Ask the Builder: The Power of Books and Shelves


I’ve made enough trips around the sun that I often find myself thinking about what might be inside future homes. For example, do you think architects and builders 100 years ago would have thought laundry chutes would be out of fashion? They might have thought that placing washing machines on wooden floors was the most daring thing one could do.

Can you imagine the shock on the face of an architect or builder 125 years ago when you could say, “That built-in pantry you specify is going to be ripped out of the house in 1990 during a a kitchen remodel. They might think that only a mooncalf would get rid of a built-in cabinet.

And the shelves? What is the future of books made of atoms instead of electrons like you might read on your Kindle, iPad or tablet? I’m sure there are statistics that could show a decline in the number of printed books sold, but try to look 50 years or more ahead.

What the future holds for books shouldn’t matter to you if you have hundreds of books you want to display. I am one of those people and I want easy access to my books. Over the years, my wife and I have collected hundreds, if not thousands, of books made from atoms.

It turns out that many have become very valuable because the vast majority of books are out of print. I have several books that sell for over $1,000 at online auctions. In these times of inflation, it’s a good idea to keep things that aren’t cash. Don’t give away your hardcover books for God’s sake.

Actually, I’m on a mission trying to collect old dictionaries. As a professional writer, I’m intrigued by how different the definition of words can be in dictionaries of the same age. The scary thing is that in this electronic world, people can change the meaning of words in online dictionaries and you might not even realize it. But I digress.

Wooden shelves seem to be the most popular. Several years ago, I toured the country showing how to build simple shelves in real time on live TV morning news shows. Yes, believe it or not, I assembled a 4ft by 4ft solid poplar 1 of 8 bookcase in real time with a nice plywood back panel for extra strength and stability in less than an hour at live television.

The thing is, you can create simple or ornate wall shelves with a few tools, patience, and a basic plan. The best place to start a bookshelf project is to look at hundreds of photos of them online. Once you’re inspired, you’ll find it to be a powerful motivator. You’ll find it will be so much easier to get the job done after seeing what the finished product will look like.

Not too long ago I had the pleasure of marveling at the corner shelves inside a quaint cabin my daughter bought that sits by a lake on Mount Desert Island in Maine.

These shelves were placed on an oak corner desk. What caught my attention was how ornate they seemed at first glance, but in reality they were very easy details for a DIYer like you to produce.

The choice of oak for the shelves was wise because it is a very resistant wood. You can span 4 or 5 feet and the shelves won’t succumb to gravity over time. If you choose shelves made of sawdust and glue, you may notice over the months a pronounced sag if you load the shelves with heavy books.

It really pays to inventory and organize your books early in the planning phase of your project. If there are certain books you want on the same shelf, you need to know which book is taller in order to get the correct spacing. Sometimes it makes sense to lay large books on their side so you don’t waste valuable wall space.

This is the biggest challenge when planning shelves. What should be done so that the maximum wall space is occupied by books and there is minimal air space above the books until the next shelf begins? Keep in mind that you need to have 1 to 1 ½ inches of space above the top of the books and the bottom of the next shelf above. This allows you to put your finger on top of the book to tip it over so you can grab it and pull it off the shelf.

Don’t ruin a shelf by attaching metal shelf posts to the vertical side panels. These low quality screams in my opinion. You should be able to mount the shelves permanently to the side brackets with proper planning.

The screws that hold the shelves in place can be concealed using caps or finishing washers. You can get them in brass to produce a very professional look. If you need further advice, consider contacting a local carpenter. Visit his shop and see if he might have some tips. Better yet, take photos of your dream space and shelves with you.

You might be surprised how low the cost for a carpenter can be to create what you want. They are often so experienced that they can do in an hour what might take you four hours. They also have all the tools to produce the best results. Send me a picture of your finished shelves. I’d love to see what you end up with!

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