How to Build Built-in Bookshelves

Built-in bookshelves may look challenging or complicated, but the entire design process is actually fairly straightforward and simple. Anyone who has a little time, patience, and some woodworking tools cna pull the built-in bookshelf build off. A nice thing about this particular design is that it allows you to change the dimensions to fit almost any sized opening you have. So, even if you’re building them in a small bedroom or next to a bunk bed, these built-in bookshelves are easy to scale to fit perfectly. 

For this project, we had a 53-inch wide alcove on either side of the kid’s bunk beds. The goal was to get the shelves as wide as we possibly could. However, since plywood only comes in 48-inch wide sheets, we chose to design the shelves to be 48-inches wide to get as much use out of the plywood as we could. This left a few extra inches of dead space along the built-in bookshelves, but we hid this with bookshelf face trim to give it a complete and cohesive look. 

The built-in bookshelves in this project had two primary part sets. We built the case and the face frame. The case has side panels with shelf pin holes in them to help us adjust the shelf height as we needed it, and a back, bottom, and top. The face frame comes with two side stiles at top with rails at the bottom. As we said, the face frame is there to hide the exposed edge grain and trim out the dead space to fit the built-in bookcases tight to the wall. 

1 New Built In Bookshelves
You don’t have to make huge bookshelves when you set out to build new ones. They should scale to your space and fit the room without taking over. You’ll need exact measurements to get a tight fit with this project.
New Built-In Bookshelves by Philip Fibiger / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What is a Built-in Bookcase?

A built-in unit integrated furniture and storage into your home’s existing design. These are usually space-saving measures that act like an aesthetic addition to your home. They have a very high degree of versatility to them, and you can pick from several different storage solutions. Some popular ones include: 

  • Benches
  • Bookshelves
  • Cabinets
  • Closets
  • Cubby storage
  • Kitchen table or booth
  • Media or tv units
  • Office storage
  • Under-stairway storage
  • Vanities
  • Window benches

Materials Needed

 Before you start this project, you want to gather up all of the materials you need to ensure that you don’t have to stop halfway through the project. You should have some of these items on hand if you’re a habitual DIYer, and a lot of them you can get from your local hardware store. You’ll need: 

  • 1-½-inch 18ga brad nails
  • 1-⅝-inch drywall screws
  • 2 MDO Plywood ½-inch thick 4-foot x 8-foot sheets for back of cases
  • 3 MDO Plywood ¾-inch thick 4-foot x 8-foot sheets 
  • 3-⅛-inch cabinet screws
  • 4 Select Pine 1x4x8 boards for face frame stiles
  • 8 Select Pine 1x6x8 boards for lower rails and edge banding
  • Caulk
  • Paint
  • Painter’s tape
  • Paint filters
  • Plastic sheeting
  • Primer
  • Shelf pins
  • Spackle
  • Wood glue

Tools Needed

Along with the materials, building your built-in bookcases will require a few tools. Having them on-hand ensures you can complete each step of this project without having to quit halfway through and go borrow or buy tools. You should have many of these around if you do woodworking projects. They include: 

  • 18ga brad nailer 
  • Circular saw or table saw
  • Drill/drivers 
  • Laser level 
  • Miter Saw
  • Paint sprayer
  • Shelf Pin Hole Drilling Jib
  • Spray tip
  • Spray tip guard
  • Stud finder 
  • Tape measure

How to Create Built-In Bookcases – Step-by-Step Guide

When you gather everything you need, you’re ready to start this project. To make it less overwhelming, we broke it down into parts with steps in each part. There is a lot of information packed in, but we tried to make it as easy to follow as possible. 

Part One – Building the Cabinet or Case

The first part of this project is building the cabinet or case. This will act like the frame for your built-in bookshelf, so it’s important that it’s as sturdy as you can make it. This way, you won’t have to worry about going back in and reinforcing it later on. 

Step One – Measure Your Dimensions 

Everyone’s dimensions will vary based on their space. So, one of the first things you want to do is measure your space and get your dimensions. This will tell you how large you can make your frame. In turn, you’ll know how large to make your shelving units. 

Step Two – Break Down Plywood Parts Into Final Dimensions

When you try working with full sheets of plywood, you’ll find out very quickly that it’s cumbersome and time-consuming. So, get your dimensions and cut the full sheets down to slightly oversized pieces that are easier to work with. Getting a miter saw or circular saw and cutting them will make the pieces easier to carry into the space and more manageable when it comes to handling them. Then, you’ll cut them accurately to your final dimensions using a table saw. 

If you don’t have a table saw handy, you can usually take your sheets of plywood to a home center and ask them to cut them for you to your exact measurements for a small fee. If you have a circular saw and a straight edge, you can use this too. Just be sure you measure twice and cut once to avoid problems. 

Step Three – Drill Your Shelf Pinholes

You can purchase commercially-available jigs no that work great for helping you drill in your shelf pinholes. They’re all reasonably priced too. You’ll drill five-mm diameter holes with two-inch spacing for your shelves. You want to start each new row of holes at the exact same distance from your bottom of the shelves, and this will help your shelves sit evenly on all four corners. This makes it more stable overall and less likely to tip and dump whatever you have on them off. 

Step Four – Trim the Top Back Corners 

You want to trim your top back corners of the case side panels to remove them next. Doing so allows you to easily pivot the cabinet into position without the top back corner running into your ceiling and marking it up. If you don’t mind fixing the ceiling or running the risk of it not fitting 100% perfect, you can leave them. However, we don’t recommend this. 

Step Five – Cut Out and Attach Four Cleats on Your Side Panels

The cleats will make it much easier to get the top and bottom panels of your built-in bookcase into the correct position when you put the cabinets together. They give you more glue area to create a stronger joint too. You’ll want a cleat on every corner, so two on the top and two on the bottom. We glued the cleats first before brad nailing them into position. 

Step Six – Put the Cases Together

We decided that it would be easier to put the built-in bookcases together in the room. They do end up being fairly large, and you could have problems moving them up staircases, so you may want to build them right in place. Putting the cases together on top of carpeting isn’t a great thing since they’re not 100% flat, but having the cleats in place to align the pieces should help. 

Set your cut pieces in the correct configuration and glue them together using construction adhesive. You’ll also use some brad nails to pin the top and bottom in place before adding screws from the outside to make it much more secure. At this point, your case is ready for the back. 

Step Seven – Attach Your Back Panel

We measured and cut the back panel from ½-inch MDO plywood. We chose the ½-inch one to help save a little money since the back doesn’t necessarily have to be super strong. Once you cut it to size, you can nail and screw it into place from the backside. This will further reinforce the fact that your cabinet is square, but you should measure the diagonals again to be completely sure. 

Step Seven – Position and Secure the Cabinet

Since this built-in bookcase is going to go around an existing structure, there is no need to cut into the wall. If you do, make sure that it’s not a load-bearing wall or you’ll run into huge issues down the line. Tip your cabinet into position. Get 3 ⅛-inch cabinet screws and secure the cabinet directly to the studs inside your wall. You might need to mark them off with a stud finder first to make it easier. 

Repeat this process with the other parts of your built-in bookshelf. When you have both cases attached to the wall and in the correct position, you can add some nailer strips to the outside of the cabinet side. This allows you to have more area to nail and glue on the face frames. We made these strips from scrap MDO plywood that we had leftover from creating the main built-in bookshelf pieces. This isn’t necessary, but it can give you a greater peace of mind. 

2 Building the Cabinet
Building the cabinet or case for your new bookshelf is one part of the process where you want to double-check all of your measurements to ensure they’re accurate. If you don’t, you could end up with a bookshelf that doesn’t clearly fit your space.
Built In Craftsman bookcase by Jeremy Levine / CC BY 2.0

Part Two – How to Build and Install Your Face Frame

Once the cabinets are in place, it’s time to build and install your face frame to get a neat and tidy look. There are three simple steps you can follow in this process, including: 

Step One – Cut Out the Top Rail and Apply It

The top rail for your built-in bookshelf is going to be ¾-inch MDO plywood, but it’s also possible to add a small solid wood edge strip along the bottom. This piece will cover the edge-grain of your plywood to keep it invisible. The top rail will need a hole cut out for any electrical boxes if you plan to put lights into your bookcase. But, this is a purely optional step. You’ll cut it to fit and get your wood glue and brad nailer to hold it firmly in place. 

Step Two – Cut Out the Bottom Rail and Apply It

All you’ll do here is cut your material to fit. The top edge of your new bottom rail should overlap the bottom shelf by under an inch. Once you get the dimensions and cut it to fit, you can brad nail the bottom rail into place for a secure  hold. 

Step Three – Cut and Install the Side Rails

The side rails get cut and installed next, and these are just to cover any dead space between the cabinet and the wall. How large they are will depend on your specific situation. You want them to overlap by ¼-inch. This ¼-inch is large enough to help cover up any misalignments or warp that appears over time, and it can provide a small lip so your shelving units won’t slip out. 

Part Three – Designing and Constructing Your Shelves

For the shelves, we used ¾-inch MDO plywood, and we attached a 1 ½-inch solid wood lip along the front edge. The solid wooden lip helps to cover the exposed plywood edge grain along the shelf’s front edge. It also lends strength to the plywood shelf to prevent it from sagging under the weight of your items over time, and it gives the shelves a larger visual thickness that helps it match the design better. 

To cut your shelves, measure the space inside of your built-in bookshelves. Mark these measurements on your plywood before cutting the shelf pieces to size. Attach the front lip to your shelf with wood glue and brad nails. Once the glue dries, you can fill your nail holes with spackle before sand smoothing them and painting them

Part Four – Paint and Trim Assembly

You’ll add your crown molding, baseboard, and a very small strip of trim below the light fixtures if you plan on having them to give them a complete look. Fill every brad nail hole and small cracks or gaps with spackle. Let this spackle dry for a few hours before sanding it smooth with 120-grit sandpaper. 

Apply a small bead of caulk inside each corner of your built-in bookshelf. You may be tempted to skip this step, but it’s key to making your paint job look professional-grade. Prime the shelves and paint them. You can take the shelves out of the frame, spray them with your paint sprayer, and set the shelves on sawhorses. 

Make sure to give everything an even coat. Allow them to dry before assembling them and putting your items on it. 

3 Adding Trim
Adding trim to your bookshelf will give it a cohesive look, and this is especially true if the trim matches the rest of the home’s trim. It also lends a much more finished and complete look overall.
Built in! By zarhooie / CC BY-SA 2.0

Built-In Bookshelf Benefits

Every home has small crannies or nooks that you can’t use because they’re oddly-shaped or too small. Popular areas where a built-in bookcase could work for you include: 

  • Surrounding furniture spaces like fireplaces 
  • Underneath stairways 
  • Second-story rooms with a downward roof slope
  • Underneath beds 

These are excellent storage spaces, and you could save a lot of closet space by adding built-in bookshelves to these areas. The biggest benefits include but are not limited to: 

Make Excellent Use of Existing but Unused Space

Since you create your built-in bookshelves to fit an exact space, it’s easy to maximize each shelf’s storage capacity. When you buy a pre-designed and built storage, you have to find a unit that is small enough to fit in the most confined part of  your existing space. This usually means that you leave space around it unused and wasted.  Built-in bookshelves eliminate this problem because it’s easy to use every inch of space to give you as many storage opportunities as possible. 

Safer Than Freestanding Pieces

When you get a free-standing storage unit or piece of furniture like a cubby unit or bookshelf, they’re always less safe than any built-in bookshelves you have. They may seem stable, but it’s possible for your freestanding furniture to fall over and cause injuries. Humans or dogs can cause them to tip over if they hit them hard enough. But, built-in bookshelves end up being a structural part of your home, so they’re much more stable and safe to have. 

Seamless Integration

If you’re doing a kitchen remodel or a remodel of another area of your home, you can add built-in features that will seamlessly match your design aesthetic. It’s possible to do them during a new build, remodel process, or after you finish construction and notice dead space. 

Additionally, built-in bookshelves come custom built to your exact wants and needs. You won’t have to search for the bookshelf that can fit your book collection or stereo, and you don’t have to look for the perfect media center for your flat-screen TV and gaming setup. Instead, you can create your built-in bookshelves around these elements to get perfect storage solutions that are very functional while looking great. 

Higher-Quality Materials

When you create built-in bookshelves by yourself, you get total control over which materials they feature. While there are some high-quality pre-made options available, there are also low-quality ones that you could end up getting. When you pull in a seasoned contractor to help with your project, you know that your finished product will feature long-lasting and high-quality materials. They’ll also be more virtually stunning since they get built with your home’s design in mind. 

Help Define a Room

Open floor plans are immensely popular with homeowners right now, and they can bring warmth to almost any room. However, it can be much more challenging to define each room’s space with this floor plan. Incorporating built-in bookshelves to split a room or define an area is an easy and practical way to up your storage potential without completely closing off a space. 

Maybe you want a new kitchen island that comes filled with storage space underneath or it has a bench built into the design that backs up against a railing to help separate two rooms. Or, you could have two large bookshelves to help divide your living room from your kitchen or entertainment area. You can scale this project to fit your space too. 

Adds Visual Texture 

Adding storage and definition will help you add visual texture to your home’s design. A centrally-placed built-in bookshelf can allow your book collection to shine. Adding cubbies to your office will help give it a new feel and look while keeping you organized. Your home will look more lived-in and charming when you add them, but it can still keep a polished feel that comes when you have a well-thought-out home. 

Organization Potential 

This type of storage makes it much easier to stay organized as a whole. It comes with a very clean look to it like it was originally meant to be there. You’re in charge of the placement and design aspects right down to the tiny details, so you can keep your storage concerns and needs in mind to ensure it matches it. In turn, you can keep your home looking cleaner and more put together day in and day out. 

Where to Find a Built-In Bookshelf Contractor Near You

If you decide that you’d rather have a company come in and design your built-in bookshelves, you want to start with a reputable local contractor. If you’re not sure how to find one, you can use the following resources to start your search: 

Frequently Asked Questions 

4 Built In Bookshelf FAQs
Asking questions if you choose to contact a local contractor is a great way to get a feel whether or not you can tackle this project by yourself. Along with giving you a better understanding of the project’s scope, you can find out if they’re a good fit for your home’s current setup.
Basement by Kendyl Young / CC BY 2.0

1. How much does it cost to have built-in bookshelves created and installed?

If you don’t want to DIY, you can hire professionals to create and install these bookshelves for you. On average, you’ll spend between $1,500 and $4,000. Most people will end up paying $3,000 for five linear feet of solid wood built-in units. This includes material costs and installation prices. 

2. Do these units increase your home’s value?

Yes. The extra storage space you get with these units can increase your home’s value. However, they do have to be appropriate to the room’s function for this to happen. They should also be high-quality and flexible enough to accommodate whoever buys your home’s storage needs. 

3. What are easy ways to update built-ins?

You can restain or paint your built-ins if you notice that they’re looking worn-down or shabby. Changing out the hardware or removing any elaborate molding that doesn’t fit your home’s current style can help. You can install lighting or change or remove cabinet and drawer fronts too. 

Bottom Line

Your built-in bookshelves can be a straightforward project if you have everything you need on hand before you start. Proper and accurate measurements are a must to ensure your project’s success because they fit so tight to your chosen area. Follow this guide and create your own units and watch them make your life easier while adding value to your home. 

Built in Bookshelves 1 Built in Bookshelves 2

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