Are there low-end bookcases without the cardboard-like back?
January 25, 2015 5:29 PM   Subscribe

I was going to buy an IKEA bookcase, but I looked at the instruction manuals for all the ones I'd like to get and they all have a thin, fake-wood back instead of a real wood back. I think this looks a bit corny, and I've seen thin backs get absolutely destroyed. Target's bookcases aren't any better. I'll buy a bookcase like this if I have to, but - are there any places that sell relatively inexpensive bookcases with actual wooden backs?
posted by LSK to Shopping (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure where you live, but in both Durham, NC, and Atlanta, GA (USA), there are unfinished furniture stores where you can buy all kinds of furniture made out of solid wood. You can pay the store to finish the wood for you, or you can finish it yourself. The latter is less expensive, of course, if more time consuming, but either way you end up with much better quality.
posted by amtho at 5:32 PM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One reason why cardboard is preferred for cheap self-assembly furniture is that it folds into the box; another is that 'proper' carpentry tends to avoid solid back panels when they're going to be visible, favouring slats or floating frame-and-panel construction, both of which look nice and allow for expansion/shrinkage. Banging a load of nails into a bit of unfolded cardboard is more accommodating of any off-square stuff after assembly, even if the result is a bit shit. If you go to an actual furniture store or thrift/salvage/office surplus place, the presence of slats or panel construction is a mark of decent quality.

If, after looking, your budget's still IKEA-tight, a relatively inexpensive hack might be to get some thin plywood (or even MDF) cut to size and stain/paint it. Alternatively, you could buy some tongue-and-groove flooring planks to get the slatted effect in this DIY plan.
posted by holgate at 6:08 PM on January 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

Fwiw the back of the IKEA billy bookcases isn't cardboard as much as very thin MDF or something similar.
posted by chasles at 6:26 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a house full of bookcases, and they are all either custom made, or from high-end manufacturers, so I have some idea of what you are facing, having gone through many of them before ending up with what I have. You can either replace the MDF veneered backs with a thicker (stronger, heavier) MDF veneer, or a nice piece of ply, which can come pretty much as thick as you want. That will make them stronger but probably not improve the look, because all those large sheets are veneers. A solid piece of edge-glued timber for all but the smallest bookcase will be pretty expensive, and difficult to find.

I would be more concerned with shelf strength - some of those particle board/MDF shelves can be pretty weak, especially in longer lengths. If you are shelving paperbacks, no problem. Hardbacks, probably ok, but try and keep the shelves shorter rather than longer. Big books, on glossy paper - these are the shelf killers, keep them on the bottom shelf if you can, or close to the ends if not, and preferably only on real wood shelves in any event.
posted by GeeEmm at 6:53 PM on January 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Is there a way to identify which shelves will endure the weight of heavy books without warping?
posted by LSK at 6:57 PM on January 25, 2015

I think you have to get a non-particle-board shelf; I don't know of any particleboard/MDF shelf that can take heavy books without some bowing. I say this looking around at a living room full of IKEA shelves with slightly bowed middles.
posted by emjaybee at 8:43 PM on January 25, 2015

I always get IVAR shelves from IKEA--cheap, solid pine, infinitely re-configurable. They don't bow at all. (No backs, though.)
posted by the_blizz at 8:52 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Storables sells nice bamboo folding bookshelves that don't have backs at all. In Portland OR you can get really nice bare wood shelves custom made at Periodicals Paradise (with wood backs, made to order).
posted by feets at 9:17 PM on January 25, 2015

Is there a way to identify which shelves will endure the weight of heavy books without warping?

Ahhh ... the $64 question! Sadly, there really isn't a simple answer. How heavy are the books, and how many? How long is the shelf, and how wide is it? Basically, solid timber is best, hardwood better than soft, as wide as you can manage, as short as practicable and as thick as you can get away with for aesthetic and financial reasons. Avoid any of the manufactured timbers. In practical terms, avoid a simple bookcase that has no central vertical divider in favour of one that has a divider, or a bookcase that has one in favour of another that has two.

One shortcut is to buy an extra shelf, and then cut it into short lengths (ie same as the height between your shelves) and use them to support a heavily loaded upper shelf - works best sitting between the bottom and the first shelf, if the bottom shelf is too small for all your heavy books, not so well between two upper shelves.
posted by GeeEmm at 9:21 PM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

GeeEmm has it on doubling the shelves, if you can't find cases with real wood. Narrow bookcases with a shorter shelf span will hold up better than wider ones. Before my husband built our heavy plank bookcases, we had wide cheapies that really wanted to sag. DH cut a board the height of the shelves and put it vertically in the middle of the shelves for extra strength. If you have many heavy books that go up three to four shelves in height, it doesn't hurt to do this on a wide shelf anyway. I've seen 2 inch wooden bookshelves with big art books start to sag after some years.

One thing to think about, the back is supposed to be just a dust cover, and shoving your books all the way against it cuts the air circulation that is actually better for them. You could go ahead and buy your cases with a thin back, then cut quarter round to length and put it against the back. The books won't get shoved against the back of the case, and it will extend the life of the backing.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:36 PM on January 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you stick with 15" Billy cases the MDF shelves will hold up fine.
posted by mr vino at 8:17 AM on January 26, 2015

Best answer: Last apartment, I went with building my own shallow shelves from plywood for my paperbacks and CDs (they took up a full wall, it was awesome) and cheap tall generic particle-board shelves for everything else (another wall or two). The handbuilt shelves were of course ridiculously sturdy (nobody sells shelves that work well for paperbacks outside of library catalogs, and those are stupidly expensive.) The cheap particle-board shelves actually held up really well over time -- there are things you can do to keep them from disintegrating.

Here are my tips for particle-board bookshelf longevity: Shim the shelves so that they're really upright, as close to the wall as you can get them. Do not ignore the wall anchors that are provided with the shelves (and if they're not there or not adequate, get more). Secure at least the tops of the shelves to the wall (on the studs). You want to make sure the shelves are not going to move or wobble short of an earthquake, because movement is what increases wear. Do not double-shelve your books. Resist the temptation! There will be extra space on the shelves, because cheap bookshelves are not really designed for holding books. (There's a reason the catalog pictures show them with, like, houseplants and knick-knacks and about five books.) Pull all books to the front of the shelf; spines should be even with the edge. This has several purposes: all your spines are neatly visible for browsing, the dust is behind the books where it belongs, and you're not ramming things against the cardboard backing, so you're not causing any damage to that. And lastly, keep an eye on the shelves for warping as time goes by. Most of the shelves will be flippable since they just rest on pegs anyway, so flipping them over ever year or so can keep them from sagging.

I sold all those shelves for not much less than what I paid to build or buy them after five years of heavy use, since they looked nearly as good as when I set them up (which is to say: not very, but they did the job.) I've replaced them with these folding shelves from the Container Store, which get discounted by 50% a couple times a year and are pretty decent quality, plus fold easily for the next move. And for reference, DVD shelves tend to be well-sized for mass-market paperbacks. If you've got a lot of paperbacks but don't want to build your own shelving, DVD shelves can do the trick.
posted by asperity at 11:22 AM on January 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

The IVAR shelves really don't warp, but as mentioned above, they don't have backs. I have had a IVAR shelf for more than a decade, and until recently it was packed solid with books. I recently added beadboard back panels and trim to it to make it look built-in. This is a good way to get a really solid wooden shelf. So that's an option, if you're interested in adding your own back to the shelves or going without. IVAR is good stuff.
posted by litlnemo at 1:41 PM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

FYI, the back panel has a specific purpose and that's to prevent the bookcase from shearing/racking, which in the case of flat pack furniture will destroy that joints pretty quickly.

Plywood/MDF is used because it does this job cheaply without adding a ton of weight to the piece.

You can also achieve this with trusses like in this bookcase, but you need to ensure that the bookcase can hold the trusses without tearing out.
posted by plinth at 5:01 PM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

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