Hello long lost family and friends, and some new readers, too!
I took a little break from blogging, building, and DIY while our family of 3 adjusted to being a family of 4, but I am BACK! I’ve still got “the itch” as strong as ever, and I can’t wait to share my projects with you.
Virginia’s bedroom has been a little lacking in the furniture department. When she first moved in there, I realized we didn’t have much for her, but we thought that was okay since we could figure out what she needed as she grew into the room. Just like that, she had books piled on the floor and toys in bins lined along the wall. Storage. We needed storage! In lieu of a standard storage unit, I knew I wanted a bookshelf in there. You know that I love books (I do work in publishing, after all) and I really want Virginia to grow up loving them, too.
When I saw this great video of how to build a bookshelf on This Old House, I knew it was destined for Virginia’s room. I secretly wish I was 15 again and could be one of Tommy Silva’s new interns but hey, since that’s not an option, I figured this is the closest I could come.☺️
The video, although so helpful, definitely left out a few key points and the written instructions that accompany it are minimal. I figured I’d write down my own, more detailed build instructions here to highlight some important things that I learned and to have on hand for the NEXT bookshelf I build! 😉
With a little help from The Hubster, I managed to gather up the necessary materials and got right down to building. Honestly, putting this entire thing together took me about 3 hours across 2 days—thank goodness for nap time!
Having the video was immensely helpful for figuring out actually how to do things. For instance, maybe this seems obvious to the pros, but I had no idea how I was going to hold my circular saw steady as I tried to rip down the treads to width just by following a line I drew on. Turns out there is a better way! As I saw them do in the video, I clamped one stair tread on top of the other and used it as the guide for my circular saw.
But, Lesson #1, clamp both ends of the workpiece together. For my first one, I only clamped the starting edge (the sleep deprivation must have been getting the best of me, because seriously, WHY?!), and the result was a cut that was way deeper on one end than on the other. I decided to use the unevenly cut wood anyway, figuring it’s Character-Building Error #1.
When it came to finishing the bookshelf, I was a little dismayed to see that the instructions said that the materials used couldn’t be stained. Although I love painted furniture, I really wanted to stain this, so wisely ignored what the people at This Old House wrote and stained it anyway 😜. Maybe I’ll find out in a few months or a year why that was a bad idea, but so far, it seems to have worked. The stain on the plywood does look a little weird, but it’ll be mostly covered up by books anyhow.
If you are looking for a project to do, I highly suggest this! Even if you mess it up, you can’t really mess it up because Lesson #2: Working with stair treads is amazing! It’s great for beginner builders because it takes a lot of the headache out of building a piece of furniture because they’re beautiful—no warped or twisted lumber to mess with your build. (If you want to be a perfectionist, you should probably make sure all the treads are square by holding a square up to them, but I didn’t do this. Mostly because if they’re not square, I would probably just ditch it and buy a new one 😜. If they’re not square, you could run them through a table saw, use a planer, a sander, or a miter saw to try to fix them. But I’m no pro on this.)
So anyway, here are the full instructions, along with my thoughts and tips.
Modified instructions for a simple bookshelf based on the video from This Old House:
You will need:
- 6 48″ stair treads
- 1 roughly 38″ 1×4
- 1 plywood sheet, 1/4″ thick, roughly 48 x 38
- SIDES: 2 stair treads, 48″ tall. Rip each down by 3/4 inch. Add 1/4 inch rabbet.
- SHELVES: 3 stair treads, 38″ long. Rip each down by 1.5 inches.
- TOP: 1 stair tread measured to width and adding 3/4″ overhang on each side. Add 1/4″ rabbet.
- TOEKICK: 1 x 4 measured to width.
- BACK: 1/4″ plywood, measured to fit.
Step 1. Select two treads to be the vertical sides. Leave them 48 inches tall. Following the tips in the video, use a circular saw to cut a 1/4″ deep rabbet on the rear interior of each piece. The rabbet enables the plywood backing to lay flush (instead of sticking out behind the shelves) and gives you a place to nail to. It helped me to label each piece “left vertical side” and “right vertical side” to help visualize where each rabbet should go. Once you’ve cut the rabbets, I used a utility knife, like Tommy did in the video, to start removing the wood remnants, and finished up by running a chisel along it.
Step 2. Select three treads for the shelves. Measure and cut them down to 38 inches long. Then rip them down by 1.5 inches—on the square edge, of course. Don’t accidentally cut off that beautiful rounded edge! To rip them down, lay a second stair tread on top of the one you want to cut down. Use its nice, straight edge to guide your circular saw and keep your cut straight.
Lesson #3: Learn your circular saw’s “distance”! Since you’ll be ripping down a few pieces of wood, it makes the process more efficient if you figure out the distance you need to add to your rip depth to guide the circular saw. That way, instead of holding your circular saw next to your rip mark each time and re-figuring out how far away your clamped guide wood needs to go, you can just do the math all at once.
Step 3. Lay the two vertical sides flat next to each other, rabbets on the inside facing up, and carefully align the bottoms, just like they do in the video. Lay the piece of wood that will be the toe kick flat along the bottom, trace it, and then stand one of the shelves upright along it, and trace that.
Measure up 16 inches from the line you just drew. Put the shelf there, use a speed square to make sure it’s square with the sides, and trace the top and bottom again. Using the measurements in the video, 16 inches between all three shelves, didn’t work for me. It left me with a very narrow shelf at the top, which looked super weird. (I don’t know how theirs didn’t come out looking like this! Maybe their treads started out longer than mine,) So I did 16 for the distance between the bottom, and then I did 13 between the next two.
Step 4. In the area you marked where your shelves will be, predrill 4 holes for each shelf on both vertical sides.
Step 5. Get assembling! This part was hard for me; I was doing it alone so getting that first shelf screwed on was tough. I found these 3 1/8″ screws to use. They look similar to the ones in the video that my pal Tommy was using.
Step 6. Once the three shelves are in place, stand the unit up and measure from outside to outside of each vertical side. Add to that number 1.5 inches (allowing for 3/4 inch overhang on each side). Cut your last stair tread down to that length.
If you’re going to round off the edges the way they do in the video, clamp the top piece somewhere stable and get to work with your planer. I wanted to give this a shot to learn how to use a new tool; I bought this simple little plane. It really is an art. I had a lot of trouble with tear out, but once I got it roughly to shape, I used some sandpaper to smooth it out and it didn’t come out half bad.
Secure the top piece to the sides with four screws on each side. (Admission: I didn’t predrill these 😳.) Once you’ve trimmed it down, don’t forget to cut a rabbet into the back bottom of this piece, too. It’s what the backing will lay against and give you a small surface to nail into.
I forgot to add the rabbet to the top piece, so I wound up with my plywood laying flush underneath the top of it. Rather than take it apart and add the rabbet, I figured it is Character-Building Error #2 and used some wood glue to lightly secure it. Plus, this thing is going in a toddler’s room so it will be screwed to the studs to prevent a deadly tip-over, so the back really won’t even be able to budge.
Step 7. Lay the whole unit down on its face. Measure the width below the bottom shelf and cut your 1×4 to that length. Like they do in the video, lay some scraps of stair tread below the bottom shelf and tap your 1×4 into place flush down against them, and then screw it into place.
A general note: Make sure to drill all your screws down below the surface of the wood. If you don’t, you won’t be able to fill the holes nicely and you’ll have ugly little screw heads everywhere.
Step 8. While the unit is still face down, measure the top width where the plywood back will go, the height, and the bottom width. Mark your plywood and use your circular saw to cut the plywood to the right size.
I got to use my birthday present from The Hubster for the first time—my nail gun! I’m weirdly freaked out about using an air compressor, though, so it took me forevvvvvver to get comfortale with it again and get it up to pressure. I haven’t used it that much so I always have to re-read the instructions. But you don’t need a nail gun, you can nail it with a hammer and nails the old-fashioned way, too.