Collapsible Bookshelves


A collapsible bookshelf modeled after a teak original.

This is an excerpt from “Campaign Furniture” by Christopher Schwarz.

Bookshelves that fold at or disassemble are common items among surviving pieces of campaign furniture. These ingenious units were generally pretty small. After all, it’s not as if you were traveling overseas with a Carnegie library, and books of the 19th century were usually compact items.

How small? A typical campaign shelf unit is 3′ wide, 2′ high and 8″ to 10″ deep. That’s not a lot of shelf space.

Many of these shelving units were designed to sit on top of another piece of furniture, such as a campaign chest or desktop. Or they were intended to hang on the wall, which was especially handy during a sea voyage.


Screwed together. The metal uprights screw together with the shelves to produce a fairly sturdy set of shelves.

Common Types of Portable Shelves
The most common type of portable shelf isn’t one you’d expect to see in a book on woodworking because it’s mostly metal. These shelves are tubular metal uprights that screw together with two, or usually three, wooden shelves between.

These shelves look spindly but are robust enough for the job.

A less-common variant on these shelves replaces the metal with wooden uprights – usually turned spindles – that screw together with the wooden shelves to produce the finished piece.

Another type of shelving unit is a folding book rack. The simplest form of book rack has a at shelf with two “bookends” that fold flat while traveling. These simple racks are not exclusive to the campaign style; you’ll find variants during every furniture period where books were common.

The ends of the three boards are mitered and hinged. Sometimes the ends have handles so you can lift and move the loaded rack.

There are more complex mechanical book racks that also expand in length as well as having folding ends. These usually require some tricky hardware to make them function well, so I decided not to build one for this book.


For hanging. These large folding shelves were designed to hang on the wall. Note that the barrels of the hinges on the uprights are equidistant from both the top and bottom of the case. This detail allows the unit to fold flat.

The third common type of collapsible shelving unit folds like an accordion. You usually remove a center shelf (or two), and the uprights fold in on themselves, turning your shelf unit into a flat pile of lumber. The first time you see it in action, it’s actually a little bewildering. But it is quite cool.

This type of shelf unit requires no special hardware – just a small pile of butt hinges. And there is almost no real joinery to speak of. So it’s an ideal project for the woodworker without access to a forge or a metal shop.

These accordion-style shelves came in several dierent sizes and configurations that were embellished or plain. Some versions were designed to hang on a wall; others sat on top of a chest or desk.


The original. This is the original version of these shelves in teak. I altered the top profile slightly, but otherwise mine is quite similar. (Courtesy of Christopher Clarke Antiques)

The shelves I built for this book are based on a unit I admired in one of the Christopher Clarke Antiques catalogs. The original was made from teak; mine is mahogany. While the only joinery in the whole project is cutting two dados, you will become quite an expert at installing butt hinges. It takes 12 hinges to get the whole thing to work. And installing the hinges precisely makes the shelf unit sturdier and makes it collapse more smoothly.

Meghan Bates


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5 Responses to Collapsible Bookshelves

  1. tsstahl says:

    “And installing the hinges precisely makes the shelf unit sturdier and makes it collapse more smoothly.”

    This is gospel if you make one of these.

    I mocked one of these up with scrap pine boards without any permanent center shelf for stability. I just wanted to see the accordion affect in action. The book rightly points out to pay close attention to the placement of the hinges.

    Also, of course, one of these is not the place to store your car battery collection. I just added this to be funny, I never actually completely built and used one. 🙂


  2. Mark Baker says:

    Aloha !
    Here in Hawaii , we run into many forms of collapsible types of furniture , some are old versions of even older furniture . Some is western based or influenced , civil war campaign era ( which I find awesome) . But because of the east Oriental trafic we have had here , the ‘tansu’ pieces that have
    Escaped the ravageous of age and termites and the choice of woods used , I treasure when they just fall into my hands . Iron was rarely available for fasteners , so they used tough throne’sof the tammorrine tree for nails and sap for glue to help the ‘nail stay put’ . Some of these were made to hold food stuffs and were ‘engineered’ to swell shut , so the flood waters couldn’t get o the food , therefore we who survived the flood had good food stocked up that would save the day .
    The engineered products I have found have found their way to some local muesium’s as artifacts much better then the dump here they were headed .
    All it takes is a humble down cast eye sometimes , that peney on the ground , last weeks ‘jem’, a 1897 Indian Head Cent , if it could talk , what a tail it could tell !
    So they say ‘things are looking up !’ , I say : step by step ,watch were your going , your might walk or step right on and not see that lost piece of wisdom and history right at your toe .😃

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hinges make it better.


  4. “A less-common variant on these shelves replaces the metal with wooden uprights – usually turned spindles – that screw together with the wooden shelves to produce the finished piece.”
    My wife and I have one of these shelves. It has three shelves with holes in each corner for the spindles. The bottom shelf has fixed feet that double as the nut to turn the lower spindles into. The middle shelf sits on top of the lower spindles and the top spindles screw into the top of the lower spindles, effectively pinching the middle shelf in place. The top shelf is held in place by screwing ball-shaped “nuts” or caps onto the top spindles. It’s moved with us many times, with a few minor repairs required after some rough handling in transit. The wooden threads in the spindles are remarkably strong.


  5. lblack2x4 says:

    I have been wanting to make these since the first video Chris posted of them. Great project don’t know why I keep putting it off… oh wait school that’s why never mind


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