Building a tall bookcase can stretch the limits of a small
shop.We all know that big boards can be a bear to handle
and glue up, so I’ve taken an old Scandinavian design and
sliced it up into bite-size pieces.My solution is to break the
bookcase into two interlocking sections that require only
short and narrow stuff.Not to mention, that’s the only way I
could get it out of my shop and up the basement stairs!
Biscuits join the shelves and sides. It’s a snap to put together
wide boards at right angles with a plate joiner. But biscuits
alone aren’t enough to make a stiff case, so I’ve added backboards
that lock the whole bookcase into a rigid unit.
Materials and Tools
Rather than splurge on the best quality lumber simply to
make shelves, you can save money on this project by
using a lower grade of hardwood, No. 1 Common.You’ll
find many good boards that are too short or narrow to
make the best grade but are perfect for this bookcase. I
used No.1 Common birch because it’s inexpensive (about
$1.75 per bd. ft.), a light color (the case looks less massive)
and stiff enough to support heavy books. You’ll need
about 75 bd. ft. for a total cost of $130.
As an alternative you can use 3/4-in.-thick boards
from a home center. Pick straight ones,glue them together
and plane them to 5/8 in. I built a prototype bookcase this
way and it worked just fine.To tell the truth, I preferred its
slim look to one made of thicker wood.However, I found
that 5/8-in. thick shelves bend under a lot of weight, so
they wouldn’t be suitable for a set of encyclopedias.
You’ll need the three basic machines for processing
solid wood to make this bookcase from rough lumber: a
tablesaw, a jointer and a planer. (If you build with preplaned,
3/4-in.boards that have one straight edge,you can
get by without a jointer.) A crosscut sled for your tablesaw
isn’t required but it sure makes life easier. In addition, you’ll need a router,plate
joiner, bandsaw or jigsaw, an accurate framing square and eight pipe clamps to hold the case
together during glue up.
Any white or yellow glue works fine for the biscuit
joints, because both glues contain the water needed to swell the biscuits.Use a special yellow glue with a
long open time (see Sources, below) if you’re
going to glue up the cases by yourself and don’t like
working like a speed demon!
Preparing Rough Lumber
For the sides and backboards, select boards that don’t have a
pronounced twist.Twisted wood isn’t worth the hassle. Rough
cut your boards 1 in. over final length and 1/4 in. over final
width.Set your jointer to remove 1/32 in.Run one face over the
jointer only a couple of times. It’s OK if this doesn’t clean up
the whole board.
Run the other face of the boards through a portable planer
until most of the rough spots are gone and the boards are all
about 7/8-in. thick.Don’t sweat it if they end up a bit thinner.
Then joint one edge, rip the boards 1/32-in. over final width
and joint the second edge.Pay attention to boards B and F—
they’ve got to be exactly the same width. Square one end and
trim the boards to exact length using a crosscut sled and a
stopper arm (Photo 1).
Gluing the Sides
The upper and lower sides are composed of three boards that
form a tongue and notch (Fig.F). There’s no trick to getting
the sides to nest together perfectly. It’s simply a matter of being
careful at glue up.
Start with the upper sides. Lay out the ogee curves on
boards C and the cutouts on the top end of boards B (Figs.
C and D). Cut out the curves on the bandsaw (Photo 2).
Dry clamp boards A, B and C together. Boards A and B are
flush at the top.Boards A and C are flush at the bottom. Check
both ends with a straightedge, then draw an alignment mark
across all three boards (Photo 3).
Glue the upper sides together. Getting a perfect alignment
end-to-end drove me nuts until I adopted the method
of rubbing the boards together first, before clamping. Glue the lower sides the same way.Here all three
boards are flush at the bottom.
Milling the Sides and Shelves
Plane both faces of the sides and backboards so they’re 3/4-in.
thick (Photo 4). Congratulations if you’ve removed all the
low spots, but don’t hang your head if you haven’t. You can
plane all the boards thinner, down to 5/8 in., if that’s what it
takes. Remove all the mill marks by sanding with 100- and 120-
Here’s how to use the crosscut sled to trim the top and
lower sides until they mate: First, saw off 1/4 in. from the bottom
of both upper sides. This guarantees the bottoms are
square and straight, leaving a 1-in.-deep notch. Then trim
the tongues of the lower sides until they fit the notches. Because
the middle boards (B and F) are exactly the same width,
everything should fit tight as a glove.
Finish the lower sides by sawing the cutout at the bottom
(Fig.E). It’s easier to use a jigsaw than be a hero and try to balance
the board on the small table of a bandsaw. Make a pattern
of your baseboard molding and cut out the back corner of the
side so it will fit tight up against the wall.
Lay out the positions of the shelves on both the upper and
lower sides (Fig.B). The shelves will be set in from the back of
the sides by the thickness of the backboards.Draw this backboard
layout line on the sides, too (Photo 6).
Glue up the shelves, thickness and sand them,then rout the
molding on their front edges (Fig.D). Trim them to length with
the crosscut sled.Finally, lay out center marks for the biscuits
on the bottom faces.
Now for the easy joinery.Cut biscuit slots in the sides and
shelves at the same time (Photos 5 and 6). Use a framing
square to make sure the shelves are clamped in the right place.
Fitting the Backboards
If it weren’t for the backboards, this bookcase wouldn’t last a
week. These hard-working boards help lock the upper and
lower sections together,but more importantly they stiffen the
case (Figs. F and G). Cut the backboards to length,place them
in position on the case sides and lay out the slots for the screws (Fig. G). Cut the slots on the tablesaw. Stand the
backboards on edge against a miter gauge and make two
overlapping cuts with a standard saw blade. Then cut
the dadoes for the screwheads.
Cut biscuit slots to join the backboards and case sides.
These biscuits align the backboard flush with the side,
but do not add strength. Glue the backboards to the
sides (Photo 7).
The backboards also help you square up the whole bookcase
when you glue the sides and shelves together. Thank
goodness! You can get into lots of trouble by gluing things
out of square,but this system is slick. Dry clamp each shelf
in place with the biscuits loose in the slots and mark the
shelf ’s position on the backboard (Photo 8). Make the
pencil lines very light because you won’t be able to get into
the corners with an eraser after the glue up. That’s the one
downside of this easy method.
Take your time and walk through a dry run of the
glue up before you attempt the real thing (Photo 9). Here’s
the best way to do the glue up, alone,without going crazy:
Support one side with a narrow (7-in.),wooden box that
leaves room for the clamp heads. Insert one shelf at a
time,align it with the reference lines on the backboard and
clamp it in place. Once all the shelves are upright,place the
other case side on the ends of the shelves, clamp the
shelves tight to the backboard and finally add the
Finishing and Installation
After gluing both cases, sand them with 150-grit paper.
Avoid dyeing or staining birch,because it has a tendency
to unevenly soak up color and become blotchy. Even an
oil finish can look bad, so stick with shellac,brushed-on
varnish or lacquer.
This tall bookcase stands quite well on its own,but for
safety, fasten it to the wall through the backboards.Then
there’ll be no chance for it to tip if a pet or rambunctious
kid tries to climb the shelves!
Fig. A: Biscuit Placement
#20 biscuits are plenty strong to hold a shelf’s weight. They won’t shear off under a load because the grain of a biscuit runs
Fig. B: Exploded View of Tall Bookcase
Safety Note: Anchor this bookcase to the wall with screws through
the backboards so it can’t accidentally tip over
Fig. C: Detail of Top Cutout
It’s easier to cut this with
a jigsaw than a bandsaw
because it’s hard to
balance the board on a
Fig. D: Details of Ogee
Curve and Shelf
This is a 50-percent
reduction. Make a copy,
double its size
on a photocopy
paste it onto an index
card and cut it out.
Fig. E: Detail of Bottom Cutout
Scribe the back of your bookcase to fit
around your baseboard molding.The back of
the bookcase should fit tight against the wall
so the bookcase can be firmly anchored.
Fig. F: Connection Between
Top and Bottom
The top half of the bookcase
fits snugly onto the bottom
half.The lower backboards
(H) prevent the top half from
shifting side-to-side, and the
notched sides lock in the top,
Fig. G: Detail of Shelf Slots
Screwing the backboards
to the shelves stiffens
the bookcase, but an
allowance must be made
for the backboards to
shrink and swell in width
with the seasons.That’s
why the screw passes
through a slot rather
than a hole.The
backboard is dadoed so
the head of the screw
doesn’t stick out.
Click any image to view a larger version.
1. Trim long and wide boards on your tablesaw
with a crosscut sled. A sled is easier to use and more accurate
than a standard miter gauge. Clamp a hooked stick onto the fence
to act as a stopper arm.This ensures that all your boards come
out the same length.
2. Rip the stepped board (C) on the bandsaw.
A simple fence helps you make a straight cut. Stop the cut
at the top of the ogee curve and withdraw the board.
Remove the fence and cut out the ogee.
3. Glue the upper case sides from 1-in.-thick
rough boards that are planed to 7/8-in. thick.This leaves
some untouched low spots, but that’s OK. Align the
outside boards so their bottoms are even.
4. Plane the glued up case sides until there
are no low spots left. All the parts of this bookcase should
be the same thickness, which can be anywhere from 3/4 in.
to a minimum of 5/8 in.
5. Cut biscuit slots in the ends of the shelves.
You can’t go wrong if you clamp each shelf in position, right
above the double lines. Set the shelf in from the back edge
by the thickness of one backboard.
6. Cut more biscuit slots in the case side.
Stand the plate joiner up on end and butt it against the end
of the shelf. Align the center mark on the bottom of the
machine with the pencil mark on the bottom of the shelf.
7. Glue the backboard onto the case side.Make
sure it’s square along the entire length. Check opposite each
clamp as you tighten it down. Shift the head of the clamp in
or out to change the angle of the backboard.
Nuts! We forgot to remove some squeezed-out
glue before it dried!
Finish won’t stick to it, so the glue has to be removed
before we can move on. Fortunately, yellow glue can be
softened with hot water and scraped off with a sharp
chisel days after it has dried. Hot water turns the clear
glue back to its original yellow color, so it’s easy to see
what must be removed.After scraping, wash the area with
a rag dampened with hot water, let the wood dry and
sand off the raised grain.
8. Mark the position of the shelves on the
backboards with light pencil lines.These reference lines
help you glue up the entire case square. Clamp each shelf
in place, without glue, and adjust it until it’s square to the
9. Glue the lower unit together with cauls
and pipe c9. Glue tlamps.The thick cauls distribute clamping
pressure over the entire width of the side. Use short
clamps to pull the shelves tight against the backboards.
Align the shelves with the reference lines.Then tighten the