How to Plan & Build Bookcases, Cabinets & Shelves: Making Plans and Getting Started

HOME | Glossary | Books

Bookcases, cabinets, and shelves will store a variety of items, fill empty corners, make a dramatic focal point in a room, and provide a place to display a collection. Record albums, books, kitchen equipment and supplies, toys, linens, and paraphernalia for drinks are just some of the items that can be either displayed or concealed. Design considerations and basic structure of a bookcase are very similar to those of a cabinet. Therefore, the term “case” refers to both pieces. Building a case is an excellent introduction to the satisfactions of working with wood. It is a relatively easy project and one that will yield practical and handsome results.

Articles in this Guide

Staggered heights of these bookcases add importance to the doorway and emphasize the lines of the pitched roof Deeper shelves create a desk on one side, an entertainment center on the other.

Getting Started

This guide provides the means to make a variety of bookcases and cabinets. What you need to know in order to plan and to execute a project is explained and many options are presented. Then it is up to you how closely you follow the plans, you can adapt them, add any of the options suggested, or mix and match ideas, developing your own design.

All you need in order to create a case that uniquely suits your needs and tastes is to master some basic construction techniques.

Realize that with care, patience, and a respect for materials and tools, a lack of refined carpentry skills can be overcome. However, beginners should not start out by faking on a complicated project. There is more pleasure in building a simple box well than there is in doing an inferior job on an intricate piece.

If you lack the confidence to plunge directly into a project, find some good-sized pieces of scrap wood. Use them to learn how to handle tools and to see how the material responds. This way you’ll know what to expect when you work on a project that counts.

Defining your needs

When thinking about your needs, consider three basic functions that cases can fulfill:

Access. A properly designed case stores its contents in an organized way so that they can be quickly found and retrieved and the order of the other stored items is not disrupted. Cases can be designed to house kitchenware, tools, camera equipment, and toys.

Display. Fragile items and objects that should be protected from dust—china collections and model ships, for example—are best presented in glass-fronted cabinets. Stereo equipment can be displayed to best advantage in a special cabinet, although glass doors are more of an option than a necessity.

Protection. Dangerous chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, and strong cleaning agents must be kept safely away from youngsters. A locked cabinet in the garage might be a practical solution, but several such cabinets—located in the kitchen, laundry room, garage, and shed—might be even better. Liquor and guns in the home should also be securely kept from children. Special cabinets can be designed for these purposes or existing cabinets can be modified using the suggestions.

Considering your options

In order to create a case you’ll be pleased with, take the time to make a detailed plan. The following questions need to be considered:

- Where will it go?

- How big should it be?

- What should it be made of?

- Should the shelves be fixed or adjustable?

- How should it be finished? After carefully assessing your needs, wants, and priorities, you’ll find that the choices will practically make themselves.

Four main considerations will affect all of your decisions:


Know what you are willing to spend. Cost may dictate certain design decisions, rule out particular materials, or limit the size of the project. Building your own case will, not necessarily save you money, especially if you apply a monetary value to time.

If you lack access to a well- equipped shop, you have to include the cost of any tools you must buy, as well as the money spent on materials. However, building your own case offers rewards that can’t be had by picking out a ready-made piece at the store and driving it home. You won’t get the enjoyment of working with your hands and the satisfaction of doing a job well. Further, it is doubtful that you will find a ready- made piece that is exactly the right size and finish.


Building a case takes time. The more elaborate the design, the more time it will take. Rushing not only increases the likelihood of mistakes and frustration but makes the construction process more a chore than a pleasure. Always be realistic about the amount of time you’re willing to spend.


If you are a novice, start with simple designs and techniques. Try more complicated projects as you grow more comfortable with tools and learn more about the characteristics of the various materials.

Work space

Some projects are simple to make even if you live in an apartment—a spare corner or utility room can be a shop. For projects in such limited spaces, all the pieces should be precut at the lumberyard so that only assembly and finishing are needed. Do not attempt a large project or one that will take a long time to complete. Instead, try a small cabinet or a simple bookcase.

If a shop or work area in your garage or basement is available, it’s not necessary to limit your projects; just make sure that large projects will fit through the doors and around the corners encountered between the shop and destination.

Prev.: Tools, Techniques, and Tips

Next: Selecting a Style

Product Catalog

Home page

Top of page

Modified: Friday, 2016-12-30 19:03 PST