Building a Mid-Century Style Bookshelf

A few weeks ago Chris and I decided to completely rearrange our living room. This is an idea Chris has had for quite some time and was intended to help open up the room and make it much more inviting. We were very happy with the new room layout but it created an empty space, next to our video game cabinet that needed to be filled.

 The old layout for the living room

The old layout for the living room

 The room new layout

The room new layout

We decided that a vintage mid-century book shelf would be perfect, but we don't see these for sale very often and they are quite expensive when we do.  Reproduction ones are available but were much more than we wanted to spend.  Often, when I can't find exactly what I want, my first thought is to figure out if I can make it myself.  This time was no different and with Chris' help, we came up with a design for a bookshelf that would fit our mid-century decor, would be easy to make with the tools we already owned, require a minimal amount of materials and be fairly inexpensive.

 My plans for the book shelf

My plans for the book shelf

 The laminated wood panels used for the shelf

The laminated wood panels used for the shelf

Originally our grand plan was to make this out of hardwood like oak or maple. However, once I saw the cost of the material, I realized I would be making a $300 shelf that may or may not look good in the end.  Pine was obviously the cheapest option, but I wasn't in love with the look of it.  Ultimately we decided on pine boards that were made up of laminated blocks, which had a more interesting look than just plain pine.  Best of all it came it pre-cut sizes so I only had to make a few smaller cuts for the four uprights of my shelf.

tools-heading2.jpg
  • Hammer

  • Router

  • 3/4 inch straight router bit

  • Power Drill

  • Skill Saw

  • Paintbrush (For Varnish)

  • Cloth Rags (For Stain)

materials-heading2.jpg
  • 3 - 3/4" x 12" x 36" boards

  • 4 - 3/4" x 12" x 12" boards

  • Finish nails

  • Wood glue

  • 4 - Tapered furniture legs

  • 4 - Angled furniture leg mounting plates

  • Wood stain

  • Semi-gloss varnish

 My router and a completed dado cut

My router and a completed dado cut

The first challenge was to figure out the best way to assemble the design.  We were concerned that doing simple butt joints would not be strong enough and the shelf would loosen up over time. I saw some plans for using wooden dowels to connect the pieces, but was afraid that the boards may split.  

Using my new router, which I was itching to try out, I cut a combination of dado joints and lap joints for my shelf.  I wanted the signature mid-century "S" look to my shelf so positioned my dado cuts 7 inches from the end and my lap joints on the edge of the boards.  I used a straight 3/4" router bit, so that the uprights would fit snugly in the groove and ultimately make for a stronger shelf. Chris helped me come up with a jig so that my cuts were always straight and in the correct spot every time.  My first cut wasn't perfect, but once I got used to using the router the rest went very smoothly. I know that there are many different ways of cutting these joints, but I found the router to be just perfect for what I needed.

 The cuts for each shelf, used to make the joints.

The cuts for each shelf, used to make the joints.

Once I had all the pieces cut, I started to assemble. Starting with the bottom and middle shelves and the first two uprights.  I glued all the joints together, clamped them and once the glue had dried, reinforced them with finish nails.  To clamp the corners I used a type of clamp intended to boards exactly 90 degrees. These were amazing and kept the boards perfectly straight while the glue dried. When the bottom portion of my self was complete, I added the next set of uprights and the top shelf.

 Glue on one of the uprights

Glue on one of the uprights

 One of the corner clamps

One of the corner clamps

 The shelf all assembled and clamped

The shelf all assembled and clamped

After the shelf was assembled I sanded and stained the entire thing.  I initially tried a number of different stain colors on a piece of scrap board and ultimately decided on the color "Moorish Teak" by Zar, which most closely matched our other furniture in that room.  After the stain had dried, I added the first coat of satin varnish.  I didn't want to have to wait all day for each coat to dry so used water based varnish, which only takes 3 hours to dry. After the first coat of varnish dried, I filled all nail holes with walnut colored putty to match the stain, lightly sanded and added another two coats, sanding in between each coat.

 Stain samples. Moorish teak is the color on the far left.

Stain samples. Moorish teak is the color on the far left.

 The newly stained shelf

The newly stained shelf

I wanted my shelf to have legs, so I found two sets of tapered, mid-century furniture legs at a local antique store. The legs were two different sizes, so I cut them down to 7.75 inches tall, removed the original stain and refinished them to match the shelf. This style of furniture leg usually has a hanger bolt in the top, which attaches to metal brackets on the bottom of the furniture.  The furniture legs no longer had their hanger bolts, so I added new ones. They were a bit long, so I did have to drill small cavities in the bottom of the shelf so that the extra bit of bolt had a place to go.  Since the mounting brackets were bright silver colored I sprayed them with flat brown primer to help them blend in with the wood a bit better.

 Vintage furniture legs

Vintage furniture legs

 One of the legs with the hanger bold

One of the legs with the hanger bold

 The leg with the hanger bolt added

The leg with the hanger bolt added

 The bottom of the shelf, with new legs

The bottom of the shelf, with new legs

I was very happy with the finished shelf.  It was easy to make, exactly what we had envisioned and the vintage legs added just the right retro touch.  I loaded it up with vintage pulp paperbacks and space-related/science fiction books.  It was also perfect for displaying some of our nesting doll sets, photos and a few other objects that previously didn't have a home.  Overall the project cost around $100 for materials and took only about two days to complete.

finished-undecorated.jpg
shelf-final2.jpg

It looks great in the living room and really matches mid-century look of the room. This shelf was actually a test for a larger shelf I have planned for our library.  That shelf will be over double the size and I'm hoping to make it with nicer wood, now that I know what I'm doing.

 Our living room with our new bookshelf

Our living room with our new bookshelf

final-room3.jpg