What You Must Know About Shelving

Drill your shelf pin holes before you assemble your case. I like to put mine on 1" or 2" centers. Depending on what you’re going to put on your shelves, you might not need that many holes.

Drill your shelf pin holes before you assemble your case. I like to put mine on 1″ or 2″ centers. Depending on what you’re going to put on your shelves, you might not need that many holes.

Building shelves for muddy boots or a Chippendale secretary seems deceptively simple. First you install a horizontal surface between two sides. Then you load up your newly built shelf with Wellingtons or glass kitty cats. Finally you stand back and admire your work.

Then one day you decide to put encyclopedias on your shelf after you grow weary of the kitties. The shelf sags. The books don’t fit under the shelf above, and the books’ spines hang over the front edge. And you wish you had used a more rigid material and some sort of adjustable shelf pins so you could change your shelves to fit your needs.

Shelves, as you might have guessed, are not as simple as they appear. That’s not to say they’re hard to build. It’s just that there’s a whole set of rules to properly design bookshelves or display shelves that ensures they will hold a wide variety of common objects.

This shelving unit is the perfect tutorial for etching these rules on your brain. You’ll see how I followed the rules to design this project, and you’ll get a down-and-dirty lesson in how to build shelving units that are quick, easy, rock solid and good-looking. First, here are a couple rules of thumb when you’re putting your design on paper. It’s accepted practice to build your cabinets in 3″ increments. For example, the side units are 24″ wide. If I wanted to make them wider, I’d jump to 27″ wide, then 30″. Another rule of thumb is that whenever a cabinet gets 42″ wide, it needs a vertical support in the center. My cabinets are less than that, so that was no problem for me.

Where to Begin: Face First

Get a friend to help you stack the cases on top of one another.

Get a friend to help you stack the cases on top of one another.

This large wall unit is essentially six plywood boxes with solid wood face frames on front. The part of the back that is visible behind the shelves is solid wood. The back behind the doors is plywood.

When building shelves, it’s tempting to begin with the case because it goes together really fast. Resist this temptation. Begin your project by building your solid wood face frames. Your entire project is based off your face frame, so if you’ve got a problem with your design (or how you milled your parts) you’re most likely to find out about it when you build the face frame. And I’d rather throw away a skinny piece of solid wood than a sheet of ply.

I make my face frames using 3/4″ material (which is the standard) and mortise-and-tenon construction. First I cut my tenons on the rails, then I use those to lay out my mortises on my stiles. When working with 3/4″ material, I always make my tenons 3/8″ thick and 1″ long. Usually I’ll cut a 1/2″ shoulder on the width of the tenon, but if the stock is narrow (less than 3″) I’ll use a 1/4″ shoulder. I cut my tenons on my table saw using a dado stack. Now lay out your mortises using your tenons. Cut your mortises (I use a hollow chisel mortiser) about 11/16″ deep so your tenon won’t bottom out in the mortise. Put glue in the mortises, clamp and set your face frames aside.