Arts & Crafts Bookcase
Popular Woodworking, August 2003

My mom has a bookcase in every room of my parents' house. Most of them are stuffed two-rows deep with paperbacks, hardbacks, picture books and travel books. And still, whenever I visit, I find even more novels piled on top of end tables, underneath coffee tables, near the sides of chairs and on the backs of toilets. But I'm like her — I love collecting books.

Tired of moving my own piles of books every time I needed a place to set a drink down, I decided to build a bookcase of my own. This project serves as a nice challenge for the beginning woodworker and as a great weekend project for those more skilled. Its Arts & Crafts style is emphasized by mortise-and-tenon joinery, wedges and Stickley-style (sans ammonia) finish. While the ends remain forever assembled, a few good whacks to the wedges and the whole project comes apart, stacks together and can be transported easily in the trunk of a car.

Getting Started

In keeping with the Arts & Crafts tradition, I bought rough quartersawn white oak for this project, which I jointed and planed. Don't have a jointer or planer? No problem. Head out to your local home center and purchase dimensional lumber. The shelves can be cut from 1 x 8s, as can the rails and stiles, with some waste.

When purchasing your lumber, be picky. Choose knot-free heartwood (you don't want pieces with a lot of sap) that has lots of figure. Determine which pieces are the most attractive and mark those for the most visible parts of the project. Cut all your pieces to size according to the cut list.

Test Mortise

The first step to building this bookcase is tackling the joinery and assembling the sides. It's important that the project's tenons fit snugly into the mortises, which means first making a test mortise. This will allow you to check the size of your tenons throughout the tenon-cutting process, ensuring accuracy. There are 24 mortises in this project. Do yourself a favor and, if you don't already have one, buy a hollow chisel mortising machine (about $250). A mortising attachment for your drill press or a 3/8" Forstner bit also are acceptable options.

To make your test mortise, first select a piece of scrap from this project. Some sappy waste will do just fine. As a rule of thumb, mortises should be half the thickness of your tenon's stock. Because this project's tenon stock is 3/4" thick, the mortises need to be 3/8" thick. It's also a good idea to make your mortises about 1/16" deeper than the tenons are long. This will keep the tenons from bottoming out in the mortises. The depth isn't as important as the width in a test mortise, so simply make your test mortise as deep as your longest tenon is long. Because the rails have 3/4"-long tenons and the stiles have 1"-long tenons, your test mortise for this project needs to be 11/16" deep.

If you've never used a hollow chisel mortiser before, check out "A New Manual for Mortisers" (August 2001 issue #123). Cut your test mortise.

Table-saw Tenons

Now it's time to cut the 24 tenons. Sure this sounds like a lot, but with a dado stack and a miter gauge, you'll breeze through this step in no time.

First, install a 5/8" dado stack in your table saw. Set the fence for the finished length of your tenon and set the height of the dado stack to about 3/16", which is the depth of your shoulders on your tenon. I cut the rails' tenons first, so the finished length was 3/4". Hold the piece about 1/16" from the fence and push it through the blade, using your miter gauge. Now hold the piece directly against the fence and, using your miter gauge, push it through the blade again. Repeat this same procedure for the edges of the tenon.

After you've cut your first tenon, make sure that it fits snugly into your test mortise. If satisfied, keep cutting. Remember to set the fence for 1" once you're ready to cut the tenons on the end of the stiles.

Back to the Mortiser

To cut the mortises, first use the diagrams to measure where the rails start and stop along the stiles. Now use your rails to lay out the locations of your mortises (as shown at right). Cut each mortise a little over each measured line so that you're able to maneuver the rails for perfect positioning during glue-up. Cut all the stiles' mortises. You'll cut the mortises in the feet after the sides of the bookcase are assembled.

Before assembling the sides, use your table saw, plane or chisel to cut a 3/16" x 3/16" chamfer on the stiles' top four edges, which is a traditional Arts & Crafts look.

Assembling the Sides

Now that the rails and stiles are complete, it's time to assemble the sides. First, dry-fit everything together. Choose the face sides of your pieces carefully. Remember: Your most visible pieces should be your most attractive. Clamp the assembly together.

Check for gaps, squareness, mistakes or anything else that might cause panic during gluing. Use the extra space you cut (when you mortised slightly over the measured lines) to maneuver the rails until they're in their appropriate places. If it's tight, try hitting them with a mallet. Once you're positive that everything is perfectly positioned, use a ruler to draw lines across the joints. These lines will be your guides during glue up. Now take everything apart, put glue in the mortises, clamp and let dry.

Band-sawn Feet

Once the glue has cured, it's time to cut the feet. Each foot has two mortises and a detail cut using the band saw. Use the diagram to lay out the shape of the feet on each piece. Lay out and cut your mortises, again going a little over each line for maneuverability during assembly.

Now head over to your band saw. Cut the feet to shape as close to your lines as you possibly can. The closer you get, the less cleanup you'll have to do. Remove the saw marks with a chisel or a plane. Dry-fit the sides and feet, draw your guide lines, take the sides and feet apart and then glue the assembly together.

Sturdy Shelves

With the sides now assembled, it's time to cut the shelves. First you need to cut notches in the shelves' corners. The top and bottom shelves' notches are 21/4" long by 3/4" wide, allowing enough overhang for the wedges. The notches in the two middles shelves are 3/4" long by 3/4" wide.

Once you've measured and drawn where the notches start and stop, head to the table saw to cut the notches on the top and bottom shelves. Because the table saw's blade is curved and because you won't be running the entire length of the board through the blade, you must be a little creative in your cutting. First, correctly position your fence and raise your blade to its appropriate height. Then, with a grease pencil, draw a line on the fence where the blade enters the table. Now, draw a line on your work where the cut should stop. Run the piece through until the two lines meet, stop and pull the piece back. Carry the line on the piece over to the other side, flip the shelf over and again run it through until the two lines meet, as shown in the top photo.

Head to your band saw and cut the remaining part of the top and bottom shelves' notches away. Now cut the notches on the middle shelves, using the band saw.

The whole bookcase is held together tightly by tapered wedges that snug into through-mortises in the top and bottom shelves. Cut the mortises in the top and bottom shelves, as shown at left.

Tapered Wedges

If you haven't done so already, plane the stock for your wedges down to 1/2" thick. Measure and make a mark 3/8" from the top of each wedge, and another mark 3/8" wide from the bottom of each wedge. Draw a line, connecting your marks. Cut the taper, using either your band saw or a sander. Clean up the wedges with your chisel. Test fit the wedges, as shown in the photo at right.

Finishing Touches

After all your hard work, the last thing you want to do is slack off when it comes to sanding. First, clean up all your edges with a sanding block and a chisel. Next, sand everything, starting with 100 grit and moving on to 150. Hold each piece up to a light, making sure you have all the scratch marks removed. Don't forget to break the edges.

Because this is an Arts & Crafts piece, I decided on a Stickley-style finish, without ammonia's danger. First apply J.E. Moser's Golden Amber Maple water-based aniline dye. Let it dry overnight. Next, apply Valspar's Professional warm-brown glaze. Let it, too, dry overnight. Finally, apply your favorite topcoat. Check out the Supplies box at right for ordering information. For complete instructions on how to create this ammonia-fumed-looking hue, check out "Arts & Crafts Finish" (June 2002 issue #127, available for sale online at PW

Arts & Crafts Bookcase Cut List

—Story by Kara Gebhart
—Photo by Al Parrish