Built-In Bookcases

Traditionally, built-in bookcases are made with solid wood boards, carefully routed to make tight grooves that accept each shelf. But sawn lumber is expensive — enough oak for a 8-foot bookcase, for example, could run into thousands of dollars. Plywood that has a hardwood veneer is not only less expensive but in many cases stronger than solid softwoods like pine. Most lumberyards stock the basics: birch, maple, and oak veneer plywoods. Birch is the best wood to use if you plan to paint your bookcase, and maple lends itself to a variety of stains. But there are also special-order lumberyards that make veneer plywood from any kind of wood, including mahogany, teak, cherry, or walnut. For these, it's best to use a clear finish and let the beauty of the wood shine through.

For the strongest frame, we like to suggest oak plywood and doubled its thickness for the bookcase sides, or legs, by gluing and nailing plywood shelf supports onto longer boards. (Cutting grooves in a single board would compromise its strength.) The rough ply edges are hidden by solid-wood finish trim.

The tricky part of working with plywood is ripping down the 4-foot-wide boards to the widths needed for the frame and shelves. Making a straight cut along an entire 8-foot sheet with a circular saw is difficult, and running plywood through a portable table saw is dangerous. Your best bet is to find out if your lumberyard has a commercial table saw to make clean, straight rips. Most yards will make the cuts for a dollar or so each. Calculate how deep you want the bookcase frame and the shelves to be, subtract 11/16 inches to account for the added depth of the 5/4 solid-wood trim, then have the lumberyard rip all your sheets into boards of that width. Once you get home, you can use a circular saw to cut these narrower pieces to length.

Have the lumberyard rip your plywood into boards to the width that matches your bookcase depth. Before you cut and assemble any parts, sand all the wood. Stain or prime it and allow it to dry.

Measure the height of the space where the bookcase will go. Cut two bookcase legs to this measurement from the ripped-down plywood

Measure the width of your space in three places. Subtract 1½ inches from the smallest measurement. Cut the shelves to this length from the plywood. (Make sure you also cut a piece for the top.)

If you want your shelves to be different heights to accommodate different sizes of books, you must mark the legs where the supports will be. Hold one leg against the wall and mark where you'd like the bottom of each shelf to fall. Try to line up the shelves with nearby architectural details, such as baseboards, windowsills, and mantels.

Lay both legs on a table, butted evenly next to each other. Use a framing square to transfer the shelf marks from one board to the other. Then place a plywood scrap on edge at each line and mark the width of each shelf.

Other considerations are joining the new bookcase to your existing space. Do you want to match the existing baseboard? Ideally this runs across any built ins. The finish and profile can sometimes pose a problem, stain or paint, but a good craftsman can help you along.

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