How We Built Our Library Bookshelves

This has been one of the most involved projects we've worked on so far but it has been totally worth it. After figuring out the look we were after, my husband drew out a plan of how to make it. Essentially, the library consists of 5 cabinet bases, 5 bookshelf tops, and some trim to finish it off. Since this is a built in library, we will talk about how we made it starting with explaining how to build one bookshelf. If you have a larger or smaller wall you would need to adjust accordingly. Here are the basic steps we went through.

Tools we used:
  • Table saw
  • Skill saw
  • Router
  • Sander
  • Craig Jig
  • Air compressor
  • Nail guns
  • Screw gun
  • Drill
  • Wood clamps
Supplies we used:
  • 2"x6" pine for the foundation
  • 3/4” Birch cabinet-grade plywood for cabinets and bookshelves
  • 3/16” laminated plywood for cabinet backing
  • 1/4" barn siding plywood for bookshelf backing
  • 3/4” poplar trim (various widths) for styles and rails
  • Wood glue
  • Screws
For the cabinet bases and bookshelves, we used ¾” birch plywood (cabinet grade). For the trim and doors, we used poplar, which holds paint well and is an easy wood to work with. For the bookshelf backing, we used “barn board” plywood. For the cabinet backing, we used 3/16” laminated plywood. We got everything from Home Depot.

To start, we removed the baseboard trim and crown molding in way of the built-ins. Be careful when removing the trim because you’ll end up re-installing it when the built-ins are complete.
The cabinet bases are made of 4 main pieces: the two sides, the bottom, and a shelf. We used a router with a ¾” bit to carve out slots for the bottom and the shelf. Our workshop is in our unfinished basement, which we plan to finish someday soon. Here is a picture of the main pieces prior to assembly.
We then assembled the pieces using glue and screws and then added a spreader (the top horizontal piece) and finished it off by nailing a 3/16” plywood backing to the cabinet. We did this 5 times.
Meanwhile, back upstairs we made a foundation out of 2"x6" pine lumber for the cabinet bases to sit on. We made the foundation height such that the top of the installed baseboard trim would come about 1” below cabinet bottoms. Then we set the cabinet bases on the foundation and re-installed the baseboard. We then added poplar styles and rails to the cabinet bases. 
The cabinet top is made of the same birch plywood with a ½” baton of poplar to hide the end grain. The hole in the wall is where the wiring comes out. There was a switched outlet on the bottom left of the wall which we planned to use for power for the sconces.

The next step was to make the book shelves. We used the same router bit to cut slots for each shelf. We made the shelf spacing 12”. We chose 12" based on the largest books we had and what we wanted to put on the shelves. 
Then we assembled the pieces using glue and screws. 
And repeat!
If you are going to do something similar, I recommend painting the bookshelves BEFORE installing the backing. It will save you a TON of time. The backs were made of barn siding plywood and is relatively inexpensive, but rough. However, once you sand it down, it looks amazing. On another side note, while we were sanding, we had a crazy visitor. I have no idea what this bug is called but it freaked me out. It was HUGE!
After the backs were sanded, we primed, painted, then nailed them to the back of the completed cabinets.Then we brought the bookshelves upstairs and put them on top of the cabinet bases. The spaces between the book shelves are for the wiring.  

The next step was to start adding the trim. We started with the top rail. We made the top rail fairly wide because it would also serve as the backing for the raised crown molding. Then we added the stiles (vertical boards) which covers the bookshelf joints and holds the sconces. The lighting we got at Overstock. At first we were looking at swing arm lamps that were gorgeous, but out of our budget; especially since we would need five. Then we decided on sconces since we would then only need four.
Nothing (not even this project) would stand in the way of making our kids practice piano. That is why the piano never left this space. We had to move it around quite a few times but it all worked out.

Then we added the rails for each shelf out of 1 ½” strips of poplar and attached them using glue and nails. We then put the rest of the crown molding back up.  
All that is left now are the cabinet doors. These were the hardest part. My husband would write a whole post just about these doors but to make a long story short, here is how we did them.

Each door is made of two stiles (the vertical pieces), two rails (horizontal pieces), and a center panel. The slot in the middle of each stile and rail was made with a table saw. The rails also have “tongues” (also made on a table saw) which fit in the slot of the stiles. Here is the resulting frame prior to gluing it up.
 We then glued the door pieces together and sanded.

We primed and painted each door in the basement before installing them. We went with Blum Euro-style hinges from Amazon which require blind holes in one stile.
We also covered the entire built-in with a protective polyurethane coat. 

We added the doors to the cabinets and added our kitchen knobs (we decided to put some pulls in our kitchen, so this was an easy way to re-use knobs we already had). You can see our library reveal post here.
 And then we took a nap. 

***Updated March 3, 2014***
Here's how she looks now all decked out-
You can see my post on how I styled this beauty  in this post and the transformation with the sconces using Rub N' Buff here

I'm entering this project in Creating with Stars Contest! Come check it out and other amazing D.I.Y projects. 


  1. That bug is called a Wheel Bug. The description says “This insect is well-noted for its incredibly painful bite when disturbed or nonchalantly handled.” It’s also a member of the Assassin Bug family. Egad, it sounds like you risked your very life while doing this project!

  2. Funny, you write up a post basically proving to the whole world that Steve is a super handyman, and all we want to talk about is the bug...Lauren got one of those under her shirt last summer, and it bit her shoulder 3-4 times before we could get it out. She had huge welts! Sorry--am I turning this into a bug blog? :)

    1. Well, the bug is quite a topic. Thanks for checking out the blog. I'm sure Joel would have no problem making something like this for you guys.

    2. Would you be able to share the plans? I'm planning built ins in a couple places in our house and would love to have measurements that I could compare to for our own space.

  3. Holy AMAZING!!! Love love love these bookshelves! You two are an incredibly talented and creative duo! Love the entire color scheme and look of your home. Beautiful!!!

    1. Thanks Lisa! Great to hear from you. Hope you and your family are well. I would LOVE to see pictures of your new home too.

  4. love love love love love the bookshelves! I have the perfect wall for Steve and you to come and put them in my house! :) so exciting you were featured!! Congrats on a beautiful home!

  5. Hi, I just found you through Cottage & Vine. What a beautiful job you both did. It is lovely,

  6. Awesome project, Tracy! I'd love to pin it to our Small Spaces, Big Impact board on Pinterest. You can find it here: http://www.pinterest.com/homedepot/. -Whitney, Senior Editor @ Home Depot

  7. Thanks Whitney! Your welcome to pin my projects anytime. I'm working on several projects right now for the CWTS contest and we're using several things from Home Depot.

  8. Hi! Tracy!
    This post is really awesome. Thank you for sharing that.
    Plywood Company in India

  9. They bookcase wall came out beautiful. I love the colors you chose.

  10. Hi! how did you install the lights? looking at doing something similar and would love some tips!

  11. What is the height of the ceiling in this room?

  12. great job, thank you for the help

  13. Lovely! What is the paint color on the breadboard and walls?

  14. You inspired our office built-in project I recently shared on my blog, thank you! www.domesticdeadline.com

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  16. This looks so amazing! Can I ask what how long the shelves are?

  17. Hi. How did you run the electrical for those sconces on the face of the library shelves? I'm just wondering how the wiring is hidden. I am thinking of taking on a project like this. Thanks!

    1. I haven't been back to this site for a while and realize you probably won't read this but I wanted to answer your question anyway... There was a switched outlet along that back wall already. I took the switched power cable and that became the power for the lights. The power outlet (there are two actually) are still there, inside the base cabinets. We have a radio inside the cabinets that we use sometime and thats where we plug it into.

  18. Just stumbled onto your blog and LOVE IT! I think that we must have the same exact tastes in decorating. Your library is beautiful.

  19. I loved this post. This looks so organized and elegant. A great woodworking enthusiast, I keep making new projects!I made a rustic wooden pallet bookshelf and followed this tutorial

  20. Can you come build this for me? Serious question...I live in St Petersburg, FL.