Seventeen thousand books, no carpentry experience, limited budget
January 22, 2014 11:30 AM   Subscribe

We have a lot of books, are moving next week, and want floor to ceiling (nine feet high), wall to wall bookcases in one room of our new place. How difficult would it be for us to do this ourselves? What're our options?

I'm debating figuring out if there's a way if I can go to one of the big box stores and having the wood cut and then essentially making massive floor to ceiling bookshelves, one step up from the metal brackets nailed up the studs with a plank of wood down the length. We can afford a little bit, but not the full cost of hiring a carpenter to make this for us.

How realistic is this? We're smart and capable, but have essentially zero carpentry experience. Are there other options we should consider? Are there step-by-step resources that people recommend? I'm less interested in simple links to tutorials one could easily google, and more into personal experiences, recommendations, and links to and commentary on tutorials/guides that you actually used. Thanks
posted by history is a weapon to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I actually recommend the Ikea Billy to do something like this over anything you can build yourself, particularly with limited carpentry experiance.

Significantly easier, and probably the cheapest option you have (raw lumber can be surprisingly expensive)
posted by larthegreat at 11:37 AM on January 22, 2014 [13 favorites]

If you don't already have the tools for the job it is most certainly going to be cheaper and turn out substantially better if you hire a carpenter.

Alternatively you could find an existing product that meets most of your needs (Ikea?) and directly fasten that to the wall studs.
posted by axismundi at 11:40 AM on January 22, 2014

I am a big fan of Ana White's website and am going to build custom bookshelves for our small apartment. Lots of plans and ideas there and step-by-step instructions.

I work with carpenters (hooray!) so when the time comes I will pick up the materials and have them cut the wood for me and I will put it together myself. If there's a Home Depot nearby, you should be able to get them to do the cutting for you.
posted by futureisunwritten at 11:44 AM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here's what I'd recommend: making ONE floor-to-ceiling bookshelf (about the width and depth of an Ikea Billy) and seeing how you like it. One is a good starter project for someone with minimal carpentry skills. A whole roomful has the potential to be a big waste of money and time.
posted by mskyle at 11:45 AM on January 22, 2014

This Old House estimates $200-$500; there will be materials, tool rentals, and of course the project will take over the room you're in for the duration (a weekend, probably). TOH distinguishes between bookshelves and bookcases, but it appears you're aware of the distinction as well.

Keep that in mind for if you get a carpenter's estimate. Also keep in mind that a carpenter knows the local code, so make sure you get familiar enough with the code (i.e. what can you drill into/anchor to, do you need strapping against earthquakes, what can't you cut or drill in the walls).
posted by Sunburnt at 11:46 AM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Some advice about combining premade components and some custom work for nice built-in book shelves here.

See another example here of turning standard Ikea Billy bookcases into a very nice built in floor to ceiling setup.
posted by Wretch729 at 11:47 AM on January 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

Planing/joining isn't cheap either. I'd go with the Billy option for the basic structure, with some money on nice trim or finish.
posted by holgate at 11:52 AM on January 22, 2014

I highly recommend getting a bunch of cinder blocks (concrete block in the US?) and buying some beautiful wood to span. Depending on the width of your wall you'll need one in the centre and one on either side (obviously the wider you go the more you need in the middle to avoid bowing).

if you get a bunch of 4x1 clears, dressed, you can put two across each span and that will fit most books. Macrocarpa makes for nice bookshelf timber.

Then once you've got your shelves together you can start learning about how to go about building some nicer ends!
posted by leemajors at 12:08 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well, your options are thus:
  • Ikea:
    • Pros: pretty much foolproof, nearly instant.
    • Cons: not nearly as awesome as saying you built it yourself. Will basically forever look like ikea stuff.
  • Track shelving
    • Cons: Requires you to have a stud finder, drill (you don't nail into studs, you screw), level, and like all home improvement projects, 3 to 15 trips to home depot. You might need to plaster/paint over any missed stud holes too.
    • Pros: could be cheaper than ikea, but only if you have the above equipment already. More customizable, could actually go to the ceiling.
  • Trendy Pipe shelves
    • Pros: looks pretty cool. Cheaper than a carpenter, (possibly not cheaper than ikea)
    • Cons: same as above, but requires more exacting measurements since you're not using a system.
  • Hiring a carpenter
    • Pros: it's done, and not by you. Might cost less than you think. Could have options to route some lights/outlets into it while you're getting the work done.
    • Cons: Cost. Disruption to household. Probably a wash in terms of "adding to resale value"
Also, if you want painted wood you should let paint cure on bookshelves for an extra long time, like 3 weeks. Otherwise you'll get some minor stickage.
posted by fontophilic at 1:25 PM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you don't like the look of cinder block, try brick, painting the cinder blocks, or some of the decorative garden blocks. You could also use glass bricks for a contemporary look. Run a bead of silicone on the tops and bottoms of whatever you use for less sliding.
posted by yohko at 1:38 PM on January 22, 2014

Those are not your only options. It just depends on how much you want to spend.
posted by The Bellman at 1:39 PM on January 22, 2014

Wood is expensive, even if you get lower grade wood (PDF). The only way to offset that cost is by getting the really warped or dinged wood that some places will offer at discounts to clear their inventory, or by buying leftovers from someone's large job.

Or you can buy used furniture. Seeing as you're in Brooklyn, it seems pretty likely you can get a lot of free-to-cheap shelving by checking Craigslist and whatnot. If it's not pretty, spend some money on sandpaper and stain (if the wood is dinged up, but in decent shape) or some paint (if it's cheap wood, or already painted).
posted by filthy light thief at 1:41 PM on January 22, 2014

One thing about Billy's is that you can't overstuff. I keep having to remind my partner he can't have all his graphic novels on one shelf, because it visibly starts to bow.
posted by politikitty at 2:07 PM on January 22, 2014

I would also suggest Ikea, except using the Expedit line. I think it looks nicer and is sturdier than Billy but YMMV. Here are a couple of links to give you some ideas 1,2
posted by Snazzy67 at 2:36 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

One thing about Billy's is that you can't overstuff. I keep having to remind my partner he can't have all his graphic novels on one shelf, because it visibly starts to bow.

I prefer the 15 3/4" Billy for this exact reason. You probably don't want a bank of six or eight stretching down a long wall, but you can break them up with other furniture, and you can set up three around each empty corner of the room with Ikea's corner bracket kit.
posted by pullayup at 3:55 PM on January 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

When I faced this dilemma, the best option in the end was just getting a carpenter and doing it right. It looks better; it can stand the weight; it doesn't feel half-assed. If you have that many books, I think you care enough to do it right.
posted by dame at 4:07 PM on January 22, 2014

The thing about Home Depot is that they don't cut accurately enough to really do decent bookshelves. No knock on them; when you want to build cabinets you use different techniques than sliding out a tape measure and pulling the panel saw through the lumber.

Good custom built-ins run from several hundred bucks per linear foot of wall for paint grade, a little more for stain grade poplar, through a thousand bucks per linear foot of wall for furniture grade hardwoods, on up (Just went to a talk by a carver who has staff in India whose last few projects have been private libraries in the millions of dollars).

If you're talking books similar to the ones I just counted on two of my shelves, you get about .8 books per inch, if you have 9 shelves vertically that works out to 126 feet of wall space. So my guess is that any decent carpenter or woodworker is going to quote you about $40k to do custom shelves.

Clearly you can get garage/utility shelves for less, and you can get Ikea shelves for less, as long as you're conscious of sagging issues.

One possible compromise would be to get the bookshelf cases from Ikea, screw them together and to the wall, and ask a carpenter to cut and paint you a bunch of poplar shelves. If you're buying large quantities (300+ board feet) of it you should be able to get poplar for ~$2/board foot, but surfaced you're probably closer to $5/board foot, painting more, with 8" deep shelves that's 906 board feet of shelving, so at least 5 grand for the wood for the shelves alone. Not counting the cases.

I think maybe it's time to make some budget decisions: Are steel garage shelves okay? What aesthetic are you up for? How much are those books worth to you to display?

And there's nothing wrong with going with pine and cinder blocks if you make the rest of the room design match that...
posted by straw at 4:35 PM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Compression Pole Shelving could let avoid having to attach anything to a wall.
posted by Sophont at 5:08 PM on January 22, 2014

My dad is a ridiculously good wood worker and he would tell you to do exactly what Wretch279 said. It will cost you way more in materials and time to do this from scratch. If you don't have much experience, you will most likely make a lot of mistakes. It will be far easier to stand up the Billys and then have yourself / a carpenter build it in with some facing / molding / shims / caulking.

I basically did what you are trying to do using the method above and it was a lot easier than some of my previous attempts from scratch.
posted by jasondigitized at 5:11 PM on January 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I made a giant 8x8 bookshelf a few years ago to fill a wall. I used 2x12's of... whatever Home Depot had? I had the store cut it to my measurements and I just used big screws to put it together. I think it took about $150 and a weekend to finish it, and at least $50 of that cost was the stain.

I'm no carpenter but competently handy, and had my similarly-credentialed dad as an assistant (and who was able to supply the tools I didn't have). They're the sturdiest thing I own and don't look too bad, although my house has kind of a bohemian look and a bunch of antique furniture in varying states of shabbiness and primitiveness, so it fits in.

I highly recommend doing it yourself instead of relying on Ikea! This was the result of all my shelves not surviving a move. This beast will live forever.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 5:33 PM on January 22, 2014

The people who are warning you that it will take more money and time than you are figuring are talking about pretty bookcases - something constructed using actual carpentry techniques. If that is what you want, they are right that you shouldn't try it unless you know what you are doing; it won't save you money and will be a giant headache. However, if you just want something that will hold books and not fall over, cinderblocks and planks can work great.

In case that's what you're going for, some advice about building a simple block-and-plank bookshelf:

- Use single planks to span the entire wall.
- You want your planks thicker and probably wider than you would want for a normal bookshelf.
- Know exactly how long you want your wood before you go to the store.
- Know how much vertical space you want for each shelf and buy cinderblocks/bricks appropriately.
- Only place cinderblocks over other cinderblocks.
- You can have more than two "columns" of cinderblocks if you have a long shelf.
- All cinderblocks and planks should be flush against the wall.
- Your wall probably has a baseboard, which means the lowest cinderblocks will be a little offset from the rest, further into the room. If you've got nice wide planks, that's actually somewhat a good thing, because it will help give the shelves a tendency to rest against the wall rather than fall into the room.
- I've never had a problem with cinderblock bookcases falling into the room, but if you're concerned, consider adding an additional "keep it from falling over" measure of some kind. Something that holds the uppermost levels in place is what you'd want.
posted by kyrademon at 6:20 PM on January 22, 2014

Last year, my sweetheart and I consolidated ourselves and our book collections into a newly purchased house and I had to build five book cases (guessing ~160 sq. feet) to house them (also to replace a few Billy bookcases from Ikea that weren't suitable (*)). I am no cabinet maker, let me assure you! I built them using cabinet-grade hardwood plywood (maple and red oak, depending on the room), using very simple dado joints, and stained using Danish oil. The end results are very good looking (I can't post a link to a picture right now since, I am -- ahem -- at work at the moment). A few steps down from professional cabinetry, but leagues better than the Billy.

It is quite easy to google around for making bookcases out of plywood, but here's the rough outline.

Materials: plywood, danish oil, sand paper, maybe a few screws, carpenter's glue, rags and sponge, rubber gloves. One 4'x8'x12" bookcase (three uprights, lots of shelves) took not quite two sheets of plywood.

Cost: Here in Canada, I was getting the maple for ~60$ a sheet, the oak for ~80$. A can of oil is about 30$. All in, it was about $200 for one book case, and probably a bit under $1000 for all five (~160 sq. ft.) Ikea cost would not have been much less (maybe more, who knows?), and would not have really fit my very particular spaces.

Tools: table saw, work table or bench, 3-4 small clamps, straight board or fence, router, 3/4" dado bit, drill, more clamps, orbital hand sander.

Time: One book case typically took a weekend including measuring my wall, drawing plans, driving to the wood store, buying wood, building the shelves, curing glue overnight, sanding and oiling. Then I'd wait a few days before installing in the house. During that weekend, I'm also sleeping in, making lavish meals, taking my dog for long walks, and reading -- its not like its my job or anything. Really, it's about 12 hours of actual work, and I'm pretty slow and inexperienced.

* drew the plans (materials: ruler, pencil)
* bought plywood and danish oil.
* ripped the plywood on a table saw (neighbour's, also quite helpful to have someone else around for this). I'm ripping uprights and shelves to the same width, which corresponds to the depth of the book case. Each bookcase was different.
* cut dado's into the uprights with a router and dado bit (you can rent a router. You will need clamps, a table, and something with a perfect straight edge to use as a fence).
* cut shelves to right lengths (used a circular saw for this -- again, borrowed -- you can use a table saw, but it can be a bit more awkward to get the cuts straight and perpendicular)
* dry-fit the shelves into the uprights to check everything. This is very satisfying.
* Filled the dados with glue, inserted the shelves, and clamped. If you don't have very long clamps (my neighbour had awesome 6 foot long pipe lenghts with clamps on them -- you buy a kit of the clamp fittings and buy the right lenght of standard plumbing pipe), you can use screws to pull everything together. Make sure to drill a pilot hole and countersink the screw. It won't look as nice, but if you countersink the screw, you can then hide the screw with wood filler compound.
* When cured (overnight), sanded the shelf down. (Used a hand held orbital sander. Rent, borrow or buy)
* Apply two coats of Danish oil (very easy to work with ... much easier than varnish, and looks better than stain or paint).
* Wait a day or two, then move into the house (because the oil kind of smells a bit while curing).
* They don't really need it, but I installed one small L-bracket at the top of the bookcases to tie them into a stud.

I can post pictures later. I'm really inordinately proud of these. They look pretty slick despite

(1) using through dados rather than stopped dados;

(2) the visible plywood cross-section. One approach is to then face this with veneer strips, but I like to think that the visible (if subtle, given the oil stain) plies are very much in the modern idiom. In the past, my brother and I have built similar shelves for our parents using dimensional lumber (2x10's and 3/4" thick 1x10s). No planing or joining, we were buying 'hobby grade', not construction, pine.

(*) Why I didn't go the Billy route:

In fact, two of these replaced Billy book cases, which I was annoyed with. Ikea stuff, in my opinion is fairly nice or at least inoffensive looking, but is made of poor materials. They don't last very long, and don't tolerate being moved more than a few times. Even if they were made of solid hardwood, I have an old, funky house with weird spaces. I wanted the books to fit these spaces nicely. One book case is very shallow (6"), for instance. My ceilings aren't a standard height, so the Ikea stuff doesn't fit right. The wall lengths are also odd and irregular. I planned the space between the shelves so that the shelves go around light fixtures and outlets and (in one case) a thermostat).

Wow, there goes my lunch hour....
posted by bumpkin at 10:39 AM on January 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

bumpkin has a good write up so I'll just add a few things from the one I was composing:

First off besides the higher quality of a homemade bookcase they have the immense practical benefit of exactly fitting your space. Billys especially are a poor choice for your space because they are only 80" high leaving 28" of space above. That's both wasteful for max storage and it'll look pretty weird in your room. The ones linked also only have a weight rating of 66lb/shelf. I don't know what kinds of books you need to shelve but keep in mind that letter size paper runs about 25-30 lbs per foot.

You don't need a table saw for this project and IMO it's safer to not use one for this project if you don't already have experience with one. All the rips can be done with a skilsaw, a pair of sawhorses (even those cheap sawhorse brackets and a few 2x4s) and a straight edge. And you don't need to buy a straight edge as every one of your sheets of plywood has 4.

Regarding the raw plywood edge: I really don't like the look of it and it can get splintery if bumped hard especially with a non film forming finish. Rather than veneer edging which is fidgety I'd use a moulded edging. You can buy it in 3/4" x 1/4" or so cross sections in the moulding section. Installation is a snap. Cut it to length, run a light bead of wood glue down the exposed plywood edge, apply the moulding, wiggle it around a little bit to spread the glue, and then hold it in place with masking tape until it dries. Make sure to remove any squeeze out with a damp cloth before the glue dries. If you make your shelves slightly narrower than your sides you don't have to worry about coping the mouldings where the shelf meets the side.

Instead of consuming 3-4 inches of vertical height with kick plates (that little inset area at the bottom of the Billy) by having your bookcases rest directly on the floor, put your bottom shelf right at the bottom of your side. Then build a simple rectangular frame out of 2x4s on their edge that is long enough to span from wall to wall and narrow enough to be set back a couple inches. Set your bookcases on top of that and face the top with 1x4 to match your shelve material. Doing this reduces the space above your shelves and distributes the weight over the floor better because of the box beam effect of the 2x4s. (If this isn't clear let me know and I can take a few pictures of the base cabinets in my shop that are set up this way).

If you want to avoid dealing with plywood the home improvement borgs around here all sell laminated pine shelving in assorted widths. It's usually around 5/8ths of an inch thick so you would want to keep your widths down (say 24") but it would save a lot of effort. The major drawback is appearance; if you want something traditional looking you would need to paint. It is pretty environmentally friendly though as it's made up of wood pieces that couldn't be made into dimension lumber.

Finally tools hold their value pretty well; you can easily recoup at least half of the costs spent on tools if you don't want to keep them by selling them when you are finished.
posted by Mitheral at 8:55 PM on January 23, 2014

Response by poster: Follow-up (AKA, what did we end up doing?).
After a lot of debate, we reached out to several bookcase makers/carpenters. Their initial quotes were over our budget (ten thousand dollars+), but someone we know recommended a carpenter who makes a lot of bookcases and built-ins for interesting political projects and he came over, had a good talk with us, looked at the place, and cut us a decent deal: we had to do the painting, he did everything else for about $2500. The bookcases are good, there's no way I could've made them as good.

Two takeaways: Painting over a hundred planks of wood is terrible, especially in a small place, and I sort of hated it. It took several weeks to get done. If I had a bigger budget, I'd pay to have it painted.
Second, in our last place we had a lot of bookcases throughout the house (fifteen, many of them very tall, and very long shelf circling the wall of the living room) and the books were cluttered (packed to the gills, some layering, horizontals on top, and boxes and boxes in storage). We've taken two walls in one small room, albeit with high ceilings, and we have considerable room left. Like about six empty shelves. I am very happy we went with built-ins. The amount of space it created was pretty impressive and confirms we made the right call.
posted by history is a weapon at 6:08 AM on April 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

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