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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.