Mid-century Modern Bookcase
Simple joinery serves this sophisticated geometric design.
by Michael Crow
Mid-century modern design is enjoying a surge in popularity, and rightly so: Its clean lines and functional design make it practical and attractive, two traits evident in this bookcase by an unknown designer.
Its stark, geometric design shows modern roots while giving it a strong graphic presence. And because it looks good from both the front and back, it’s perfect for dividing a space without completely partitioning it, making it a good match for the open-plan homes of the period, and of today.
Simple construction techniques underlie the sophisticated design: Rabbets in the leg assemblies capture the case, with its interior dividers and shelves joined by dados. The asymmetrical dividers are made from 1⁄2“-thick stock while the outer case is made from 3⁄4“-thick material. The legs and rails are 1” thick. The varying thicknesses, and a 1⁄2” reveal of the case in the legs, add another subtle detail to the design.
The original case was executed in rosewood, but I opted for cherry finished with oil and shellac. It provides a warmth similar to rosewood without the expense. Too, the design lends itself to a variety of materials, so pick your materials to suit your décor.
Following the original, I built the case from sheet goods (the legs and rails are solid cherry), but there’s no reason to choose sheet goods over solid wood. While plywood does require edge-banding, you’ll likely spend the same amount of time gluing up narrower solid stock to produce the wide boards required for the project, so let your preference and working style guide your choice of material.
Edge-banding Two Ways
Because it simplifies cleaning glue squeeze-out, I prefer to pre-finish my parts when a design allows it. That’s the approach I took here for the case interior, wiping on a coat of boiled linseed oil, followed by padding on a couple of coats of blonde shellac.
Rip the 3⁄4” and 1⁄2” plywood to 10-1⁄4” (which allows for 1⁄8“-thick edge-banding on both sides to produce 10-1⁄2“-wide panels). Then apply the boiled linseed oil and first coat of shellac. With the panels ripped and pre-finished, you’re ready for edge-banding.
You can use commercial veneer tape and iron it to the edges of your plywood, but ripping your own banding gives you enough thickness to round or chamfer your finished edges. That looks nicer, and it makes the banding blend better with the sheet stock.
While it’s tempting to set the fence for a narrow cut for ripping, you’ll avoid the risk of the narrow stock jamming in the throat plate if you position the fence to produce a strong 1⁄8” offcut, and reset the fence after every pass.
After ripping my banding, I planed one face smooth for gluing, then applied it to my plywood. I sized the edge of the plywood by brushing on a thin layer of glue, letting it sit for a minute for the long-grain plies to absorb glue, then applying another thin coat before aligning the banding to the sheet-good edges.
You can use a clamp and cauls to secure the banding while the glue dries, or you can use masking tape, scraping away any glue squeeze-out after it gels.
Once the glue is dry, cut the banding flush with the plywood. A trim router equipped with a flush-cutting bit is designed for this work. The hand-tool alternative is a sharp plane set for a shallow cut.
Dados Join the Interior
The case interior is joined with 1⁄4” x 1⁄4” dados, stopped about 1⁄2” from the edges of the boards. A simple plywood jig (shown below, left) guides the router for making these cuts.
Mark the location of the dados, align the cut in the fence with your marks, position the router, plunge and plow. Note that where two shelves line up on either side of a divider, the dados will cut all the way through the plywood, leaving solid stock only at either end of the cut.
Take care when handling the unassembled 1⁄2“-thick dividers to avoid breaking the workpiece – or set your router a little shallow for these cuts, then trim the corresponding tenons to fit.
Tenon the ends of the interior parts with a rabbeting bit (router) or dado stack (table saw), then notch the ends of the boards for the stopped dados. You’ll need to round over the tenons or square the dados with a chisel to get the parts to fit.
Cut the Miters
Miters join the case. I used a length of plywood as a fence to guide a large 45° chamfer bit to cut these joints with a router. Simply position the fence along the end of the board, set the bit for a 3⁄4“-deep cut, and rout the chamfer, easing up to the final depth with multiple passes. Cut and miter the case sides now, but leave the ends a little long until after you’ve dry-fit the case. Doing so allows you to size the pieces for perfect fit.
The frame assembly pieces are also mitered, but these can be cut with a miter saw. If your stock is long enough, cut each assembly from a single board so the grain runs continuously around it.
Rip the parts to width, cut your miters, then cut the legs to final length.
Size the ends of the boards before gluing and clamp in both directions across the joint, taking care that the boards align and the miters stay tight. When the glue is dry, rout a stopped 3⁄4“-wide x 1⁄2“-deep rabbet for the case, then square the ends of your cut with a chisel.
Assemble in Stages
Assembling the case is a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. I built the case from left to right in stages. Join the first series of dividers and shelves and let that section dry before adding the next series. Finally, size the miters and glue the ends to the case.
Once the assembly is out of the clamps, level its hardwood faces with a smoothing plane or sander and ease the edges of the boards. Now’s a good time to smooth and finish the leg assemblies, too. Glue them to the case, taking care to remove squeeze-out after the glue has gelled, then finish the outside of the case.
With the case and drawer complete, now comes the hard part: deciding what deserves pride of place on your stylish new bookcase. PWM
Michael is the author of “Mid-Century Modern Furniture: Shop Drawings & Techniques for Making 29 Projects.”
Web: Visit the author’s web site.
Blog: Read about ways to modify the bookcase for various purposes
Plan: Download a free SketchUp model of this bookcase.
Article: Build Steve Shanesy’s “Wall-mounted Server,” inspired by mid-century modern designs.
In Our Store: “Building Classic Arts & Crafts Furniture: Shop Drawings for 33 Traditional Charles Limbert Projects,” by Michael Crow.
To Buy: “Mid-Century Modern Furniture: Shop Drawings & Techniques for Making 29 Projects,” by Michael Crow.
Click to download the PDF, with drawings and a cutlist: Mid-century Modern Bookcase PDF
Excerpted from the October 2015 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine.