How to Build a Bookcase

Buy PDF & Cut List A veteran woodworker and a beginner team up to build a classic bookcase

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Craftsman-style furniture designs are still popular today, and with modern tools you can learn how to build a bookcase like this classic from the Stickley catalog in a weekend.

Tools Required

  • 4-in-1 screwdriver
  • Clamps
  • Cordless drill
  • Drill bit set
  • Framing square
  • Jigsaw
  • Miter saw
  • Orbital sander
  • Pocket hole jig
  • Safety glasses
  • Table saw

This bookcase is inspired by a Gustav Stickley model that sold for $12 in 1910. One of the original Stickley models recently sold for $152,000, but you can build ours for about $100.

We built this bookshelf in the garage with nothing more than a table saw, a drill and a pocket hole jig. If you don’t own a pocket hole jig, you owe it to yourself to buy one. Pocket screws aren’t as strong as most other types of joinery, but they are plenty strong for this bookcase, and you can’t beat their speed and simplicity. (For tips on using pocket screws, see “How to Use Pocket Screws.”) You’ll also need at least four pipe clamps for this project, which will cost about $60 altogether.

At the home center, we took our time picking through the oak boards. We wanted straight, flat boards, of course, but we also looked closely at grain pattern. Novice woodworkers usually skip this tedious process, but they shouldn’t when building a bookcase. It has a big impact on the final look of the project. For the legs, we examined the end grain and chose boards with grain that ran diagonally across the ends. This “rift sawn” wood has straight grain on both the face and the edge of the board. (“Plain sawn” boards typically have wilder grain on the face.) Straight grain will give the legs a look that suits the Stickley style. Also, glue joints disappear in straight grain wood, so the legs—which are made from sandwiched boards—look better. For that same reason, we chose boards with straight grain along the edges to form the bookcase top.

Project step-by-step (13)

Step 1

Add Edging to the Sides

  • Cut the plywood box parts to size.
  • Glue strips of wood to the bottom edges of the box sides.
    • Note: This edging keeps the plywood veneer from chipping.
  • Trim off the excess edging with a handsaw and sand it flush with the plywood.
    • Note: Take care not to sand through the thin veneer.

Step 2

Drill Pocket Holes

  • Place the jig where you want the holes; clamp and drill.
    • Note: The stepped bit bores a pocket hole and a pilot hole at the same time. The holes on the ends are for attaching the top to the sides. The holes along the front and back are used to attach the box to the face frame.

Step 3

Assemble the Box

  • Drive in the pocket screws with a drill.
    • Pro tip: To avoid stripping the screws in plywood and softwoods, switch to a screwdriver for the final tightening. Long clamps make assembly easier, but they aren’t absolutely necessary.

Step 4

Glue Up the Leg Blanks

  • Sandwich two 1x4s together and later cut the legs from this stock.
  • Use scrap wood “cauls” to distribute clamping pressure evenly.

Step 5

Mark the Arches

  • Make an “arch bow”—simply a 3/16-in.-thick strip of wood with slots cut into both ends.
  • Hook a knotted string in one slot, tighten the string to bend the bow and tie off the other end.

Step 6

Cut the Arches

  • For a smooth cut, use a fine-tooth blade and move slowly, putting only light forward pressure on the saw.
    • Pro tip: If your saw is variable speed, cut at full speed. If the saw has orbital action, switch it off.

Step 7

Sand the Arches

  • Smooth the arches with an orbital sander.
    • Pro tip: Keep the sander moving so you don’t sand too deep in one spot and create a wave in the curve.

Step 8

Assemble the Face Frame

  • Clamp the face frame together and drive in pocket screws.
    • Note: Pocket screws rarely strip out in hardwood, so you can skip the screwdriver and use only a drill.

Step 9

Dry-Fit the Face Frames

  • Align the face frames, pocket-screw them to the box and check the fit.
    • Pro tip: If your alignment is a bit off, you can drill new pocket holes and reattach the frames. If the fit is right, you’re ready to remove the face frames and add glue.

Step 10

Glue on the Face Frames

  • Apply a light bead of glue over the box edges and screw on the face frames as before.
    • Note: There are no screws fastening the legs to the box sides, so you’ll need to clamp them.

Step 11

Glue Up the Top

  • Edge-glue the boards together to form the top.
    • Pro tip: Choose boards that have straight grain lines along one edge and place those edges together. A glue joint with straight grain on both sides is almost invisible.

Step 12

Drill Slotted Screw Holes

  • Drill screw holes in the shelf box to fasten the bookcase top.
    • Pro tip: Rock the bit back and forth to bore elongated slots that will allow the top to swell with changes in humidity.

Step 13

Screw on the Top from Below

  • Drive the screws snug, but not so tight that they won’t allow for seasonal wood movement.
  • Remove the top for sanding and finishing.