What Makes a Good Bookcase?

I first learned to work wood so I could make sturdy bookcases that wouldn’t collapse under the weight of my ever-increasing book collection.  It’s never really stopped.

I’ve built wide ones…

and tall ones…

But until now, they have all been more or less moveable.  Most recently, I’ve installed a large built-in bookcase to hold most of our children’s books.

Because I use book shelves every day, both at work and at home, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what makes a good bookcase.

Strength

The shelves must not sag under a full weight of hardcover books.  3/4″ pine is usually sufficient for up to a 3′ span.  7/8″ pine is adequate for a 4′ span.  MDF is a poor choice for any span.  Plywood is okay for the back, but otherwise solid wood is preferable.  The carcase must not rack, and all the joinery must be solid.  I prefer to cut dadoes for the shelves, and if possible I join the corners of the carcase with dovetails.  If not, rabbets fastened with cut nails are adequate.

Space Between Shelves

After quite a few experiments in shelf spacing, I’ve standardized with placing the shelves on 12″ centers.  That allows a healthy 11″+ for the books.  You have to be able to get your finger on top of a book in order to remove it easily, and that spacing usually allows for enough head-room.  I always build the bottom shelf so as to accommodate oversize books, too.  You can try to economize on space by placing shelves closer together, but I find the results frustrating in the long run.

I have seldom if ever found myself needing adjustable shelves.  I have sometimes wished that I had built a certain unit so as to accommodate taller books, but I’m not wishing for adjustable shelves; I’m wishing I had built it differently in the first place.

No Face Frames

I’ll spare you my long rant against face frames.  I’ll admit that they look nice, and they can be useful for reinforcing shelving made from wimpy materials.  The problem is that they severely reduce the amount of usable space on each shelf, both in terms of head-room and on each end.  And if you build the shelving from solid wood of the proper thickness, they are completely unnecessary to the structure of the case.  If you intend your bookcase to actually hold books, skip the face frames.

Usable Top

When it comes to loading up a bookcase with books, the top is fair game.  Crown moldings and other decorative elements look nice on the top, but book collections have a habit of growing, and it’s nice to have that extra space available.

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7 Responses to What Makes a Good Bookcase?

  1. Robin says:

    Hi Steve,
    Thank you for the recommendation re shelf spacing. What would you recommend as a general purpose depth for the shelves ? Any recommendation on good height for the lower shelf that holds the odds and ends ?

    regards
    Robin

    • Mike S. says:

      Most books and magazines are 9×12″ or less. A 1×10 is 9.25″ wide, and this makes a good general-purpose shelf depth. My largest books are 12.5″ tall by 9.5″ deep, so I like to have one shelf with 13″ spacing and 10″ depth..

    • I always make the lowest shelf oversize to hold extra-tall books. It’s usually a safe bet to space the lowest shelf at 2″ more than the rest of them. But measure your books carefully. You want at least 1″ of headroom between the top of the book and the bottom of the shelf above, otherwise the book will be hard to remove.

      As to the depth of the shelves, I think Mike S. is right. About 9″ works well. If you have a lot of smaller books, then a 1X8 shelf may be all you need. But better to build too big than too small.

  2. sablebadger says:

    Good stuff, thanks for sharing your research. I too have a book shelf problem, not a book problem. My wife does too. 🙂

  3. Eric Bushèe says:

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for this. Do you glue the shelves into the dadoes? Wood movement should be in the same direction for the shelves and sides…

    -Eric

    • Yes, I do. It doesn’t add much rigidity (that comes from the frame and back) but it helps. As you say, there are no movement issues, so there’s no reason not to glue them in.

      Eventually I will experiment with sliding dovetails instead of dadoes.

  4. meeteyorites says:

    Very Vell Dun! I will order one now? Let me know when you are coming and what I should best buy!

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