Built-in Bookshelves

Over the winter, we’ve been trying to get a few jobs done in the house: sorting out furniture (post to come soon), building the Japanese room upstairs (which is happening as I write this post, so there will also be something on that soon), and the subject of this post: building-in bookshelves downstairs. I grew up in a house with books, and even in this age of ephemeral digital media, there is something I love about walls of books. I don’t want to look at screens all the time. I love the smell, feel and look of real books. So built-in bookshelves were always part of our design. I guess they also add some insulation value to the walls but that’s really just a by-product.

Neither of us are particularly skilled at woodworking, but we’re very lucky on Wolfe Island in that we have a number of excellent carpenters here, not just your average people who are handy with a hammer but really skilled craftspeople. Joe Callnan, who is upstairs working on the Japanese room right now, specializes in historic woodwork and boatbuilding, but also has an interest in Japanese joinery, and for the bookshelves we turned to Jeremy Balint, who has the most beautiful and tidily kept barn-workshop, in which he produces excellent cabinetry – when he gets the time. Luckily he has had some time for us!

The shelves were based on designs I drew up originally with no practical knowledge of how shelves would actually be built. I had envisaged them as solid wood, but Jeremy looked at the designs and convinced me that a high-quality plywood would be much better as the basis structure, with solid wood fronts. He also advised us to get composite doors for the cabinets at the base of the shelves from Caron, a company in Quebec. Their ordering system looks complicated at first, but it means you can get exactly what you want. However, you have to order through a recognised cabinet-maker – they don’t want to undercut artisans, which is highly ethical and I agree with that approach. Luckily, Jeremy had an account with them already.

The shelves have a fixed frame around the west window and along part of the north wall, within which we have moveable shelves. The cabinets run along the bottom of the west portion. We decided to paint all the shelving white (and have the cabinet doors also pre-finished in white) to contrast with the natural woods that are everywhere in this place. The only exception is that there will eventually be a beautiful oiled cherry shelf-top on top of the cabinets, but we are waiting until we find the best wood we can get for this.

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