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Jeffersonian Purity


I received a rather odd request from my wife the other day. No, not that (get your heads out of the gutter); instead, she asked me to build a bookcase. In fact, she asked me to build a “Jefferson Bookcase”. I know what a Jefferson stacked bookcase is because I can recall one being featured in Popular Woodworking magazine, though I can’t ever recall seeing any other real references to a bookcase as “Monticello” or “Jefferson” anywhere but PW magazine. In any event, this is odd to me because my wife rarely asks me to make furniture, and here I have not one, but two requests: a blanket chest and a bookcase, both of which were featured in a woodworking magazine.

A "Jefferson Bookcase" example. This photo was taken from Bing

A “Jefferson Bookcase” example. This photo was taken from Bing

There are two problems with the bookcase request. One is that I am building the blanket chest before I do anything else. We really need it, the materials for the project are less expensive, and it is frankly easier to construct and will take up less space in my garage as I’m building it. The second problem is the simple fact that I don’t like the Jefferson bookcase, at least not the incarnation from the magazine. To my eye it is an odd mix of utilitarian joinery and a frilly base that doesn’t compliment the design. I do like the idea of a tiered bookcase. Bookcases can obviously look boxy and sometimes need ornamentation to liven them up. The tiers can help break up the monotony and visually lighten the appearance of a large box without compromising the storage capacity or stability of the case. More importantly, they don’t need to be overly frilly to make them appealing. However, the only examples I’m finding of this design are more on the modern side of furniture design, and I generally don’t care for modern furniture.

So, if I want to make a tiered bookcase to make my wife happy, and I want the design to appeal to my own sensibilities (which are quite sensible) then I will have to build a bookcase of my own design. Because it is for my living room, it will probably lean towards the Arts and Crafts style. However, if I look through my books and see something in the Shaker style that I can modify then that is the route I will take.

When I build furniture of my own design it usually goes in three stages. The first stage is the rough measurements and drawings, the second stage is the finished drawing/plan, and the third stage is when I change a part of the design after I’ve already started construction. The rough drawings will take longest, usually around a week or so, because I will have to come up with something that will fit in the allocated space without overwhelming it, as well as being based around material that is easy to obtain, I don’t like gluing up boards to width if I can’t help it, so that may mean birch plywood for the outer case.

The good news here is I now have two projects to look forward to in the spring, and because one of them is already measured and planned, I only need to pick up the material to build it. I will also have the opportunity to do some sketching, which is prep work that I enjoy doing. Now I have a little work cut out for myself, and being that it is Winter, and it’s been below freezing for the past few weeks, this is the perfect time for me to get designing.

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10 Comments

  1. projectbuddy says:

    Looking forward to seeing your design! I agree with your comments about the one pictured.

  2. Scott says:

    Have you given any thought to making some barrister bookcases. They are pretty straight forward to make. They have the added benefit of doors to keep your dusting chores down. They originally came in a range of sizes so they can fit are wide range of book sizes and you can make them as you need them so as your library grows you can just make another section and add it to the pile.

    • billlattpa says:

      Scott, I really like Barrister bookcases, and the design would fit well in my house. The only issue I would have with making one is the cost of the material. To do it “right” would be fairly pricey. I hate to compromise, but unfortunately I’m on a budget, and I can make a bookcase similar to the “Jefferson” for about half the cost.
      I love the idea, I just wish I had the money to make it happen. Thanks.
      BIll

  3. bloksav says:

    Hi Bill.
    I think the picture of the Jefferson bookcase doesn’t do it proper justice.
    It looks very strange since it is as empty as a grocery store shelf prior to a blizzard.
    If you look at the picture in PW, it looks quite a bit better (in my opinion).
    The one in the magazine has got some more finish on it. Also the plinth design looks better, thought that is probably up to each owns personal preference.

    I have been given the task of making some bookshelves as well, but I have been instructed to hold back the project until the materials for the porch project are ready.
    I would love to make some Barrister bookcases, or the Jefferson bookcases. It will probably be the Barristers.
    There was an old Barnsley corner bookcase for sale at an auction in England: https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/15303/lot/100/
    I really like the slope of the vertical posts. That has been on my mind as well. I think it could easily be made in an arts & crafts look.

    I too am looking forward to see the design you come up with.
    Brgds
    Jonas

    • billlattpa says:

      I like the basic design of the Jefferson bookcase, I just don’t necessarily care for the way it was done in the magazine. To me, it looks like packing crates stacked on top of a plinth, which in all fairness is basically what they were made to be.
      I also love dovetail joinery, but to my eye there is too much going on and it makes the bookcase look disjointed rather than one piece of furniture.
      I want to take the concept of a tiered bookcase and make it look like one flowing piece of furniture rather than several boxes just stacked on top of each other. That would involve some face frames, and a top cap moulding. In fact, I think the cap moulding on the Enfield cupboard would look great on top of a taller bookcase, and that is the route I may take.
      I’m a big fan of Barrister bookcases, but the materials cost would be more than I am willing to pay at the time. I wouldn’t want to compromise and build only a “half-complete” version of a Barrister because I didn’t have the money to do everything properly. But the idea is a good one.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  4. I think the furniture industry grabbed on to the “Jefferson” bookcase as a branding term a while back and you can actually find either Jeffereson or Monticello bookcases in catalogs. Usually they look nothing like the grab and go original model. If you do some Google searches you can see some more commercial versions with the branded term. It might help with your design too. Good luck either way, sounds like a fun Spring planned for you!

    • billlattpa says:

      I’ve seen them before labeled as Monticello Bookcases when in actuality they were Barristers, or at least what I consider a Barrister. On the Monticello web page they give a description of the case featured in PW magazine but they called it a “book box”. There is a description of the construction and dimension of the cases, but no photos to go by. I’m under the assumption that the PW version is at least historically accurate. I’m not overly concerned with historical accuracy, but my wife does like the tiered design, as do I. I’m going to try to keep the spirit of the design but with hopefully a bit more refined look. Thanks.
      Bill

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