Canadian Woodworking

Simple, yet attractive modern bookshelf

Author: Rob Brown
Photos: Rob Brown
Illustration: Len Churchill
Published: April May 2017

This quick and easy bookshelf is your answer to great looking storage on a budget.


  • COST

This bookshelf is both 84″ tall and 84″ wide, and finishes at 12″ deep. Though this bookshelf can be made almost any size you want, I sized it to be cut from two sheets of 3/4″ thick plywood, with virtually no waste at all. The space between each shelf gets larger towards the bottom, and the two double-height areas are great for storing taller pieces of art or extra large objects. One of the nice things about this large bookshelf is that if you need to move it down the road it’s very simple to break down and reinstall just about anywhere.

As long as you can cut full sheets down to size, make a simple jig, use a router and apply iron-on edging you’ll have no problems crafting this project.

Time for Some Math
Brown used a 7/8" outside diameter guide template (above) and a 1/2" diameter straight router bit (below) to machine the grooves in the workpieces. Using these parts he needed to machine a groove in the jig just shy of 1-1/8" in order to create a groove slightly less than 3/4" in the plywood workpiece he was using.

Jig Groove
Once the edges of the groove in the jig were established on the table saw, Brown used his scroll saw to remove the waste, and create the edge that determines how long the groove in the finished workpieces will be.

Alignment Marks
Now that the router jig is made, pencil marks are added to the workpieces where the grooves are to be located and then the jig is aligned with those marks and clamped in place.

Reduce Blowout
A tip to help protect against the front edge of the workpiece from blowing out is to make a very shallow cut into the right side of the material (in lower right corner of photo), before travelling in a clockwise direction to remove the rest of the waste.

Solid Setup
Brown clamps the jig and workpiece to his outfeed table so he can rout the groove. This allows the router bit to run into the outfeed table’s surface slightly, but as you can see, it won’t be the first blemish in the work surface.

Remember the Baseboard
Notches in the lower rear corner of the gables, to make room for the baseboard and quarter round, are necessary. You’ll also notice the bottom end of the gable is cut on an angle. This is to ensure the front edge of the gables are in contact with the floor, and to provide protection from the bookshelf wanting to lean away from the wall.

Iron It On
Iron-on edge tape is easy to apply. Use an iron to apply the heat before pressing it down, then flush the edges and areas around the grooves with a file before sanding the face and edges of the tape.

Breakout ten parts

A sheet of veneered plywood usually measures 49″ × 97″. That extra inch will allow you to obtain four 12″ wide pieces from a sheet’s width. Double check that your material is an inch longer and wider than 4′ × 8′. If it isn’t you will have to reduce the width of all the shelves and gables slightly, in order to obtain parts of equal width.

I included two double-height areas near the center of the bookshelf. The areas are great for showcasing sculptures or other taller objects, but the reason I included them was much more practical. Since one of my main goals was to only use two sheets of plywood, I didn’t have enough material to make the two center shelves full width.

With a crosscut across one end of each of the two plywood sheets, these two center shelves are the first pieces to be broke out of the sheets. I used my track saw to make this cut, but there are many options depending on the tooling you have, and your comfort level with them.

The remaining five shelves, as well as the three gables, can now be ripped to finished size. Make the first rip slightly oversize, then end-for-end the piece, set the rip fence to the finished dimension, and rip all the parts to finished width. Notice the three gables are 1/4″ narrower than all of the shelves. This is for aesthetic reasons – mainly so the front edges of the mating horizontal and vertical parts don’t need to meet flush. Next, use a crosscut sled, track saw, or another method of your choice, to crosscut all the full-length shelves and all three gables to 84″ long. While you’re cutting the longer parts to finished size make sure you also trim the two shorter shelves to finished size at the same time. It’s a good idea to label your parts so you don’t mix them up. The back edge of each part is a good location to do this, as you won’t be covering those edges, and the labels will be there years down the road when you’re moving and re-assembling this bookshelf.

Create a router jig

All of these parts are created with what is essentially an extra deep half lap joint. A router, guided by a simple jig, will machine a groove half way across each part, at each joint. Most 3/4″ plywood isn’t exactly 3/4″ thick. The jig will allow us to create a groove of whatever width required. If the material you’re using is exactly 3/4″ thick you can use a 3/4″-wide straight router bit, in tandem with a simple wood straightedge, to create these grooves.

This simple router jig has two parts – the main base and the reference edge. Break out the base to 15″ × 15″, making sure all the corners are square, as well as a 15″ × 2″ × 3/4″ piece of sheet stock of pretty much any material you have – even solid will do. I used a piece of 3/8″ MDF for the jig base as it’s quite even in its cross-section, but other materials will work. The finished groove in the 3/4″ plywood needs to be sized accurately so the parts fit together nicely after they’re assembled. Other than the material for the jig, all that’s needed is a plunge router, a straight bit narrower than the 3/4″ plywood and a brass template guide that will house that bit.

To figure out how wide to machine the groove in the jig, take the outside width of the template guide and add to it the difference between the straight router bit and the width of groove you want to end up with. For example, I used a template guide with an outside diameter of 7/8″. The difference between my router bit (1/2″) and the groove I wanted to end up with (just under 3/4″) was just under 1/4″. Therefore, the final width of the groove in my jig needs to be just shy of 1-1/8″.

Now that we know the width of the groove in the jig, we need to know how long it needs to be. In a perfect situation the groove in the jig will stop the travel of the router just past the center point of the workpiece. It should go just past the center point because the rotating bit will leave a rounded corner in the workpiece, which will stop mating workpieces from fitting together perfectly. Routing the groove a little longer than half way across the workpiece will allow the mating workpieces to fit together properly. I drew a line on the face of the jig, 1/4″ away from the edge, as the reference edge will have a 1/4″-deep groove in it that will fit over the edge of the jig base. From this first line I measured half the width of the workpieces (6″) then added an extra 1/4″ to ensure the workpieces will fit together. This second line marks the end of the groove in the jig. Finally, draw two parallel lines to represent the long sides of the groove in the jig, to make machining the groove on the table saw visually simple.

Adjust your rip fence to make a cut slightly off center. The groove in the jig doesn’t need to be perfectly centered, as it will be clamped to the plywood workpiece wherever needed. Make the first cut with the table saw, stopping just before the pencil line. Adjust the fence to cut the other side of the groove, but be sure to err on the side of not taking enough material off the jig. Use a scroll saw to remove the waste.

Test the jig

Install the straight router bit in your router and add the template guide to the router’s base plate. Adjust the depth of the router’s base so you’re cutting a groove about 1/4″ deep. Using a piece of scrap, clamp the jig to the material and rout a shallow groove into the scrap. Run the router down one side of the groove in the jig, then press the router against the other side of the groove to create the fullwidth groove. With a piece of 3/4″ plywood you’re using for the bookshelf, check the fit. It will likely be a bit tight, as we erred on the tight side when creating the jig. Return to the table saw and carefully fine tune the groove in the jig, then retest the jig. The fit should not be sloppy, but it can’t be tight, either. It should go together easily with light hand pressure. If the fit is at all snug it will be very hard to assemble the bookshelf.

To check the length of these grooves you can rout grooves into two pieces; one should be the same width as the gable, and the other the same width as the shelf. As long as the pieces are no thicker than the groove is wide you’ll be able to assemble the joint and check how the fit lines up at what would be the back of the joint. The back edges of the scraps should be flush. If they’re not, you can remove a small amount of material from the center edge of the groove in the jig, so the router can travel a bit further across the workpiece and create a longer groove.

When you have the groove in the jig dialled in you can machine a 1/4″-deep groove in the reference edge, then glue the jig’s main base in this groove and let it dry. The final step is to add reference marks on the jig, 3/4″ apart from each other and centered on the groove in the jig. These lines will be used to align the jig with the marks we’ll add to the workpieces. Now the jig is ready for action.

Lay out the joints

At this point I would keep the gables and shelves separate, as they’re easy to mix up. The shelves are 1/4″ wider, and the grooves are machined in the rear half of these workpieces. The gables, on the other hand, have the grooves machined in their front half.

One thing you might have to adjust for your bookshelf is the height of the bottom shelf. I positioned it to clear my baseboard by about 1/4″, and I’d recommend using at least that distance – 1/2″ might be safer, as baseboards are not always straight. This, along with adding notches to the rear of the gables to accommodate the baseboard and quarter round, will allow the back of the bookshelf to sit flush against the wall.

The jig is clamped to the workpiece where each groove is needed. In order to align the jig properly for each joint, mark the left and right sides of each groove directly on the workpieces, centered on the width of each workpiece. It’s also a good idea to mark which half of the workpiece the groove will be machined on, so there’s no confusion while creating all the grooves. You can use a story stick to mark all the joints if you’d like, as that will reduce the risk of machining a groove in the wrong place.

Machine the grooves

Starting with either of the gables, as they are all very similar (though not exactly the same), align the jig to the pencil marks on the workpiece, clamp the jig in place, then use your router to make multiple passes to create each groove. Work slowly so chipping is reduced, especially with the first and last passes. To further reduce chipping, ensure the first pass is only about 1/8″ deep. Next, machine all the grooves in the shelves to complete the joints.

A few small details

I cut the bottoms of each gable on a slight angle, about 2°, to ensure the front edge of the gables came into contact with the floor. Floors are sometimes higher near the walls, and this was my way to ensure the bookshelf would be more stable. I made these cuts with my crosscut sled and a thin spacer, but a router and straightedge would also work well. If your floor is flat you can skip this step.

I also cut notches into the bottom, rear edge of each gable, to make room for my baseboards. Don’t be too exact here, as nobody is going to see any gaps between the gables and the baseboards. Be liberal as you trace the baseboard onto the gables, then cut them out with a jigsaw or coping saw.

Tape the edges

Iron-on tape is easy to apply and covers plywood edges quite nicely, even if it may not be as durable as solid edging. You could opt for solid wood edging, but it’s much harder to apply, as it needs to be cut to size, glued on, and trimmed flush once dry, but the choice is yours.

Break lengths of tape oversized, apply heat from an iron, press the tape down as you go, then trim the edging with a rectangular file. I applied tape right across the grooves, then trimmed them with a file. Add tape to the front edges and ends of all the workpieces.

Sand the taped edges as well as both surfaces of the gables and shelves. Also ensure all edges are eased slightly, as you don’t want to chip any edging while removing a book from your shelf.

Apply a finish

A bookshelf doesn’t receive a whole lot of abuse, so I applied a few light coats of an oil/varnish mixture. It’s just enough to add a nice, warm look to the cherry I used for my bookshelf, and offer a bit of protection from stains. I used a mixture of equal parts double-boiled linseed oil, tung oil and polyurethane, and wiped on three coats, sanding lightly between coats. It’s best to apply a coat to one face and an edge, allow it to dry, flip the parts over and apply finish to the other side, then repeat when dry. Things can get tricky applying finish to both sides of large pieces like this at the same time, but it’s certainly not impossible to do.

Assemble the bookshelf

Bring all the parts into the room that will house the bookshelf, as it’s virtually impossible to get through any doorways after it’s assembled. That reminds me …no glue during assembly! The parts will fit nicely with each other, and once the bookshelf is fixed to the wall it won’t want to go anywhere.

A second pair of hands makes assembly go much smoother, but it’s not too hard to do alone, as long as you’re organized and have some patience. Stand one gable on its rear edge, and slide the upper shelf into place over the gable. Carefully add the remaining two gables underneath the shelf, while tilting the shelf off the ground. The hard part is done. All that’s left is to slide the remaining shelves into place.

A bit of math and a stud finder will help with the next step. Attach a few L-brackets to the shelves; as long as the shelves stay against the wall the gables will be trapped in place as well. For the upper shelves I attached the L-brackets to the upper face, as they would not be seen. For the lower shelves it was the opposite. Just ensure you locate the L-brackets in line with the studs.

Add some books and framed photos to the shelves, and possibly a piece of art here and there, and you’ve got yourself a solid bookshelf that looks great and will last a long time.

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

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