Simple Barrister Bookcases

Raising the blade height is the only adjustment needed to cut the backboard rabbets. The front edge of this side looks as though it is raised from the saw top because of the previous rabbet cut.

Raising the blade height is the only adjustment needed to cut the backboard rabbets. The front edge of this side looks as though it is raised from the saw top because of the previous rabbet cut.

Almost everyone likes the look of barrister bookcases. But what makes them so appealing? I think there are a number of characteristics that make the barrister design popular and enduring.

First is that the individual units of the case stack together. And because they are separate units, they can be arranged in any desired height configuration to fit any area of your home or office.

Second, they are elegant as well as functional. The wood-framed glass doors, when lowered, protect your books or other valuables from moisture and dust – not to mention those tiny pudding-laced fingers of the little ones. They also allow you to look through the glass for a specific item without the undo stress of operating the doors. In the open position, with the doors raised and slid back into the case, you have easy access to those leather-bound sources of knowledge.

Third, as you will see, we rethought the construction so these cases can be built with the easiest techniques – without sacrificing any classic design elements. These are the easiest barrister bookcases you will ever build.

Creating the groove for the door pins to ride in is the most exacting step of the process. A plunge router with a guide fence makes it short work. Check the layout before routing.

Creating the groove for the door pins to ride in is the most exacting step of the process. A plunge router with a guide fence makes it short work. Check the layout before routing.

We decided to build a stack of three units – each identical in construction and design, with one slightly different in height. There are two larger units for over-sized books and special keepsakes, and one that is slightly shorter in height. Those, along with the top and bottom units, add up to the appropriate design for our bookcase needs.

Your set can be created with only one unit, or it could be a stack of five, along with the top and bottom sections. (More than five units is unwieldy and potentially unstable.)

One Panel Chops into Three
We wanted the grain on each case side to be consistent from top to bottom as we stacked our individual units. This is a matter of aesthetics, not a necessity. (I’m sure somewhere during this case’s lifetime, the units will be stacked without regard to the grain.)

What is a necessity, in order to get the units to stack without problems, is to make the width of each unit equal in size. This is best accomplished by starting with one large glued-up panel of the correct width that is then crosscut into the appropriate lengths.

There are pin locations at both the top and bottom that act as guides for the doors. Use the drill press for this step.

There are pin locations at both the top and bottom that act as guides for the doors. Use the drill press for this step.

Once the sides are milled according to the plan, there are three rabbets that need to be cut in each side panel. One rabbet goes at the top and bottom of each side panel. Those rabbets are for the full-width case bottom and the front and back rails at the top. You also need a rabbet at the back edge of the side panels that will house the backboards. That rabbet hides the backboards when viewing the bookcase from the side.

A dado blade is the best choice for cutting the rabbets. Install a sacrificial fence, set the blade for the widest cut (at least 3/4″) and position the blade below the saw top. Adjust the fence to the blade so that 3/4″ of cutting width is exposed and with the blade running, slowly raise the cutter to a height of 1/8″.  With this setting, a single pass over the blade will create the 3/4″-wide x 1/8″-deep rabbets at the top and bottom edge of the side panels.

Next, again with the blade moving, raise the height to 7/16″. This is to create the rabbet for the backboards. They fit into a 3/4″-wide x 7/16″-deep rabbet. If you are trying to keep the grain aligned, as we have, you need to determine the front edge of the bookcase prior to crosscutting the individual side panels into smaller sections. Or, choose the best edge of your stock for the front face at this time and cut the backboard rabbets into the opposite edge.

The catch rail is fastened to the box bottom. It is important to properly align the piece to fit the other units.

The catch rail is fastened to the box bottom. It is important to properly align the piece to fit the other units.

Your Groove is Important
Creating the groove in which the doors slide is the most difficult task involved in building these bookcases – but all it takes is a plunge router with a guide fence and a 1/4″ upcut spiral router bit.

Positioning this groove is the trick. It needs to be located correctly from the top edge of the sides, so the guide fence of the router becomes key. Set the fence so the router bit plunges into the side with 11/8″ of material between the top edge and the groove. The 1/4″ cut will then be perfectly set for the placement of the centered brass rods in the bookcase doors, and it builds in the necessary 1/8″ spacing so the top edge of the door does not bind when opened.

Next, you need to find the starting or stopping point of the cut depending on which side you’re working.  On each right-side panel you’ll plunge at the front edge and finish the cut through the backboard rabbet. On the left-side panels you’ll begin coming through that rabbet and complete the cut by stopping at the correct location and removing the bit from the work surface. Attacking the groove this way registers each cut off of the top edge of the side panels and makes the best use of the guide fence.

The catch rail for the top unit rests inside the end rails. To keep the rail from sliding downward as the screws are installed, rest the piece on a block cut to the correct size.

The catch rail for the top unit rests inside the end rails. To keep the rail from sliding downward as the screws are installed, rest the piece on a block cut to the correct size.

The location that you need to stop on is 3/8″ in from the front edge of the sides to the beginning of the routed groove. Where did this number come from, beside the plan? The 1/4″ brass rods that are used to hang the doors are located in the center of the 3/4″-thick doors. The outer 1/4″ of door stock along with the design feature of the 1/8″ offset of the door to the front edge of the case adds up to that exact location.

With the setup and location locked in, rout the 5/16″-deep grooves into the sides as shown in the picture at right.

The doors will be held in position toward the front with two brass rods per side. The top rod is centered 1-3/4″ from the top edge of the side and in 1″ from the front edge. These two rods act as a pivot for the sliding door.

The second rod location is pulled from the bottom edge of the sides and is also set at a measurement of 1-3/4″. It too is located 1″ in from the front edge. This rod placement gives the door something to close against while holding the door parallel to the case front when closed.

One thought on “Simple Barrister Bookcases

  1. tsizemor

    I really liked your simplifications and think this project is within my skill level as I create furniture for my office. I have a 1/2 of a garage workshop and would like to have my reference material with me. However, the fine dust gets into everything. I wondered if you had any recommendations on how to make closed shelving units that would seal out the dust? At some future time I hope to have better dust control, but it is not in the current budget.

    Thanks

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