Am I crazy to try to build some built-in shelves?
November 15, 2011 11:35 AM   Subscribe

I would like to build some built in shelves in my house. I have basic carpentry experience, and I have built basic shelves before. Would I be making a big mistake to try this? How much might I expect to pay a carpenter to do this?

I have basic tools, a circular saw, a drill, etc., although I could likely borrow more if I need them.

The shelves would be approx. 15 feet long by 12 feet high, so I assume there would be several sections divided by uprights.

If I'm not insane to attempt this:

1) What kind of wood should I use? My guess is I need something a bit more than the regular pine boards available at a big box store, or would those be ok?

2) What kind of paint should I use to paint the shelves?

3) I would be building this in a wide hallway, so would have to build it in place. Does that make it much harder?
posted by OmieWise to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
1) it depends on how you want it to look, and how much would be visible. Cheap wood is fine for hidden structure, not what you want for visibility. If you're going to paint it then cheap wood is fine.
2) it depends on your answer to (1). If you've sprung for expensive wood, a stain would be preferable to paint. Unless you want it to be a specific color to match your walls or other decor, in which case use cheap wood and interior paint.
3) You wouldn't have to do this in place. You can build it in sections and then assemble in place.
posted by Runes at 11:59 AM on November 15, 2011

p.s. I'm not a carpenter, but have built cheap shelves in my house as well as paid someone to put in good ones and these were the sorts of questions I had to answer in deciding which way to go.
posted by Runes at 12:00 PM on November 15, 2011

Built in implies, well, built into the wall. If that is the case then you will be playing with structure. hacking away at studs without knowing what they are holding up is dangerous.
posted by Gungho at 12:02 PM on November 15, 2011

Built in implies, well, built into the wall. If that is the case then you will be playing with structure. hacking away at studs without knowing what they are holding up is dangerous.

Built in can also imply anchored to the wall. I have shelves that are, for all practical purposes "built in," but I built them elsewhere and screwed them into studs in the wall. That's not dangerous and not structurally compromising.
posted by jayder at 12:09 PM on November 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Do you have any reference materials for this project? I'm sure others could suggest better ones, but this one and this one seem like good starts. They might help you check some of these questions off as you go step by step.
posted by Madamina at 12:18 PM on November 15, 2011

This is within your abilities. Part of the issue is how "finished" you want them to look and how nice you want them to look over what period of time. The big difference between paying someone to do this and doing it yourself is that the person you've paid to do this will likely have done it a lot of times before and so will have the process down. The big thing, to me, about built-ins is that they go floor to ceiling with some sort of thing up top [moulding usually] and on the bottom to make them look like they are part of the structure and not just "Hey I slapped some pine up here"

If I were you, I'd do a little research and check out bookshelves that you really like on Flickr or Google images and see if you can figure out how the ones you like were made (check instructables, they have a lot of cool options). The ones I have seen that are sort of the nicest are at my dad's place (pls excuse doofy family). They have extra pieces of wood on the front of the risers and the top part (see how great my carpentry vocabulary is?) to make them look more enclosed. The uprights have racks carved into them which have those little metal "adjustable shelf" slots which you can hardly notice so you can adjust the shelf heights. Basically you don't feel like you're looking at the sides of boards when you look at the shelves because they're finished and, of course, it's all painted to match the room [paint once before assembling and then again afterwards]. The kick panels at the bottom are just blank and are hidey spaces for junk. Moulding up top and at the bottom.

Also think about the books you want to put there. Multiple sizes? All trade paperbacks? Any really deep books? How shallow can you get away with? Are there light switches or outlets that you have to work around? Heat registers? All of these will increase the complexity of your project to the point where you have to ask yourself if it's still fun for you or if it isn't. Again I think this is within your abilities, but if you won't find it a challenging and interesting project (make sure you have space to lay all the boards out while you paint them, for example) then it could go either way.
posted by jessamyn at 12:22 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Shelves, built-ins, are often just ply-wood boxes...

I knew this 'designer' once who used to get the local cabinetmaking outfit (this was in NYC, and I don't know how prevalent this might be in the rest of the US), he would have this place make him boxes, say, 36 inches wide by 7 feet tall (48 inches is un-wieldy, 24 inches kind of narrow). He would make a 'base' or plinth on site, making that all nice and level 'cause that's important. Then stick the boxes on that, anchor them to the wall and more often than not, put a nice moulding around the thing and VIOLA! Fancy looking built-in shelving units. These were almost invariably made out of 3/4 inch Birch ply. Went for about 50$ a sheet, don't know about now. It's a very smooth, even surface that paints really well.

Honestly, there's no good way to hack together shelves. I totally stole the designer's idea bunches of times and they always look great. That box, building it right, is a pain in the butt especially if you haven't done it a bunch and/or don't have a shop to do it in.

I've adapted Ikea shelving units a couple times as well but there, they are engineered to be assembled only the way they intend, so they are sometimes un-adaptable. Start with you want it to look like and then work backwards.

Good luck!
posted by From Bklyn at 12:25 PM on November 15, 2011

If you want to do it, you can. You should probably use A1 grade plywood, probably 3/4". It's cheap and plenty strong and will paint up nicely. There are ample plans online. Here's one site that is tailored for the relatively inexperienced wood-worker. link
The site is a little girly, but don't let that throw you. :) Her plans are simple, modular, and generally only require a circular saw and a drill. I've had good luck modifying the measurements on-the-fly based on my specific circumstances.
posted by specialnobodie at 12:30 PM on November 15, 2011

Response by poster: Built in implies, well, built into the wall. If that is the case then you will be playing with structure. hacking away at studs without knowing what they are holding up is dangerous.

I won't be doing anything to mess with the structure, I'll just be building in front of the existing wall another wall made of shelves. This is typically called a built-in bookshelf where I'm from (the mid-Atlantic) to distinguish it from a shelf that could be moved to another location.
posted by OmieWise at 12:53 PM on November 15, 2011

In an architect and furniture maker and the project you are describing is totally within your reach. I would use birch ply, but you don't need anything as fancy or expensive as the "apple-ply" and "euro-ply" that you will see advertised at the places you are likely to go. A standard birch "shop-ply" is fine. I do mostly hand-cut joinery stuff these days, but I LOVE the casework projects like the one you are going to do because they go so fast and you can get great results yourself without it costing a lot.

Here's the a Kreg Pocket Screw Jig . It takes all of the thinking (and gluing and clamping and waiting) out of the joinery process and lets you put stuff together accurately and with very little setup. All you need is something to cut a straight edge (tablesaw...or a circular saw with a guide) and cordless drill. The system is foolproof and produces very strong joints without glue+clamps...which would not be necessary in your built-in situation. The kit I linked to is the basic kit and probably the only one you would need for your project. It is cheaper than a single clamp. Kreg also sells this cabinet making dvd that tells you everything you would need to know for your project for ten bucks. It came with the set I bought, so I watched and it does a good job of answering all the questions you might have for a built-in bookcase project. I don't mean to go on and on (and I have no connection to the company), it's just that the ease of this one tool made projects fun again for me because it made them doable in a weekend.

Pro-tip #2: If you paint your shelves, wait about twice as long as it takes for the paint to thoroughly dry before putting anything on your shelves...especially books and magazines. They can stick like mad, even if the paint seemed adequately dry. Not only do they ruin your books when you realize they are sticking, but you will have to repaint. And it will take you just as long to put 1 coat of primer and 2 coats of finish on your shelving than it will to build the cabinets with the Kreg Jig.

Good luck!
posted by nickjadlowe at 12:54 PM on November 15, 2011 [9 favorites]

You can also build shelves by attaching standards to the wall and brackets to those. This kind of system works best if your walls are sheetrock over conventionally spaced studs, it's harder if they're old plaster walls. It's fairly easy to do, locate the studs, attach the standards, make sure the standards are plumb and level/aligned to each other. One of the advantages of this kind of system is that you can make the shelves various widths and heights to accommodate your books. I've used these in a couple of houses, installed them myself easily.
posted by mareli at 1:14 PM on November 15, 2011

Seconding the Kreg Pocket Screw Jig. Get the DVD as well, just to make sure you completely understand how the thing works.

Measure carefully and avoid cutting anything freehand or it will look sloppy. Drill pilot holes for screws for the same reason.

I would suggest also getting a T-square to make sure those angles are actually 90 degrees. It will also help you set cutting guides.
posted by kjs3 at 2:38 PM on November 15, 2011

I built a load of bookshelves that are about 12 feet long by 4 feet high and anchored to the wall as you describe. I used pine and, while it was time consuming and quite an effort (all sawn by hand and at least 100 screws put in by hand) it wasn't especially difficult. I actually got quite into it and made the dozen or so individual shelves irregular heights and widths, so it likes like some coolish piece of modern furniture. The most difficult thing was that the walls in the house are very irregular. The wood was quite expensive, but it was a board that's over a foot wide. Painting it was easy.
posted by rhymer at 3:04 PM on November 15, 2011

3/4 inch plywood is definitely the way to go, Baltic Birch Plywood is pretty standard for this, but if you are going to paint them and aren't too fussy, AC plywood will do. Pick a uniform width for the shelves and rip the plywood using a guide. If you can do this accurately, then the whole job will be straightforward. The reason for plywood is cost and that it won't warp. Really, don't just use pine.

If you can't do this yourself, pay someone to rip the plywood for you. But you can. Clamp your guide, or buy a table saw and a buddy. Ripping plywood can be exciting, don't let it be.

I've built most of my shelves at 12" You might consider 8".
Keep the boxes narrow, either 2' or 30" max.

Build them where it is easy to work and carry them in. Put a 1/4" back on them, hopefully of the same kind of plywood. Although since you are going to paint them it doesn't really matter.

That guy talking about the Kreg Jig was exactly right. You are going to want one of those. It's not necessary, but it's nice.

The other pro tip. Put face frames on. Don't get fancy. Rip nice wood, preferably a hardwood to 1" or 2" for the verticals. This will hide your hideous joinery, and the fact that you have connected plywood boxes together to call it a built in.

The secret to face frames is using a chopsaw to make sure you have 90 degree cuts. (you squared those plywood boxes using a 3-4-5 triangle right?) I'm a decent carpenter, but I'd really prefer a chopsaw to a circular saw for this. It's finish work. Easy, but still finish work. Also, use a nail gun to put these on. It takes years to swing a hammer well, and nail guns do it right.

You won't be able to buy nice 1x2 hardwood at the depot. It's crap. It will be twisted and wrong. If you buy 1x8 and rip it, it will be fine.

Again, don't build it in place.
posted by mearls at 3:47 PM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm sure there are more 'professional' plans out there, but I've learned a ton by following the site that used to be called "Knock-Off Wood." Now the site is called Ana White and she provides a ton of projects that are basically knock-offs of Pottery Barn, West Elm, Restoration Hardware, etc. The site has grown into a huge community, and it has been a friendly place to learn woodworking and furniture making because people ASSUME a basic knowledge, and build from there. Many of the posts begin with "My first build!!" so the plans really are tailored to a first-time woodworker/builder.

Anyway, I'm sure it's too cheesy for the seasoned makers, but for there of us just learning, she has a great series of videos, posts, plans and blogs that discuss things like the Kreg Jig, clamping, how to get the built-in feel. Here are a few of her posts on semi-built-in bookshelves.
posted by barnone at 4:34 PM on November 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Professional carpenter here. You can certainly build these shelves yourself. I have two bookcases that I build in grad school with no more tools than the ones you have. People still compliment them, but by my professional standards, I think they look like complete crap. So you can build these, but they will be nowhere near as nice as a competent professional could do.

If you were to hire me to build these, I'd charge you about $1750, depending on a few design decisions, for a quality, paint-grade project. And we'd still need to hire a painter. Materials alone will be $600-$700. The upside is that the turnaround time on this project is 3-4 days (of which I'm in your house for only 1), and the quality is top-notch. Basically, you get good and fast, but not necessarily cheap.

If that number's not in your budget, then it's time to learn to build boxes. But realize that in order to get cheap, you're sacrificing good and fast. Anyway, think of this project in components. For a wall of shelves 15' x 12' I would build 5 boxes at 3' x 8' and 5 boxes at 3' x 4' then tie everything together with a face frame once the boxes are installed. Be sure to include backs on your boxes -- they'll keep everything square, add support to the shelves, and give you a way to attach the units to the wall.

Materials are 3/4" cabinet-grade plywood and 1/2" ply for the backs. You're looking at $25-$30 a sheet. For around $45 a sheet, you can get pre-finished (natural, never seen it in colors) plywood. The beauty of the pre-finished is that you don't have to paint the insides of the cabinets. Painting inside cabinets really sucks. If you don't like the natural finish and want color, pre-finish the sheets yourself. Just be careful about tool marks -- the big black steak the shoe of your circ saw leaves behind, for example. Use 1x poplar for the face-frame. Buy these materials from a local hardwood supplier and not a big-box.

Take a minute to build a shooting board to make straight rips with your circ saw. Also, pick up (they're cheap) a 16"x24" carpenter's square. Several people mentioned the pocket-screw jig; it has it's place, but since most of your side panels will be hidden by the adjacent cabinet, you can just face nail (screw actually) from the outside of the box into the end of a shelf. Much quicker and easier than pocket screws and cleaner in the finished product.

Finally, the FineHomebuilding and FineWoodworking sites have great resources. You can get a two-week trial membership that will give you access to their entire archives. Also, this book from Taunton has a nice intro to bookcases and cabinets section, and I think you can find it at Lowe's/HD. Good luck, feel free to MeMail me if you have any questions.
posted by lost_cause at 7:01 AM on November 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

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