I can’t believe how much time has FLOWN since we started updating our living room space. Can you believe we did demo almost four months ago? I certainly can’t. Last year, Anthony and his dad replaced the windows and siding from the outside, so this year we focused on the inside. We like inviting our friends over, so having a living room space is super important. We definitely appreciate it more now that we had to live with it in the reno zone for so long. While we still have a bit more work to do, we’re taking a break for the holiday season.The recessed bookshelf we built into the wall near my desk was by far my favorite project.
This project had its fair share of drama. We had to postpone working on it for a bit because of an impromptu visit to the Emergency Room. While we are so happy that everything ended up okay, it reminded us of the importance of safety precautions.
The Back Story
You can read more about our emergency room mishap here, but the main idea for this recessed bookshelf came from none other than my go-to inspiration platform, Pinterest. I’d stumbled upon some great “between the studs” projects in my feed and wondered if we could bring some of that magic into our living room renovation. We live in a very small house, so any opportunity to add storage is a plus. When Anthony’s dad helped us drywall, we asked him his thoughts. After all, we didn’t want to compromise the structure of the house (and he’s a carpenter). But, he gave us the green light, since the opening already had a header from its previous life as a window.
While I already had an idea in my head of what I wanted it to look like, there were many stages of planning. Initially I wanted to have a cork board over part of it that swung to the side like a cabinet door. We were a little worried about the weight load, so we changed our minds about that idea. Then, we thought about having it open upwards. We still may do this option, but I actually really like it the way it is right now, so we’re going to put that project on hold until we make a firm decision.
Materials & Tools
Once I’d drawn the final plans for the recessed bookshelf, we made a list of the materials we would need and headed to our favorite place — The Home Depot. Here is what you’ll need if you want to do this project:
-Sandpaper (80 grit for initial sand and I used 150 grit for the final sand coat
-2 sheets 3/4 inch plywood
–Wood Stain (Our color was Espresso)
-Paint (we used leftover paint from our walls
*You can use a circular saw by making a guide. We used a 2 x 4 and some clamps to use as a guide on pieces that were too big to run through our small table saw.
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Tool Safety & Use
First, I feel the need to mention that any tools you use in the process of building this bookshelf should be handled safely. There are tons of resources on how to use tools safely on the internet. Please learn how to use tools appropriately before building. Anthony and I are both comfortable using all the tools we used, but accidents happen. Here are some basic tips for making sure you’re using a new tool.
- Find a tutorial on YouTube.
- Read any and all Safety Instructions.
- Attend a free class at your local hardware store.
- Wear appropriate safety equipment, such as goggles, masks, and gloves.
- Keep your body out of harm’s way (so, don’t stick it directly in front of the blade you’re cutting with or the nail gun you’re assembling with).
With safety in mind, let’s do this project!
Designing & Building for Your Space
Measuring & Design Stage
So, I’ve included our measurements so you can see the whole process, but keep in mind that every space is different. Our particular space used to be an exterior wall before the previous owner added a kitchen. As such, we used a space that used to hold a window, and therefore didn’t have to do any framing work. The header for the previous window remained intact and sturdy.
We measured the space, noting a clear 1 1/4 inch difference in depth on each side. We determined we had a usable rectangle of 55 inches tall, 37 inches wide, and 6 3/4 inches deep. While we changed a few things in the end, here you can see the initial dimensions:
Now, I’ve never drawn plans for anything before, so I’m sure my proportions are off, but I wanted to make sure I had something visual to work out my measurements and make a basic plan. Knowing that the plywood we’d be using was 3/4 inches thick, I adjusted my measurements accordingly. Then, I had Anthony check my work (he was a math major) because we all know I’m number-challenged. 😉
When you’re designing your own stuff, be extra accurate in your measurements and take into account material thickness in your design.
Prepping Your Materials
We cut all our pieces to size first. Between measuring, marking, and cutting (and mass amounts of double-checking measurements), I think we spent about 2 hours in the garage on this stage alone. As our first built-in project, we needed to be sure it would fit, which meant measuring everything three times before we were satisfied. We used our small table saw for all the smaller cuts (it only measures up to 10 inches). For the larger cuts, we made a guide using some clamps and a spare 2 x 4 we had lying around the garage.
Our total cuts included:
- Back piece: 37 x 55 inches
- Side pieces (x2): 6 3/4 x 55 inches
- Shelves (x6): 6 x 35 1/2 inches
- Dividers: 6 x 8 1/2 inches (x1) and 6 x 11 1/2 inches (x1)
Once everything was cut, I spent a couple hours over the next week sanding everything. I only worked on it when I had free time (I know, what’s that?!). I used 80-grit at first and gave everything a really good sanding. Then, I used 150-grit to give everything a soft finish, leaving some of the imperfections of the plywood to add character. Since everything was a flat surface, my electric sander made this a cinch.
Then, I spent about an hour using tack cloth to clean the boards that needed staining, and applying the stain. I personally use gloves and paper towels to apply stain, wiping off any excess after it’s had a minute to absorb.
Assembling & Installing Your Project
We designed this recessed bookshelf for easy assembly. Basically, it’s a box with interior shelves. So, that’s exactly how we built it. We created the box first, securing with nails using an air compressed nail gun. These things are no joke, folks. Anthony’s hand caught a rogue nail after our nail gun misfired, which is how we added an unscheduled ER visit to our project. He was lucky. You can read all about that experience here.
If you don’t want to chance it, you can assemble it the old fashioned way (with a hammer and nails), but it does take significantly longer. Plus, the possibility of having a nail bend and stick out in an unwanted place increases doing it by hand. Ultimately if you are careful, you should be able to use a nail gun without issue. Before we secured anything, we checked that it was level. Then, we put at least two nails (usually three or four) in each joint for added security.
Once you assemble your project, installation is pretty easy. You insert your built-in into the prepped hole. Ours was a little snug on one side, but movable. Then, take your level and place on a shelf. Shim your built-in in place until it is perfectly level. Then secure with screws or nails. We used screws, because it’s what we had on hand and we were going to paint the sides anyways, so we could just spackle over the screws when we were finished.
Because we wanted the floating shelf look, we spackled over the screw holes and let it dry about 24 hours. I sanded everywhere we spackled, and used my handy tack cloth. Then, I painted the remaining pieces of our shelf with the leftover paint from doing our walls. It’s a soft gray that really makes the dark wood of the shelves pop. To get the best coverage, I ended up doing 2 coats of paint.
Voila! Minus the trim (which we haven’t done because we want it to match the trim we choose for our new windows), our built-in is finished! I hope you’ll excuse the slightly unfinished look. We want our built-in to match the work we do in the rest of the house, so for now it will remain unfinished.
Styling Your New Shelf
This is my favorite part of a project like this. After all, what’s more fun than making your hard work look pretty! Here are my five tips for styling any shelf.
First, add a few small boxes or other pieces of storage to hide things you want to keep close at hand. This gorgeouse black and white box holds my colored pencils for craft projects! An old aluminum lunch box holds my glue gun and a few other small crafting tools.
Include items that have sentimental value. My favorite picture of Anthony and I stands at the perfect height so when I look over, I can’t help but smile! Photos are a great way to add personal touches to your styling. I also used pine cones for the holiday season, because nothing smells more like Christmas to me!
Collectibles are also a great way to add personal touches. I collect old books and elephant trinkets, so these book ends were a perfect addition! I found them thrift shopping with my mom in Pittsburgh somewhere and couldn’t resist.
Inspiration Only Zone!
My absolute rule of thumb when styling anything is to only include pieces that inspire me or fill me with joy. For me, styling isn’t about colors, textures, or contrast (though, those principles are helpful). It’s about how a space feels to me. Why would I fill a space with things I don’t love or find interesting? So, I don’t. And you shouldn’t either. 😀
I love this teacup my grandmother gave me. It’s kind of a lucky charm that always makes its way to my living room decor. After all, it’s got clovers all over it!
Add Texture & Dimension
All right, so I do take into account the principles of color, texture, and contrast using those things that I love and find inspiring. You caught me. Play with your pieces. Try them in different combinations until you find something you love. A bookshelf can take a long time to evolve. Try to have a few pieces that pop with color or a bold pattern to add some contrast to the more neutral decor. This ampersand is a throwback to my teaching days, and has a nice pop of teal.
Leave Room for Additions
Sometimes I feel the need to fill every nook and cranny, especially because our house is so small. I always want to maximize on space, but sometimes that hinders the design. After all, a bookshelf often evolves and changes over time. Leave some room to make changes, shift things around, and add a few new things every once in awhile. Then, you can add some seasonal touches (like my pinecones) without sacrificing any of your other decor.
The Results: A BEAUTIFUL Recessed Bookshelf
I think it’s clear that with a little bit of work, you can create something beautiful to enjoy for years to come. This is a great “first build” project because it’s all square cuts and easy assembly. Tell me what you think of our project below in the comments. I’d also love to hear about your DIY projects and first builds! If you’re nervous about taking on a project, let me know why!
It’s back to prepping for Christmas for me, but I hope you’ve enjoyed this tutorial. Make sure to pin it!
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