Well, as part of the continuing process of getting ready to squeeze another little girl into the room with Annelise, Monique asked for a book shelf that could fit between the two closets and match the armoire and bed that I built when Annelise was born. (I’ll do a write up on those one day…) We looked at a lot of different store bought options but they were all too expensive (the only ones we liked were over $250) and none of them really matched the existing furniture. I don’t exactly need much motivation to start a new project in the shop but this one looked especially fun as it could be completed in a day or two and not cost much money (we spent about $25 plus paint). Monique helped with the design (it was her suggestion to offset the height of the shelves) and the rest of the design was based on the existing armoire and bed. If the details details interest you, read on…if not, just enjoy the pictures (click on any picture for a larger view).

I built the project out of MDF (medium density fiberboard) as it is cheap, easy to work with, smooth, and takes paint very well. The only draw backs to using MDF are weight – MDF is very heavy (makes for a stable bookcase) and poor edges. The cut edge of MDF is very soft and rough. To address this I covered the front with a solid wood (white pine) face frame. This not only fixes the aesthetics but protects the shelf front from toddlers with hot-wheels. I primed the entire unit prior to painting with Kilz brand spray primer. This stops the MDF from absorbing so much paint and provides a uniform color to the top coat. The top coat is an oil based interior paint. This is a little harder to work with then water based paints but I have yet to find a latex paint that is anywhere near as durable as oil based finishes.


  • Table saw or Circular saw with straight edge guide
  • Table saw with dado cutter or Router with straight cutting bit
  • Band Saw or Jig Saw (only needed for decorative base trim)
  • Router with Chamfer bit or tilted Table saw (for detail on top)
  • Router with ogee bit for base trim only
  • Clamps
  • Brad Nailer (recommended)

Mill Work:
After cutting the pieces to size using my table saw (and band saw for the decorative bottom trim) I changed the blade to a stacked dado head cutter. This is basically a stack of blades called chippers that can be configured to cut groves or dadoes of varying thicknesses (1/16″ – 7/8″ in 1/64″ increments).

Stacked Dado Head Cutter

I set up to cut a 3/4″ thick dado 1/4″ deep. The blade height above the table controls the depth of the cut. Once the cutter was configured I milled out all the dadoes in the sides and middle of the bookcase.

Full Dado

Most of the dadoes in this project are full dadoes that run from one end of the board through the other side. The top however fits on the uprights using a blind dado (sounds like a blues singer). This is a dado that stops before the end of the board. Because the blade is round you end up with what is called “run-out”. This is the shallower unusable portion of the blind dado.

Blind Dado

There are a number of ways to address this issue. I could use a sharp hand chisel to “square up” the run out, I could simply round off the end of the board that fits in this dado, or (as I’ve chosen to do in this design) the run-out can be hidden. Dealing with the run-out is easy. Figuring out how to cut this dado is the tricky part. Because the dado stops before the end of the board I had to figure out when to stop cutting without being able to see the blade (while cutting the blade is hidden under the board). To address this I put a piece of tape on my table saw’s rip fence and marked the highest point of the blade on this tape. Then on the back of the board I was cutting I marked where the end of the full depth dado cut needed to be. When I cut the dado I knew to stop when the marks lined up.

Cut Blind Dado

With the stacked dado cutter installed I next milled a rabbit in the uprights (blind dadoes and rabbits…getting weird). A rabbit is a ledge (or half a dado) cut into the edge of a board. In my case this was to receive a thin 1/4″ thick rear panel to act as the back of the bookcase. I didn’t want to just attach this piece to the back of the shelf…I wanted it recessed into the bookcase.


To cut a rabbit on my table saw (man that just sounds wrong) I needed to slide my fence on top of the blade so that only one side of the blade would be exposed. To do that I used a sacrificial fence. This is just a piece of wood attached to the metal rip fence. I slid it in place with the blade down. With the table saw running I carefully raised the blade into the wood and was ready to cut the rabbit.

Sacrificial Fence

The finial bit of milling to do was to put a chamfer (bevel) on the front and side edges of the top. I used my shaper (just a big router) with a chamfering bit and ball bearing guide.


After cutting and milling all the pieces I was ready for the fun part…putting it all together! Step one was to dry fit (no glue) all the pieces together and make sure everything fit. Next I assembled the bottom shelf between the uprights using glue (I like Tight Bond II) and 3/4″ brads toe nailed (these name get sillier and sillier but this means nailed from the inside at an angle…hides the nail and holds the shelf at the set angle while the glue dries). Of course I used a speed square to make sure every thing was perpendicular.

Toe Nail

Next I installed the center upright and both shelves using the same technique and wiped up all the excess glue so I wouldn’t have to deal with it later.

Assembly no Top

You can see from this rear picture that the shelves stop at the edge of the rabbit. This will allow the back to slip in and attach to the back edge of the shelves later with staples.

Rear View

You can also see from this front view that the bottom shelf has a lip to receive the solid wood face frame.


The last bit of assembly before allowing the glue to dry was to attach the top using glue and 1 1/2″ brads. After some dry time, I attached the face frame to all the upright edges and across the top of the piece using glue a few 1″ brads (the face frame is 1/2″ thick) and lots of clamps (the center and shelf trim is not shown here).

Face Frame

Here you can see that blind dado run-out from earlier just visible behind the top face frame. This remaining gap will be hidden by crown molding.

Top Run Out

The finial step of assembly was to attach the crown molding (maybe I’ll do a post on cutting crown molding later) and bottom decorative trim using glue and brads. The corners are mitered (cut at a 45). After attaching everything I used some sandable wood filler to cover all the nail holes.


After a good sanding I took the unit outside to spray on a single coat of Kilz spray primer.


Another light sanding and I was ready to paint. I used an oil based paint applied with a nice natural bristle brush. Two coats later…


I also painted the back panel at the same time. It was much easier to paint without the back installed. After the paint dried I installed the back using 1″ narrow crown staples. Now it was Monique’s turn to load up some books and decorate the top. Here is the finial version of our $25 bookcase.



4 thoughts on “Annie’s New Book Shelf

  1. Being a designer I have to admit that I just looked at the pictures in this post (admiring the wonderful drop shadows on the illustrative arrows and text) and scanned down to see the finished piece. Very impressive my friend! Of course knowing your skills I was already expecting something pretty awesome. I’ll go back and actually read the steps because I’d love to learn how to do this kind of stuff. But then there’s the issue of my tool equipment consisting of mainly a hammer, power drill and tape measure…plus no garage. Eh, another time then.

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