Expert tips for building bookcases and shelves

The best building tricks are shortcuts that let you avoid complex steps. So whether you're a beginner builder or a veteran, these expert tips lead to beautiful results with less time and effort.

Expert tips for building bookcases and shelves

Save time with store-bought cabinets

  • Building and hanging cabinet doors is a fussy, time-consuming job.
  • Instead, buy standard kitchen cabinets and build around them.
  • But, keep in mind that store-bought cabinets are almost always pre-finished.
  • So before finishing the open shelves and any other parts you've built from scratch, you'll have to select a stain and clear coating to match the cabinets.
  • Unfortunately, a perfect match is almost impossible to find, but experimenting on scraps can get you so close that you'll be the only one who notices any difference in finish.

Dress it up with plastic trim

  • With trim made from polyurethane plastic, you can add curves and other fancy touches to your bookcase even if you lack the time or skill needed to make these complex parts yourself.
  • Working with polyurethane trim is much like working with wood — you cut it with standard saw blades, nail it by hand or with a gun and paint it just like wood.

Protect against falling bookcases

  • Any bookcase you build should be anchored to the wall so it can't tip over and injure someone.
  • Simply screwing it to wall studs is one good solution.
  • If you choose that method, load up the bookcase with books so it fully compresses the carpet before you drive the screws.
  • If you want to be able to move the bookcase without removing screws, pick up a couple of chain latches.
  • Fasten the chains to studs with 6 centimetre (2 1/2 inch) coarse-thread screws.
  • Position the tracks so there will be just enough slack in the chains for you to detach them.

Cover plywood edges fast

  • Plywood is an essential material for bookcases.
  • It's strong, affordable and good-looking.
  • There's just one problem: those ugly edges.
  • You can hide these edges behind solid wood or mouldings, but the quickest and easiest solution is a thin strip of wood veneer called "edge banding,"
  • With edge banding, you just iron on the adhesive-backed veneer and trim off any excess.
  • You can trim with a utility knife, but an edge band trimmer will help you avoid mistakes and get the job done much faster.

Adjustable shelves simplify building

  • Adjustable shelves make storage and display space more versatile.
  • Adjustable shelves are usually just slabs of plywood nosed with strips of wood or edge banding, so they're easy to make.
  • Assembling the boxes that hold the shelves is a lot easier too, since you don't have to simultaneously align and fasten a bunch of built-in shelves.
  • And, because you can remove them, adjustable shelves simplify staining and finishing.
  • Shelf standards are the easiest way to support adjustable shelves — just screw them into place and you're done.

Perfect cuts every time with a miter sled

  • Before you start your bookcase, build a miter sled and turn your table saw into a crosscutting and mitring machine.
  • You can build a miter sled, plus a miter-cutting attachment, in a couple of hours.
  • This extra mini-project might sound skippable, but it's very useful.
  • Because a sled has no finicky adjustable moving parts, it gives you consistent, exact cuts every time.
  • That's why master woodworkers often prefer table saw sleds to miter saws.
  • A sled crosscuts material up to 48 centimetres (19 inches) wide — perfect for shelves and other wide parts.
  • Whether you're cutting wide plywood or thin trim, a sled nearly eliminates splintering and tear-out.

The next time you're building a bookcase or shelf, keep these expert tips in mind to make your job that much easier.

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