How to Build an Adjustable Bookcase
If you've ever bought a book that was too tall for your bookcase, then this project is for you. Our detailed tutorial teaches you how to build a bookcase with two adjustable shelves.
Three feet wide and four feet tall, this adjustable-shelf oak bookcase holds dozens of reads or displays your favorite treasures. And with the right skills and a little bit of patience, you can build this professional-quality bookcase yourself. Its double-wall construction adds strength to the unit while concealing the plywood edges and creates flush sides that allow you to slide books out without catching them on the face frame.
Since you're making it from scratch, the bookcase can be custom-built. Add a few inches to the measurements for taller or wider shelves. Plus, since subassembly construction goes so quickly, you may want to build two bookcases at the same time to flank a window or fireplace.
Red oak plywood is the material of choice here, but you can save money by using melamine-coated fiberboard and concealing the edges with veneer tape. Painted birch plywood is another practical option, and it's stronger than fiberboard. Built as shown, the bookcase makes an impressive addition to your home.
Expect to spend about 8 hours building the bookcase, plus finishing time. You'll need measuring and sawing skills, plus a large work area.
What You Need
- Plywood (see Cut List)
- Tape measure
- Try square
- Framing square
- Electric drill/driver
- Countersink bit
- Table saw
- Circular saw
- Bar clamps
- Router bits
- Nail set
- Needle-nose pliers
Step 1: Cut Sides A to Size
Cut and trim the sides (A) to size. Clamp a scrap of perforated hardboard (pegboard) to the sides as a template to lay out and mark locations for shelf-pin holes as shown in the exploded view drawing.
Step 2: Drill Shelf-Pin Holes
With sides on a bench, drill 1/4-inch holes 3/8 inch deep at shelf-pin hole locations. Use an electric drill with a brad-point bit and a drill stop. Check the depth frequently; do not overdrill.
Editor's Tip: No drill stop? You can control the depth of the holes you drill without a drill stop by wrapping tape around the bit as a visible guide to the proper depth.
Step 3: Cut and Connect Top
Cut the top (B) to size. Join it to the end of one side (A) with glue and #8x1-1/2-inch flathead wood screws in counterbored holes, with parts lying on the table as shown. Add the second side.
Step 4: Attach Bottom
Cut the bottom (B) to size. With the sides/top assembly in place, clamp and glue the bottom to the sides. Check for square by measuring diagonally. Fasten with #8x1-1/2-inch flathead wood screws.
Step 5: Trim and Join Rails
Rip and trim the base rail (C) and the end rails (D) to size. On a table, join the base rail to the end rails with glue. Secure with #8x1-1/2-inch flathead wood screws in counterbored holes.
Step 6: Glue Panels and Rails
Trim the side panels (E) to size. Glue and clamp one panel to the side (A) of the carcase flush with the front edge. Glue and clamp the second side panel to the other side. Let the glue dry, then glue and clamp the base/end rails (C, D) in place.
Step 7: Cut and Fit Stiles
Cut the stiles (F) and the top and bottom rails (G, H) of the face frame to size. Glue and clamp one stile to the face of the carcase, flush with the side. Dry-fit the other stile and the two rails to the clamped stile to check for fit. Trim as needed for a tight joint.
Step 8: Complete Face Frame Assembly
Glue and clamp the top and bottom rails to the carcase face flush with its sides and butted to the first stile. Dry-fit the second stile to check for fit. Trim as necessary, then glue and clamp in place to complete the face-frame assembly.
Step 9: Cut and Glue Bases
Rip and crosscut the front base (I) and the side bases (J) to size. Cut a rounded edge on the top edges using a 3/8-inch bit in a router. Measure and miter-cut both ends of the front base and one end of each side base. Glue and clamp in place on the carcase. Sand the subassembly.
Editor's Tip: It may be difficult to finish-sand some parts of a project, such as the bookcase face frame, after assembly. Sanding the subassembly before adding it to the project ensures a thorough finish.
Step 10: Attach Plywood Top
Cut the plywood top (K) to size. Position it on the bookcase carcase, clamp, and fasten it in place with #8x1-1/4-inch flathead wood screws in counterbored holes from the inside. Drill carefully; use the correct length screws and don't go through the top.
Step 11: Attach Edging
Rip and crosscut the top front edging (L) and the top side edges (M). Measure and miter-cut both ends of the front edging to length, then glue and clamp it to the front edge of the top.
Editor's Tip: You can give the bookcase top a more finished look without adding edge molding. Rout its top and bottom with a 1/8-inch roundover bit. Rout the piece on a router table before it's attached or by working with a handheld router after it is attached to the case. Another option is to add a profiled molding to the top edge, or include a top made of edge-joined solid oak. Round top edges with a router and roundover bit, then add 3/4-inch oak cove molding beneath it.
Step 12: Glue Side Edges
With the front edging in place, double-check the mitered lengths for the side edges. Miter-cut one end of each and dry-fit to the top. Glue and clamp the side edges in place.
Step 13: Determine Back Dimensions
Attaching the finish sides to the carcase created a rabbeted frame for the back. Measure inside that frame to get the final dimensions for the back (N).
Step 14: Cut and Trim Back
Cut the back panel from 1/4-inch-thick red oak plywood. Lay the bookcase face down on sawhorses and insert the back (N) to check its fit. Trim as necessary.
Step 15: Drill Screw Holes
With the back in place, mark regularly spaced screw holes along its edges. Drill holes for short #6x1-inch flathead wood screws. Then remove the back for now.
Step 16: Cut Shelves
Cut the shelves' edging (P) to size from red oak and shape the edging as desired. Cut two shelves from plywood, then glue and clamp the edging to their fronts.
Step 17: Install Support Pins
Install the shelf support pins in the drilled holes at the heights you want. Then temporarily install the shelves to check for fit. Trim the shelves as necessary, then sand.
Step 18: Sand Bookcase
Modern hardwood plywood uses extremely thin face veneers. When sanding, make one pass with 180-grit sandpaper, a second with 220-grit. That's all you'll need before staining.
Editor's Tip: Finishing the back while it's attached to the bookcase will result in an uneven application simply because it's hard to reach all of it. After fitting the back and drilling screw holes, remove it for sanding, staining, and finishing in a well-lit work area. When the back is dry, reinstall it in the bookcase and secure it with small wood screws. You may want to finish it on both sides for complete protection.
Step 19: Apply Stain
Apply stain and let it dry. We used two coats of penetrating oil for a top coat. Sand between coats with fine abrasive or #0000 steel wool for smoothness.
Step 20: Secure Back Panel
When the finish has cured, reinstall the back panel and secure it with screws.
Bonus Tips and Tricks
How to Support Plywood for Ripping
To safely rip plywood with a portable circular saw, use 2x4 supports laying on sawhorses and a kerf splitter to prevent kickback.
How to Cut the Right Side
All plywood has a good side and a not-so-good side. When working with expensive hardwood plywood, remember which is the best, or face, side. A saw blade leaves rough edges on the side where it exits the wood, so make sure that isn't the best side.
If you cut plywood with a portable circular saw, place the sheet with the good side face down. The circular saw blade exits the wood on the side that's up. A tablesaw exits the wood on the bottom, the side resting on the table, so you should saw with the best side of the plywood up.
How to Shape the Edging
Adding a solid wood edge to the red oak plywood shelves covers the unsightly plies and adds rigidity. A simple 1-1/2-inch-wide strip ripped from 3/4-inch-thick red oak will do (top). Another attractive option is to rout 1/8-inch roundovers on the 1-1/2-inch strip (bottom). Cutting a 1/16x1/16-inch rabbet at the strip's back adds another detail.
How to Use a Dowel-Jointed Frame
Another way to build the face frame is to construct it as a separate assembly. Use dowel joints to secure the stiles to the rails, then glue and clamp the frame to the carcase.
How to Make Your Own Molding
Step 1: Profile the Top
To profile the top molding, rip 3/4-inch oak to 1 inch wide. Use a tablesaw or router to cut a 1/16x1/16-inch rabbet on one edge.
Step 2: Shape Top Roundover
With a roundover bit in a router, shape a 1/4-inch roundover 1/8 inch deep on the edge opposite the rabbet.
Step 3: Shape Bottom Roundover
To complete the profile, chuck a 1/8-inch roundover bit into the router and shape a 1/8-inch roundover along the bottom edge.