Built-Ins: A Commonly Overlooked Design Option
By Paul Eldrenkamp
In the words of Robert Frost, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall..." — which may help to explain the popularity of built-ins. Don't like that wall? Cover it with a bookcase.
Books, in my opinion, are the ultimate wall treatment. An expanse of book spines are like natural wood floors — they go well with any color scheme, enriching any room. My house has bookcases in every room except the bathrooms. Even our kitchen has a bookcase — for cookbooks, of course, but also a handy space for a dictionary. The dictionary we often used as the kids were growing up to answer questions or settle arguments over dinner; it's a 1971 American Heritage Dictionary that I got from my grandparents as I headed off to high school.
As my house suggests, we can put a bookcase just about anywhere. A 1949 survey of a college library showed that 85% of all books will fit on an 8" deep shelf (the same survey indicated that only 10% of books require a shelf as deep as 10", and just 5% require a 12" or deeper shelf). A much less comprehensive survey (of my own collection, so the statistic may be skewed by the disproportionate number of Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks) indicates that about 50% of all books fit on a 6" deep shelf. You can fit a 6" deep shelf just about anywhere without intruding too much into valuable floor space and still accommodate a significant part of your library. A deeper shelf can often be installed out of the way—like over a doorway—to hold the outliers (like the "Historical Atlas of Massachusetts" which comes in at a whopping 16" deep).
If you really truly can't spare even 6" for a bookcase, consider painting faux book backs on a wall, to get the character of a bookcase without taking up the real estate. Faux painted book backs give you an opportunity to be particularly creative: Charles Dickens, for instance, had faux bookshelves installed in his study at Gads Hill Place, with fake book backs that included titles such as the series "The Wisdom of Our Ancestors," in seven volumes: I Ignorance, II Superstition, III The Block, IV The Stake, V The Rack, VI Dirt, and VII Disease. Next to this series was a very thin bookback entitled "The Virtues of Our Ancestors." Aldous Huxley, it is said, had fake book backs in his library with these titles: "Biography of Men Who Were Born Great"; "Biography of Men Who Achieved Greatness"; "Biography of Men Who Had Greatness Thrust Upon Them"; and "Biography of Men Who Were Never Great at All."
Some technical details to think about when you think about built-in bookcases:
If you put glass doors on your bookcases, you can still see the books but they don't gather dust. This is particularly useful for the shelves close to the floor, especially in a high-traffic area like a hallway where dust gets kicked up all the time.
Everyone assumes shelves should be adjustable. That's possibly true. It's also true that after you first put your books on the shelf, it could be decades before the shelves are ever adjusted again. Fixed shelves can yield stiffer shelves, so maybe just lay out the shelf location beforehand.
Vertical divider details
Built-in bookcases are typically assembled from ?" plywood. A ?" edge looks pretty flimsy, though, so carpenters will often make the plywood edge look thicker by adding a piece of wood to the edge, maybe 1-1/2" or 2" wide. This detail, while it looks nice, has the disadvantage of creating a lip that "traps" a book partly behind it. It's more expensive but classier to double the plywood to 1-1/2" or 2" to begin with, and eliminate the lip.
Paint or natural finish?
With the books in place, you don't see much case. We usually paint our builtins (less expensive) and use the adjacent trim color. In a particularly formal space, though, we'd go with natural wood, like quarter-sawn oak with a light walnut finish.
A large, tall wall unit can often look better balanced if the lower third is 6 or 8 inches deeper than the upper section. This can give you a lower section that fits larger art books, for instance, and a small counter that can be used for display. The two sections can be visually unified by aligning the vertical dividers.
Lastly, keep in mind the design of your home. Your new bookcase should look as if it was built with the original house. Planning and attention to details even as simple as the design of the surrounding trim is key to creating beautiful built-in casework for your home.