How to make a Basic Bookshelf

Many households never seem to have enough shelf space for their books, magazines and other odds and ends.  Over the years, many of us invariable accrete more and more stuff that we do not want to throw away. And usually there is just never enough storage space. The easiest solution is to build quick and easy bookshelves that will store your books and whatever else you need to display. For putting away stuff you could add a drawer at the bottom of a bookshelf.
Large Multipurpose Bookshelf

Fortunately, building a bookshelf is not very difficult and there are good reasons why you should build rather than buy a bookshelf. For one, you can design a bookshelf for your specific needs and wall space. Moreover, building a bookshelf with sturdy material is far cheaper than buying a readymade one, many of which are either shoddily made or use poor quality material. 

Follow these easy steps to make your own:

Step 1: Design

Even an apparently simple piece of furniture such as a bookshelf has endless design possibilities. Some are rough and ready while others can be infinitely ornamental. Some bookshelves are open whereas others are enclosed with shutters; some come with drawers while others are decorated with moulding. Decide what kind you want but keep it simple in the beginning. Another very important consideration is the dimensions: how big are your books going to be? Are they only paperbacks in which case you only need small and shallow shelves? Or are your books going to large coffee table books that require considerable depth and height? Then there is the question of wall space: where are you going to mount the bookshelf? Or would you prefer a floor standing one? There are various considerations while designing your bookshelf and everybody will have her own ideas on this. I will stick to showing you how to put together a very basic, wall mounted bookshelf and you could improvise after that.

Simple Wall Mounted Bookshelves

Step 2: Buying Lumber

My first advice is to buy good quality lumber for your project. Some of my bookshelves are made of top quality CP Teak but for most projects that is kind of overkill. Good quality board or plywood will do as well. I use the slightly more expensive ¾ inch rubber wood boards available in most lumber yards in India these days. The advantage with rubber wood board is that it does not require veneering or any kind of elaborate surface preparation for painting or polishing. Board and most plywood, on the other hand, need to be covered in veneer or laminate or prepped for painting. Rubber wood can be painted very easily or polished beautifully if you have the time and inclination.

All board pieces are usually sold as 8 by 4 feet or 3 by 6 feet sheets. Many lumber yards will also have a professional cutter close by. Use his services to cut the sheet to the specific sizes for your bookshelf. Leave an extra 1/8th of an inch to plane and sand the cut pieces or ask the cutter/carpenter to plane and square each piece of wood you are going to be using in your bookshelf project. Squaring and planning lumber is the most crucial task in any woodworking project and can often defy the novice woodworker or hobbyist. It is best to buy lumber or sheet boards from a lumber yard that has a decent carpenter/woodworker around. Get all the pieces cut exactly to size and prepared for assembly. This will save you a whole lot of elbow grease, bother and time.

I generally use ¾ inch board for the sides and the shelves and ¼ inch plywood for the back. Calculate the height and depth of the shelf, the number of shelves and then work out how each piece should be cut. Making out a rough cutting diagram, such as the one shown below, always helps. Even the carpenter will be happy to have one for cutting the pieces.

I have provided an example of a cutting diagram below, which has been made by Paul Mayer ( for his excellent online article on making a bookshelf. You do not have to copy his dimensions but the idea is to show what a cutting diagram is. I would highly recommend checking out his article on the web even though he uses a lot of machines including a table saw to make his shelf. It is unlikely that a hobbyist would have any of those tools. But that article will give you a few good ideas.
Cutting Diagram Example

Step 3: Joinery

Joinery is at the heart of all woodworking projects. There are various types of joints ranging from the simple butt joint to beautiful dovetail joints.

Butt Joint

Dovetail Joint

The simplest way to put together a bookshelf would be to cut the pieces to size and nail them together with butt joints and then nail a piece of ¼ inch plywood on the back. Such a bookshelf would be functional but would neither be long lasting nor visually appealing. Over time, nails become loose and the seasonal expansion of wood and metal weaken the joint. Using screws rather than nails in a better fastening option. The best of course are fancy joints glued together.

Different Kinds of Joints

I personally prefer to make the bookshelf carcass with dovetail joints and the individual shelves are slid in on dado joints. I never nail on the back piece onto the shelf carcass. I prefer to rout a slot along the back edge and slide in the ¼ inch plywood. But that requires a router and a slot cutting bit, which is another story.

Step 4: Finishing

Danish Oil
Once the bookshelf is assembled, you need to consider how to finish it. One option is painting and the other is polishing. Both finishes have their pros and cons; plus this is a matter of personal preference. I prefer to polish my projects because that way not only do they look good but do not require re-painting after a few years. Re-polishing is usually much easier and often not even necessary. A simple polish is Danish or Tung oil. These finishes can be wiped on with a piece of cotton cloth. Three or four layers of an oil finish will produce a nice sheen and give your project a professional look.

Rubber wood takes polish well but the plywood piece on the back will not look great with an oil finish. If your project has been made with board or plywood you will have to either add a veneer or paint it. Neither take polish very well.

Step 5: Mounting

Metal Strip
The final step is to mount your bookshelf, fill it with books and step back to admire. If the bookshelf is heavy I would recommend cutting a length of wood as wide as your bookshelf and fastening it on the wall. The bookshelf can rest on this cleat and be attached at the top to the wall by flat metal strips that have pre-drilled screw holes.  These kinds of metal strips are available in most hardware stores. Part of this metal strip needs to be screwed onto the top edge of the bookshelf while the part that protrudes needs to be fixed on to the wall with some sort of fasteners.

In all, it is easier to do than you might think. The better your woodworking skills, the better will be your bookshelf.

Indranil Banerjie
20 March 2011


  1. Wow, this is indeed a beautiful blog... I have been into basic levels of woodworking and I was yet to find a local blog. This is my first time here.

    One question though :

    Does tung oil come with color choices or is is transparent and takes the color of the wood in use ?

    I use wood stains for all my project because I like the exposed grain look. I then top it with clear varnish for durability.


  2. Finish is a personal choice. My late father-in-law liked the raw look of grained wood and preferred an oil finish. Tung oil can be mixed with a stain and applied. But be warned it is not durable, does not protect the wood and needs to be refinished every few years or so. Also it has very little gloss so if you want a gloss finish stick with varnish or shellac.


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