Sunday, March 24, 2013

Our Thrifty DIY Built-In Bookcases

Well, we finally completed the built-in bookcases I gave you a sneak peek of a while back!

It's been a dream of ours to one day buy a house equipped with lots of built-ins, or else install them ourselves.  Buying a house is still a semi-distant reality for us [although we recently paid off all my student loans AND the car, which means we can finally start saving for a down-payment - woo hoo!] but we were getting antsy to find a solution for book storage, so we decided to just give it a go here at our rental.  I probably wouldn't have agreed unless Tom had offered to donate the bulk of his "birthday money" (money he received as a birthday gift from his parents - in other words, money that wasn't coming out of our budget) to the project.  We kept it pretty cheap, which is good because we can't take it with us when we move!

The shelves are now serving us well by holding our stereo, our record collection, and a portion of our books.  It gave us some good practice as well as a few ideas for how we can do it better next time.

Christine Actually Remembers to Take Photos Of Each Step of the Process

Here we have the alcove "before".  You can see in this picture the ugly ("but, hey, it was free!") shelf we had in the space before.  All the openings were awkwardly-sized, so it ended up having a lot of wasted space.

 Tom's parents visited for a few days after Christmas, and Tom put his dad to work helping him build the shelves.  They cut plywood supports to go under each shelf, and used toggle bolts to anhor them in our hard plaster walls.

The next part took an entire day.  The walls on our 100+ year-old house are anything but straight, so meticulous measurements and re-measurments had to be made for each shelf.  The guys used sheets of plywood and cut them into shelf-tops and shelf-fronts.  The pieces were attached with wood screws so that each shelf can be lifted on and off their wall-mounted supports.

 This is the part where I came in:  Painting!  We decided to do a green accent color on the backs of the shelves (except the top level, to make it visually terminate before the ceiling).

If you take a look at anything we have painted in the house, you might get the impression that we're both nuts for green...but really, it's one of the few colors we can happily compromise on...

And after a few nights of painting the shelves themselves, which were spread out ALL over the dining room on newspaper....Starting to look pretty sharp!


Then we ruin the nice crisp white-on-green look by throwing on our total hodge-podge of stuff.  But it was meant to be practical, not a picture from Real Simple (as Tom often likes to remind me).

Notice the stuff underneath the shelving.  That big black rectangle is one of our gargantuan speakers (I would SO love if *someone* would agree to pare down to saner-sized ones...).  The wooden objects lying on the floor are two recycled cabinet doors, purchased for $2 a piece at our local "building material reuse retailer".

Note to selves for next time: Buy cabinet doors or other pre-fab items before you start anything else, and construct/measure everything based on the size of that.  We stupidly built everything else first, so were pretty limited in which cabinet doors we could pick.

All done!
Tom built a plywood casing to hold the cabinet doors in place, leaving a cubby hole for the speaker on the right.  We painted the doors green to match the backs of the shelves (which, admittedly, you can barely see now that our books are all jammed on them).  We left the old and very dated-looking hardware on the cabinet doors.  I'm not entirely happy with it, but again, we don't own the house.  It doesn't make sense to sink too much money into it.

Oh, and one more thing - Tom didn't like the look of the joint where the bottom of the shelf met the casing around the cabinet.  So he bought a pre-painted strip of chair rail moulding and nailed it over the gap.

 It looks so much cleaner now!

He also added another strip of moulding along the floor to mimic the curved bottom of the baseboards (sorry - we chipped a little paint on the baseboard during the construction, and still need to touch it up).

Total Cost
We were keeping a list of materials and prices, which I planned to share here, but Tom tells me it is lost...humph.  I'll do my best to re-create it.

Materials we had to purchase were: 
3 sheets of plywood (about $25 each)
wood screws
toggle bolts
1 sample size green paint (a few bucks)
1 quart white paint
2 recylcled cabinet doors ($4 together)
2 strips of moulding ($11 together)

Materials we already owned included: paintbrushes/rollers, putty knife, circular saw, jigsaw, drill.

Our total was just around $200.  That sounds like so much money to me, especially considering we don't own the house.  But when I thinking about it, it's actually a pretty good deal.  When I see custom-built shelving like this in home decorating/DIY magazines, the total cost is often much higher: something like $700-$1200 (granted, most of them probably use "real" wood, and look more polished than ours).

But we got a large custom-built, custom-sized, sturdy bookcase that helps that space accommodate so much more than it could before.  I love that we were able to do little things like build the stereo shelf the exact height needed to be able to open the lid of the record player just far enough that it stays open by itself.  Or the way Tom drilled a little hole in the shelf below as a way to conceal the cords (There is no electrical outlet in the alcove, so he also drilled a little hole in the floor.  Yes, the stereo is actually plugged in in the basement).


  1. I really like it! Great job :) it looks perfect and practical. And I do like the green!

  2. I'm usually one of those "painting wood is sacrilege!!!" people, but this is absolutely brilliant! Love it!!! :)

  3. You guys did such a good job with this! I am really impressed with the finished project.

    Have you heard of She posts all of these awesome furniture plans that you can build yourself.

    We are going to try to build desk based on one of her plans - ahh!

    1. I have not heard of that site, Caitlin, but I just checked it out, and there seem to be a lot of good ideas!

  4. Oh wow, I love how it turned it! So professional lookiing ;)

  5. Those are amazing! I'm rather jealous now. I wish I had someplace in my house to put built-in bookshelves. Really though, I am impressed. That does not look DIY at all!

    1. Thanks! I'll have to pass on your compliment to my husband (who did more of the work than me!)

  6. This is a great builtin and is exactly what I want to do at my place. Thanks so much for posting!

  7. Thanks so much for posting. Im about to undertake something similar - do the shelves feel really sturdy like that? I am worried that they won't be able to hold up as much weight as I would like.

    1. Yes, the shelves are very sturdy, and I had no worries about putting heavy things on them. But it's also an old house with nice sturdy plaster walls. If you wanted to do this in drywall, you'd definitely need some strong wall anchors.

  8. Great post! Thank you so much for sharing this project and tips. We are going to do something similar. We also have uneven walls: Did you just measure, cut, fit, adjust, cut? Was it kind of trial and error to fit the shelves perfectly? I imagine it will be. I will have to figure out a great way to anchor in the supports. Wish me luck!