Making Plans: A Bookcase from the Beginning

I have four bookcases
filled with woodworking books in my office at home, another two
bookcases in my office at work and boxes and boxes of them in the
basement.

And the list of the woodworking books I’m hunting for
grows only longer. It is time to do something radical. It’s time to
start a library.

This year I’m going to explore the birth of the
glass-front bookcase, which appeared in England in the second half of
the 1600s. It is commonly held that diarist Samuel Pepys commissioned
the “book press” to hold his collection, which he organized by height.

Pepys’s library.

Pepys
was acquainted with the famous Joseph Moxon, who wrote the first
English book on the practice of joinery and carpentry, and so it seems
like this particular design is suitable for a woodworker. You can read
Pepys (pronounced “peeps”) at pepysdiary.com.

The
design for a press was copied quite a bit, including the example shown
above, which I photographed at the Victoria & Albert Museum this
summer. That example was built about 1695, probably for William Blathwayt,
also a civil servant like Pepys. The bookcase is in four pieces for
easy assembly on-site (though the museum description did not say what
the four pieces were – my guess would be plinth, lower case, upper case
and top cap).

The doors are mullioned, which was all the rage at
the time with the advent of sash windows. Each piece of glass is
individually set into the frame. And the shelves are adjustable in small
increments to accommodate different sizes of books.

One of the
best parts of building a project is doing the research and reading on
it. I won’t bore you with the historical details here (I save that stuff
for my poor wife), but some of the highlights are from V.J. Taylor’s
“The Construction of Period Furniture” (Stobart & Son Ltd.) and “A
Brief Illustrated History of the Bookshelf” by Marshall Brooks.

The
Brooks book is a charming little volume of line drawings and short
captions about the evolution of the bookshelf form, starting in
Mesopotamia and wrapping up in the public reading room of the New York
Public Library. It’s not a scholarly book; you can read it in about 20
minutes. But it is fun, and printed by letterpress.

In contrast,
Taylor’s book is almost alarming. The construction details of the press,
reportedly built by Christopher Sympson, a Deptford ship’s joiner,
merit some further study on my part. For example, the sides of the top
case extend all the way to the plinth – yes, they go through the bottom
case.

It makes me want to travel back to England and see the
bookcases for myself. That’s probably not going to happen real soon with
my schedule this year. Time to hit the books a little harder.

— Christopher Schwarz

More on Bookcases and Shelving
• Troy Sexton wrote a great article on the rules for shelving. You can read it for free on our site here.

Here are free plans for a bookcase I built almost 10 years ago. Quick and easy and all that.

• Robert Lang built these cool contemporary shelves for our I Can Do That column. If I didn’t have such a thing for Pepys, I’d build these.

10 thoughts on “Making Plans: A Bookcase from the Beginning

  1. Jeff

    As someone who has too many books and not enough bookcases, I am looking forward to seeing what you settle on. For bookcases that are above 6′ tall, I believe that 2 piece designs are dramatically more pleasing than the one piece approach. I have two bookcases that have raised tombstone panel doors on the bottom section. While aesthetically pleasing, I find that I never peruse the volumes hidden behind the doors. Thus, I like the glass doors on those pictured above, unless they are to be located in a room where young children frequent. On the other hand, the mouldings seem a bit out of proportion to the rest of the piece.

  2. gordon harner

    I’m glad that I’m not the only one with a book "problem". You can’t just get these to borrow at the library. However, where do you find the wall space? Come up with a solution for cheap wall space and you can retire to your reading.

  3. George Walker

    Chris,

    Battey Langley had a couple of similar designs, though toned down a bit. Here’s a web address to an engraving he calls a Doric bookcase.
    http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/DLDecArts/DLDecArts-idx?type=turn&entity=DLDecArts.CityCtryLang.p0345&id=DLDecArts.CityCtryLang&isize=&pview=hide
    It’s in the Chipstone digital collection. These styles of bookcases are overtly built around a classic order. The one you have pictured above is no doubt based on a Corinthian or Composite order.

    George

  4. Adam Cherubini

    American book presses (and secretaries) probably didn’t have glazings as often as English pieces did. There are some fine examples of panelled book cases in the Bishop White house in Philadelphia.

    On the second floor of Independance Hall are press boards with chicken wire in place of panels or glazings. Not sure where they came from. Last time I was there rifles, ammo pouches and powder horns and the like were stored in them. We know that Franklin stored the first free library in that space after the Junto came up with the idea in 1730 or so. The library was later moved to what is now the American Philosophical Society. Not sure if these were the original shelves or reproductions. I thought it was a neat look regardless.

    Years ago, I came across a painted pine book case that I believe belonged to James Fenimore Cooper (who lived near me for a short time at least). It was in deplorable condition and I kick myself for not saving it from the skip. What I liked most about it were the full length grooves in the case sides. Let into those grooves were saw toothed pieces that supported loose shelves. I thought that was a pretty sexy idea. It had crumbling panelled doors and sat on a base featuring a drawer or two.

    I think these are popular projects and PW readers (myself included) will be interested in what you come up with.

  5. Gary Roberts

    May I suggest the following readings on bookshelves:

    The Book On The Bookshelf, by Henry Petroski

    The Chained Library: A Survey of Four Centuries in the Evolution of the English Library, by B. H.Streeter

    The Care Of Books, by John W. Clark

    Just a little light reading for a day spent sitting on the front porch.

    Gary

  6. www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawm4UjJ-_4xUg7q9-jlvhBj9ikzGUZLVvCw

    Wow… for the past few months I had been wishing that you would do something with old bookcases and their method of manufacture. Current designs all seem to be based around dados which are a pain to make without power tools.

    I love the look of the glass fronted book cases. I had not even thought of that for a design. Also if you are taking fan requests (consider me a fan) could you look to see what designs libraries used to house paperback books? Adjustable shelves with paperbacks just doesnt make sense because they are all the same height and most modern "book shelves" are not actually designed for books as they usually have a face frame that keeps you from accessing the books on the end. I fear though that paperback books and hand tool made bookshelves are not contemporary with each other.

    Bob Miller

  7. John Balletto

    How are you going to get the carving done? will this fit the decor of either your home or the office?

    John Balletto

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