The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Book it.


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.



  1. Greg Merritt says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Of couse I’m biased, given my current project. LOL
    But it does seem that the bookcase has fallen from grace. Not suure why either. I think it is partly due to the how little books are valued these days. Books were once among the most expensive items a person owned and were treated as such. I still place a value on them though.
    Maybe we can head up the resurgence of the bookcase. Then again, I may just be proving your point. 😉

    • billlattpa says:

      I think most woodworking writers are just tired of writing about bookcases, and that is understandable. It’s a shame, because bookcases can be really useful. Like you said, books are no longer the expensive, prized possessions they used to be. I could be old fashioned, but I love the idea of a “library” at my house, not in the sense of a large, wood-paneled room dedicate to books (though that would be nice), but having a lot of books to choose from in nicely organized, and hopefully nice looking, bookcases.
      I have a lot of books, even some of them from when I was a kid, and it’s nice to know that my daughter will have access to them whenever she likes. Hell, I’ve even saved all of those books we were forced to read in high school/college-Beowulf, 1984, The Great Gatsby, Walden, Shakespeare, Hemingway, etc. among many others.
      I’ll never forget in my freshman year of high school when the Dean of Lasalle University came and talked to my class. It was one of those typical pep talks about studying. But he made a comment in passing about reading, not just our assigned reads, but anything we could get our hands on, just for all of the loose knowledge that is picked up through reading. Being somebody who loves to read, that stuck with me, and it’s why I encourage my daughter to read whatever she likes. I honestly believe that is one of the main reasons I got out of the ghetto and (sort of) made something of myself.

  2. Jonas Jensen says:

    Very well said.
    I tend to think that a bed is a mighty practical piece of furniture as well.
    But I can see your point.

    Some years ago I made a small set of shelves / bookcase together with Asger. I think he was 4 at the time. So he put on the glue and helped with some headless nails.
    It is just a very small and simple bookcase, too small for books actually, but it serves a purpose of holding a lot of the knick-knack that is in his room.
    One of the things that I find very appealing in a bookcase is the usefulness of the thing.
    If you couple that with the 3D effect you get as soon as you start making something that has a bit of volume to it, it is a great project.

    I have to admit that you are absolutely correct about the statement that most people could use some more bookcases. I know that I could. On the other hand I haven’t got a good excuse for not making any. Except that I want to make the Barrister book cases – so I need to find the time for that.
    But technically speaking I could make some bookcases to help me out until I get there. That just wouldn’t seem right to me.

    I guess that building chests is popular, because it is a fine project for dovetailing. either if you are just starting to use that joint, or would like to build something using it. But I’ll be the first person to admit that chests aren’t super practical. But they can look good if they have the right proportions.

    On the same note is the current trend of building chairs. I tried to make a settee, and I was really challenged by that build. It is so different from other projects I have made in that there were hardly any flat surfaces, and no right angles etc. So it was kind of a whole new way of woodworking to me.
    While it was fun, I still have a lot of “normal” stuff that I want to build, so I don’t expect to go full style chair building anytime soon.
    You could probably get some of the same experience from building other things that aren’t squarish. such as a canoe or a boat, a bucket or a barrel etc.
    It is still working with wood and tools, but in a way it feels like starting over from scratch again.
    And it can be a challenge to yourself to see if you can really do it, kind of running a marathon.


  3. billlattpa says:

    Of course I think most furniture is useful. I consider bookcases the most useful because the average family could easily have ten of them in their home (not just for books, however). As you said, learning to make furniture such as a bed can be very helpful. But I think the difference with a bed is that generally you are building a bed to a specific size which conforms to the standard dimensions of a mattress. Bookcases can, in theory, be built to any size and shape, which is why I think it’s so important for a woodworker, both new and experienced, to learn how to design and build several different styles of bookcases. It really is a “crash course” in both design and function.

    I like chests, and the only real issue I have with them is they often take up floor space. My house is just 1800 square feet, so I have to consider the size of a piece of furniture before I build it. Bookcases generally don’t take up a lot of floor space; obviously they go “up” rather than “out”.

    I consider chairs the most difficult of all fine furniture. Making a basic bench isn’t so difficult, but making it very comfortable and attractive is another matter. I can understand why some woodworkers dedicate their whole careers to just making chairs. They are a piece of furniture that blurs the line between joinery and art.

    Boats are a whole other world (to me). There is actually a woodworking shop just down the road from where I work that specializes in handmade canoes. The owner does beautiful work, but you can imagine that the costs are not low. I think the most basic canoe starts off at $3000, with most of them averaging $5000 or much more. To me, that style and level of work is more an art form than a “craft”. In my opinion, woodworking is joinery oriented, and boat building more “engineering” oriented, if that makes sense. At the same time, I think the highest level of boatbuilding as an art was with the tall ships of the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, ships are engineering and technological marvels, and some very beautiful in their own right. But I am amazed when I see the sailing ships from the American Colonial era.


  4. Wesley Beal says:

    Of course it may be that one reason they’re referred to as the “obligatory bookcase” is that I think many, many people decide to do a bit of woodworking just so they can get that other bookcase they need built.

    I know it was the very first thing I thought about building before I ever got my first tools (sorta strange, as I haven’t built it yet…).

    I think the bookcase is often the gateway piece of furniture that draws people into the hobby. People always need them. They seem simple enough.

    How many of us once said to our significant others “but honey, if I invest in these tools / create this space to work in, I’ll be able to build us that bookcase we’ve been wanting…”?

    I’m always interested in the new designs people come up with for building them. Though one reason people don’t like talking about them anymore may be that the topic has been covered so many times; there’s just so many designs, instructions, & etc. out there already.

    • billlattpa says:

      I agree completely. Go on the Amazon or Shopwoodworking web pages and you can easily find a few dozen “how to” books for bookcase plans without even trying.
      I completely understand that most woodworking writers/magazines don’t really feel like covering them anymore. But at the same time, I think it’s a shame because they can be so very useful. I’ve always felt that the first piece of furniture a new woodworker should make is a bookcase. At the same time, I don’t think that should be a one and done type of deal. As has been pointed out, there are likely thousands of different designs to choose from. More importantly, I think a bookcase should also be the first piece of furniture a woodworker designs him/her self.
      Learning how to design a nice bookcase-even if using ideas from other sources-is a great exercise in proportional building as well as building to fit a specific space. The way I see it, if a woodworker can’t build a nice bookcase, how in the world does he expect to make more complex furniture?

  5. Art Watson says:

    I’m going with ukulele, final answer Bill. The acoustic guitar is way too complicated and even a solid body electric has its nuances. 👍

    • billlattpa says:

      Funny, because I’ve played the guitar for many years (never really played a Uke except for messing around) yet I’ve never considered actually making one. When I first started woodworking, the only thing I wanted to make was furniture, and that is pretty much still true. I had a friend who tried to build guitars, first acoustic then electric, and basically failed miserably on both attempts.

      I saw the set-up at the Martin Guitar factory and the amount of specialty jigs etc needed to properly make a guitar is overwhelming to me. Not to mention the fact that you need a climate controlled workshop (also lots of space and even more clamps) that I can’t imagine ever even attempting it myself.

      At that, just like boat building, I respect it immensely. It’s just something that is so out of my depth logistically that I don’t even consider it an option.

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