Shelves......for a pantry?


In this age of the Electronic Word, books are making a comeback for several reasons. Despite what experts claim, reading a screen for a long document is hard on the eyes, and hard on the back since you are perched on a stool rather than reclining in an easy chair. But you can take the book in your pocket, or throw it into the car, and unlike the Laptop it never requires being plugged in for a recharge. It never glitches or loses track of what it is conveying, and if you lose it you can find another copy in bookstore or library.

The very fact that Barnes and Noble (which I remember decades ago as a mere bookshop in NYC around l9th St. downtown, where as a HS student I bought for a dollar a used copy of a Latin Grammar), has become a worldwide empire of millions of items with immediate access, proves my point. Books are on the way back. They can last for centuries, like my 1516 poacket Aldine edition of the Roman Historians. In fact BOOKS as a phenomenon never went away. There is a place for electronic text in the modern world, but it does not replace books printed with care and fine fonts on lovely paper. Nor does electronic text replace the ubiquitous paperback, which may need re- backing after a few years, but never requires backing-up.

Coming to the point, if you like books and use them often, you soon become a Collector, and the worst problem with being a collector is finding a place to put your books. Traditional bookshelves as separate moveable pieces of furniture are much too expensive for those of us who prefer to spend our money on the books themselves. Built-in bookshelves are fine if you are able to afford the cost, but they are usually heavy looking and may not suit the decor of a "Modern House" (whatever that may actually be). So here is a new design to consider:

Here is a picture of some of the shelves in a four foot width, which should give an idea of how they look on a plain white wall, Much more impressive are the ones in my study in a sixteen foot width, three tiered above a long worktable, but I can't get that length in focus with a Polaroid shot. Take a look....

I believe the bookshelf can be a part of the wall. This will be as strong as the walls studs if properly designed, and will give a light and airy look to the room. Moreover it is inexpensive to build since it uses very little material, it will hold any weight of books, and if you have a woodworking hobby you can make it yourself at minimal cost. If not your own work, you can have a carpenter follow these directions, and the main cost will be the labor since materials are used effectively and sparingly.

The shelf is a right triangle, with the short leg about 4" long fastened onto a 2 x 4 wall strip, with the other leg, from eight to ten inches wide, serving as a hypotenusal support.. This top leg will be the plane on which the books sit, it can be wider for art books or narrow if you have mainly standard size volumes. These triangular sections are made up with lengths of 1/4 inch plywood (which can be lauan, mahogany, oak or any veneer available), so we design first an open sided triangle with the short leg facing the wall, as the basic element in this shelf construction.. Plywood comes in 8 ft. lengths, so shelf sections can be made to any length under 96", or can go up to 16 feet with two line.

(Actually there is a link to a drawing at the end...)

In actual construction, we start with the wall strip, a length of well dried spruce "two by four", which will be screwed with 6 inch long 5/16 diameter lag-screws into the studs in the wall. To locate the studs is easy, since there are several Stud Locators on the market which cost less than $25 and will find the stud exactly. First you will determine your height for the highest shelf, then mark out the stud centers carefully

Now lay out on a sheet of paper in real dimensions the shelf as you envision it from the side, that is as a triangle. Sketch the 2 x 4 on one side against a vertical line for the wall. Next draw at right angle to the wall line a shelf with the width you have opted for, as above. Now draw a hypotenuse piece to match the edge of the shelf top and have it go back to the wall under the 2 x 4. These shelf pieces should be drawn out 1/4 inch thick, in other words, in real dimension and not just as vector lines, so the angle can be measured exactly..

Now you can take a protractor and determine the angle at which the bottom of the 2 x 4 needs to be cut to match the hypotenuse where it comes own to meet it.. In other words the hypotenuse and bottom of the 2 x 4 will need the same angle for secure fitting with glue and brads later.. We will make a cut to this angle on the table saw so the resulting piece is about 1/4 inch wide on the narrow edge, since we have an important use for this strip soon in joining the shelf pieces.

Going now from the drawing to the material, cut the 2 x 4 as described, lay out and drill clearance holes to match the stud center marks on your wall, get your level marks or lines drawn on the wall, and screw this piece onto the wall directly. The screws should be located above the center line of the 2 x 4, perhaps 1 1/2 inch down from the top, since the loading with be tensional at this point (where the screw is effective) and compressional at the bottom pressing against the wall.

First be sure you have a large and heavy washer to distribute the screwing force on the wood, I prefer a 1/2 inch hole washer on the wood with a centered 5/16 washer on it, and then the screw head. This may seem overkill, but when the shelves are in place, you cannot go back to tighten the bolts up. The wood must be dry, the circular grain at the end (which is the growth rings) curving AWAY from the wall, so on drying the piece becomes tighter. (If you doubt me, check some well dried boards for this contrary-to-commonsense fact of life.)

Now take the strip you sawed off the 2 x 4, and glue it with Titebond I or II or another such carpenter's glue (aliphatic resin type) onto the inside edge of the 8" bookshelf top piece, with the right angle upward and the narrow edge outward as if to the room. I use a series of Pony spring clamps for this, one each foot or less, and let this dry well. Then glue the "hypotenuse piece" to the other side of this cut off strip, same process with glue and clamps and let dry. You now have an open backed shelf, which when slipped over the 2 x 4 screwed to the wall, will become your basic assembled shelf.

But unless you are very careful and also lucky, the carpenter's square will show the shelf is not perfectly perpendicular to the wall. If a slight gap, you can live with it if on top. But here is the time to run the shelf section over a 8 inch jointer, keeping the top-surface right square against an accurately set up fence, until the blades just cut both plywood edges. Then you have an assured right angle which will go up to the wall with no error. While at it with the jointer, why not smooth and straighten the front narrow edge, on which you will eventually want to fasten a piece of decorative hardwood trim.

.Now your shelf can go right onto the 2 x 4 to test, touching the wall top and bottom, and it should be ready to be glued in place.

How do you do the glue and attachment to the wall strip? I suggest using a tube of Construction Adhesive, which is not as strong as white/yellow glue but thick enough to take up any slight gap in the fitting. I always run a thin bead of this on the top of the 2 x 4 on the wall, then another bead on the inside of the hypotenuse piece, lay the top into place and swing the lower leg in until it touches the wall. At this point you want someone to hold the shelf in place while you drive a few 3/4" brads in at each end to told in place. You can then go back with a brad each 6 inches, more than enough after the glue sets. I prefer using a pneumatic driven stapler with narrow crown 16 ga. staples 3/4 in. long, since these are easy to put in quickly and have a lot of strength on 6 in. centers. Or power driven brads will do the same and look neater, or just use small finishing nails with a hammer.

If the shelf goes against a wall at the one side, no problem closing in the open end. For the other end you might cut exact triangles and band the edges of the plywood with heat-apply banding. Then glue these with a hot-melt gun to strips previously glued inside the shelf open edges. Or run a strip 8 inches wide up along several shelves to keep books from falling out. There are many ways of finish these ends, a little ingenuity will help a lot.

I am looking at a wall in my study which has three such shelves. They are 16 feet long each, made up of two 8 foot sections end to end joined with a block to align them internally. I made the top two shelves about nine and a half inches wide, the lower one eight inches in width and that looks very natural visually, as well as providing space for art books up above. Tugging my weight at the edge of a shelf which is completely loaded with books, I can detect no motion whatsoever, and these shelves have been on the wall for some ten years. You don't need Buckminster Fuller or my earlier experience building a whole triangulated Geodesic Dome, to tell you that triangulation is indeed very strong. And properly engineered triangulated sections are not only handsome, they are cost-efficient as well.

This is not a hard job to do, but this open faced design has to be consonant with your idea of house design and your sense of what a bookshelf should really look like. If you are considering neatness and compactness of appearance, and the lowest possible cost, with a custom appearance far more attractive than the wobbly hardware store shelves on thin stamped steel arms locking into a punched steel strip screwed onto studs ---- this may be a bookshelf style well worth thinking about. If cost is a factor, this design can't be beat, but for me the clean and effective engineering design that goes into this system is something that gives me pleasure each time to come into my study.

At this point you might well be asking yourself:
Lots of words but why no pictures? Wouldn't a few drawings be useful?

Yes they would, but I have another thing in mind.

They say one picture is worth a thousand words. (I have just written some 1900 words.) But I want to see if I can convey a message with words alone, used as carefully as I can and with expectation that you will read them carefully too. In a world increasingly dominated by visual imagery, much of it fine art- work but some just the hype of a novel medium at its acme, it seems important to try to convey some pieces of complex information by words alone. In this "Age of the New Illiteracy", many have lost faith and interest in "words", becoming impatient with the ancient art of reading.

I believe in words, while at the same time becoming aware of many areas where words are not at all appropriate, such as computer programming, or playing a musical instrument. Words are not for every use, but they are not on the way out. They represent in-built functions of the human brain, sound-coded information with two direction route-ing. So this essay is not just a How-To description of a new way to build a bookshelf (although that was and is still the purpose in my mind). It is an effort to see how well we can communicate on a complex mechanical topic, with nothing but words grammatically organized, laid out in sentences, and constructed into a series of paragraphs.

I GIVE UP. A number of people have asked me for a drawing, so my experiment with words isn't really satisfactory, and a picture is really worth a lot of words. So here is your DRAWING , and another one more crudely drawn but with some color links another sketch and I think that may do the trick. If you are a woodworker, this should be enough, but if you like the design in terms of compactness, economy and cost, take it to a wood skiolled hobbyist or cabinetmaker, who has tools and experience with mesaurements.


Let's see how the experiment worked out in another situation:

A set of Pantry Shelves

When we built our final house, I set aside a pantry area 42" x 96" and lined both walls, knee height to top, with the same design shelves as described above. Loaded with hundreds of cans, jars and boxes, it puts everything in reach with a two step ladder. This is the kind of space which would make a poor storage closet, but for a pantry it is wonderful. With a two step stool everything is accessible, there is just enough room for me to turn around and get out on one of my secret midnight snack-searching operations, but she is smaller and finds plenty of room to store, arrange and putter in there. I should mention that there is almost 150 linear feet of storage shelf, and I used exactly the same construction as described above for bookshelves.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College