Books need a fancy home too

Sometimes a piece of timber talks to you, and you know exactly what you want to build with it. This is kind of like that.

I’d had the idea for a small freestanding bookshelf floating around in my head for a while. I knew exactly how I wanted it to look. But I couldn’t find a suitable piece of timber anywhere. I hunted through my wood collection and several timber supply shops but couldn’t find the piece of timber that matched the picture in my head, so the idea was shelved in a dusty corner of my mind for future use.

A few weeks later I was helping my girlfriend tidy up and have a clear out before she moved workshop when I came across two stunning pieces of wych elm. Were they what I had been looking for? No, that hunt is till ongoing, but these would cure my itch for making a unique bookshelf:

Next time I got to my workshop I pulled out a piece of Scottish oak to compliment the wych elm, and I had the raw materials ready:

Starting with the oak, I cut two blanks for the ends:

I then used a series of hand planes to thickness, flatten and smooth them. Although the wych elm would be the feature timber, it was nice to choose some oak with a few burrs in it to make it more interesting without it being overpowering:

For comparison, here is the scrap offcut to compare the rough sawn board with the refined ends:

As you can see, I took a lot of thickness out of the boards, and if you’ve ever done that by hand you’ll know that I’d had my daily exercise by the time I’d finished:

Next I started laying out the joinery. This was made slightly more complicated because the shelves themselves would be at 90 degrees to each other but they would be tilted back to stop the books falling out. I double and then triple checked before making knife lines to mark out the joinery:

Then using a mallet and chisel I hand cut the mortises:

That was the ends finished, so I put them to one side. Next I started preparing the wych elm, and with it came the only part of the project that used a power tool.

The beauty of using such figured wood is also its curse. The wild grain direction, knots and burrs make it very difficult to work with. In the first picture you can see just how much tearout there is from the mill processing it ready to sell. And that made for a bit of a problem for me. I had to remove a lot of thickness to remove the deep tearout, but even the most razor sharp tools will struggle. Normally a hand plane will give a much better finish than any machine, but in this case it still produced tear out (albeit much less than the machine). Normally using a card scraper would solve all of these problems but with so much material to remove I would have been there for months! My solution was to sharpen my favourite plane and remove most of the tearout, then use a sander to get it down to final thickness. The result was great, but I would have preferred this to have been an all hand tool project if I could have found an alternative solution.

After that I cut the shelves down to their final size and dry fitted it to finally get an idea of what it would look like:

Next came the glue up, and for once this was a nice simple one:

After leaving it overnight and giving everything a final hand sanding, it was time for the finish. I chose to use Danish Oil on this occasion, and as predicted it made the timber really come alive:

I was so happy with how this project came out. I really wanted to keep this for myself, but at the time of writing this it is currently up for sale so please message me if you are interested! And of course, I’m still on the lookout for that mythical piece of timber to built the one I’ve got pictured in my head…