How to Build a Built in Bookcase

built in bookcase with white trim

Here is my built in bookcase. Note the remote control monster truck is top shelf.  Yes, it is awesome.

A built in bookcase is the number 1 way to show people that you are "pimp daddy".   Please allow me to clarify. For suburbanites like me, a built-in bookcase is equivalent to spinning wheels , a big gold chain, or a BMW (the 7 series, not the 3).

So when I saw a chance to build a bookcase into my basement wall I went for it. The built in bookcase was not part of my original plans.  But as I was working on the framing I arrived at an area where it made perfect sense to add one. One benefit of finishing your own basement is that you can change designs mid-stream.

Next to the art niche, having these custom-built storage shelves is the most commented on aspect of my basement.

Before I forget, remind me to tell you the one thing I wish I had done differently when I was building my bookcase. First, let's cover what I did right!

How do you build a built-in bookcase?

I'm hoping through this post that you'll get the general idea of the key components so you can integrate it into your own basement finishing plans. This is one basement idea  where it can really help to think ahead of time.  There are points during the framing and wiring phases where you may want to account for your built-in shelves. Let's start with framing.

  • built in bookcase framing

    Built in bookcase framing and smelly cat litter boxes. What could be better.  Note how this extends the natural block wall by a few feet, giving the space more definition and separation.

Step 1:

Frame the support beams to hold the wood panels that will make the sides, back, top and bottom of the bookcase.

As I was framing the walls of the kids playroom and I got to the end of this wall it dawned on me that a built in bookcase would be perfect here.

I added a few more feet to the end of each wall, then I added some extra blocking where I knew I wanted the drywall to go.

At first I wasn't sure what dimensions to use for the height and width of the shelves. What looks right and holds tall books?

I've listed those dimensions below to help you save some time and make sure it looks great!

  • built in bookcase drywalled

    Already looks like a built-in bookcase even without the framing. Sadly, the cat boxes are still there.

Step 2:

Drywall around the built in bookcase framing.

I told my drywall contractor that I framed this for bookshelves.

He said "no problem". They just covered it like a regular wall and then cut-out the hole along the framing.  Perfect!

Quick note here on design. You can see the framed basement pole in the right of this picture, I went for a similar look on the other side of the bookcase.

You can't see it but the spacing is similar in proportion and provides a really nice looking intersection between the framed beam and the side of the built in bookcase.

  • built in bookcase close up

    This close up shows the bookcase left, right, top and back panels. Oh, and my kick-butt remote-controlled monster truck. (thanks Tom !)

Step 3:

Build the box.
The box is the back, sides, top and bottom of the built in bookcase.

I bought one large sheet of 3/8" plywood with one side finished (smooth).  Then I brought it home and custom cut each panel.

My framing was not perfect so I had to trim off specific areas in order to get the gap close enough to where I could cover the mistakes with caulk.

built in bookcase shelf support peg nickel plated metal
Drill a 1/4" inch hole, insert bracket, repeat 3 more times. Place bookcase shelf on the brackets. Repeat.

Step 4:

Drill holes and install the brackets. This was one of the more difficult parts of this project. 

Ok, honesty time. I tried to just take a piece of pegboard and line it up on the sides and use it as a guide for where to drill the bracket holes.  Bad idea.

I ended up drilling a bunch of not very level holes.  Unless your box is dead perfect plumb and level, that will not work.

What you want to do is mark your first hole (in the back of a side panel), then use a level to find the location for the front hole. Then you'll have to measure, fairly accurately, to transfer the exact hole location for the back right hole.  Then use the level again for the front right hole.  Got it?  Good. Now take out $20 and mail it to me if that doesn't make any sense. 

If the fit is just slightly wobbly, just hit the shelf with your hand near the peg and it should adjust it just slightly. Yeah, just hit it with your hammer hand.

See, I told you it was tricky, do I need a diagram here? Let me know and I'll add one.

  • wood shelf used for built in bookcase

    Here is a picture of the shelf type (unfinished) I used for my built in bookcase shelves.

Step 5:

Cut the shelves to fit 

I bought these 1/2" shelves at Home Depot.  When I got home I measured each one and cut the width and depth to size. Then I painted them.

It's a little difficult to see in the picture but they have a rounded front-edge which gives it a nice finished look versus a square front.

Painting these took awhile. If I had used a good primer before the finish coat the result would have been a bit faster and better.

I ended up painting the shelves and the box the same color as the trim. Which, by the way, was called "Glow" an eggshell finish by Behr.

pallet wood backed bookcase

Pallet wood backed bookcase

Bonus Built In Bookcase Idea

Had I known about the wonder and glory of pallet wood I would most certainly have done some sort of treatment like this.  

Drive around the back of a commercial center and  find some wood pallets destined for the land fill.

Strip the wood off, cut to size and install as a unique backing.

Be sure to check out my wood pallet wall project for more info on wood pallets. I have a video on how to deconstruct them and a safety tip for selecting "safe" wood pallets. Yes, wood pallets can be deadly.

If anyone does this please email me pictures and tell me stories of glory as your friends and family whooo and aaaahhhh over your creative genius and ingenuity. You're welcome!

Jason's Built in Bookcase Dimensions

  • Bookcase shelf depth - 14.5"
  • Bookcase shelf width - 22"
  • Bookcase shelf height - 15.5" center shelf, 11.5" bottom 3, 8.75" for the top two
  • Distance off the ground of the bottom shelf - 13.5 " (the shelf bottom not the trim)
  • Distance from the ceiling of the top shelf - 7" (the top of the "box" not the actual shelf)
  • Trim width - 3.25"
  • The individual shelves - 1/2" wide, rounded front, engineered "wood"

One Thing I Wish I Had Done

I wish I had installed a dedicated recessed light above the built-in bookshelf.

I would have included it in the 3 way light series that is controlled by the light switches at the entrances to the basement.

I would have installed a recessed light baffle that directs the light toward the built-in shelves.

It's not terribly dark but it could use a boost. I may still go back and add it, it would just be a major pain to rip up and the repair all of the drywall to make it happen.

Plan it, Try it, Do it

There you have it. That's more or less how to build a built in bookcase. You don't have to be Norm Abrams to make it look good either. It does take some time to execute correctly. It may seem, at the time, that you should just focus on getting your framing done and come back to that project later. Don't do it.

basement finishing jasonStop while you have the chance and build something distinctive for your basement finishing project. Go ahead. Build a huge wall of built-in book-shelves, go crazy with it. Add like 6 lights and put all your old high school soccer trophies up there. You can do it and it will look awesome!

Whoa, I'm getting ahead from myself. Plan it, try it, do it. Send a picture or post a comment below. I want to be inspired to do build another built in bookcase upstairs in my office.

Cheers - Jason


More Resources

Good article from Popular Mechanics on built-in shelf building


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Questions and Comments

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  1. says

    I want one!!!!!!!! My house is so small, anything built in would be awesome as to not take up any of my valuable 1196 square ft and I love books so this would be a win-win for me!

    • says

      Most people think you have to have experience in building these but they're a lot easier to do than I first thought. Saves space and looks great. -Jason

  2. Kevin says


    I am trying to do something similar except my shelves are a little deeper. What I want to do is to use the shelves for stereo equipment, PS3, cable box, etc. I will have runs to the flat screen TV on another wall.

    In order to do this, I need to add power plugs facing in towards shelves along with Cat 6 runs to this bookshelf. In your openion, would it work if I installed the box in two pieces. I would need to have the back in place with outlets before drywall because the drywall will cover the back. If I could have the back in place and the build the box as you suggested without the back being attached, I think this would work. I have never tried anything like this before so wanted to get yor thoughts.

  3. Eric says

    So I built almost an identical "built in" bookcase , I had the inside drywalled and have since painted it.. Now I am ready to put in the shelves.. Problem is the box is not perfectly square and the back is slightly wider than the front.. Any ideas how to cover that up a bit and still look nice?

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