This backless bookcase design came to me roughly fifteen years ago, when we needed a small bookcase for our kitchen and the scraps of cherry I had on hand dictated a narrow-sided structure. I ended up really liking the unique effect created by the sides being slimmer than the shelves, making the whole piece appear to float off the wall.
In the years since I’ve enjoyed experimenting with different scales, from three shelves hanging on the wall to eight shelves standing floor to ceiling.
After milling the boards to their required sizes, the majority of the work is cutting lots of mortises clear through the sides starting with a router and template, then squaring them all up via hand chiseling.
Once the mortises are done (four per shelf, so 32 for the tall version!), I cut the corresponding tenons on the ends of each shelf.
The visible, or “through”, tenons are a key part of the design and there are three main treatments I’ve used on the ends. If they are going to protrude, then I’ll taper the ends. If not, then they’re left smooth. A few times I’ve put wedges in as well.
Once the joinery is complete on the sides and shelves it’s time for a dry assembly, to test the fit of the whole thing. Generally fine tuning of the joints is required to get it all worked out properly.
With everything fitting well, I’ll disassemble the whole thing and start working over every piece until each feels right to my hands. Some of this work is done with hand planes and chisels, and there is always a lot of sanding involved. This meticulous, time consuming part of the process is something the customer rarely sees, but it is a vital part of what separates hand crafted furniture from factory made products. I take pride in my work being good to touch.
Cherry takes on a rich, warm tone over time due to exposure to light. I’ve recently been experimenting with sun tanning the cherry parts after sanding to accelerate that process before putting on finish. A few days can have a striking effect, and the piece will naturally continue this aging process.
When all of the parts are ready, I’ll move on to gluing up the piece. Glue ups are one of the only time sensitive (sometimes tense!) parts of woodworking. You’ve got only so much time before the glue starts to set, and it can be a challenge to get everything square due to the organic nature of the material.
Woodworkers never feel they have enough clamps, and one has to take care not to mar the finish with their unforgiving jaws by using blocks of wood known as “cauls”. In the case of the large version shown below I had to improvise several temporary attachments in order to rack the whole structure into a properly square shape. If the glue dries in the correct shape, it will hold that in the long run, but you only get one chance.
The glue dries fast, but the final steps of applying finish stretch out over several days, with generally one coat of an oil/polyurethane finish per day. The first coat produces striking results, bringing out the luster of the grain, but for most pieces I’ll do three to five coats total.
After the final coat, the oils will continue to cure for about a week, toughening up to protect the wood for years to come. A bit of care from time to time with paste wax and a soft cloth will help preserve the beauty of the wood.
The final result is a modern design built with time honored techniques which will look good in any space and hold up over time. On the medium and tall versions the shelf height and depth increases from top to bottom, providing a gracefully proportioned way to store books of all sizes.
The Open Bookcase is available in small, medium and tall versions, and is easily customizable in different woods or to fit specific spaces.