Boarded Bookshelf


This is an excerpt from “The Anarchist’s Design Book” by Christopher Schwarz. 

Trying to improve a simple set of bookshelves might seem ridiculous. But I think there are significant things to say about the warped state of bookshelf construction in the modern age.

What could be wrong about horizontal surfaces fastened to vertical ones? Plenty.

For starters, I’m not a fan of adjustable shelving. I think that if you gave enough monkeys enough mescaline, you might be able to come up with a plastic jig to drill the right number of holes for adjustable shelf pins that weren’t a waste of time or space. But that’s a lot of mescaline. Adjustable shelving is, in my opinion, mostly a cop-out.

Books come in fairly standard sizes. Heck, they once came in sizes that were based simply on how many times you folded a large sheet of paper. But thanks to the miracle and wastefulness of modern book manufacturing, we now have some bizarre sizes to deal with.

These odd books are at the extreme ends of a bell curve of book shapes (called “form factors” or “formats” in the design world). You can find books out there that are 18″ wide and 10″ high (yup, a book on billboards). But if you are someone who reads woodworking books, novels and non-fiction (and not art books on Estonian midget nudist wrestlers), then trying to accommodate whack-doodle form factors isn’t necessary.

So I’ve always viewed adjustable shelving with great suspicion. Do we need to adjust every shelf in a carcase 1″ up or down? I don’t.


What Sizes are Important?
Go to any bookstore and you’ll find that most books come in roughly three sizes: small, medium and large.

Small books are 6″ x 9″ or smaller – these are the novels and standard woodworking books of the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a convenient size for reading in the subway or the park. And they fit easily into a knapsack or shoulder bag.

The medium size is about 8-1/2″ x 11″ (slightly more if it’s a hardback). This became a fairly standard size for how-to books in the latter 20th century and is economical to print. So you will encounter a lot of these books as you build your library. I find them to be a stepchild size. They are too big to travel with easily. Yet when I am reading them at home I always wish they were bigger.

The large size of book is 11″ x 17″ or some close variant. These books are uncommon in the modern age, unless you are into art books or old books. But when I find them they are worth the extra expense.

Many excellent old books on woodworking, including the 18th-century pattern books, were oversized folios. So I think it’s worth making a place for them in a bookshelf. It might be wishful thinking, but so what?

So this bookshelf has shelf openings of three sizes: 18″ high for big books, 12″ for the medium books and 9-3/8″ for the small ones. (However, the top shelf has no top, so you can fit taller books up there if you dare.)

Other Advantages of this Form
So now that you know the typical book sizes, wouldn’t it be sweet to provide just a wee bit of adjustability – up and down – for odd sizes?

No, it wouldn’t.

Fixed shelves are far stiffer than adjustable ones. You can nail a fixed shelf in place though the back of the carcase. This adds immense stiffness so the shelf won’t sag. (And if you think that sagging shelves aren’t a problem then you don’t own enough books.)

The other advantage to fixed shelves is they add to the overall soundness of the carcase. If you have only two fixed shelves – which is typical in a commercial bookcase – the carcase is more likely to rack compared to a carcase that has multiple shelves that are nailed through both the back and the bookcase’s vertical uprights.

One last thing I like about fixed shelves: They don’t ever collapse or slide off their adjustable shelf pins.


Dropped Edge on a Shelf

How to Cheat
So let’s say you think I’m full of crap or you pine desperately for adjustable shelves. Can you make a shelf unit that is stiff enough? Yup. Do these two things: Use a plywood back that is glued and screwed in place. That will stiffen the carcase. To make the shelves stiff, use what is called a “dropped edge” on every adjustable shelf. This is when you attach a strip of solid wood to the front and/or rear of the shelf to stiffen it.

A typical dropped edge is 1-1/4″ wide and is attached to the front of the shelf. Note that the dropped edge can also be used to hide the fact that you used plywood for the shelves. (Naughty, naughty. Plywood isn’t as stiff as solid wood – hence the name “solid” wood.)

If you look at the bookcase in this book, the “kick” (the horizontal strip affixed to the lower shelf ) works exactly like a dropped edge. There’s good reason for it to be attached to the lower shelf because it’s designed to hold the heaviest books.

Meghan Bates

This entry was posted in The Anarchist's Design Book. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Boarded Bookshelf

  1. I gather both the depth and width of the bookcase is dictated by measure and weight of the books contained, but what about total height and the number of shelves? Is it for it not to tip over easily, or simply that the weight contained on those three shelves is as much as the floor beneath will probably take, or the carcass itself? Or could it be to make the room seem bigger and more airy? Tradition?

  2. kendewitt608 says:

    This excerpt was already on the blog a while ago when Chris wrote it.

  3. jonfiant says:

    Many years ago I worked in the closet industry. You know, edge banded melamine particleboard hung on a wall, with 32 mm system holes drilled all up and down in neat tidy columns. Many cabinets are built this way as well. It is a good system for uniformity and speed of assembly. However, I soon developed an adage that has proven to be true so many times: adjustable shelves don’t adjust. Most people leave them where they’re at and they’re done with it. I dislike them mainly for two reasons. They’re not super strong, and I hate all the unsightly, unused holes. Chris, as usual you make a strong argument!

  4. Interesting article. I think most people would want to decide on their own shelf positions, so if you’re making in any quantity, adjustment seems wise. I agree that the Swiss cheese effect of adjustment holes is ugly, although they soon disappear behind the books. Another system I have seen, but not made, is a strip in each corner with a ‘saw tooth’ profile, allowing you to pick which tooth to rest the shelf on.
    Lately I have made several shelves retained by dovetail housing joints. With a little bit of glue the shelves become very stiff and they have the advantage of no screws or nails in the outside of the carcass. I have now started to stop the housing short of the front of the carcass, so the joint is invisible from the front.

  5. Adjustable bookshelves have their place. In my opinion, they occupy too many places, but they do serve a purpose – usually to save money on redecorating. And bookshelves are not always used to shelve books. I bought a new TV that didn’t fit in my old space. I removed a few books, pulled off a shelf and 4 pins and voila! I had space for the new TV. I didn’t have to build a new TV cabinet, nor did I have to remove a built-in bookshelf.

Comments are closed.