Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Ladder Bookshelf Tutorial

Here it finally is!  I've been talking about this tutorial for probably 10 months.  Now the ladder's actually done, the tutorial is written, and the pictures and inputted.  I'm not sure what took more time, making the ladder or writing the tutorial!

One thing I am liking about this project is it's versatile. I could put books or toys on it, or use it to decorate.

Right now it's being used to display some Christmas treasures.  My little one has reorganized the shelves several times already...

For Halloween, I had it on my front stoop adorned with gourds and squash from our garden.  Talk about cheap decorations!

So now it's your turn!  Go crazy and make your own, add your own touch.  Hopefully this tutorial makes sense.  It seemed simple at the time, but writing it was a little more complicated than I thought.  Let me know if you have questions, but please be kind.


**Disclaimer** I wrote most of this tutorial as I made my own bookshelves.  However, I didn't write the section on putting it together until LONG after I had done it.  My memory was a little shaky, but I did the best I could.  Good luck, and let me know if you have questions!

Materials and Tools
1x8 boards
Plywood - I used 3/16 thickness, but this just depends on how thick you want your shelves
3/4" wooden dowels
8x2 wood screws
1/2" pipe straps
1/2" corner braces
small screws (I used 3/8" screws so that they wouldn't break through the top of my shelves)

Circular saw (or table saw if you're lucky enough to have one)
3/4" wood boring bit
Chinese Saw: suggested

Making the Frame

1. Prepare the wood
In my case this meant finding a way to get the packing labels off of the wood.  I found what worked best for me was scraping as much off as I could with a paint scraper, then using rough sand paper (a low grit) with my rotary sander.  I then sanded my boards with a finer grit sand paper.

Lovely packaging stickers on my boards.  Guess that's
what I get for using boards from a dumpster.
Scrape those suckers off!

2.  Lay out the two boards that will make one side of the ladder. Play around with the angle, until you find a position you like.  Mark the boards and use a circular saw to cut along your marks.  You will be cutting off the top of the boards.

Ignore the board the saw is on for now.  The other two show what it
looks like after I cut the top of one to even them up.
These pictures show how I laid my boards out to decide on an angle.  I drew a line marking where the boards overlapped.  I did not cut at this line, but used it as a reference when clamping my boards together for future steps.
Line 'em up!

Reference line.  Don't cut it!!
3.  Square up the bottom edge of the back support board by marking and cutting with a circular saw.  I had a square that I used to make my mark.

Use a square to mark the bottom cut on the back support board.
 4.  Clamp the two boards in place at this point.  Take a yard stick or long board and line it up with the bottom you just squared up then use it to draw a line on your angled board.  Cut along the line.

Top of boards clamped together.
Use a long straight edge, such as another board to mark the bottoms cut for
the front support board.
Both support boards of one side with their bottoms cut.

5.  With the boards still clamped mark where you want your top dowel to be.  I marked mine 3.25 inches in from the back board (the halfway point).  Use a 3/4" wood boring drill bit to to make the whole.  To ensure you don't drill too far use a piece of tape to mark on the bit when you should stop drilling.  I like to let the tip of my bit just barely break through my outside (bottom) board.  It provides a mark that becomes useful later in the process.

Marking the top hole.
Marked top hole.
3/4" Wood boring bit.
First hole for the dowel!

One side clamped into place showing top cuts, bottom cuts,
and top hole for a dowel.
6. Unclamp your boards and use them to mark your top and bottoms cuts on the second side, as well as the hole you made in step 5.  Cut along your marks.

7.  Lay out the second side of your boards (the one you just cut) and clamp then into place. Use the mark for the hole in step 6 to bore another hole using your 3/4" boring bit.  **NOTE** Make sure you have the correct piece on the bottom.  When I first did this I ended up with two left sides of my ladder and no right side because I drilled the whole with the wrong board on top.

8.  Decide how many shelves you want and how far apart you want them.  I decided on 5 shelves and marked them 12.5" apart.  Make your marks for the shelves on the inside of one back board.  I marked them 1.5" from the back side of the board, because I wanted to dowels further back.

Hard to see, but I promise those arrows are pointing to marks for drilling.
9.  Used the 3/4"boring bit to drill the holes.  Again, use tape to mark on the bit when you should stop drilling, and I also let the tip of the bit just break through the other side with these holes.

Several holes drilled.
10.  Flip the board from step 9 onto your other back board.  They should be mirroring each other.  You should be able to see the small holes from bit on this side of the board.  Use a long nail and hammer to puncture through the whole and mark your second board.

Marking the second board for drilling.  The top board is the one that already
has holes in it.  The bottom is the board we are marking.
11.  Remove the top board.  You should see small holes from the nail.  These holes mark where you will drill your holes using the 3/4" bore bit.

Boards with holes drilled so that they mirror each other.
12.  Cut your dowels.  Decide how wide you want your shelf and then cut the dowels approximately 2 inches larger than that.  This compensates for the part of the dowels that will be in the holes you have bored.  I wanted my bookshelf about 18" wide so I cut my dowels to 20" length.  I used a reciprocating saw to cut my dowels, but I've used a hand saw before.  If you are making five shelves like mine you will need 6 dowels.  Five for the shelves and one for the top joint.

13.  You're now ready to attach your dowels to one side of your ladder.  Put the top dowel through the inside board (angled board) and place the outside board (back board) on top of it.  Saw horses were very helpful for this step.  Then hold the dowel in place while drill a guide hole.  **NOTE**  DO NOT SKIP THE GUIDE HOLE!  This hole makes screwing the dowels into place MUCH easier.

Pre-drill that hole!

14.  Immediately drill a screw into the hole.  I strongly suggest drilling one hole, then putting the screw in, drilling a hole, putting the screw in.  This ensures your holes are still lined up.  I used two drills while doing this and it made life much easier.  Repeat this for all six dowels.

Dowels attached to one side.  Notice the two drills in the top right of the
picture.  Very helpful to have in this step!
15.  Lay the piece down on the ground with the dowels pointing up.  Find something about the width of the ladder to help support the inside board (angled board).  I used one of my tool cases.  Place the inside board in place - top hole through the top dowel and angled out.  Place the outside board (back board) on top of the angled board and resting on the dowels.

See the tool box helping support the front legs?   You can also see that
I am only lining up a few dowels at a time as suggesting in step 16.
16.  Start at the top and work your way down.  Only worry about lining up the dowel you are working on and the one after it.  Hold the board in place while you drill your guide hole, and place the screw.  Line up another dowel (two should be lined up) and drill and place the screw for the second hole.  Keep repeating till all six dowels are secured to the second side.

I suggest only lining up two dowels at a time as you will drive yourself crazy if you try to keep all of them in the holes before screwing any of them into place.

Cutting Out The Shelves
1.  Looking at your frame you'll see that there are two widths.  A more narrow part by the front angled supports and a wider part between the back boards.  You can make your shelves one of two ways.  A. All the same width using the distance between the two front boards.  B.  Each board has a section of two widths so it fits between the front boards and gets wider at the back boards.  I made mine using B, but it would be easy to adjust for A.

2.  Measure the distance between the two front boards and between the two back boards.  Mine measurements were:
Front Boards: 17.5"
Back Boards: 19.5"

3.  Cut your plywood into strips 1/4" less than your widest measurement if you are making shelves using Option B, or 1/4" less than your narrowest measurement if you are making shelves using Option A.  So I cut mine 19.25" wide.

4.  For each shelf measure the distance from the back of the ladder, to where the front and back boards meet and subract 1/4" (measurement #1), then from the back of the ladder to the front of the ladder (measurement #2).

Showing both measurements.
5.  For Option A cut the strip of plywood using measurement #2 only.
Option B: Using a yard stick mark you board at measurement #1 & #2.  I make about 5 marks so I can draw an accurate line using all of the marks.

For example for my second shelf from the top measurement #1 was 5.25" and measurement #2 was 12.25".

6.  On the width, mark a line 1" in from each side.

This shows all of my marks for steps 5-7.  I exaggerated them with a photo
editing program so you could see them.
7.  X out the section that is between the 1" line and the section between measurement #1 and #2.  This is the section you will cut out.  **NOTE** When you are actually cutting it can be easy to make mistakes and cut out the wrong section.  Marking X's on the cutout section help make sure you are making correct cuts and not wasting wood.

8.  When cutting out the sections, stop just prior to the point where the two lines will meet.  If you cut all of the way with the circular saw, you will actually make cuts into your board.

9.  Finish the cuts with some type of small hand saw.  I used the saw below.  My mom calls it a chinese saw, but I'm not sure if that is it's actual name.

This shows the partial cuts made with the circular saw.  I used that little
hand saw on top to finish the cut.
10.  Option A: repeat steps #4 and #5 for each shelf.
Option B: repeat steps #4-#9 for each shelf.

One shelf cut out using Option B!
11. Sand down your shelves using fine sand paper.

Priming and Painting/Staining
1. You are now ready to prime/stain your wood!

2. I took my top dowel out and removed my angle boards for painting and priming.  It made it easier to get all of the areas.  I had to loosen the screws on the second from the top dowel to be able to remove them.  It made painting much easier though!

I would love to see this stained.  My wood was too flawed for staining so I had to paint mine.

Putting it Together

1. If you've followed me up to this point, then your back support is already put together.  Remove the top dowel and reattach the angle boards.

Ready to assemble!!
2. Before proceeding to attach your shelves make sure your frame is setting exactly how you want it!  I had several shelves installed before I realized the frame wasn't completely extended out and so the legs weren't setting completely flat on the ground.

Frame ready for shelves.
3.  Set your shelf in place, partially supported by the dowel.  I suggest working top down as you will be working under the shelves, and this way the other shelves aren't in your way.

4.  Take one of you pipe straps and place it where you want it.  You will have two per shelf.  Mark where to drill your holes; repeat for the second pipe strap.

**Now is a time when it's handy to have two drills.  Have one set up with the drill bit, and one with the driver bit.  No switching bits back and forth.  Brilliant!**

5.  Drill holes.  (Don't you love simple steps like this!)

6.  Place shelf and one pipe strap in place.  Insert screws.  I like to start the screw with a screw driver, then finish it off with the drill when I'm working with such small screws.  Do the same for the second pipe strap.

Screwing pipe strap in place around the dowel.
7.  Place a level on the shelf and straighten it out.  Take one of your corner braces and place it where you would like it between the angle board and shelf.  Mark holes.  Repeat for the second side.

Pipe straps in place and making sure the shelf is level before marking
holes for the corner braces.
8.  Drill your holes, then attach the corner braces.  Again, I found it helpful to start the screw driver.

Attaching the front corner brace.  You can also see the pipe strap in back.
I had lots of "help" on this project.  From my little one
and the dog...
9.  Repeat steps #3-#8 for each shelf.

Voila!  You're own ladder shelf that you can brag you made yourself!


  1. Wow! Thank you for sharing!!! your tutorial is awesome ;)
    I stopped by from Sew much ado linky and I'm your new GFC follower!


  2. Great job! I may have to try this one, if only I can get my husband to teach me to use his saws. He has this little concern that I may chop a finger off, and given my clumsiness, he may be right. Thanks for sharing! I found you from Serenity You.


  3. Looks fabulous, great job, thanks for sharing :)

  4. Thanks for the tutorial - I am thinking of a ladder tree for next year and needed the help!

  5. Thanks for sharing your project in last week's Crafty Showcase. We love how you inspire others on the internet! Stop back over and share more of your talent in the new Bowdabra Crafty Showcase starting Friday night midnight! http://www.bowdabrablog.com
    Susie @Bowdabra


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