Better Bookcases

Anyone who read the first version of this page and wondered if I was semi-illiterate can relax! It was written against the clock, late at night, and with acute finger-trouble! Apologies, therefore. I hope I've now corrected all of them (although once again it is 23:14 hrs - why do I end up doing this?)

Like many people I buy a lot of books. Most of them are paperbacks, and most of those are sci-fi/fantasy, rather than large art books and the like. Many are US imports, which are all of a similar size and shape.

Once you buy books, you have to give them a home. Like many people, I've always bought cheap bookcases. For me, this has always meant chipboard efforts from MFI or similar - flatpacked, for home assembly. Now I don't exactly lift weights for a living, but even I can manage to assemble these, albeit it takes me some time, with lots of breaks to cope with the unaccustomed exertion.

This page is devoted to tips and ideas to assemble these, adapt them, and to make your own clones.

One word of warning: this page presumes you are completely incapable as a DIY-er (as I am). Indeed I have written this on the basis that you are totally physically feeble.

Let's be realistic. Most of us do desk jobs, and are physically feeble. When we get home, we are exhausted. Now I find most DIY books incredibly frustrating, since they presume a level of physical stamina normal people do not have, time we do not have, and a skill with tools that we have no chance of acquiring. This page is predicated on the idea that you are like me, and have no confidence or anything. And no tools either, really. This is DIY for the exhausted person who'd rather be doing something else.

I use a mixture of imperial and metric measurements. The reason is that I think in inches, but the boards are 15mm thick, so I have to work with that as well. do what works for you.

Remember that there is no rush. Feel free to leave it. Collapse on the sofa. Take a break. Have a kit-kat. Actually I always go for mixed peanuts and raisins, which clear my head and give me energy. Take your time. It's not a race!

Ready-made bookcases - what to buy

You are going to have to live with this thing. So buy with a bit of care. MFI do various types. So do Littlewoods (although these are very nasty).

Tastes vary, but here are a few tips.

What THEY don't mention in the instructions, or, Assembling Ready-made bookcases

You need to know that these things are designed and built for home assembly. However they will never tell you that they are designed for home assembly with a cordless electric screwdriver. Which they are. And if you don't use one, you'll wonder just how they ever got their hands into various cubby-holes, or whether they have body-builder's fingers. The things cost about £20, and if you intend to do much of this, get one. It will cut hours off your time, and the quality of job will improve. The holes you could never quite get to with a hand screwdriver will suddenly be exactly the right length for your Bosch or Black-and-Decker. I can't tell you how pleased I was when I got one on spec, and suddenly discovered this, after years of struggling.

If you must use a hand screwdriver, here's a tip. Get a candle (all children of the 1970's have these - remember the 3-day week?) and rub the screw thread against it, to get a bit of candle-grease on the threads. It will make it got in much easier. Or you could use soap - works just as well. With an electric screwdriver, of course, you don't need to, because they have so much more power.

You're bound to find that at least some of the shelves are supported by nasty plastic shelf-supports. These invariably bend after a year or two. Drop them in the bin. Go down to your local Homebase and ask for the metal shelf-supports used for glass-shelves. They come in little bags, cost a couple of pounds for 12, have exactly the same diameter stub (so they fit the holes without redrilling), and don't bend!!!

What tools do you need? I get by with my trusty (electric) screwdriver and a hammer. That's it.

Should you glue? I never do. If the screws don't hold it together, something is wrong.

Adapting the ready-mades

So why do you want to? Well, have you ever noticed that there aren't enough shelves? MFI supply their units with 12 inches between shelves. But the average paperback is 7 inches tall. The result is 5 inch gaps between shelves, wasted space (which means more bookcases, in ever decreasing floor-space), and it looks plain ugly.

The solution is simple - fit an extra shelf.

But how, I hear you cry? "I haven't a saw, I can't saw, and my doctor says I'm allergic to sawdust!" Relax! Remember, this is DIY for the tired and feeble. You don't have to do any sawing. There are people who will do it for you, and for free!

I live near a Sainsburys Homebase, out of town DIY. I know of two of these, and unlike most DIY's, they have a cutting facility. They sell chipboard, and they offer to cut it, purely on a 'get you home / get it in the car' basis. But in fact they have these immense rack-mounted saws, and can cut to a millimetre. So it's no sweat for them to do several cuts, and most of them do. For some reason they sometimes demur a bit, but if you offer to pay, even at 50p a cut it's a bargain. And I've never been allowed to pay. Be charming to the cutting staff, and you'll never have a problem. In fact I never buy chipboard anywhere else!

It's probably best to cover the floor, e.g. with an old sheet. You know it makes sense! You can also buy cheap plastic sheets for the purpose for a couple of quid. But if you don't mind sawdust in the carpet, don't worry. I always assemble my bookcases in the upstairs bedroom where I keep my books.

Work out on a bit of paper what you want.

OK, you have your extra shelf. What now? Well, you have to work out where all the shelves should go. Wise people do this before they buy the shelving!

Draw yourself a picture. I always put the shelves 9 inches apart, from top of the shelf to the top of the next shelf - it works for me - as I can then pull the books out without catching my fingers. BUT, BUT, BUT...remember the width of the chipboard itself. This varies a bit, so check it. I find it's about 15mm, and I include it in my 9 inches. If you choose a different gap, make sure you get this bit right! I also have a single large shelf at the bottom - usually 13 inches or thereabouts, which allows me to put A4 magazines in binders, taller books, etc, at the bottom. But draw it up on paper, and see what works for you. Don't be afraid to scribble several drawings, until it all looks right. Usually I do it at least twice before I can see exactly how big the gaps need to be at each point.

The shelves will still rest on your shelf-supports, but you will need some more - back to Sainsburys for those metal shelf-supports. But you need to drill some extra holes in different places. Yes, I said drill. Yuk! But there is no way around this. I'm toying with the idea of these light Dremel / Minicraft cordless mini-drills, but as they are £60 each, I haven't yet tried this out. Some drilling tips:

Where should the holes go? I suggest you mark up the bottom edge of where you want the shelf to go, and shove them in there. Use the same distance from the edge as the existing ones - why not?

But, I hear you say, how should I mark it up?

So you've got your holes, you've got your supports, you've got your shelves - put it together!

If you have a tall bookcase, you may find you need to screw one or more shelves into the sides, to keep the whole thing rigid. There's no two ways about it, screwing all the shelves into position is best, although I only do this if I'm going above waist-height. How do you do this?

And there you are. It may well take all day to do this. But the costs and tools needed are really minimal. The only fiddly bit is marking the ends of shelves, and banging holes in them.

Cloning them - and doing your own

Once I had added extra shelves to my bookcases, I realised that it wasn't actually that big a step to go the whole hog and make my own, to the same pattern as the MFI ones. After all, the sides were just another couple of boards from Homebase, cut to size, the back was just a piece of hardboard, cut to size, and the cross-piece at the bottom was simply a shelf cut in half longwise. It required more pieces of paper, and more planning, but was essentially the same.

It is actually more difficult. You have larger pieces of wood, and no instructions. But again you just take it steadilly. It takes me about a day to do mine, once I have drawn up a diagram of the bookcase, and another of the chunks of wood I will need, and where the cuts go.

I recommend marking the sides in pencil clearly, Left-Outside, Right-Outside, and a big arrow pointing towards the front. It;s embarassing (and costly) if you discover you have just drilled the wrong side...

Have a few of the chipboard off-cuts around to support the sides when you are drilling right through. You do NOT want to drill into the carpet.

Try to get the diagram right. I once made a bookcase to go in an alcove. I assembled it, put it in... and it was too wide! I'd ignored the skirting boards (because I hadn't been able to see them amid the stuff piled in the alcove), so was about 1 inch too long. What did I do? Well, I disassembled it, and took all the shelves down to Homebase, to the enquiry desk, and said "Please don't laugh, but I've had these cut too long. Is there any chance you can lop an inch off the end of them for me?" And very kindly, they did. Once again, it pays to be nice to the shop-staff.

I found that the Limed White Oak effect chipboard was particularly attractive - a nice textured surface - and I now use it exclusively.

Any new techniques? Well, you need to drill some holes right through the sides. It's probably best to countersink the heads, otherwise they stick out (because they are wider than the hole). In actual fact, you needn't bother if you have an electric screwdriver, because chipboard is so soft that they just go straight in anyway. By hand, you would need a special countersinking bit, which makes a little funnel for the head to go in.

Screws? I use 1.5 inch number 6 chipboard screws. Shorter ones probably are too short - longer is OK. Fatter ones - e.g. number 8's - are probably OK, but probably slightly increase the risk of a split, without giving more strength, so why do it?

One problem is that at the top, the sides don't have any veneer on them. You can buy strips of veneer at Homebase, or from Contiboard directly if you need to - get the address off the planks you bought and telephone them. The only trouble is that, for some inscrutable reason, the strip is made 18+mm wide, whereas the board is 15mm wide. Basically they've got us well and truly stitched up. People like us have no good method to trim this stuff down neatly. Whatever we do, it's going to look ragged. I've tried sticking it on and trimming it, but this produces a very ragged edge. So here's what I currently do.

How to stick it onto the top? The manufactureres blandly suggest we use our house irons to heat the strip until the glue melts, and iron the strips on. Frankly they must be joking! I'm not getting my clothes iron anywhere near glue, thank you, and I don't really want glue dripping down the sides of my new bookcase.

What I do is use ordinary evostik glue. It works for me. Make sure the sharp edge is outward, and the ragged edge on the inward side.

Note that it's best to work out a list of all the bits, and add up the price. It always costs me more to make one rather than buy one. People like MFI get bulk discounts, after all! But it's exactly right for what I want.


I hope some of this is helpful. Believe me, if it was hard, I wouldn't do it. Start small, and build up to it. After all, if you try to add a shelf, and it doesn't work, you can always go back, and just put it down to experience. Other than the cost of a five quid piece of chipboard, what do you risk?

One caveat. Once in a while, something goes wrong. The last project I did fought me every step of the way. Everything possible went wrong (this was the one where I got the shelf lengths wrong!). I had to fit a piece on the back to attach it to the wall, so naturally I choose the wrong piece. When I get that right, the place in the wall I choose to drill is the one with a metal strip I can't drill through. It tok four days of tears and sweat, and I was totally shattered at the end of it.

Do allow yourself to fail from time to time! Life is like that, sometimes. I find if it doesn't really matter, then the gremlins tend not to bother. Be relaxed. Potter at it. Don't care if you fail. Take your time. Don't get frustrated. If something goes wrong, stop. Don't do another step until you can see clearly in your head every movement you are going to make, every millimetre, every stroke of the hammer. Those of us without much stamina have to make our brains do the work for us. Use your imaginations to think what could go wrong, coolly and carefully. This is about the only DIY I ever do, because frankly I'm hopeless at DIY. But I do this OK, and do it alone. So can you.

Good luck!

Last updated 19th October 1998. I'll do some sample diagrams when I have the time. But mine are pretty rough, believe me!

This page has been online since 11th December 1999.

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