How to Determine Bookshelf Dimensions for Maximum Functionality

Building a bookcase? Read this first. We have all the pointers you need for bookshelf spacing, strength, and usefulness.

DIY built-in bookcase

In a world where IKEA offers a stylish fleet of bookshelves on the cheap, very few of us venture to build our own from scratch. But the appeal is undeniable: When you make your own furniture, you can suit your needs perfectly, altering the plans according to your design preferences and lifestyle requirements. Yet there are still some basic design guidelines that ensure your bookcases will be as functional as they are attractive. No need to curb your creativity—just make sure you consider these pointers for bookshelf spacing, strength, and user-friendliness.

Related: How to Turn Bookcases into Custom Built-Ins

Determine Size and Space

bookcase with chair and patterned flooring

If all books were the same size and shape, shelf-planning would be simple. But as anyone with a personal library knows, that's hardly the case. Standard books are 9-½ inches tall and 7 inches wide (though pocket paperbacks can be much smaller). Art books can be as large as 15 inches tall by 11 inches deep. Make sure you measure the biggest books you want to include, considering their dimensions in your design. As a reference, standard shelf spacing is between 8 to 12 inches.

If you want to house entertainment equipment in the same unit, you'll need shelves from 18 to 20 inches deep (for most systems). Customize bookshelf spacing to accommodate the height of your stereo, speakers, and accessories. Shelving units that hold both books and audiovisual equipment are often built as modular components. A deeper unit holds the large equipment, and side or top units provide book or display storage.

Know the No-Sag Limit

bookshelf, shelving, shelf, books

Bookshelf dimensions aren't your only consideration. Think about the shelving material's span limit, too—that is, how far an unsupported shelf can run without sagging or breaking when supporting a load. Solid hardwood boards of ¾-inch thickness, for instance, can span a greater distance than particleboard of the same thickness. If you're planning to store heavy items on shelves made from weaker material, plan on adding brackets for extra support.

Keep Items Within Reach

Seashell Shelf, shelf, books

When you design shelves, keep their users in mind. Men generally have a greater maximum reach than women, and teens can reach higher than children. While that may seem obvious, it's an important consideration, since building shelves that no one can access is a waste of time and materials. Likewise, shelves holding items you frequently access shouldn't be too low to be easily reached.

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