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Canadian Woodworking

Build a bookcase

Author: James Dobson
Photos: James Dobson
Illustration: Len Churchill
Published: November 2023
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Just the right size to hold a small collection of books nearby, this bookcase mixes solid, beautiful joinery with an elegant, clean design.

  • DIFFICULTY
    3/5
  • LENGTH/TIME
    3/5
  • COST
    3/5
Dobson bookshelf
Dobson bookshelf
Dobson bookshelf

This bookcase is a great project for the weekend woodworker. It’s not too big and won’t take up much space while you’re building it, and it’s simple enough to be done with a fairly basic set of hand and power tools. I built this bookcase in ash, one of my favourite woods to use, as it works well, is relatively inexpen­sive and is plentiful at the moment as trees are cut in a desperate attempt to slow the spread of emerald ash borers.

Continuous Grain
Dobson removes a narrow kerf and makes sure to label the boards so they can be oriented in the bookcase the same way they were in the board. This will leave the grain continuous at the corners.

Continuous Grain

Careful Setup
If the bit depth is set correctly while using the Leigh TD330 dovetail jig you’ll be well on your way to machining perfectly fitting dovetails.

Careful Setup

Rout the Pins
This setup will leave you with dovetail pins. Once the jig and routers are set up it’s easy to machine all four joints accurately.

Rout the Pins

Nice Grain and Joints
With the dovetails assembled you can see the grain wrapping around the corner of each joint.

Nice Grain and Joints

Square and Tight
Clamps and some simple jigs will assist in assembling a square cabinet.

Square and Tight

Use a Spacer
A spacer will ensure the dadoes are machined at exactly the same location so the shelf is level. Even if your spacer is vaguely square, be sure to mark it so it doesn’t get mistakenly turned sideways. Another option is to machine it square so it doesn’t matter which way it’s clamped in place.

Use a Spacer

Rout Rounded Rabbets
A router and rabbet bit will allow you to machine the rabbet to accept the back slats.

Rout Rounded Rabbets

Careful on the Corners
Remove small amounts of wood at a time when squaring up the corners so you don’t blow out the corner.

Careful on the Corners

Nice Fit
A properly fitting tenon will not be too hard to insert, though it won’t be sloppy either. Offcuts from the shelf can help you dial in the setup.

Nice Fit

A Unified Look
Resawing the back slats will go a long way to ensuring the overall look of the bookcase is unified.

A Unified Look

Shiplap Joint
This joint will allow the slats to expand and contract while not allowing a visible gap to appear between the slats. Offcuts from the slats will help you dial in the bit height to get a good fit.

Shiplap Joint

Valuable Tip
Coins can be used as spacers to ensure an even finished look.

Valuable Tip

Get Organized
A cabinetmaker’s triangle will help you keep track of how the different parts are oriented. Notice the grain on each leg goes from one corner to the opposite corner. This ensures the grain is straight on all four faces of the legs.

Get Organized

Cut Your Mortises
After boring out much of the waste with an undersized drill bit, Dobson finishes up each mortise with hand tools.

Cut Your Mortises

Hide Any Imperfections
A small rabbet around the outer edges of the legs will allow any imperfections between the case and base to be camouflaged.

Hide Any Imperfections

Base Assembly
A single clamp will bring one batch of legs and rails together.

Base Assembly

Still Together
Dobson machines the wide and narrow rails while they’re still attached to each other as it’s safer and easier. Here you can see the groove he machines on the inner face of the wide rails to accept the hardware to keep the case attached to the base.

Still Together

Continuous grain

I milled the boards for the case, being careful to keep track of their orientation. Even though the through dovetails will interrupt it, I wanted the grain to wrap around the sides and top of the case. I marked the orientation of the board with a triangle before cutting it to rough length and then redrew the triangle after each pass over the jointer and planer to make sure I maintained that orientation.

Careful labelling helps keep these parts in order. The case sides were milled to 5/8″ thick and cut to a finished length of 27″. The top and bottom boards are 5/8″ thick and cut to a finished length of 29″. Top, bottom and side boards were ripped to 8-3/4″ wide. The shelf was also milled to 5/8″, but was left long and wide for now.

Dovetail corner joints

I cut these dovetails with a router and the Leigh TD330 dove­tail jig. Following their instructions carefully will ensure excellent results, but you can also cut these by hand. Once this jig and router are set up, cutting tight-fitting dovetails is fast and easy. I cut the tails on the side boards with the pins on the top and bottom boards, but with a case like this you can switch them around. The same forces are not at play as you might find in a drawer, where having the tails on the sides is important for joint strength. Instead, you can let the aesthetic decide the orientation. I prefer to see the dovetails on the sides of the case.

I assembled the case with hide glue, ensuring it remained square. Dovetails don’t need as much clamping pressure as other joints as they lock into each other. I just used 90° clamping guides with some smaller clamps to ensure it was square then added a few larger clamps to bring the joints together. Once the glue dried everything was square and tight.

Add a shelf

This bookcase has only one shelf, but you can adjust the design to include two if you like. Just ensure that you have enough room for your books and space for your hand so you can get them out easily. I cut a 1/2″ thick plywood spacer and clamped it to the side so it could register against the bottom to give my router a straight edge to guide it. Measure from the edge of your router bit to the edge of the base and subtract that number from the distance between the bottom of the case and where you want the bottom of the shelf to be. That’s how wide you need to make your spacer. The width will be different for each router.

The router rode along the edge and cut a 3/8″ wide × 1/4″ deep dado. I did this in two passes and then flipped the case over and did the same operation on the other side. The spacer ensured that the two dadoes are exactly the same distance from the bottom of the case.

Rout for the back panel

The back of the case is made from 1/4″ thick shiplapped boards that sit in a rabbet around the inside edge of the back of the case. You could machine a rabbet on each piece before assembly, but you’d have to use a stopped rabbet on both ends of each piece so as to not machine off any portion of the dovetail joints. I used a router and rabbeting bit to cut a 5/16″ × 5/16″ rabbet around the entire case and then squared the corners with a chisel. It’s important to cut across the grain when squaring the shoulders, as a chisel blow parallel with the grain could lead to a split that will show in your dovetails. If this hap­pens a little CA glue in the crack should take care of it.

Shelf tenons

I then prepared the shelf. I measured the distance between the bottoms of the two dadoes on the sides and cut the shelf board to that length. To find the width, I measured from the front of the case to the inner edge of the back rabbet and then cut it slightly oversized, about 1/16″ or so. Saving the offcuts provided sample pieces for setting the router bit to cut the tenons. The shelf needed a 3/8″ × 1/4″ tenon on both ends. Testing the sample pieces in the dadoes will help get the perfect fit. With the router set up, I ran both ends, top and bot­tom, over the router leaving a perfectly fitting tenon running the full width of the shelf.

Glue the shelf into place with the back side lining up exactly with the back rabbet and the front slightly proud. This was planed flush once the glue dried. Clamps across the front and back of the case kept it in place.

Finishing – stage 1

I started the finishing process by sanding the case up to 220 grit everywhere but on the corners. Here, the exposed dovetails meant there was visible endgrain so I sanded these areas up to a higher grit, up to 400, before applying three coats of wiping varnish.

Back slats

While waiting for the finish to dry I started work on the back by milling boards down to 1/4″ thick. My bandsaw will only resaw 5″ so I made each slat around 4-1/2″. The exact width isn’t impor­tant, as you just need enough boards to cover the width of your bookcase.

Cut the slats to length and save the offcuts. I used the rabbeting bit at the router table to cut the shiplapping. These are nominally 1/8″ deep × 1/4″ wide, but I used the offcuts as test pieces again to dial in the fit. The two end slats only needed one rabbet.

To fit them, I started on one side and laid each piece in place, working towards the other side. Nickels make great spacers between each slat. When I got to the end, I measured how far the last slat overhung the rabbet, divided that number by two and then removed that amount from the first and last slat. A little fiddling may be necessary to get them to fit exactly, but if you take off too much you can always adjust the spacing between the slats to get a good fit.

The slats received the same finishing treatment as the case and once the finish dried, they were nailed to the case. Drill pilot holes and then use three nails per slat: one in the top, one in the shelf, and one in the bottom. Wood movement is of concern here so these nails should be centred so the slat can expand left and right. The shiplapping will keep them flat. Don’t use glue here.

Build the base

At this point the case was finished and I moved on to the base. To keep a uniform appearance on all four sides of the leg, the grain needs to run from corner to corner of the leg. This is best cut from rift-sawn material so I took them from the edges of a wider 8/4 plank. After milling to a width of 1-5/8″ × 1-5/8″, I cut the legs to length. I marked each leg’s position and then laid out the mortises.

Mortises first

There are many ways to cut mortise and tenon joints, but I enjoy cutting them by hand. If you prefer using a router or Domino, or even using large dowels for these joints, be my guest. It’s important to use methods that you’re comfortable with.

My design calls for two rails on each side, so two mortises needed to be cut on each interior face (16 mortises in total). The top mor­tise is 1/4″ × 3/4″ while the bottom is 1/4″ by 3/8″. The top, thick rails should be flush with the top of the leg and there should be a 5/8″ gap between the thick rail and the lower, thin rail. I drilled out the waste at the drill press with a 3/16″ drill bit and then used a 1/4″ mortising chisel to complete the mortise. These mortises inter­sect inside the leg.

Taper the legs

With the mortises cut, lay out the tapers on the inside faces of the legs. This taper is 1/4″ over 5-1/2″. I roughed out the taper at the bandsaw and then hand planed the face smooth. The final step for the legs was to add a 1/8″ × 1/8″ rabbet at the top of the two outside faces of the legs. This provided a shadow line and a slight break between the case and the legs. It will also help to hide any potential imperfections if your case doesn’t line up perfectly with the base.

Time for tenons

The rails are fairly straightforward. The split rail (consisting of one narrow and one wide rail) starts as one piece. I cut the tenon cheeks on each end, added a 1/8″ wide groove on the inside face (3/8″ from the top edge) of the top for the clips I used to attach the base to the case, and then ripped the rail on the table saw to make the larger and smaller rails. This has the benefit of keeping the grain aligned across the split rails. It’s also easier to machine the tenons on the narrow rails when they’re still attached to the wider rails.

Each tenon was fit to its matching mortise, and I was careful to label each one. I left the tenons on the long rails so they ended at the bottom of the mortise. The tenons on the short rails were trimmed to fit in the remaining space. Alternatively, the tenons could be trimmed at a 45° angle so they won’t interfere with each other at the base of each mortise.

Some more finishing

I pre-finished these parts with the same sanding regime and wiping varnish used for the case. I took extra care to ensure that no finish got into the mortises or onto the tenons. With three coats of finish applied, I glued up the base in two sessions. First, I did the long sections and then when they dried I inserted the short rails and glued them in that direction. A single clamp on each side was enough.

The base attaches to the case with Z-clip tabletop fasteners. This allows the natural wood movement of the wider case pieces while still maintaining a strong connection between the case and the base. Pilot holes ensured that the case boards didn’t split when the screws were driven in. I marked the drill bit with painter’s tape to ensure that I wouldn’t drill too deeply. At this point, the last thing I wanted was to drill through the bottom of the case.

The finished bookcase is now filled with my favou­rite books. I keep it next to my favourite armchair so my latest read is always close at hand.


3 Comments

  1. You must arrange your books on two shelves, as shown or centre shelf will deflect. (From a mechanical engineer and business school grad who owns too many text-weight books.)

  2. Very nice case and work James, thanks for contributing the article.

    I also like ash and recently made flooring from local backyard trees.

    Regards, Rod

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