Bibliophiles face an ongoing problem: where to store the books? In our house, we have run out of places to put more full-sized bookshelves, so we have had to get a little more creative by using more of our vertical space.
Enter the long wall shelf. I have always admired the ingenuity behind various wall-shelf designs. The above wall shelf is especially designed to hold books, and to make use of some available space above a window and a dresser (below the mirror) in our bedroom.
(Yes, I know there is an ugly water spot on the ceiling. Yes, the roof leak is now fixed. Thanks for pointing that out, though. It’s not like I look at that stain every single time I get up in the morning or anything.)
This is the second such shelf we have installed in our bedroom, and we love them. They keep important books within reach while still keeping them out of the way. There were, however, several challenges in designing and constructing them. (1) A long shelf that holds a lot of books is going to sag in the middle, and the longer the shelf, the more it will sag, so I had to come up with some sort of support system for the center of the shelf. (2) The shelf needed to be very strong, yet use simple joinery that could be cut on the ends of a 9-foot board. You don’t want this thing crashing down on your head while you’re rummaging through your sock drawer.
Taking my cue from old-fashioned timber-frame construction, I opted for angled braces on each end, attached to upright posts with lapped dovetails. The posts are notched and screwed into the back corner of the shelf, and the dovetails on the braces prevent the shelf from sagging forward. The tops of the posts are screwed to the wall studs.
The beauty of this design is that you find your wall studs first, and then you build your shelf to span the distance between the studs. A couple big, long screws on each side, and the shelf is firmly and permanently anchored to the wall. I used 3″ long deck screws.
The shelf you see in the photo above uses central bracing only on the back. They are braces that are attached at an angle between the corner posts and the center of the back with lapped dovetails. While elegant when the shelf is empty, the braces take up space behind the books, and the big books hang off too far. For my longer shelf, I needed a different solution to the sag-problem.
I opted for a third post in the center of the shelf, but instead of the lapped dovetail I used on the sides, I decided on a tusked tenon. On the left, you see one of the braces for the end. On the right, you see the middle post and brace with its longer tenon. Making them required some precise layout and sawing, but cutting the joints was not difficult. I built the end assemblies first–which was easy–and then used them as a template for the central assembly.
I chopped the mortise in the post for the brace, then drilled it to drawbore the tenon. That will keep the brace from coming loose, even if the glue ever fails.
Laying out and cutting the through-mortise was the most difficult part of the whole process. It’s not easy to lay out an angled mortise precisely in the middle of a long board. I set my marking gauge based on the joint I had cut on the end of the board.
Since the end assemblies use the same angles and placement as the center assembly, everything should work out. Theoretically.
I would normally just chop out a mortise in wood this soft. (The uprights and braces are southern yellow pine, and the shelf itself is juniper.) But the mortise runs across the grain, not with it, so I bored out most of the waste with a brace and bit. Since it’s a through-mortise, I bored from each side. There was a lot of flipping this board over and over again throughout the project. After boring out the waste, I cut out the rest with some chisels. Cutting the mortise at an angle required some care. It’s a good thing that the insides of mortises are never seen, because I left that surface pretty ragged.
And just to prove that even bloggers screw things up sometimes, here is my first attempt at a dry-fit. I had cut the brace about 1/4″ too short, and you can see the gap between the shoulder and the upright. So I discarded that brace and made a second one that fit properly.
Once I had the mortise in the shelf cut, I put everything together, marked the tenon where it came out of the mortise, and then bored a 3/8″ hole through the tenon, just slightly overlapping the line.
I shaved down one side of a hardwood dowel and tapped it through the hole, pulling everything up tight. The dowel–or tusk–will hold up the shelf in the middle and prevent it from sagging. I rounded over the end of the tenon, just so I didn’t have any sharp corners sticking out.
And here is the shelf with everything glued up and assembled:
For a finish, I just rubbed some paste wax on it and buffed it off. There’s no need to do any kind of elaborate finish here. Once the glue set up, it was time to mount the shelf in its place on the wall.
Two big screws in each upright holds everything in place.
It will hold almost nine feet of books. And it won’t take me long to fill it up.