the abrasive planing for you. Lead-based paint was used in the United States until 1978, and having the planing done by the supplier keeps any potentially toxic waste out of your life. Once you have the wood in your shop, using standard dust control procedures should be adequate.

You might find reclaimed timber more brittle than other wood. You’ll also want to keep an eye out for hardware and fasteners, even if you had the supplier do this for you. Other than that, it works like any other material you’re accustomed to.

Prices on reclaimed timber can range tremendously. Price fluctuations are caused by the logistics of salvaging the wood, its condition after salvage and supply and demand. Material selection, quantity purchased and shipping charges also affect your final cost.

Reclaimed timber marries the old to the new. It’s reasonably priced and gives you the opportunity to creatively work with, not around, the wood’s rich history.


(Note: Product availability and costs are subject to change since original publication date.)

This list is just a jumping off point. Try searching the internet, using “reclaimed timbers” as a category. Suppliers have various materials available, as well as minimum order and shipping requirements.

Traditional Woodworks and Lumber Co.,, 800-882-2718 (Wisconsin).

Trestlewood,, 877-375- 2779 (Utah).

Vintage Log and Lumber,, 877-653-5647 (West Virginia).

Duluth Timber Company, duluthtimber. com, 218-727-2145 (Minnesota), 360-391- 2269 (Washington).

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker December 1999, issue #77.

December 1999, issue #77

Purchase this back issue.