A tale of two bookcases

It’s been a while since I’ve done any woodworking, but I was able to change that recently by building a couple of bookcases for our kids’ books. I’d long been hoping to make the boarded bookshelf from The Anarchist’s Design Book by Christopher Schwartz, since it looked like a pretty straightforward build. I ended up building the two bookcases a little differently, both from the original plans and from each other.

Design differences

First off, here are the finished products:

Build one (can you guess this kid’s favourite colour?)
Build two, still curing before the arrival of books

The most obvious deviation from the plans: there’s no back. We’d originally thought that these would go in our upstairs landing, where a back would block light on the stairs. It turned out the boys wanted them in their rooms, so that didn’t quite work out as planned. Design-wise, I’m not sure about the sides sticking up over the top shelf. Functionally, though, I think it’s great, since removes the need for bookends.

Besides the aesthetic value, having a back on the bookcase helps stiffen the shelves to support the weight of potentially heavy books, since you can attach the shelves to the back (it also helps avoid racking). Since I wasn’t putting a back on the cases, I figured I should do something about all that. The “How to Cheat” section of the article about the bookcases mentions that if you want to build this bookcase with adjustable shelves, one solution is to attach a dropped front edge to the shelves, which will help stiffen the shelf. I didn’t want that, so instead I attached the edge along the underside of the back of the shelf:

Semi-hidden shelf support, and also me giving away how I only put one coat of paint on the underside of the shelf (more on that below)

The edge is glued to the shelf and nailed to the sides. I didn’t do this with the bottom shelf, since it has the kick at the front. I’m pleased with how this works. I’ve hauled both bookcases from the garage into the house and up the stairs to get them into the kids’ rooms, and they haven’t racked a bit.

The other minor design difference is that the bookcases are not 13″ deep. While I’m not averse to gluing up panels from narrower boards, I also realize that my time in the garage is limited and so it would make sense to be somewhat more efficient where possible. Since these were also weekend builds, and I didn’t start work on the first one until September, it meant that there was also something of a race against cold weather. Gluing and painting in a cool/cold garage is not fun.

So, I decided to go with dimensional lumber from Home Depot. They have clear pine boards in 12″ widths, which seemed close enough, and also mostly ready to go. Their clear pine boards come in 6′ lengths, so I could get two shelves from one board. I used laminated pine for the sides. It’s not as nice to look at in the raw, but after a couple coats of paint I’m likely the only person who’ll ever look at these up close and suspect the difference. Since the sides are just under 4′, using clear pine for those seemed like a lot of waste, especially since I was planning to paint them. The laminated pine comes in 8′ lengths, so I could get two sides out of a single board. I also used dimensional clean pine for the edge supports on the underside, largely to avoid having to rip and plane wider boards (because the clock was ticking).

The builds

I built the orange bookcase first. After a false start cutting the dadoes with a router, I borrowed a router plane and cut all the dadoes by hand, following the process described in the plans. Overall, I was pleased with how they turned out. The bottoms aren’t perfectly flat, but this was my first time working with the router plane and they were certainly flat enough for gluing the shelves. Plus there’s the obvious benefit of the peace and quiet that comes from using hand tools. That said, it was a slower process.

I planned to paint the bookcases using milk paint, which I’d used some years ago on another project and was pleased with how it turned out. I let the kids pick their colour. This orange is from the Old-Fashioned Milk Paint line from Lee Valley. It comes in powder form and requires mixing, and I have to say that was easily the most stressful part of this process. I used the recommended ratio and then could not for the life of me get the lumps out. I ended up gradually adding a bit more water at a time, which helped, but still: lumpy. Finally I did a bit of searching and came across a recommendation to use an immersion blender to mix the paint. That helped a lot, and I finally had something that I was reasonably comfortable with. I applied two coats with a foam brush – except on the undersides of the shelves, as you can see in the photo above, as I didn’t have enough paint. But it’s the part that nobody ever really sees, so I didn’t think that would be too big a deal. Once the paint was dry I finished it with a couple sprayed-on clear coats.

It was already into October by the time I was able to start work on the second bookcase, and the weather was turning colder. I knew it wouldn’t be long before I wouldn’t be comfortable working in the garage, so to speed things along I revisited the idea of using the power router to cut the dadoes. That worked out alright this time around – louder, and messier, but quicker. I did end up with some tear-out, which may have been simply me butchering things with the router, so that required a bit of tidying up. Given time, I much prefer the hand tool approach.

To finish the second bookcase, my son chose Coastal Blue from the General Finishes line. GF milk paint is premixed so I could avoid the stress associated with the Old-Fashioned Milk Paint. Also, I could use a roller to apply the paint, which made the finishing process go much more quickly and smoothly (pun intended).

All in all, I’m pleased with how both turned out, for different reasons. I think the next time around I’d prefer to combine the best of both: build with hand tools and use the premixed milk paint for finishing.

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