DEAR TIM: I live in a 100-year-old wooden house in Norway and am doing all the refurbishing and maintenance myself that the laws of my country allow. I’m making floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcases for one of my living rooms and would love some tips. One of my challenges is the bookcase needs to span about 6 feet over a piano. What would you do to support those shelves so there’s no sag from the weight of the books? Any information you can share that would make this project look magnificent and be trouble-free would be appreciated. – Harald Skaarn, Tonsberg, Norway
DEAR HARALD: I cut my teeth as a builder and remodeler working on old homes such as yours. I discovered many things during that journey, including that the quality of construction and materials in these older homes varies to a large degree. It didn’t take long for me to observe that the pride of workmanship in many of the older homes I worked on was far superior to that of the work done today. I wonder if it’s the same in your country.
Built-in bookcases are a wonderful project to tackle. I assume you have the power tools needed to make cutting and assembling the wood easier. I also assume you have at least moderate skills with respect to installation. If you plan out this project carefully, you can build the bookcases in modular sections that connect with one another yet, when complete, appear as a whole, as if the bookcases were carved out of a solid block of wood or the wall.
You probably already know this, but you need to draw a detailed scale plan of what you want. This plan would show the actual front view of what the finished shelves would look like complete but with no books in them. Think about creating larger areas within the shelves to display art or other things you own that aren’t books but would look fantastic on the shelves.
My first tip may surprise you. I recommend that you start very small. Build a small stand-alone bookcase prototype that includes everything you think you want. Think carefully about the color of the wood that will form the sides, back and underside of the shelves. Perhaps you want the bookcases to have two or even three species of wood for contrast.
When you plan to build your prototype, think about how you could make several of them and butt them against one another to cover an entire wall. Carefully consider the height of the shelves so they’re tall enough for all your books but not so tall as to waste space. Look at existing bookshelves to determine the sweet spot for the space between the top of books and the bottom of the shelf above.
One thing I’d incorporate for sure would be low-voltage lighting to showcase the books and add soft lighting to the room. You may discover, if you use a lighter-colored wood for most of the bookcases, that the reflected light provides ample background lighting for the entire room.
The use of low-voltage lighting is also relevant to the wide shelves that have to span over the piano. There are many ways to make those shelves stiff and sag-free. My choice would be to incorporate a small beam under the front edge of the shelf. This beam would be made from a very stiff hardwood species and be about 1.5 inches high. When this piece of wood is glued and mortised into the horizontal shelf, the shelf will be very strong.
You’ll discover that this piece of wood is an excellent place to put a thin strip of low-voltage lighting that’s aimed down and toward the back of the shelves. Your biggest challenge, should you decide to incorporate the lighting, will be to get the right balance of light. You don’t want too much and you don’t want the lighting to be weak. Your small prototype shelves will help you solve this problem.
Be sure you take into consideration how you’ll deal with electrical outlets. I don’t know the codes in your country, but see if you can put electrical outlets in the toe kick space down by the floor. You may have existing outlets in your walls that have to be moved so they don’t fall right at the same height as a horizontal shelf.
The odds are that the walls of your house are not perfectly plumb or in the same plane. Therefore, you should design the back of the bookshelves so there is airspace between the wood and the plaster. Also, make the vertical sides of your shelves deep enough so they can be scribed to any uneven wall surfaces.
Before you start to draw your plans for this project, take lots of time to look at photographs of built-in bookcases. If you live near a large library or older buildings that have built-in bookcases, go visit them for inspiration. You may see subtle pieces of trim that create a unique look you had not thought of.
Note how the bookcases terminate at the floor and along walls near a doorway where you might need to have a finished side of a bookcase. Pay close attention to each and every detail, including how the shelves are supported.
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