The Bookcase

We had a barrister style bookcase in our bedroom. It was a beautiful piece that my wife had inherited from her grandparents. The case was built in sections, so you could easily transport it without breaking the revolving glass fronts. The sections were varying in height. There was a larger cabinet that could hold books over 10” tall, but most could only hold the normal hardback..some only dime novels.

Dime novels. We have very few. Instead we have books on their side so they will fit in the dime space. The glass in the bookcase? You can’t shut the doors with present day books in them, so the glass front remains open, in a flat position, making it a wonderful catch-all for dust, stink bug, and the viscous Japanese Lady Beetles.

My wife took the bookcase down, sold it to a peddler, painted the walls of the bedroom, and asked for a bookcase that complimented our bed.

The barrister case was roughly seven feet tall, 11 inches deep, and 34 inches abreast. We both agreed that the next bookcase would be notched around the baseboard and fitted against the wall, so no space for dust to accumulate in the back, and it can be semi-permanently installed, much like a built-in.

As for the dimensions of the new case? We decided to increase the height to match the top of the nearby window casing. 48 inches works for the width. We are downsizing our immediate books, but still have quite a few. The depth? Let’s increase the shelves to 12 inches, plus face-frame and back. 13 1/2 inches for the depth.

I’ve got a sheet of 3/4 inch veneer core cherry ply. With the dimensions above, I’ll have enough for the sides of the case plus the top and bottom. As for the shelves, I’ve got enough nice cabinet grade cherry for eight inches of the width, and I’ll add on the remaining with pieces of cherry that are too nice to burn, but too cantankerous to be cabinet faces. Mortising the sides to receive the shelving.   The trim and face frame will be lighter to match the existing bed, I’ve got a mix of spalted cherry sapwood and spalted hickory. I am impatient during projects for my own, but too scared to use rapid-set glue, so (purists: shield your eyes from the remainder of this sentence) I mortise out for loose tenons, fit the tenons, fit the adjoining boards together, then pocket screw them. No need for clamps. I save every rip from the table saw or track saw. I dig out a bunch of cherry rips, cut them slightly smaller than the shelving, then put a cove on either end. Their purpose is two-fold. One: as I mentioned before, additional support. Two: to cover the ugly diagonal countersink of the pocket hole.

The shelves are then joined to the sides of the case with more loose tenons. I’m falling out of love with adjustable shelving standards. How many times have you adjusted the height of the shelves in your bookcase? How many times have either the support slips bent or the shelf itself sags?

I decided on a standard measurement that has long been forgotten…18” and 12”. 9” would be the trifecta with the two afore mentioned, but 9” doesn’t fit into our realm. I stuck with 18 and 12. After fitting the shelves to the sides, I face-screwed through the sides, where the trim will mount, so the screws will be concealed. Fitting the shelves to the sides

The back was the last detail before the trim work. I alternated 6” and 8” tongue and groove pine boards, glueing and pin nailing them to the backs of the shelves as I went.

All that was left was to trim it out with the spalted boards and put a few coats of leftover polyurethane on it. I gave the finish a day to dry before calling my wife up to the shop to help move it.

When my wife walked into the shop and saw the massive piece, she about had a change in mind in wanting it. She was in love with it, but doubted it would fit in the front door and seriously doubted it would fit between the floor and the ceiling. Fortunately Pythagoras had a similar problem trying to convince his wife, so he came up with the simple yet well known response of finding the diagonal of the cabinet, including the attached leg.

I followed his theorem and showed my wife that we were still two inches to the good. We gently let the cabinet fall onto the track saw table who’s height was close to that of a truck bed. Midway through we decided best to lock the wheels of said table as it began meandering away from the cabinet. We rolled the jointer and dust collector out of harm’s way and I backed my truck into the shop. The transfer of the cabinet to the truck went so smooth we barely second guessed the idea of moving it from the truck across the porch, into the house, through the dining room into the hallway, partially into the bathroom, then into the master bedroom, all while moving couches, chairs, tables, beds, children, and dogs out of the way.

It wasn’t so bad of a task. Halfway through our journey across the porch, we opted to take the furniture dollies out and replace them with moving blankets for better stability. And yes, we did have to rearrange the downstairs of our house to get the case into our bedroom. The last bit was the lift. I measured the diagonal of the case one more time, just because it looked impossible that the dimension would fit under the ceiling. We then lifted, and then lifted a few more inches. And then lifted a few more inches. And then rotated the fan blades. And then lifted. And then rotated the ceiling fan blades some more so the case would fit between them as it got closer and closer to its forever home.

Since installing the bookcase, we have talked jointly about moving to a new place more than we ever have before. The pandemic is a bad time to go shoulder-tap for some quick lived friendships, but it may be a necessity so we can get the case from point A to point B.

The bookcase really made our room. I had to oscillate some of the shoe mould out of the way, and find some serious studs behind the plaster wall to anchor it to, but all is well that ends well. We made some coffee and spent the rest of the night thumbing through books and organizing the shelf. I picked a shelf that was chest high and snuck my Mark Twain collection onto it. Mark Twain suddenly looked like he had taken an airplane to the other side of our room. I was quickly reminded that the bookshelf was hers. She then smiled and said if I wanted that I could have the top shelf…the one I had to build a library ladder in order to reach. Mr. Twain likes it up there, as does Cormack McCarthy and Jim Harrison and the many books on building bark canoes and wooden boats. Somehow the furniture books spilt onto the shelf below. She was accepting….and she let my timber frame books co-exist with her cob house books. Again, all is well that ends well. I picked a couple of books off the shelf to thumb through as I fell asleep. With the books on my chest, I opted for one on my iPad, got through maybe a page before falling asleep.

When I awoke the next morning, the case was still standing. A successful build. I’ll start on the library ladder later this week.

What I learned from this build? My wife wants this bookcase to be one of two.

A note:

Dime novels. You know you have withstood the test of time with your writing career if your book is reprinted years down the road as a dime novel. It shouldn’t seem like a jacket dusted with humility. Yes, it might not be on the bucket list you had written down, but it’s on the unwritten list that makes the bucket list work.

I feel woodworking is the same way. Want to know if you’ve really made the big time? It’s not when a show or gallery calls you and asks for another piece. That happens early in the timeline of a furniture maker’s life.

The pinnacle of a furniture maker’s life is when your friend calls you from the local goodwill and one of your table and chair sets is on display with a tag on it that reads “Antique Heirloom set for sale. $50.00”.

Fortunately I haven’t reached that pinnacle. When I think the time might be near, maybe a move to another state and a severing of all established connections will prevent the achievement from being known.

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