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
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
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.
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
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.
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
into one side
of each back
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.