In the world of furniture making, trends come and go just like they do in the world of fashion. Lately, it seems that the trend is leaning towards making chests and chairs. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but being on the verge of completing a display (book) case, I’ve noticed that in the world of “fine” woodworking, the bookcase has become somewhat passé. More than a few times, I’ve read something to the effect of “Beginning woodworkers need to get the obligatory bookcase out of the way before they start making furniture.”
At a glance, I can understand the downward trend. Woodworkers have been building bookcases since printed books have become readily available, and woodworking writers have been writing about them for almost as long. Bookcases can be boring; bookcases can be simple; there are hundreds of how to books at home centers and on the internet that cover thousands of different bookcases. I can understand why most mainstream writers really just don’t feel like writing about the topic anymore. But the problem with following the downward trend is that bookcases are perhaps the most practical project the home woodworker can construct.
All casework starts off as a box, from your basic set of Ikea shelves to a Philadelphia Highboy. While bookcases can certainly be dull, they are also easily modified. Unlike certain forms of furniture, bookcases can be changed in an innumerable array of configurations. What makes this fact so important is that bookcases are a great project for both beginners and seasoned woodworkers. A beginner woodworker can make a decent bookcase with a circular saw, a drill, a few chisels, a block plane, and some sandpaper. The seasoned woodworker can take that basic case, add crown moulding, columns, or any one of hundreds of design elements which can turn a basic case into a piece of fine furniture. Even more to the point, bookcases are far easier to design using the features of several different furniture styles. Elements of Shaker, Arts & Crafts, Modern, and the Colonial styles can be incorporated into bookcase design by a skilled woodworker. While a table, chair, or chest of drawers may look disjointed and messy if the designer tried to add several different design elements, on a bookcase it seems to work far more readily.
Most important of all, bookcases provide something we all need: storage. Furniture in its basest form is built to hold our stuff. Chests of drawers hold our clothes, chairs hold our bodies, and bookcases hold our books, among other things. Nearly everybody has books, photos, knick-knacks, etc. that need a place to stay. I personally don’t know a single person that couldn’t use another bookcase or two. And on that note, it is my belief that the first piece of furniture a woodworker builds should be a bookcase. I challenge anybody to name a general piece of furniture as practical as a bookcase. And despite what some woodworking writers say, it takes real talent to take a set of shelves and make it look like “fine furniture”. If we as woodworkers can learn to do that, we can learn to build anything.