How to Build a Bookcase

Bookcases Can Hold More than Books
Bookcases Can Hold More than Books

Learning how to build a bookcase is one of the easiest woodworking projects around.

Learning How to Build a Bookcase - the Basics

Building a bookcase is a beginner-level project that's easy to customize, build from a kit, or create from scratch. The nice thing about bookcases is that they can perform a number of functions in the home. They are great organizers, can add a designer touch to your décor or just offer additional utility in a mudroom or garage. Once you have a bookcase in place, it will seldom go out of style, and if you want a change of pace, all you have to do is move it to another location.

Choosing Wood

You can choose almost any wood to build a bookcase. Even plywood will work, provided you're careful to cover the layered edges. Just keep in mind that the longer the shelf is, the more risk there is that it will bow over time. Thicker, harder woods may be marginally more distortion resistant, but a lot depends on other factors, like the humidity in the room and the weight-load on the shelves themselves.

Make an assessment of the types of wood in your price range and check the boards for flaws. If you're selecting wood from your local home improvement outlet, this is easy. You want wood that's straight and has an even thickness. You also want to avoid defects, like large knots. Bookcase wood should be at least three quarters of an inch to an inch thick. You'll be paying a little more, but added thickness will be your hedge against the shelves warping later. If you can find inexpensive plywood or pine that fits the bill, fine. If not, keep looking until you find a product that's straight, cut the same thickness throughout and free of as many imperfections as possible.


Whether you're making a bookcase using a scrap of paper with general measurements or a detailed plan, you're going to need a few tools. The more elaborate your design, the more tools you'll employ to make the finished product decorative. For a basic, utilitarian shelf, you'll need:

  • Table saw
  • Drill
  • Level
  • Sander
  • Clamps
  • Tape measure
  • Square
  • Hammer

Cutting the Wood

If the idea of cutting the boards is intimidating, there may be another option. You can usually buy a large panel at your home improvement retailer and have them cut it to your specifications. This is often a courtesy that they'll provide at no additional charge. If you use this option, you can walk in with a list of dimensions and let your retailer cut the individual pieces for you. This way you can build a bookcase without having to cut any of the major wood components yourself.

Basic Bookcase

The dimensions below will make a standard three-shelf bookcase using nine wood pieces that can be assembled with wood pins, wood glue and screws. This is a very straightforward design that can be resized to meet your needs. The size outlined here will work well with a number of book sizes and has an overall shelf width that's not so wide that it will cause sagging problems later. It's a good choice for a study, child's room or den. This bookshelf has a wooden back and rails across the bottom:

  • 29-1/2" x 48-1/4" - Back measurement
  • 11" x 48" - 2 - Side pieces
  • 11" x 30" - Shelf top
  • 10-3/4" x 28-1/2" - Shelf bottom (sits on bottom rails)
  • 10-3/4" x 28-1/2" - 2 Shelves
  • 4" x 28-1/2" - 2 Rails (front and back)

Bookcase Assembly

The following assembly guidelines will give a general idea of how to proceed. You should also review the operating and use instructions on the tools and materials you'll be using:

  1. Organize the boards with the most attractive sides marked.
  2. Layout the pieces in assembly order.
  3. Measure and mark the inside of the side boards for shelf, top and bottom placement. You can use a level and measuring tape, template or pegboard. Arrange placement starting 12 inches up from the bottom and 10 inches down from the top. Remaining shelf placement is at your discretion.
  4. Hide the grained edges by installing rabbet joints to the top and sides.
  5. Pre-drill holes for rails, sides, top and bottom
  6. While allowing ample time for the wood glue to cure between steps, attach top to the sides, add rails and then the bottom. The instructions for the wood glue you've chosen will tell you curing times and how or if you'll need to clamp pieces in place during curing.
  7. Attach the back. Screw in place.
  8. Install the pins and shelves.

What you really need to remember when learning how to build a bookcase is the importance of measuring accurately, keeping the piece square through the whole process and allowing for enough curing time in between steps. These are basic skills that, once mastered, you can apply to almost any woodworking project.

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