No project is complete until I’ve taken some beauty shots and the workpiece is in its final home. So, before I moved the bookcase into my study and loaded it with books, I took a couple of photos of the finished project.
for th enailsThe final stage of the boarded bookcase build involved fitting the backboards. The outermost pair of boards are glued to the sides of the bookcase, and then nailed to the shelves. The rest of the shelves are nailed only, to allow for seasonal wood movement. Before fitting the boards I applied several coats of blonde shellac by hand – it is much easier to do this before they are installed, and also helps to wipe off any squeezeout when gluing the outer boards in place. I adjusted the width of the middle board until all five fit snuggly in the casework, and then held them in position with a cam clamp holding each against the top rail. That allowed me to mark and drill the pilot holes for each nail. Cam clamps don’t offer endless gripping power like Bessey K clamps do, but for delicate clamping operations such as this they are perfect. Before fixing the shelves in place I also planed the top rail flush to the sides.
I fixed the shelves in two batches. The first batch was the outermost shelves, which I glued and nailed in place in the kitchen as the workshop was getting too cold for the hide glue to flow properly. One day I will have a heated ‘shop, but that day is not yet here. The sides of the bookcase had bowed slightly, so I used clamps to pull them into the edge of the backboards. Once the glue had cured, I moved the bookcase back into the workshop and nailed the remaining backboards in place.
I had left cleaning the outside surfaces of the bookcase until it had been fully assembled. I started with cleaning up the front by smoothing the edge of the shelves and sides with the Holtey No985. Once the front of the bookcase was clean and pretty I then smoothed each side, with the bookcase standing on a thick moving blanket to protect it from acquiring more workshop rash. Once each side was smoothed I drilled pilot holes for the nails, drove the nails home, and then applied several coats of shellac. This also helped to protect the freshly smoothed surface when the bookcase was turned over.
With both sides smoothed and all the nails fitted, the only tasks left were to plane the backboards flush to the toprail using a blockplane, and make pretty. I broke all the sharp edges to prevent them from splintering in use, using the Philly Planes chamfer plane for all accessible edges – this tool is far from essential but is an excellent way of cutting repeatable and quick chamfers. For the shelves I used a Veritas scraper shave, which works well right into the corner where the shelf meets the side. A final hand rubbed coat of shellac on the sides and front of the bookcase, and the final finishing touch was to apply my maker’s mark to the top end of a side (the stamp works best on end grain). Yes, nothing beats taking a lump hammer to a newly completed piece of furniture.
And after 7 months’ work, the boarded bookcase is (as of two minutes ago) complete.
It’s too late to do a full write up of the final stage of the build tonight. So I plan to pour a whiskey, and catch up on the writing next week. But it feels good to have this project finished.
I’ve been hard at work preparing the backboards so that they can be fitted to the boarded bookcase – this is the final stage of the build, so that all will be left once they are fitted is to make pretty and then apply shellac. I got the backboards dimensioned last weekend; there isn’t much to say that’s new about that process. I am using 5 backboards, subtly graduated in size and orientated so that with the widest two boards go at each end of the assemvbly, with the narrowest board in the middle. The variations in width (other than the middle board, the others are grouped in pairs of corresponding widths) is partially determined by the maple I have in stock, and partially to allow a good fit in the casework. Instead of working to any measurements, the overall width of the backboards will be determined by the width of the bookcase, and using the arrangement I currently have allows the middle board to be trimmed until I have a good snug fit across the whole assembly. For that reason, I have not yet cut the middle board to final width, as I want room to trim it.
The backboards are joined to each other with tongue and groove joinery, and nailed to the rear edge of each shelf. The outermost boards are also glued to the sides of the casework. I really like tongue and groove joinery for backboards and other situations where boards need to be joined but still allowed to move, such as the shelf for the Roubo workbench. A dedicated joinery plane (I use the Lie-Nielsen No.49 for 1/2″ thick boards) means that cutting this joinery is swift and repeatable.
The other reason I like tongue and groove joinery is that it provides a good opportunity to use a beading plane, which adds a little visual interest to otherwise plain components. I’ve had this Philly Planes 1/8″ beading plane for five years, and don’t get to use it as often as I would like. But it is perfect for adding a shadow line to tongue and groove boards (which is why it has made an appearance on the Roubo workbench, the Policeman’s Bootbench, our Boot Bench, and the Saw Cabinet, to name a few projects). This maple required a fine cut to achieve a good finish, and once dialed in the Philly beading plane siwftly cut a sweet little bead.
Finally, I eased the fit of the tongue in the grooves – off the plane the joint is “squeaky-tight”, and I don’t want to run the risk of snapping the delicate tongue when test fitting and dissassembling the backboards. A couple of swipes with a small shoulder plane is enough to ease the fit and minimise the risk of joinery implosion.
When I’m next in the workshop I will fit the backboard assembly to the casework, and glue and nail it in place. At this rate the bookcase will be complete and in use by the end of the month.
In 2015 I spent several days interviewing plane maker Karl Holtey for a profile which would be later published in the June 2016 issue of Popular Woodworking. That piece is one of the articles I’m most proud of. At the time of that interview, Karl had announced his impending retirement. He and I stayed in touch, and occasionally discussed doing a “post-retirement” follow up. The December 2020 issue of Popular Woodoworking is now available digitally, and carries the post-retirement interview with Karl, including discussion of his new plane – the 985 smoother.
After a few weeks of limited bench time, I’ve now got the top rail and kick fitted to the bookcase, which means that only the backboards remain before I can make pretty and call this project done. Fitting the rail and kick was straight forward and quite satisfying. I prepared both components an inch over-length and left them a touch over thickness, which meant that I was able to sneak up on a tight fit. I had previously marked out the rabbets in the sides, into which both components fit, using a Veritas mortise gauge. At the time, I left the gauge set to those measurements, which meant that I could mark the precise width of the rabbet onto the kick and rail instead of measuring out from a ruler.
The first stage of fitting the rail and the kick was to show each component to the carcase, and mark off the precise length needed (again, without the need for taking numerical measurements), and cutting a little off the line. I then snuck up on the fit by shooting the workpiece with the LN No51. Once the workpiece was at the right length, I took the thickness down until it fitted snuggly in the rabbet by taking fine cuts with a smoothing plane. The rail should press into the rabbets with light mallet taps – if it is overtight then the corner of the rabbet can split, particularly on the kick where the mortise is very close to the front edge of the side.
Once both the rail and the kick were fitted I glued them in position. The rail is simply glued into the rabbets, while the kick is glued to both the rabbets and the underside of the bottom shelf. Next I will process and fit the backboards, and then clean up the exterior of the casework before applying a finish.
Time at the workbench has been in short supply over the past week or so, due to other time pressures, but I have managed to finish these three bowls, which will be heading out to their forever homes tomorrow. Maple and Julep green milk paint by Old Fashioned Milk Paint might just be my new favourite combination.
The Apprentice is currently into Harry Potter in a big way, so I’ve also turned a few magic wands for Halloween – a satisfying and quick project. Now it’s back to the boarded bookcase for the last push through to completion. But having a few smaller turning projects for odd moments has proved to be a nice way to stay productive when I don’t have time to work on my main projects.
And with that, the bookcase is assembled. Well, now quite just like “that“. And there is still the matter of the top rail, kick, and backboards to fit. But the main glue-up is now concluded and what was a collection of five boards now starts to look like a piece of furniture. So that’s a good step in the right direction.
I never like to rush into a glue-up – that is the path down which catastrophe lies. So today’s session at the workbench was spent working at a steady but leisurely pace, with the focus being on working towards a smooth and incident free glue-up. Maple can be a beautiful timber, but tends to discolour and pick-up workshop grime very quickly. So the first step in my glue-up preparation was to lightly dress the interior faces of the components to remove any workshop rash and discolouration, using the Holtey 985 (it will break my heart whe I need to return this plane to Karl in a month or so). I was aiming to remove as little material as possible as I didn’t want to introduce any slop into the joinery, but just remove grime and dings and return the surface finish to straight-off-the-plane fresh.
The next step was to preserve that fresh and clear surface finish with a coat of blonde shellac. I mixed up a fresh 2lb cut batch of blonde tiger flakes (from Tools for Working Wood) yesterday, which also provided an opportunity to give a science and polishing lesson to the Apprentice. The magnetic mixer mixed the shellac perfectly with none of the residue at the bottom of the jar that I normally get, no matter how diligently I stir by hand. Is it an essential workshop purchase? Probably not, but for a very small outlay it made mixing up shellac very easy. The other benefit of pre-finishing the components with shellac is that it makes cleaning up glue squeeze-out very easy, as the glue won’t adhere to shellac.
Of course, I don’t want shellac on the surfaces which do need to be glued, including the ends of the shelves and the rear 1/2″ strip of the sides (which will be glued to the backboards). To protect these, I laid down a strip of blue tape and then used a sharp making gauge to cut the tape to the right width, before peeling off the excess. This is easier and faster than trying to lay the tape down to a precise line. With the glue surfaces taped up, I applied three coats of shellac, using a cotton pad stuffed with wadding. The shellac cures very quickly, so I was able to apply one coat to each component and then go round for a second, then a third time, without pausing. Blonde shellac does not add too much colour to maple, but does bring out the figure, and is the same finish I applied to my staked desk (which the bookcase will stand next to).
The final preparatory step was to cut clamping cauls for each dado, set up the clamps, and warm up the glue to ensure it would flow nicely in the autumnal chill. Assembling the bookcase is not as straight forward a task as you would expect – the lack of mechanical fixings in the joinery mean that until all three shelves are in and the clamps are tightened, the structure is pretty unstable. This is contrast to a dovetailed chest (for example) which is effectively self clamping if you’ve done a decent job of cutting the joinery. Fortunately Dr Moss was on hand to provide able assistance, and thanks to our dry-run last week and today’s preparation, it went together smoothly and with only minimal bleeding on the casework – the good news is that blood wipes off shellac easily too! With the casework assembled I cleaned up squeeze-out with a toothbrush and plenty of warm water. Once the glue has cured I’ll remove the clamps and dress the outer surface of the sides before applying shellac and installing the nails which will provide both decoration and a mechanical element to the joinery.
It has been challenging to get any real shop time since late August. First the workshop door (an “up and over” garage type) failed and I was locked out for two weeks while I waited for an engineer to instal new parts and service the mechanism. As soon as that was done, work pressures at the day job meant that I was chained firmly to my desk for a couple of weeks. But ggainst all odds, the joinery for the boarded bookcase is now cut and I did a dry assembly of the casework today.
The final elements of joinery were the rabbets for kick and top rail. These require a slightly different approach to the dados for the shelves, partly because of grain direction (rabbets run along the grain, dados run across it) and because the rabbets do not run the length of the workpiece. The rabbet for the kick runs into the bottom dado, but the rabbet for the kick is stopped, which brings with it a few challenges for the handtool worker.
I cut the rabbet for the kick first, as this is easier than the stopped groove for the rail. Because the rabbet for the kick runs into the shelf dado I was able to prepare a first class cut and gently saw the walls, being careful not to overcut the workpiece, or to kink my saw on the opposite wall of the dados. I warmed up by sawing the inside wall of the rabbet, which won’t be seen once the kick is installed, and then cut the show edge second. With the walls cut I then weakened the waste by chiselling across the grain, and then popped it out with a half inch chisel working bevel up. Once I was close to the final depth I moved to the router plane to clean the bottom of the rabbet.
There are several ways to cut a stopped rabbet. Where the end of the rabbet will be hidden then sawing the walls can be very quick. However I did not want to leave signs of overcutting on the bookcase as the end of the rabbet will be visible. So the approach I took was similar to chopping a mortise. After scoring deep layout lines with a marking gauge to define a clean edge for the rabbet, I chopped across the grain with my 1/2″ chisel, followed by gently paring the edges with a 2″ wide chisel. Paring the edges is delicate work, as hitting the chisel hard can cause the grain to split. But after a few rounds of chopping across the grain, paring the side walls and popping out the waste in between, the rabbet was ready for the router plane to bring to final depth.
With all of the joinery cut I tested the fit of each shelf individually, and used a large shoulder plane to adjust the fit of the shelves where needed. Then it was time to do a dry assembly of the maim casework. After processing stock since April, this was the first time that I had seen the components come together and indicate how the finished piece will look like. The dry run also helps to identify any potential difficulties for glue-up.
Next weekend I will clean up the interior surfaces of the bookcase and then glue up the main assembly.
I suppose it was inevitable that bookcases would eventually be the subject of my attention as a woodworker. I’ve always been a voracious reader and my book buying habit was only reinforced by studying history at undergraduate and graduate level, habits which were amplified by my wife’s profession (she is a lecturer in history at the University of Northampton) and appetite for reading. When Dr Moss and I moved in together, one of our first acts was to buy seven Billy bookcases to house our combined literature and history library. At that time, I was setting up my first workshop having studied lutherie at the Totnes School of Guitarmaking, and furniture building seemed like a different world to building guitars. So, a trip to IKEA and carrying seven flatpack bookcases up the torturous steps to our house it was. Six of those Billies survived two house moves and eight years of constant overloading, but their days are numbered and I now make more furniture than I do guitars. It is time to replace the Billies and to liberate the several boxes of books that have languished for years on my study floor.
Why should any of this matter? Well, because for as long as I can remember, I’ve viewed bookcases as a storage solution for the question of “where do I put all these books?” But I’ve not stopped to think about the bookcases themselves all that much. That’s how most folk think about bookcases; even the librarians in charge of historic collections tend to look at the contents of the shelves instead of the casework. Book storage is largely ignored until you don’t have enough of it.
But when you look beyond the books, and start to tease of the “why” and the “how” of book storage, things get interesting. Chris first talked to me about his idea for “The Book Book” in the autumn of 2017, and I was hooked. Not only was this a chance to replace those Billies, but also to piece together why bookcases developed into the form we now recognise. That is a path we’ve been on in earnest for a year now, and it is a fascinating opportunity to jump down many rabbit holes and to ask questions that might seem obvious, but for which no easy answers are available.
One of the few books on this subject is “The Book on the Bookcase” by Henry Petroski – a fine book, but which focuses more on the “how” than the “why”. And the “why” is where the real action is. Book technology is a recognised field of historic research, but one that is concerned more with the making and use of books rather than how book storage developed, but it can tell inadvertently tell us plenty about the factors that shaped bookcase development. Bookcases have developed to house books, so understanding why books are the sizes and shapes they are, the customs of book usage, and value and importance placed on books, all tell us something about why bookcases developed how they did.
“Oh, that’s easy” you might think. The development of the Gutenberg press encouraged standardised paper sizes which then determined shelf spacing. Well, possibly, but why those sizes and height-to-width ratios? Book storage pre-dates the printing press by hundreds of years – as soon as the first book was created, storage space was needed. And so, “The Book Book” becomes a wonderful opportunity to challenge preconceptions about book usage and production. It is a winding path from a monk fraudulently putting his name to a book in the 8th century, through court rolls, the medieval practices of producing books by scribes (both professional and amateur), the development of the printing press and early modern book production, the unchaining of libraries in the 16th century, 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys, campaign furniture, Thomas Jefferson, William Morris, to Danish minimalism and beyond. And breathe. Do you want to know what the earliest documented instance of adjustable shelving in bookcases occurred? So do we.
When woodworkers ask me what sort of book “The Book Book” will be, the closest example I can think of is “Ingenious Mechanicks.” Like that book, we will present a rigorously researched history (in this case of the development of the bookcase) alongside practical woodwork. As well as combing through texts on book technology, and scouring art history for examples of bookcases (the earliest example I can find dates from the 8th century), I’ve been researching the furniture record. In particular, historic bookcases still in use at Oxford University, some of which are over 500 years old, and the Pepys Library at Cambridge University. Historic bookcases give us key information on three key questions – what book storage was needed at the time of construction, how the bookcases were constructed, and then how they have been altered while in use due to changing needs.
We will also be building notable historic bookcases, and covering techniques and practical considerations for designing and building bookcases. All you need to know to build your own book storage; the information I wished I’d had when I stood at that IKEA checkout with my mountain of Billy bookcases eight years ago.
I’ll be blogging about the research process and the breadcrumbs we have discovered, both here and on the Lost Art Press blog. I hope you will join us on this path.