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Building a Made to Measure Bookcase - a Case Study!

Always having been a bookworm, one of my ‘home-owner’ goals was always to have a wall of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. My love of literature was so dominant, I often found myself distracted whilst looking around various properties during our house hunt, finding myself poring over owners’ bookshelves and trying to gauge what kind of people they were to have such a collection.

Over the years, I amassed a collection of about 600 books, increasing all the time with current and prospective reads.  I had underestimated the scope of the job my bookcase dream entailed. Luckily, my boyfriend’s father was up to the task and willing to take on the project for us. From construction of the six individual bookcases and base units, to painting, delivery and assembly, the following account outlines the project that marked us making the house our home.

Measuring Up and Design

My boyfriend’s father was experienced in constructing bookcases, but none yet quite as tall as these. The wall of our dining room provided the ideal space for the bookcases, and after measuring up the space, he decided that the unit would be split into six component bookcases. Each unit would sit on top of base unit, keeping the lowermost books above the floor and providing a secure base for the cases.

In each unit, the lowermost shelf was made larger to accommodate the larger heights of hardback books, with shelf height decreasing further up the bookcase such that the top shelf was sized to accommodate small paperbacks. Furthermore, small holes were cut into the back of these shelves in the units, to allow air flow through; given the bookcases were to go against an exterior wall, and therefore be prone to moisture collecting between them and the wall, this was important.

In addition to the main wall of bookcases, he made a supplementary case to extend along the partition wall. Rather than just one wall of books, this extension gave additional stability to the structure as the corner join strengthened the units. Furthermore, this additional unit was thoughtfully made deeper, to accommodate the larger and oversized books in my collection (mainly cookery and reference).

The bookcases being built
The bookcases being built

Construction and Preparation

Over the winter, my boyfriend’s father built each bookcase in his garage: cutting wood down to size; gluing and screwing pieces together; marking and drilling holes in each that would be used to secure the units together. He finished them with coats of white paint. An additional coat was required, as January’s cold weather kept the temperature in his garage too low for the paint to dry properly.  

In the meantime, we prepared the floor of the dining room. The concrete used to fill the space in the floor where the fireplace had once been being not quite level, we bought a chisel bit for our drill and four packets of quick-setting concrete to set about relevelling the area. We paid £28 in total for the concrete and £18 for the drill bit.

Firstly, we chiselled away the bumpy cement, putting the waste in large plastic container to later go to the recycling centre. We then mixed up our concrete and filled the fireplace-gap, checking with a long spirit level for evenness. The process took an afternoon, plus drying time. We left the concrete exposed to dry, with the dining room window open to let in air from the conservatory. As it happened, we had surplus concrete, but decided we can use this to put in a tall pole in the garden for a retractable washing line in due course.

Preparing the floor
Preparing the floor

Delivery and Assembly

In Springtime, the units had been painted and dried and were ready for assembly. My boyfriend’s father hired a van and loaded the six units in. Over the course of a day, the units were installed as follows:

Two plug sockets were removed; we decided we had sufficient sockets in the front room and elsewhere in the dining room, without these. Whereas initially we had thought to place the bookcases directly on top of the floorboards, we decided that it would be best to place them instead on the existing carpet; although we would be looking to replace the carpet long-term, we could discretely place cardboard between the base units and carpet to make it flush where necessary. The base units were then laid out along the exterior and partition wall. One bookcase unit was placed on top of the base units, to assess the fit and check the pieces had been made to size. One by one, the units were placed on the base and secured to each other with both glue and screws; clamps were applied for a period afterwards to ensure these were securely fastened.

Two small blocks of wood were placed on the wall behind the bookcases, to act as markers of position.  The bookcase is free standing with a very slight lean towards the wall.  We need to check that this remains stable.  If the lean were to start to come away from the wall we would need to take action.  We certainly would not want the book case to fall over.  We did consider screwing the bookcase to the wall but with the 6th section being at right angles we were quite sure that this would be fine.  Were we to screw the bookcase to the wall the risk is that a lean might develop unseen and unnoticed until all of a sudden the screws give way and the whole book case falls forward.

Assembling the Bookcase
Assembling the Bookcase


Given the height of the bookcase, I knew I’d need either a step ladder or ladder to access the top shelves. Initially, I was drawn to the aesthetic of a dedicated library ladder, hung on a rail across the unit. Having searched for examples of these ladders in modern bookcases, and found companies and craftspeople who make bespoke ladders for this purpose, I was happy that, in time, I could have one made to fit the bookcases.

Given that the bookcase is free-standing, however, I may consider simply using a dedicated step ladder or stool. I only came across these by happenstance, whilst looking for inspiration for a sideboard on an antique and vintage furniture app. The little 1930s folding-stepladder and stool was, of course, out-with our budget (as is everything on such apps, we only use these to identify what style of item to look for in charity shops, on gumtree or eBay). Once I knew such a thing existed, I knew what to look for and quickly sourced inexpensive versions in Ikea and similar furniture outlet. For the time being at least, this will suffice. However, I do hold out hope of one day having a dedicated library ladder along a ladder rail, if only for the aesthetic. Quotations for this suggest I would pay £300-400, so for the time being I am happy with the step ladder.

Organising and Cataloguing

I had clear ideas of how I would like to organise my little library, with separate sections of: children’s and adult fiction; psychology and engineering (my and my partner’s chosen areas of study); cookery (my favourite pastime); biography and autobiography; history and reference. I made a special section for foreign language books, as my father was a linguist, and in addition to his crime novels and Tom Clancy collection, I inherited many of his Russian textbooks and Russian literature. Working in an international school, a 13-year-old Slav student kindly translated the authors’ names, book titles and synopses for me, so I could catalogue them accurately; I just photographed these on my Ipad and he worked from those, taking all of 12 minutes.  All in all, cataloguing and organising my collection was a most pleasurable exercise that spanned six late weekday evenings.

I can now look forward to building up my little library over time. The bookcases hold just over 1000 books, so my current collection of 600 obviously left room for more. My boyfriend’s father provided additional ‘filler’ books. With careful cataloguing, as my collection grows I can pass on these ‘filler’ books to charity or return to him.

I had planned to include a few select photographs to intersperse the books. In addition, my boyfriend’s family gave us a set of curiosities to include: antique inkwells, an address stamp and little ceramics. 


This project was our first distinctive ‘stamp’, marking the house as our home. It holds my most treasured possessions, alongside those meaningful books and items that have to come to us from family and friends. It is a blissful to sit at our dining table and look over this awesome feat of carpentry, and, as my partner said, “it really feels like us”.

The finished bookcase
The finished bookcase