Build Bookshelves in a Day
Made with simple housed lap joints, this knockdown unit is engineered for stability and speedy assembly.
Synopsis: Steve Latta designed a set of bookshelves that will cover a lot of wall but requires only a little time and material to build. Using housed lap joints cut with a router and tablesaw, this unique design can be taken apart and reassembled in minutes. The more weight you put on the shelving, the more secure it is, and it’s a great project for using up scraps.
I get the most pure enjoyment from reproducing 18th-century furniture, but every now and then it’s nice to break out of that mode and dive into a project that I can knock out in a day or two. This set of bookshelves is just such a beast, and it will cover a lot of wall in the little amount of time required to build it. I’ve made three versions of this design since I built the first one about 10 years ago. The first has lived in three separate homes, but now it fits the dining room in our new home.
There are some nice features about this design. When you combine the simplicity of the joinery with the absence of hardware, you have a bookcase that can be taken apart and reassembled in minutes. The angle on the bottom of each vertical makes the case lean toward the wall, so the more weight that you put on it, the more secure it is. In most cases, there is no need to tie it to the wall. Although, if you have kids, you may want to add a few fasteners as a precaution. A couple of corner braces attached under the bottom shelf and along the top shelf should do the trick.
Choose your wood and size the joints
This is a great project for using up old scraps. For these units, I used some less than perfectly clear leftovers of walnut for the verticals and dimensioned #2 white pine 1x12s for the shelves. If you don’t have boards wide enough to make the verticals (mine are 10 in. wide at the bottom), you can glue them up from smaller boards, but make sure the front piece is wide enough that you won’t expose a glueline when you cut the taper on the front edge. For the pine shelves, I bought more width than I needed so that I could cut around knots and defects to end up with clear front edges on all of them.
The shelves and the verticals lock together with what I call a housed lap joint (see the drawing on p. 34). The shelves are notched wherever they meet a vertical, and the verticals are notched and dadoed on both sides so that the shelves sit firmly on the shoulders of the dadoes. I cut the dadoes slightly wider (1 ⁄32 in. or so) than the shelf material is thick. That way, the pieces slide together fairly easily, even after a finish has been applied to them. Don’t be obsessive about getting a microfine fit. The joy of this design is lost if you end up having to put together the unit by beating it with a block of wood and a hammer.
From Fine Woodworking #158
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