Built-In Bookcases & Daybed – Part 1 (The Basic Bookcase Build)

I made quite a bit of headway on the built-in bookcases in my niece’s bedroom this weekend.  I still have a lot of building ahead of me, but here’s how things are looking so far…

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All of the built-ins will be painted white, but I still have quite a bit of work to do before I’m ready to paint.

I decided to add a cute little scalloped design to the top of the bookcases.  I made that decision after coming across this trundle bed with the scalloped design and deciding that I want to do my niece’s trundle bed the same way.

trundle bed with scalloped designvia Rosenberry Rooms

So I decided to incorporate the scallops into the bookcase design as well since it’s all one big custom built-in.

Anyway, here are the details on how I built the bookcases…

My mom plans to remove the carpet upstairs and replace it with a floor that looks like hardwood at some point in the future, but that’s not in the budget just yet.  Since that is in her future plans, I didn’t want to build these bookcases on top of carpet.  So while I started building the bases, my mom used the piece of MDF that we had cut for the bottom, which was the exact finished width and depth of the bookcase, and used it as a pattern to cut away the carpet.  She used a very sharp carpet knife* and it worked perfectly.

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While she was doing that, I built the bases for the bookcases out of 2 x 4’s.  I put it together using wood glue and 3-inch wood screws.

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After I built the first base, I decided that I wanted it just a little bit taller, so I cut some “feet” from scrap 2 x 4 and attached those to the bottom using wood glue and 16 gauge nails.  That made it the perfect height.  (There’s no “correct” height.  It’s just a matter of personal taste and design.)

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Next, I built a basic box (with a twist, as you can see) out of MDF.  The back and the side against the wall are 1/2″ MDF, which I used because it’s cheaper and the wall gives it support.  For the non-wall side, the top, and the bottom, I used 3/4″ MDF.  I put the box together using wood glue and 1.5″ 16-gauge nails in my nail gun.

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As you’ll notice, the non-wall side of the bookcase comes up higher.

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You don’t have to build this way.  I did it this way because I knew I wanted a pretty tall, scalloped rail at the top of the bookcase, and one thing I don’t like is a bunch of dead space behind the top rail inside a bookcase.  So I built this with the top lowered.  That way, there wouldn’t be several inches of dead space behind the tall scalloped rail at the top.


I couldn’t build the non-wall side that low, because there would be a big visible gap between the top of the bookcase and the ceiling — a gap way too big to cover with crown moulding.  The top rail will cover the gap on the front, but there’s nothing on the side to cover a gap that large.  So the side piece had to go all the way up, close enough to the ceiling so that any gap present would be covered when the crown moulding goes on.

Make sense?  🙂  If not, I think it will later on in this post.  And do keep in mind that this is purely a style decision based on my desire for a tall scalloped top rail, and my dislike of lots of dead space behind top rails.  If I were just using a standard rail (generally something like a 1″ x 3″ or a 1″ x 4″ instead of the 1″ x 8″ that I used), or if I weren’t bothered by dead space behind tall top rails, I could have built a very simple box, with with the back, sides, and top all the same height, that all came up to within an inch or two from the ceiling.  The main thing is that you just have to be very sure that any gap at the top of the side piece (or side pieces, if you’re not building against a side wall and both sides will show) is small enough that it can be covered by crown moulding.

And just one more little detail…

Sometimes when nailing the pieces together, I might have a nail or two that shows on the inside of the bookcase.  This is especially easy to do when nailing into the edges of those thin 1/2″ MDF pieces.

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And once again, this is a job where my Dremel Multi-Max* comes in handy.  I’m telling you, this is one of the best tools I’ve ever bought.  I find myself reaching for it so often that I wonder how in the world I went without it for so long.

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Here’s how things looked with the bases and basic bookcase boxes built.

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Beautiful, right?!  😀  Okay, not quite yet, but it will be!

The next step was to install the braces for the shelves.  There are several ways you can install shelves (e.g., using a Kreg Jig), but this is my method of choice because it’s effective and it’s the easiest, in my humble opinion.  First I measured and marked where I wanted each shelf, and then I cut pieces of shoe moulding and attached it to the inside on all three sides.

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I installed it with the flat part up, and the tapered side down.  This creates a perfect support for the shelf.  I always miter the corners where the pieces meet since that will show and they need to look nice.  The small gap at the front of the side pieces won’t show once the stiles are attached.  I attached these pieces using wood glue and 1-inch 16-gauge nails.

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Since I used 3/4-inch MDF for the non-wall side pieces, the 1-inch nails worked perfectly.  But if you’re using thinner MDF or plywood, then you’ll obviously need to adjust the length of nail you use so that your nails won’t shoot out of the side of the bookcase. You can also use quarter round for the supports, but I prefer the thinner profile of shoe moulding.

With the supports all attached, I then placed the shelves right on top.  I did use wood glue to attach the shelves, but there’s really no need to nail them, although you can if you want to.

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And here’s how the two bookcases looked at this point…

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Starting to look more and more like real bookcases!  🙂

And finally, I attached the stiles and rails to the front.  This is my favorite part because this is where it really starts to look nice.  And do keep in mind that it’s always better to use real wood lumber for the stiles and rails.  These pieces lend a great deal of support to the structure of the bookcase and the strength of the shelves, and you’ll get the most strength from real wood lumber.  If you use MDF boards, your shelves won’t be nearly as strong, and they could start to bow over time.

I attached the side stiles first, and for these I used 1 x 2’s.

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And you can see that both sides come up almost to the ceiling.  Again, I can’t leave any gaps that are so large that they can’t be covered with crown moulding.

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And then I added the rails to the bookshelves, again using 1 x 2’s.  I attached all of these using wood glue and 1.5-inch 16-gauge nails.

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In order to make my top scalloped rails, I first had to make a pattern.  I started with a piece of paper (that red stuff that comes in the rolls from the paint aisle at Home Depot), and I marked a long straight line using painters tape.  Then I found a lid that was the size of the scallop I wanted, and I used painters tape to mark off how much of the circle I wanted to use for my scallops.  I wanted to use a little less than half of a circle.

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And then as perfectly as possible, I lined up the bottom of the painters tape on each side of the lid with the bottom of the painters tape on the paper, and traced around the lid.  Then I moved the lid over, and repeated.  I repeated this until I had covered enough of the paper to make a complete pattern for my top rail.

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And then slowly and meticulously, I cut out the scallop pattern.  Then I measured and marked for placement on my 1 x 8 board, and traced the pattern onto the board.

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I carefully cut out the design using my jigsaw with a detail (curve) blade on it.

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I can’t stress this enough.  When cutting out designs like this with a jigsaw, you cannot use a regular blade.  Regular blades are too wide to maneuver around curves, and you’ll be cursing your jigsaw (and me, probably 😀 ) before you even make it halfway around one curve.  In order to cut out designs like this, you must use a curve blade.  They’re actually labeled “curve” and on the slow-to-fast scale (or the turtle-to-jackrabbit scale), it’ll be on the slow/turtle end.  These blades are about 1/2 the width and 2/3 to 3/4 the length of regular jigsaw blades.

But regardless of how good your saw is, how fine your blade is, or how steady your hand is when cutting, there will be some clean up (i.e., sanding) to do once you’ve cut out the design.  Here’s how mine looked right after cutting out the scalloped design.

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I not only sanded the edges to clean them up, but I also slightly rounded the harsh corners.  There’s actually a woodworking term for this.  It’s called “breaking the edges,”  and really good, experienced woodworkers will actually have special tools to use for this so that their edges are all perfectly rounded.  But I’m not quite so picky, so I just use sandpaper and eyeball it.  🙂  You can see here that the scallop on the far right has the hard edge sanded off, while the other two still have the hard edges.

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I actually do this to all of the rails and stiles, and any other hard edges (e.g., on edges of table tops, countertops, etc.), on everything I build.  It’s one of those small details that I think really makes a big difference in the finished piece.

Here’s how the whole scalloped design looked once all of the edges were sanded.

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And here’s a before and after so you can see the difference right next to each other.

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Again, it’s just one of those personal preference kind of things.  It’s certainly not necessary to break the edges, and the amount of rounding you do on the edges is completely up to you.  If you don’t trust your sanding skills to get uniform rounded edges (it really is impossible to get perfectly uniform edges just using your hand and a piece of sandpaper, so you have to be okay with “good enough,” which I am 🙂 ), then you can always buy a tool that will make your edges perfectly uniform.

And here’s my scalloped rail in place, attached the same way I attached all of the others.

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I also attached the very bottom rails, and for those I used 1″ x 4″ lumber.

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The gaps at the bottom of the bookcases will be covered by baseboards, and the ones at the top will be covered by crown moulding.

And that’s it!  That’s as far as I got this weekend…

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I still need to attach those decorative “wings” to the bookcases (that act as part of the bed frame).  And then I need to build the bed frame, the drawers, and the trundle bed.  There’s a lot left to do, and I’d be very surprised if it actually gets finished this week.  But I’ll certainly try!

I did want to mention one thing just in case any of you may want to build your own bookcases, and want to use the process I used in this post.  This area at the bottom of the sides where the MDF meets the base made of 2 x 4’s would be visible if I weren’t building a bed frame between these two bookcases.

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That’s too tall to be covered with a baseboard, since any baseboard that comes up high enough to cover that would also cover up the entire front bottom rail.

Again, I’m not concerned about that since this will be hidden on my design.  But if you are building bookcases in an area where that bottom part will be exposed, then you’ll need to make a few changes to the building process.  In fact, you’ll need to build the bookcases like I built the closets at the condo, where the MDF went all the way to the floor, and the 2 x 4 (or 2 x 6 in that case) base sat inside the MDF.

You can click here see more details on how I built those closets.

And speaking of the condo, it’s under contract!  We got an offer last Monday for our full asking price.  I shared the good news on my Facebook page, but forgot to share it here for those of you who don’t follow my FB page.  We’re just praying that everything goes smoothly until closing!  🙂


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  1. Squeee, I’m so excited for your niece. What a lucky little girl! Thanks so much for sharing this, I want to do something similar to this as well.

    1. So thrilled about the contract. You should have mentioned that first!!!!! Heat next winter!!!!!! The niece’s bedroom is shaping
      up quickly!!!!

  2. Congrats on the condo! So surprised there wasn’t a bidding war on that gorgeous place!

    I can not imagine how excited your niece must be seeing her room transformed so beautifully! You sure have a gift(s) Kristy!

  3. Kristy, i love the scalloped edge! The picture you posted of the bed is beautiful and i think the scalloped edges make the room!!

  4. I’m so glad you mentioned the Dremel! We built a couple of boxes out of MDF this weekend for our closet project and there were a few mishaps with the nail gun. I’ve been trying to figure out how to fix them and hadn’t even thought of using a multi-tool.

    1. Me, too. I had a nail come through the inside of the box and I can’t get to it like I would on the outside. Never thought of using the Dremel. Thanx Krisit!

  5. Wow Kristi!! That was a fat condo sale!!! All your hard work paid off and the new owners must be so excited to be getting such a well thought out and beautifully designed home!
    Your Nieces room is going to be gorgeous! Love the design so far!
    One question, when you attached the scalloped top rail, did you just nail it to the top of the cabinet straight across, or did you somehow attach it to the stiles too? If it’s not attached to the stiles will the crown be what holds the top part firm? Thank ou for sharing the details. I’ve never worked with MDG but want to try it for an upcoming project.

    1. Fast not fat condo sale. I blew my diet this morning so I guess my subconscious is reminding me LOL!!!

    2. It’s attached to the stiles also. I shot some nails in at an angle from the rail into the side stiles. But the crown moulding will also add some stability as well.

      1. Ahhhhh… I didn’t even know you Could shoot a finish nailer at an angle…at least not on purpose LOL! I should have figured it out since I seem to do it plenty by accident!!! Thanks Kristi. I appreciate you sharing your knowledge with us. One more question… Do you have a wood glue brand preference?

  6. Looking good thus far! Cute scalloped detail, too. So happy for you and the quick condo sale at full price! Wooohoooo!!!! A/C here you come! 😀

  7. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for a stress and problem free closing on the condo. Congratulations!
    On another note, breaking the edge, in addition to looking better, helps when applying paint. I have found that I don’t get the thick build-up of paint on the edges if I knock it down with sandpaper or a router.
    The bookcases look fantastic. Great job!

  8. Fantastic on the sale, and love your construction plans. very thorough! One question about nail guns. Do you have a recommendation for a framing gun. I need one soon and am not to sure what to get. I’ll be getting the porter cable 6 gal compressor. I have never used one and will be re-roofing a shed soon, and know I’ll need one, because I’m not that good with a hammer.

    1. I actually don’t own a framing gun, but I would think Porter Cable would be a good brand to get. I have Porter Cable finishing nail guns and compressor, and I love them.

  9. I love the scallops. The devil is in the details, right?
    I was wondering if you were going to install any lighting in the bookcase? Or a sconce on top that would shine down. Otherwise the inside of the bookcase can look like a black hole.

    1. I don’t plan to install lighting inside the bookcases, but I think once they’re painted white, it’ll make quite a difference. The shelves in my bathroom looked like a dark hole before they were painted, and I was planning to add lighting to them. Once they were painted, I was surprised at how light they looked, and decided to forgo adding the lighting (besides the little lamp, which is more for a night light). So I think white paint will have the same effect on these since they’re in a room that actually gets lots of natural light anyway.

  10. Looks great and your niece is soooooo lucky! Well, I should have known better than to make a comment that Kristi had mistyped on her measurements on Friday’s post (?) where she had the 96″ on the outer wall of the shelving and 84″ (going from memory) on the wall (inner) side. But you explained it perfectly and showed us as well. Can’t wait to see the room complete!

  11. Kristi, I am so excited and happy for your news on the Condo! Congratulations! And your nice is a lucky girl to have an Aunt and Grandmother with so much talent and love! So excited to see what is next!
    Sheila F.

  12. I cannot believe you are using nails……screws are always better. I feel about screws like you feel about Milk Paint. Pretty strongly.
    But it looks amazingly cool. Very inspiring to say the least. Great job!

    1. I would never drive screws into the edge of MDF, and especially not 1/2-inch MDF. In fact, I can’t think of an example of when I would ever use screws in MDF at all. Plywood..yes. MDF…no. And really, the only purpose of the nails is to hold everything together until the wood glue dries. I would trust an entire bookcase built with nothing but wood glue and clamps over a bookcase built with nothing but screws or nails.

  13. Also I am going to make a book shelf now too! I want to enclose my refrigerator so it looks built in and the do a book shelf floor to ceiling on the outside edge of the built in cabinet. Looking good. Thanks for the tutuorial!

  14. Wow. You’re good. I admire a woman who can do carpentry. I made a crude shelf to put inside an armoire and it sags. It’s MDF. If it gets wet, it will practically dissolve. I’ll never use it again.

    1. What thickness did you use? And did you attach a rail to the front for support?

      MDF shelves will always sag unless you attach solid wood rails to the front of them. But plywood will too. Plywood is definitely stronger than MDF, so it may take longer for the plywood to sag, but it definitely will unless you attach rails. One blogger I follow spent a fortune having a professionally designed and professionally built bookcase installed on one huge wall in her home, and whoever built the shelves used plywood — probably 3/4″ with edge banding on the front — and in the pictures where she revealed her new bookcases, packed full of books, I swear to you that most of the shelves looked like they were bowing under the weight of those books. That’s just what happens, whether you use plywood or MDF, if you don’t add solid wood rails to the front to give strength to those shelves.

      As far as it dissolving, MDF is basically glorified particle board. You absolutely MUST prime (preferably with an oil-based primer) and paint it before use, especially if you’re going to use it around water. But if it’s sealed with primer and paint, it’s perfectly fine. My bathroom is filled with MDF, and I’m quite confident that it’ll last because everything is sealed with oil-based primer and at least two coats of paint. But no, you cannot use raw MDF for anything like a shelf and expect it to last any amount of time at all.

      1. To clarify, the 1×2 rails that you used on the shelves will give enough strength to keep the shelves from sagging from book weight? Or will your niece need to be cautious about how much weight goes on the shelves? I built a “bookcase” for plates using 1″ plywood for shelves, 1 ft. wide and 7″ deep, and definitely don’t want it to start sagging down the line. Do you think that the 1×2’s would be enough? Thanks! =]

        1. Yes, the 1 x 2 rails add a tremendous amount of strength, and will keep the bookshelves from sagging. And the 1 x 2’s are sufficient since I use 3/4-inch MDF. She won’t have to be careful about putting too many books on them. They’re very strong.

          I do think 1 x 2’s would be plenty for your shelves since you used 1-inch plywood. Basically, the thinner the shelf material, the wider the rails need to be for strength. When I built the bookcases in the living room at the condo, I used 1/2-inch MDF for those shelves, and they were pretty wide. With just the MDF, those shelves sagged under their own weight, without even putting anything on them. But after adding 1 x 3 rails to the front, those things were super strong. I could have put an entire set of encyclopedias on them, and they would have been just fine.

          1. Thanks, Kristi! It’s amazing how a relatively small piece of wood will strengthen a shelf!! Physics is amazing!

  15. Those scalloped trims are soooo cooollll! I am so with you about sanding the sharp edges on wood. I didn’t realize that had a real name — I just tell Hubby I’m going to “knock down” the sharp edges. He teases me about how particular I am about it, but I agree it just looks so much nicer, and you tend to bump into a rounded edge less.. I’m so happy for your full-price condo offer! Congratulations!!!

  16. This post couldn’t have come at a better time for me, lol. We are making the cubbies like you made for your breakfast room in the condo and we were having a hard time figuring out how to attach it to the existing cabinets. The wood base inside the mdf makes perfect sense for us. Thank you, thank you!! Your built in’s look beautiful and best of luck with the selling of the condo!

  17. I am pretty impressed on your scallop! I have a scallop quilt template and cannot even get my scallops to look a near as good as yours! Maybe I should try the lid next time! Lol

  18. Love the scallops, you niece is one lucky girl. And great news about the Condo, fingers crossed that it all goes through. xxxxx

  19. Kristi, is MDF strong enough for building good kitchen cabinets? Would you use if for the shelving too? Or would you use plywood for the shelves?

    Love the bookcases and the scallops are adorable! Can’t wait to see how you build the bed frame!

    1. The short answer is yes, it’s strong enough for kitchen cabinets. MDF is basically a nice particle board — it’s stronger and denser than regular particle board — and many companies make their boxes for cabinets out of particle board. If you buy stock cabinets (like I used in my kitchen and bathroom), those are almost always made out of particle board.

      But one thing to keep in mind is that particle board and MDF don’t handle moisture well unless it’s coated/sealed with a waterproof or water resistant barrier. That’s why all particle board cabinets are lined on the inside with some sort of laminated surface. Of course, if you let a leak go long enough, it’ll still ruin particle board cabinets, but at least that laminate surface gives you some sort of defense against water damage.

      So if I were to build cabinets out of MDF, I would want to waterproof all of the individual pieces before putting the boxes together. I’m not quite sure what product would work better, but I would try out oil-based polyurethane, lacquer, and oil-based primer to see which one works best. Once I found the best product, I would coat all of the pieces (preferably with a sprayer, since that would be fairly quick) before assembling the boxes.

      MDF is a fantastic building product, but just like with particle board, water is the enemy. So if you can find a way to waterproof it, then yes, it will make very strong and durable cabinets.

  20. I love what you have done so far – the scalloped edges are great! Looking forward to seeing the finished room!

  21. WOW! Looking good! Also congrats on the contract on the condo! Happy for you, and I’m sure you deserve every penny of that offer.

  22. Especially after reading some of the comments, I’m a little confused about HOW the rails add enough strength, and I’m hoping if I go check out that condo closet, you go into a little more explanation about HOW you attach them.