White Oak Bookcase

Finished bookcase made from quarter-sawn and plain-sawn white oak.

Recently, I finished a project that—for many reasons—took almost half a year to complete: a Christopher Schwarz inspired bookcase. After reading about this bookcase in Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Design Book back in March, I knew I’d found a design that could be adapted into my long-sought “ideal” bookcase.

Building bookcases combines two of my great passions: books and woodworking. The summer after my sophomore year of college, I built two six-foot bookcases out of home center pine and plywood for my first apartment. They were ugly but serviceable enough to hold my rapidly growing book collection.

Sometime in college, I came up with a scheme to more efficiently shelve my books by size. The main reason to shelve like-sized books together is to maximize shelf density by not allowing much empty space between the tops of books and the shelf above them. One inch of air space is plenty. I came up with five size ranges, designated by Roman numerals, that I continue to use for shelving my books:

0–12.7 cm = Size I
12.8–19.7 = Size II
19.8–27.3 = Size III
27.4–37.5 = Size IV
37.6–∞ = Size V (shelved flat)

In my graduate school apartment I constructed an eight-foot by eight-foot built-in bookcase to accommodate my disconcertingly large gathering of books. The size designations allowed me to build rigid, non-adjustable shelves that helped hold the whole thing together and economized shelving space. Unfortunately, this high-density bookcase was rather plain and ugly, although most visitors were impressed by its size.

In The Anarchist’s Design Book, Schwarz outlines his thoughts on common book sizes which dictate the shelf spacing for his bookcase. Since I shelve my books by size too, I wholeheartedly embrace his arguments against adjustable shelves. In my experience, you don’t need them and they aren’t worth the added effort.

After earning my master’s degree in library and information science (surprised?) and several moves, my book collection now is considerably smaller than it was in college and grad school. During my time living on the east coast, my books lived comfortably in a couple of IKEA shelving units. They at least had solid pine sides (but chipboard backs). What I hated most about them—and many bookcases—was you could not remove books at the ends of shelves because the face frames got in the way.

Having thought about and built bookcases over the years, I was in awe of the simplicity of Schwarz’s design and knew immediately that I would build at least one. It has no face frame to get in the way, it’s deep which provides stability and room for larger books, and it has a simple, classic look. I made the following changes to the design:

  • Built out of quarter-sawn white oak with plain-sawn back
  • Back is shiplap rather than tongue and groove
  • Added a top for more dust protection and because I like to put photographs and other things on top of bookcases
  • Size adjusted slightly to accommodate my shelving scheme

Below are a few photos taken during the build.

This stack of quarter-sawn white oak became a bookcase.
All the pieces waiting to be sanded.
Gluing everything together.

This bookcase was designed to hold two sizes of my books: sizes I and II on the top shelf, flat-laying size V on the second shelf, and heavy size IV on the bottom two shelves. A second case for size III books is already underway and I might even build a third. While Chris Schwarz’s bookcase—made of pine and finished with milk paint—has a vernacular, almost “country” look, I think the quarter-sawn oak and exposed wrought nails of my bookcase make it look like a Craftsman-style piece.

All of the wood came from C. R. Muterspaw Lumber in Xenia, Ohio. I used dadoes, Titebond Liquid Hide Glue, and 4d (1 1/2″) Tremont wrought-head nails to fasten everything together. The back is nailed on with 4d Tremont clout standard nails. The finish is three coats of “medium walnut” Watco Danish oil and one coat of S.C. Johnson paste wax.

Detail showing the Tremont wrought-head nails and the oak’s amazing medullary rays.