Bookshelf Woodworking

Where to begin?

I shall start with my first big, indoor project.

Our end-room was defined by a nice parquet floor and a horrible gas fire. Fi decided that the fire had to go, and a wood stove came in in its place. We needed something to fill the wall alongside the woodstove, that would be homely and rustic, but big enough to fit the space. So I decided to build a shelf unit that would stretch from floor to ceiling and bring the room together.

I had heard about biscuit joints, and my friend and colleague, Barry, offered to lend me a machine that could accurately cut the grooves for making these joints. So now I had the clean canvas for the work, and the basic mechanism for fixing it all together. The joiner gave me new choices for the design. It meant that I could be inventive and did not have to follow a standard, billy bookcase style of rectangular bookshelf. I could play around with shapes and make shelves of different heights and widths, make the unit look like a series of stacked boxes, perhaps with some boxes seemingly stacked precariously as if they might fall across the room.

For the design I turned to my favourite drawing package – PowerPoint. Yes, PowerPoint! And yes I know I could use many other packages – even Visio would make more sense – but PowerPoint has a few things going for it. First, I’ve been using it since it first appeared and have stood in front of its slides on many occasions, giving presentations, training classes and so on, so I’m (perhaps over) familiar with the way it works. As a Product Manager, I’m bound by convention to have a copy of it on my laptop, and besides, I didn’t have another drawing package immediately to hand. Second, PowerPoint has a nice hidden trick that I’ve found helps a lot with these kinds of designs. It lets you specify slide sizes in sensible units, such as A4 and A3, and when you put objects on the slide, you can state their size in centimetres. So when you draw, you can create a picture that is precisely to scale. For this shelf unit, the wall area was 2.3 metres high and 2 metres wide, so I drew a rectangle 23cm by 20cm on the slide and I had a 1:10 scale version of the area my unit will fill.

I drew up the basic design by drawing random boxes and dragging them around until they made a nice pattern. I factored in some practical points, such as noting the largest and smallest books the shelves would have to hold, and marking out wall features that I would need to work around. I also wanted the unit to house a stereo system with speakers, so included spaces for those too. I then took a design decision that the shelves would be 2cm thick, so worked my way around the design making sure the thicknesses of the pieces were consistent and that the layout still looked nice. Finally, I broke the design down into the set of separate bits of wood that would be needed to complete the form. As a result, I had a list of planks that, when joined together, would give me the unit I wanted.

To double-check that this design would work, I cut out some paper strips 2cm wide and to the lengths I had measured in PowerPoint, then stuck these to the wall to make a life-sized plan. This step let me think about the assembly process: I would need to glue each pair of planks separately, so had to work out the order in which the pieces would be put together – once pieces were stuck together, there would not be an option to bend any wood to insert a missed piece.

A few changes to the plan and I was ready to order the wood. I live near a Timber Merchant called Adhectic (, who were able to offer a lot of assistance with the plan. They could cut and plane planks to the exact dimensions I needed, and would charge for the wood by the metre. First decision; what sort of wood to use? I wanted Oak, which was beyond my budget, so we looked at alternatives. I found a sample of Poplar that had a similar grain to oak, albeit in a light, patchy-coloured softwood rather than a warm hardwood. However, with some well applied wood dye I found I could get a good oak effect for less than half the cost. So in went the order.

When the wood arrived, I collected a set of planks all nicely planed and square and each at exactly the dimensions I needed. The next step was to mark them up and label them ready for biscuit jointing. This step took a lot of thought and care, as the cuts needed to be in the correct sides or ends of each piece of wood. I followed the adage ‘measure twice, cut once’ and took a lot of time to make sure each cut was going to be in the right place.

With the biscuit joints cut I could apply the wood dye. This is a long and boring process, applying two coats to every side and end of every piece. It also caused problems with labelling, as the dye was dark and obscured any pencil marks. So I needed to plan carefully, with post-its and marked up tape to keep a record of which plank was which as they were dyed and allowed to dry.

On that note, I shall pause the story and finish this blog post. I’ll talk about the assembly in Part 2.



By nickcnickcnickc

I spend my working life staring at computer screens, so in my spare time I look for things to do with my hands, preferably involving wood. It's a little ironic then that I've now starting writing a blog about my woodworking, and thus introducing computer screens to my main hobby..!

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