How to Build a Custom Built-in Bookcase

When we were building our new house, there were so many projects I was excited about taking on. But I was probably most excited about my office built-in bookcase. My office is where I would be spending a lot of time for the foreseeable future, and I loved the idea of building something cool for this room.

In this tutorial, I’m going to show you how I built this bookcase. Of course, all rooms are different sizes and shapes, so you will need to alter the dimensions to fit your needs.

I designed these built-ins to be a little unique. I didn’t want a full wall of bookshelves, and I wanted an open space in the middle for some extra seating in the room. Here’s what I came up with:

Now let me show you how I built them.

Here’s what you’ll need:


Since room dimensions vary, I’m only providing the types of lumber and millwork needed. For this project, I used Poplar from Empire Moulding & Millwork. I was so pleased with the quality of this wood!

  • 1×12’s
  • 1×8’s
  • 1×4’s
  • 1×2’s

Everywhere I put two pieces of wood together, you can assume that I nailed and glued it. I’m telling you this here, so I don’t have to repeat that in every step.

Step 1: Build Base Cabinets

I started by building the base cabinets.

I used 1×12’s for the side pieces. On the front, I nailed and glued a 1×8 across the bottom and a 1×4 across the top as shown in the image.

Then I nailed and glued on the piece of MDF for the top. If you don’t have a table saw, you can have your local cut it to size when you purchase it.

Next, I glued and nailed pieces of 1×2 to the inside of the cabinet. I placed them 3/4″ below the opening.

Then I added a piece of 1×12 on top of that to form the bottom of the cabinet.

After I built both bottom cabinets and placed them in the corners of the room, and secured them to the wall with finish nails and a couple of screws. You’ll want to make sure you are screwing and nailing into your wall studs. I added trim around the top of each. I used two pieces of 1×2 with a miter on the corner.

Step 2: Build the Shelves

Once I had the cabinet nailed into place in the corners. It was time to start adding the tall vertical boards for the shelving.

For these three pieces, I used 1x8s. I nailed the two sides in place and then added the top piece.

Then I added the other two vertical boards. Once I made sure they were all plumb, I nailed them in place.

Still using 1x8s, I added the top-level shelf and dividers.

Then I added vertical 1×4 pieces to the face of the shelves as shown in the image above.

Using 1x2s I added all of the remaining faces.

Since I wanted the bookcase to go all the way to the ceiling, I added a 1×12 to the top. This would also allow me to mount a wall sconce above each shelf. I also added a 1×2 all the way across as a cap and for a little added detail.

I opted to go with fixed shelves. I didn’t see us ever having a need to adjust the placement of these. So I used a 1×8 for each shelf, and 1×2 across the front to give the shelf more thickness and make them flush with the side face 1x4s.

I added three shelves to each side and spaced them out evenly in the vertical space.

Step 3: Finishing Touches

I built the doors for this bookcase, but showing you how to do that is a whole tutorial in itself. If you have a good router table, you may want to try it yourself. But another option is to hire a local woodshop to build the doors for you. All you have to do is tell them the style you want and the dimensions based on how much overlay you want.

Once the bookcase was finished, it was sanded, all the holes were filled, and all of the seams were caulked. I had our trim crew run the baseboard around the bottom of the cabinets, and the crown molding across the top.

Then it was painted with the rest of the room.

Final Thoughts

I hope you found this tutorial helpful! Again, keep in mind that your room will have different dimensions than mine. So you’ll need to alter some of the measurements.

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  • Reply Brandon Smith

    Henry – have a question on step 1 building the base of the cabinets. If you are using a 1 X 8 for the sides plus another 1 X 4 for the face – how does the top MDF piece end up being 12 inches wide? I’m only getting about 8 inches max for the top piece.

    March 17, 2020 at 8:39 pm
    • Reply Henry

      Hi Brandon. That was a typo. So sorry aboout that. The sides are 1×12’s and the bottom of the inside of the cabinet is a 1×12. I’ve fixed the typos. The dimesnions in the diagrams were already correct.

      March 17, 2020 at 8:48 pm
      • Reply Brandon


        March 18, 2020 at 1:16 am
  • Reply Inna

    Looks so great!! What paint color did you use?

    March 21, 2020 at 1:16 pm
    • Reply Henry

      Thank you! It’s Sherwin Williams Inkwell.

      March 21, 2020 at 3:53 pm
  • Reply Troy

    Looks great! I love working with poplar, but I’m curious why you choose mdf for the top of the cabinets, seemingly where there would be the most use. I don’t have much experience with MDF and my concerns could be nothing.

    March 28, 2020 at 3:30 am
    • Reply Henry

      Thanks! That’s a valid question/concern. I really only used it out of convenience. I didn’t have poplar wide enough for the top. Since we painted the built-ins with a high quality paint, I wasn’t too concerned with the top being MDF. Instead of MDF, you could use Poplar or plywood.

      April 7, 2020 at 3:28 am
  • Reply Amy

    I came looking for a tutorial of your built-ins in your livingroom. Do you have one showing how you made them. Love how they are built right into the wall

    April 17, 2020 at 4:42 am
  • Reply Aunie

    I love this tutorial. We’re going to build this for our office. We’re new to woodworking so excuse me if this is a silly question, but how did you secure the actual shelves within the bookcase? Also, do you actually have a tutorial for the doors because I’d like to know how to build them? Thanks so much.

    April 19, 2020 at 2:38 am
  • Reply Corey

    How do you make the decision between 1/4″ Finish Nails and 2″ Finish Nails? Looks like all of the material was no wider/thicker than 1″.

    Great tutorial – Simple. Thanks,

    July 9, 2020 at 2:53 pm
  • Reply Sarah

    Hi, how did you add the electric in the bookcase? Such as the lights? Is there a tutorial for that?

    August 16, 2020 at 3:36 pm
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