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Floor-to-Ceiling Bookshelves: 12 Step Guide

Throughout the past seven or eight years, I've moved at least eight times. For someone like me, who values roots and permanence, that's a lot. I've worked really hard to maintain a sense of "home" wherever I go, and a lot of times, that springs from the memories that I've made with the stories I've read or the books I've studied. After two degrees and a lot of imagination, these precious artifacts are bound manifestations of my journey and growth, so I display them proudly. When I move, I don't feel at home until the books are out. Most of the time, I'll unpack them first, even though it's not really practical. Once the books are on the shelves, I can relax and start creating a new home.

Last fall, we bought our first house. We finally committed to Memphis as the place we called home, at least for this piece of life. So far, we've completed a lot of DIY projects around the house - painted a few rooms, knocked out a wall of outdated spindles and put in a bar-top counter, refinished the kitchen cabinets - all things that we could do ourselves (with the help of a generous and handy friend).

After we finished the last project, I decided I wanted to tackle the lifelong dream: floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. We have an office/music room and a guest room in our house, and I decided to add these to the guest room since it had a bigger window. So, I switched the furniture, found a blog on Pinterest (risky, I know), and started planning with my friend. While my husband was working a non-stop schedule, I figured I'd knock this out. How hard could it be, right?

After a month of construction, working here and there, we finally finished. I posted our progress on Instagram, but when I asked if anyone would read a how-to blog, I received a unanimous "yes." So, here it is, a step-by-step guide to building your own bookshelves.

Step 1: Measure and clear

First, we needed to measure the room to determine what materials we'd need. Our room was 12'x12' from wall to wall (not including the baseboards). We cut those out with an oscillating saw. We wanted to be sure the base we were installing would be flush against the wall.

We also ripped up the carpet in this area so the base would be on the flat foundation. Depending on your floor, this may or may not be necessary.

(Fun fact: houses are not build with exact measurements. Did anyone else know this? I didn't. Our walls are apparently wider at the bottom and more narrow up high. This will make for some fun adventures later on.)

Step 2: All about that base

Then, we used a miter saw to cut 2x4" boards to fit the space. We decided to go with 6' boards and add five smaller support beams - two on the ends and three in the middle. We bought six boards total and needed about five. (The other one did come in handy later, though.) We used construction screws and drilled the base directly into the wall. Find a stud, if you can. We couldn't find any, but luckily, our measurements were so close that the boards fit snug and we didn't need to worry too much. Before we secured them to the wall, we drilled the support beams into the back side of the long boards. Then, we positioned it against the wall, drilled it in, and added the front-facing boards. You can fill these drill spots with wood putty at the end if you'd like to hide them.

I will say, it was good to have my friend helping, as I hate measuring and would have probably trusted the logic of a 12' space a little too much. Measuring for each step is super important.

Step 3: Cabinets

Once we had the base in, we could add the cabinets. I purchased unfinished, 36" cabinets from Lowe's. Four of these would fit great in my perfectly-measured 12' space........

Well, since nothing is square in construction, we had a little trouble getting them to fit at first. We had about 1/8'' too much, when considering the front lip of each set. We considered sanding down some of the edges, but didn't want to compromise the integrity of the cabinets. So, we ended up staggering the cabinets. The first and the third sets sit flush against the back wall, while the second and fourth sets stood out a bit more, but still sit snug against the others. In the end, I barely notice, especially with the countertop, and it actually gives the whole structure a bit of dimension.

Step 4: Countertops

At this point, we were feeling pretty good. We knew that to cover the tops of the cabinets, and to offer a bit more overhang space, we'd need at least 14" of countertop depth. So, we used two 6' 1x12" boards toward the front, and filled in the space in the back with two 6' 1x3" boards. This gave us plenty of space to work with. These, we screwed into the top frames on the cabinets. We had a bit of trouble finding the right size screw to use, so we ended up using some scrap wood underneath the tops of the cabinets to screw into, just so there wouldn't be anything sharp sticking out on the inside.

(Tip: When selecting lumber, try finding the nicer cuts of wood for the highly visible pieces like this. Also, look for knots, bowing, or any cracks.)

Step 5: Frame it up

After the countertop was installed, it was time to decide on how deep I'd want the actual shelves to be. The blog we were referencing suggested 12", but I decided to go with 10". We needed seven 6' 1x10" boards for the outside frame and vertical structures, and six more for the actual shelves, totaling 13 boards.

We measured each spot from the countertop to the ceiling to be safe and then subtracted the width of the top board (about 3/4"). We cut them all a little bit short, just to be safe, and were able to nudge them all into place tightly.

Step 6: Cut the cleats

Before we let the vertical boards stay up, we cut a bunch of cleats (about 50 total). These were made from 1x2" boards, and we cut them to a little less than 10" each. When we had them all cut, we put two cleats on either side of the top and bottom of each board. We screwed these in from both sides once they were straight, and this held the vertical boards in place. We also added a diagonal screw on each side to be safe. This also held the top board in place without having to screw into any ceiling studs (which was great because we couldn't find them).

Step 7: Measure the shelf space

This was the part we were nervous about. We didn't want any of the shelves to be off. So, in my deep hatred for measuring, we came up with a genius idea! We took the extra 2x4" that we bought for the base and cut a jig. We held it on top of the lowest cleat, set another cleat on top of it and screwed that in place on each board. This made sure that regardless of the numerical measurements, each shelf would be aligned. It also saved us a ton of time measuring each individual shelf space.

(Tip: When you do this, make sure you know that you're measuring to the bottom of the next cleat, not the top. This will impact how your shelves will be spaced. I wanted a taller shelf at the bottom, two of the same size, and a smaller one up top.)

Step 8: Cut the shelves

Once your cleats are in place, you can cut the shelves. Again, we measured each space, just to be safe. We almost had them all perfect, but our wall bowed out a bit in the middle, so we had to sand down a few of the shelves later so they'd fit.

Make sure these pieces are quality wood, and that you measure and fit them in the direction you'd like them placed (i.e. knots facing the bottom/back, etc.).

Step 9: Cover the joints

For this step, we started with the top and then covered the vertical joints, to make measuring easier. We used two 6' 1x3" boards (the nice looking ones) for the top, cut to size and screwed directly into the vertical boards. Then, we used three more for the middle verticals. This would cover the distance from the first cleat, through the vertical board, and all the way over the second cleat, creating a nice, clean look. These will need to be cut down to account for the top boards. For the two sides, we used 1x2" boards instead, since they were coming out of the wall and didn't need three inches of coverage. I really like that we made that call, now that they're done.

At this point, all of the cleats and boards should be covered from the face of the structure. We had to screw these in directly, so we filled the spaces with wood putty before sanding and staining, to make it a clean surface. Then, we fit the boards back in. This was a bit more difficult because the 1x3s add a lip, so you have to maneuver the boards around them. We ended up leaving them in place to sand and stain because we were worried about scratching the finish trying to fit them back in.

Step 10: Finishing touches

The final step in the building process was adding the moulding at the top. I decided to do this because it looks more finished, but you certainly don't have to. You can also add moulding to the sides if you want. We measured the 6' pieces to fit and secured them with finishing nails. Now, we were ready to sand and stain.

Step 11: Sand it down

We - meaning my wonderful husband who was back from a month of brutal festival work - used an orbital sander to smooth out the knots and grooves. He also made sure to sand down the sharp corners where we could, and sanded the two shelves that needed a little extra help fitting in their places. Honestly, we could have spent days on sanding to get it just right, but I'm not that particular.

We also decided to take a minor detour at this point and redo the floor in this room. Why not, right?

(We're insane for doing that, but I do love it.) I won't get into the details of the floor, but it was so cool to see this room completely transformed.

Step 12: Stain

This step was the most time-consuming. I used the same product that we used for our kitchen cabinets, Rustoleum Cabinet Transformations. I LOVE this stuff. We've used it on our kitchen cabinets, bathroom vanity, a built-in display shelf in our bedroom, and now these shelves. It's a cross between a stain and a paint. You can purchase the kit at Home Depot, and it comes with everything you need for refinishing. However, since I was not refinishing, I needed to get a primer for the shelves first. So, I went with Zinsser 1-2-3 primer.

I removed the doors from the cabinets and put some paper down to protect our new floor. Once the primer had dried, we just followed the step-by-step guide. All in all, this step took 2-3 days of work, mostly because you have to wait 8-12 hours between steps.

The finished product exceeded my expectations. Currently, there aren't a ton of books on it, but that's because they still live out in our living room. I'm not worried. We will fill these shelves over the years with new stories and new studies. It's just an encouragement to keep learning and an excuse to buy more books!

I believe building a creative space is important to the imagination and the soul. This project was a LOT of work, but when I look at these shelves now, I see possibilities and opportunities, and that kind of inspiration is priceless.

If you have any questions about building your own set of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, feel free to reach out, and get a behind-the-blog look at every post by signing up for my newsletter!

St. Louis, MO, USA

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