How to Build a Ladder Bookcase

This DIY bookshelf, which leans against the wall like a ladder, looks handsome as a bookcase or as display shelves. We'll show you how to build it.

This handsome and unusual bookcase leans against a wall like a ladder. Each shelf is deeper than the one above, providing a place for books or items of all sizes. While the bookcase has a beautiful handcrafted look, it is actually simple to construct. Consider building more than one bookcase; once you set up for each step, it takes little time to repeat the step, and this bookcase makes a terrific gift.

Our bookcase is crafted of oak, which is readily available at home centers. You can use any hardwood you like, such as cherry, walnut, or ash. If you want to stain the bookcase, maple or poplar are two woods that take stain evenly. The bookcase is finished with wipe-on polyurethane that's easy to apply and allows the beauty of the wood to shine through.

You'll need an afternoon or evening to build the bookcase, plus an hour or so to finish it. Make sure you're comfortable sawing, gluing, and clamping, as all three skill are needed for this project. 

  • Working Time 6 Hours
  • Start to Finish 1 Day
  • Difficulty         Projects Kind of Hard
  • Involves Sawing, Power tools

What you need


  • Hammer
  • Nail set
  • Bar clamps
  • Tablesaw or circular saw with rip guide
  • Power mitersaw or circular saw with crosscutting jig
  • Electric drill or driver with stop
  • 1/8-inch bit and 1/2-inch spade bit
  • Jigsaw
  • Measuring tape
  • Compass
  • Sander
  • Paintbrush


  • Wood, we used oak
  • Wood glue
  • Sandpaper
  • Screw-hole buttons
  • Stain


  • A: Rails (x2)
    1 1/2 x 5 1/2 x 72 inches
  • B: Bottom Shelf (x2)
    3/4 x 10 x 22 1/2 inches
  • C: Lower shelf (x2)
    3/4 x 8 x 22 1/2 inches
  • D: Upper shelf (x2)
    3/4 x 7 x 22 1/2 inches
  • E: Top shelf (x2)
    3/4 x 5 x 22 1/2 inches
  • F: Shelf backs (x4)
    3/4 x 3 1/2 x 22 1/2 inches
  • BB: Bottom shelf sides (x2)
    3/4 x 3 1/2 x 20 3/4 inches
  • CC: Second shelf sides (x2)
    3/4 x 3 1/2 x 16 3/4 inches
  • DD: Third shelf sides (x2)
    3/4 x 3 1/2 x 14 3/4 inches
  • EE: Top shelf sides (x2)
    3/4 x 3 1/2 x 10 3/4 inches

How to do it

Step 1 Make the Rails

To make the rails (A), use a power mitersaw to cut two pieces of 2x6 oak to 72 inches long with a 10-degree angle on the ends. If you don't have a mitersaw, use a protractor to lay out the 10-degree angles and cut with a circular saw.

Step 2 Cut Assembly Template

Cut a scrap piece of 1x6 to 12-1/8 inches long with 10-degree angles at both ends. You'll use this assembly template later for positioning the shelves on the sides.

Step 3 Make Stock for Shelf Bottoms

To make the stock for the shelf bottoms, rip-cut pairs of 4-foot lengths of oak 1x12 to10 inches (B), 1x10 to 8 inches (C), 1x8 to 7 inches (D), and 1x6 to 5 inches (E). Make the cuts on a tablesaw or use a circular saw with a rip guide.

Step 4 Crosscut 4-Foot Pieces

Crosscut the 4-foot pieces into 22-1/2-inch-long pairs. Make the cuts with a stop-block setup on your power mitersaw or crosscutting jig. Or you can set up a stop block on the tablesaw as shown later on. Crosscut 1x4 oak to make the pairs of sides (BB, CC, DD, and EE).

The workpiece should never contact the rip fence when you make a crosscut because the piece can bind, causing dangerous kickback. However, there is a safe way to use the rip fence as a stop for several crosscuts of the same length.

First, clamp a block of wood to the fence and measure between the block and blade to set the fence for the length you need. Lock the fence, slide the block toward the in-feed side of the saw, and reclamp. Before turning on the saw, put a workpiece against the miter gauge, bump it against the block, then slide it forward. Make sure the piece will no longer contact the block when it reaches the blade.

Step 5 Lay Out Pivot Point

Lay out the pivot point. Since it's difficult to start cutting an angle with a circular saw at the corner of a board, draw a 90-degree layout line about 1/2 inch from the board's end. Align the protractor to this line when you are laying out the 10-degree cut on the ends of the rails. To lay out the 2-inch-radius cuts, measure 2 inches from both sides of the corner and mark where the measurements intersect. This is the pivot mark. Set a compass to 2 inches, set the point on the pivot mark, then draw the radius. Cut the curves with a jigsaw.

Step 6 Glue Together Shelves

Edge-glue together the same-size pairs of stock (B, C, D, E) to make the shelves. Be sure the pieces are flush on the ends, then clamp them together with bar clamps. Let the glue squeeze-out dry, then pare it off with a sharp chisel.

Before you glue the pairs of pieces together to make the shelf bottoms, take a look at the growth rings at the end of the boards. You'll probably notice that the rings curve toward one face of the board. If so, glue the boards with the rings facing up on one board and down on the other. This prevents any tendency for the boards to cup. If the growth rings go straight up and down, you have a stable quartersawn piece—just put the prettiest sides up.

Step 7 Attach Shelf Backs and Sides

When the glue is dry, remove the clamps. Sand the faces of all the parts. Attach the back to each shelf with glue and 4d finishing nails into predrilled holes. Then attach the sides the same way.

Step 8 Sand and Mark

Sand the sides of all the project pieces and slightly round all the edges. Then, refer to the dimensions in the side view and measure along the bottom of each shelf side from the back to mark where the bottom edges will meet the back of the rail.

Step 9 Scribe with Template

Place the assembly template on the outside of a rail, flush with the bottom and sides. Scribe the top of the template. Put a scrap of 1x4 against the template and scribe that. Repeat until you have laid out where each shelf side will cross the rail.

Step 10 Position and Align

Lay out the screw hole positions as shown in the drawing. Clamp the assembly template to the inside of the rail, flush at top and bottom. Position the shelf against the template and align the mark on the bottom of the shelf to the back of the rail. Clamp the shelf to the rail.

Step 11 Predrill Holes

Set a stop on the drill to 2 inches, and predrill 1/8-inch-diameter holes through the rail into the shelf side. Use a 1/2-inch spade bit to counterbore the holes for the screw hole buttons. Attach the rail to the bottom shelf side with #8x1-5/8-inch flathead wood screws.

Step 12 Attach Shelves to Rail

Clamp the pattern in the next position and repeat the process until you have attached the four shelves to one rail. Then, use the pattern to lay out screw holes on the other rail, and then clamp it at each position to predrill, counterbore, and attach the rail. (If you don't have a drill stop, use tape on the spade bit to mark how far to counterbore.)

Step 13 Sand and Finish

Sand off the layout lines on the outside of the rails. Put glue in each counterbore and insert a screw-hole button. If desired, add visual interest to your bookcase by routing a detail along the top and front edges of the shelf sides and rails. The detail can be an edge bead, a chamfer, a roundover, or anything else you like. Rout before you attach the shelves to the rails. Apply two or three coats of finish, and your bookshelf is ready for duty.

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