Buckle up! This post is a bit lengthy, but it is a step by step guide of how to actually build built in bookshelves with cabinets below. I was able to achieve this amazing look on a budget, totaling less than $430. Similar to my board and batten project, many of the tutorials I found online did not go into the level of detail I needed so here I am, detailing out the beginners guide to DIY built in bookshelves.
One of the great things that came out of the Covid-19 quarantine for me was more time. That extra time allowed me to finally tackle a project I have been dreaming about since we bought our house. I had this massive wall and high ceiling that seemed so bare and awkward to decorate. Custom built-ins surrounding our fireplace seemed like the best use of the space and would add that extra “homey” touch the room was lacking.
This is the “before” we started the project:
The room was slowly coming together from where it was when be moved in (below), but still felt like something was missing.
Designing the built in bookshelves
Once I made my mind up that the built in shelves was the right project, I weighed having someone else do it. It felt like a massive undertaking and honestly scared me a bit. A professional estimate was enough to scare me into at least giving it a try.
- Cabinets on the bottom with doors for storage
- Lights at the top
- Classic yet modern vibe
I was unable to find an out of the box tutorial that I could use because it was nearly impossible to find someone’s space that was identical to my own. My fireplace also seemed unique in that it was flush with my walls instead of a “bump out” that many other fire places have.
Space dimensions for reference:
- Total height of wall: 104.5″
- Total width of wall: 168.375″
- Height of fireplace: 50.5″ tall from floor to mantel top
- Width from wall to fireplace edge(s): 54″
- Size of TV: 65″
Many DIY tutorials used pre-made unfinished cabinets for the base. I opted against this for 2 reasons 1) I couldn’t find a cabinet combo with the size and aesthetics I wanted 2) the cost. My space would have required roughly $450 in cabinets for the “base” cabinet style (2 x 30 inch wide bases and 2 x 24 inch wide bases) and $350 for the “wall” cabinet style (2 x 30 inch wide wall and 2 x 24 inch wide wall). Both were way more than I planned to spend on this project especially given the way the doors would have looked. Buying these would have saved many steps, so if you’re worried about building your own bases/doors, this is a good way to go.
The Final Design
Brace yourself for a very professional CAD drawing….
- 2 Custom bases that were 54″ wide, 14″ deep, and 38.25″ tall with two large doors.
- 2 Upper bookshelves, divided into two equal columns, 54″ wide, 10″ deep, and 66.25″ tall with shelf height of 12″ spacing between rows.
- A 6″ front at the top that would house the light, crown molding, and detail molding. The 6″ in front would span the entire top of the wall to bring the two stand alone units together
- 2 lights
- 1 faux wood chunky mantel
**my final build slightly differed form this plan due to on the fly changes**
Before I went to Home Depot, I planned out how many MDF sheets I needed and what cuts I needed them to pre-cut. The sheets are 48″ by 96″ and using my fancy plan above, I mapped it out (I have adjusted this graphic to match my final product).
- 3/4″ MDF sheets (6) pre-cut (3 into strips of 10″, 2 into strips of 14″, 1 full as extra) = $132
- 1/4 MDF sheets– (4) = $32
- Wood glue = $4
- Paint (1) gallon = $44
- Caulk (3) = $13
- Crown Molding = $23
- Cap Molding = $10
- Dap DryDex = $8
- Hinges (12) and draw pulls (4) = $37
- Lights (2) = $74
- 1x8x6 (3) = $31
- Early American Stain = $5
- TOTAL: $413
Tools (had on hand)
- Laser cube
- Speed Square
- Pocket hole jig
- Circular Saw
- Table Saw
- Nail Gun and Compressor w/thick gauge nails
- Drill and drill bits
- Jig Saw
- 2 x 4s (5)
Some building tips that are important to remember to avoid rework and frustration:
- Measure twice and cut once. And measure your cuts against the wall or in the space before nailing together.
- Remember to account for the thickness of boards. When measuring your space and building, be very mindful of the board thickness that you are using. Example: in my original plan, I thought my pieces for the horizontal shelves would be 54″ wide, when in reality they were 52.5″ to account for two outside vertical boards that were 3/4 in thick. Same thing with the base, the space was technically 54” x 14”, but not both boards can be cut to those measurements, 3″ (width of the 2x4s, 1.5 in wide each) had to be removed from the depth boards to account for 2 long boards that reached the full 54 ” wide. Below I demonstrate why you can’t cut 1 board 54″ long and another 14″ wide and still stick with your overall measurement. Throughout the build you have to MONITOR this thoroughly with each phase, the board thickness issue will move from your depth cuts to your width cuts as you progress up.
Pro Tip: Have your MDF sheets pre-cut at Home Depot. This step saved me tons of time and cutting hassle. We had 3 sheets cut lengthwise in 10″ strips (used for the bookcase) and 2 sheets cut in 14″ strips (used for the cabinets). The MDF boards are HEAVY so I’m thankful I had taken the time to have them cut the strips.
Step 1: Build the base
I built and measured out a base made of 2x4s to support the cabinet and to not block the vent, but also so it to look like a real cabinet. I chose to use only nails to connect this together. Using the 16 gauge nails provided great strength and it didn’t feel like I needed to screw these.
Step 2: Build the Cabinet
For some reason I decided to build the cabinet directly on top of the base instead of building it first, then adding it on. I nailed it together at every chance I could and even shot nails into the walls and fireplace surround to ensure it didn’t pull away from the wall. I chose the height to match the bottom part of the fireplace surround.
Step 3: Build the Bookshelves
Re-measure: Once I had my cabinet built, I re-measured the length of the board that ran from the top of the cabinet to the ceiling. I adjusted because I failed to account for board thickness in my original plans. The vertical board height of the bookcase sides are 65.5″ tall instead of 66.25″ like planned, exactly .75″ difference from the original sketch, which failed to account for thickness of the bottom board on the cabinet. I also re-measured the the shelf width, originally planned for 54″ wide, but ended up at 52.5 wide because of not accounting for the thickness of the sides boards @ .75″ each. The shelf dividers are 13.5″ tall, instead of the 12″ I originally planned. I adjusted this because the shelves felt too crammed. I’m still deciding if I should have done fewer shelves that were more spaced out.
Cut: Once I was confident my measurements were spot on, I cut the boards. I tried as much as I could to cut boards at the same time using my clips, so I knew they were the exact same. I used a combo of my circular saw, table saw, and miter saw.
Space out shelves: Once everything was cut, I laid out the two vertical boards and spaced the horizontal boards using the shelf dividers and clips to ensure accurate spacing each time. The shelf dividers ensure the height of the shelves is exactly the same every time. This is handy method I made up because I didn’t have a handy corner clip tool. I used the the speed square to make sure all were 90 degrees. I left the space at the top of the book case which allow me to build a brace to connect he bookcase to the wall (picture is further down).
You want both sides of the speed square to lay perfectly flat on the vertical and horizontal sides. If it’s not, you just adjust the vertical boards slightly up or down.
Nail horizontal shelves: Once the shelves are properly spaced and squared, nail the shelves to the vertical boards using the laser as a guide.
Space out the shelf dividers: This is where the biggest shift in my original designed occurred. I originally planned clean, evenly spaced shelves, split down the middle. I thought I was going to be able to use pocket hole screws to perfectly align these, but the MDF was impossible to do that on. Because there was no possible way for me to nail the board from both ends, I decided on the offset approach. (If you want that look, I would make 2 smaller bookcases and nail them together to form a crisp middle divider).
I measured out and staggered the dividers and used the clips for securing the dividers in place while I squared (ensures the divider face is perfectly vertical) and leveled (ensures the divider doesn’t tilt left or right towards the back). Below is a video of how I used the clips and speed square.
Nail shelf dividers: I used a laser to help accurately nail these. The nail gun is sensitive and you don’t want your nails shooting out the sides so this laser saved my butt.
Place bookcase on cabinet and secure to wall: Once I had the top part completely built, I placed it on the cabinet and nailed into the wall/studs like crazy! Using the large gauge nails and hitting them in between each shelf many, many times. I also placed a 2 x 4 at the top, screwing into the studs and added 3 boards that were pocket holed into the back and would later serve as how I secured the top flat piece (failed to get a picture of this) and made the shelves VERY secure. I then screwed and nailed the bookcase to the brace I built at the top. The bottom two dividers that sit on top of the cabinet got installed after the bookcase was up. I secured them from under the cabinet to connect it altogether.
Step 4: replicate on the other side
For both the cabinet and the bookcase, I made one at a time. The bookcase specifically had slightly smaller bookshelf heights on the left than the right. By always measuring twice and not doing cuts too far ahead, I saved myself some re-work. On the left side, I had to notch out a spot for the switch. I totally forgot to do this prior to building the full bookcase, but by the skin of my teeth, it worked out. I used a spare piece of wood, marked my measurements, and then transferred them onto my bookcase, I then cut with a jig saw.
Progress shot after steps 1-4
Step 5: Add the front face
My original plan called for a 6″ drop down at the top. With an increased shelf size, it was 9.5″ wide. I ripped a spare MDF full sheet on my table saw (1 – 96″ and 2 – 36.125″). If you want to install a light, crown molding, and a cap molding, I recommend going no smaller than this.
The top space allows for the light and details, but also allows you to better secure it by using the 2 x 4 brace and an ability cover it up. The 3 boards I added (but forgot to photograph), is what I screwed these top pieces into. I also nailed the front piece to the bookshelf vertical boards. I screwed them in at the top (the crown will over this) and patched it together to make it seamless.
Once the three pieces were up. I added the crown molding and the cap molding. The kids couldn’t wait to decorate the shelves 🙂
Step 6: Trim out the shelves.
This steps involves placing 1.5″ trim pieces on the fronts of the bookcase. This step really elevated the finished look of the built in. This also allowed the front piece from the prior step to not bump out further than the shelves. I placed the two side trim pieces first, then the horizontal, and lastly the vertical dividers. I ripped the MDF boards down for this step, but wish I would have used trim. The MDF was hard to sand and get to a “finished” look.
Step 7: Build the cabinet doors
I did this part last mostly because it was the part I was most afraid of. I intended to use the “real method” to make a cabinet door, but my table saw wouldn’t allow that to happen because the blade wouldn’t get low enough. So I did a cheater method instead.
I started by trimming out the cabinet, using 3″ wide strips for the sides and top, and a 4″ strip on the bottom. I decided to make the side boards go to the top of the cabinet so that I could have more surface area for the trim piece to anchor to.
Once I had these trimmed out, I was able to measure where my doors should sit. I measured from mid width of the trim on the top and sides. The overlap in the middle piece was just slightly because I wanted that middle section to show when the doors were closed. I also barely overlapped the bottom because I wanted the trim to show on the bottom too.
My doors ended up measuring 23.5″ wide by 33″ tall. To achieve the shaker style door with my cheater method, I cut 1/4″ MDF the full dimensions above (4 sheets for 4 doors). Then I cut 4 pieces which were 3″ wide, 2 at 17.5″ and two at 33″. I then placed them on top of the 1/4″ MDF and glued and nailed them down using the clips.
Once they were dry, I attached them using 3 hinges on each door.
Step 8: Caulk, fill holes, paint
Once all the construction was finally complete, I sanded, caulked the sides against the walls along with crown and cap molding at the top. I filled the cracks/holes/seams with DAP drydex. I prefer the drydex over caulk for filling the nail holes and making the seams look seamless. Once that was completed, I painted using Behr Marquee, Nano White.
Step 9: Hang lights
The lights are not hard wired. I purchased these lights which are corded but have a bracket to hang on the wall. After hanging the bracket and drilling a hole on the front and one above the TV on the side of the bookcase, I ran the cord through and plugged them in to an outlet. I used a ribbon and some ingenuity to get this cord through.
Step 10: Build the mantel
The final step was to build the mantel. This part was so easy and made such a statement! I purchased 3 1 x 8 x 6s and cut them to 60.375″. I placed one full piece as the front and using pocket holes/screw connected the other two to the back. This gave me a seamless front instead of seeing the 3/4″ at the top and bottom from the other boards. I also reinforced the inside by adding blocks (white boxes in my picture below because I forgot to take a picture of that step). To attach to the mantel, I screwed it to the existing 2 x 4 that held my old mantel.
After I hung the mantel, I stained it using 2 coats of Varathane Early American. I used a test piece and matched the color to our floors.
After a long 90 days, it was FINISHED!!!
Some detail shots of the shelf styling and details.
I’m still in awe that I was able to build this! I’m thankful for the time the quarantine provided for me to dig into this project. I could’ve totally done this in less than 90 days, but similar to my other projects, I work on them around family and job duties. I hope this step by step guide to built in bookcases was helpful! If you embark on this project my #1 piece of advice is to take your time and measure and re-measure.