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barrister bookcases A bookcase is a piece of furniture that is essentially a shelving unit specifically designed to store books.  Before the invention of the printing press, cupboards and cabinets were used to store handwritten manuscript volumes, and today's bookcases are a descendant of these cupboards.  The doors were later discarded for easier access and bookcases came to consist of open shelves usually made from oak, maple, or cherry.  Today, bookcases are made from many types of wood including cedar and mahogany as well as from metals, wood composites such as plywood and flake board, and a variety of other materials.

Bookcases are available in two popular heights.  Those having three or four shelves are between 27 and 36 inches high, and their tops can be used as supplemental storage or work surfaces.  Units with five, six, or even seven shelves are between 60 and 84 inches high.  To utilize your library space more efficiently, you may opt to install ceiling-height, built-in bookcases.  In these tall bookcases, one or more shelves are often used to display decorative items.

The standard bookcase depth is about 12 inches, although 9 inch deep units are often used where space is tight.  Many bookcases feature one or more adjustable shelves to accommodate tall books and other items.  Loose-leaf notebooks generally require twelve inch high shelving.  Most magazines will fit in an eleven inch high shelf space while most textbooks are designed to fit on a ten inch high shelf.  Magazines and books, except for atlases and large coffee table books, will usually fit in a 9 inch deep bookcase.  In any case, be sure to inventory your book storage requirements before selecting and ordering your bookcases.  If you are a "do-it-yourselfer," Taunton offers several books with projects and plans for building wooden bookcases.

There are several systems of arranging bookcases.  They include bookcases flat against the wall, in stacks parallel to each other with space enough to allow passage between them, and in alcoves or groups where they protrude into the room at right angles to wall bookcases.  In libraries where space is at a premium, mobile shelving can be used.  This is also known as high-density storage and consists of twelve or more bookcases compressed to take up the space normally occupied by four to six traditional bookcases.  They are mounted on wheels integrated into floor-level rail guides and can only be partially viewed unless moved manually or via an electric motor.

Bookcase Construction

built-in bookcases Bookcases are a wonderful addition to any room, and are relatively easy to build for the do-it-yourselfer.

Before you break out the hammer and nails, you need to decide what your goals are.  Do you need a big bookcase, or a small one?  Free-standing, or built-in?  Utilitarian, or a work of art?  If you need a bookcase for your garage, for example, you will want it to be strong but not necessarily attractive.  But if your bookcase will be showcased in your library, it must be strong and aesthetically pleasing as well.

Once you have a general idea of your book storage requirements, the next task is to determine the height, width, and depth of your bookcase.  The height and width should be determined by the space you have to work with, while the depth depends on the sizes of the books that will be stored.  Next, decide whether you want the shelves to be fixed, adjustable, or a combination of both.  Finally, you must choose a joint or mounting system.

How you decide to mount the shelves will affect whether or not they sag, so choose carefully.  A fixed shelf tends to sag less than an adjustable shelf.  In addition, some shelving materials sag more than others.  Red oak, for example, is one of the strongest materials, while medium-density fiberboard (MDF) is one of the weakest.  Regardless, a good rule of thumb is that the thicker and shorter the board, the less it will sag.  Shorter, one-inch thick shelves are best for heavy objects.

Fixed shelves attach to the side of the bookcase with wood joinery, hardware, or a combination of both.  Ways to fix the shelves include dado, rabbeted dado, biscuits, sliding dovetail, and screwed cleats.

Adjustable shelves are a great option if you want to change the height of the shelves.  Because they don't help hold the cabinet sides together, it's a good idea to include one fixed shelf for strength.  Ways to anchor adjustable shelves include anchor pins, hidden wires, wooden standards, and metal standards.  If you need the book storage flexibility afforded by adjustable shelves, consider backing your bookcase with a thin sheet of veneered plywood for structural stability.

bookcase and books (illustration)
Bookcase and Colorful Books (Illustration)

Bookcase Suppliers

  • Ameriwood offers a selection of easy-to-assemble bookcases for the home.
  • BCI offers modern book shelving systems for libraries and commercial applications.
  • Arthur W. Brown features unfinished bookcases, wall units and storage solutions.
  • Bush manufactures a line of economical bookcases for SOHO applications.
  • Hale offers hand-crafted wood bookcases for libraries, offices, and homes.
  • Norsons distributes and manufactures bookcases and other commercial furniture.
  • Nucraft offers beautifully-crafted library bookcases and modular shelving products.
  • Pomponoosuc Mills features a varied selection of bookcases with plywood backs.
  • Sandusky offers a line of durable steel bookcases with adjustable shelves.
  • Sauder offers a variety of economical bookcases for home or small office use.
  • Tennsco steel office bookcases are available in several distinct styles.
  • Woodcraft features real wood bookcases in a variety of styles and sizes.
  • The Worden Company features a flexible and economical library shelving system.

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