The Dale C. Maley Family Web Site

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Bookcases for 1860 Strevell House

I was asked to build 2 bookcases for the 1860 Strevell house.  I searched the Internet to try to find period 1850 bookcase designs, and did not have much luck.

I think in that era, books were so expensive, that most Americans owned no books except maybe a no need for bookcases.  I did find an 1850 English design and decided to mimic that design.

The only thing different about this 1850 design versus 2021 is the use of cabinet door style floating panels for the back versus using plywood today.

Since the beginning of time, carpenters have been plagued with the expansion and contraction of wood perpendicular to the grain direction. One way to accommodate this movement is to put a floating panel inside an outer frame. I have never seen a floating panel used as a back of a cabinet, so I think that is unique.  On some crude American pioneer cases or cabinets, a shiplap type design is used where each board has a lip that mates in a groove in the next board.

My Design in Sketchup

Material Selection

I am going with red oak, a material that was readily available in 1850 in America.

The English bookcase used pine for the back floating rails and panels..........because it was cheaper than hardwoods.

I have a terrible problem with staining pine because it is so I have not decided on whether to use pine or red oak for the back.

Rules I arbritrarily adopted to make this 1850 "Period Correct"

1. Red oak was available in 1850.

2. Pine was available in 1850.

3. I will use electric saws, but they could have done it with handsaws in 1850

4. I will use electric drills, but they could have used manual drills in 1850.

5. No round nails, use cut nails that were available in 1850.

6. Screws are ok, they were available in 1850.

7. Titebond II was not available in 1850, but similar hide glues were available

8. Router bits with router ok because they would have used hand planes.

9. Stains were available in 1850.

10. They probably used Shellac in 1850, and I am using polyurethane. I have no experience with Shellac.

11. Wood buttons to allow wood movement were available in 1850 with screws

1st Batch of Red Oak bought at menards

Design Goal

My goal is too make 2 bookcases using materials and processes available in 1850.

I will probably need to use a few nails, so I will use cut rectangular nails instead of modern round nails.

I will be making edges using a router, but 1850 cabinet makers would have used planes with the appropriate blades.

Step #1 - Make the base

Choosing a router bit for edge on base

The closest bit I had to the design shown requires a guide board attached to the main board. I used 2-sided carpet tape to temporarily hold the guide board in place.   Since it is a relatively big router bit, I did it using about 4 passes through the router.  It was a 5/8" round-over bit from Vermont American part no. 23136 that I bought on amazon back in 2013.

Design Change

On my initial design, I had an inner board that ran around the inside of the edged frame and which holds up the 2 vertical bookcase sides.

I doubt the 1850 guys would use a board from the bottom up the support level, versus gluing and nailing a narrower board. I decided to use a 1-7/8" wide board, and glue it and nail it.

I pilot drilled the holes for the cut nails, and installed them with the wide part of the nail running parallel to the grain, so I am less likely to split the oak. These nails are 1-1/4" long.

Base ready to glue up

Doweling the base corners

If I was using a 2021 process, I would air nail the corners together for added strength beyond just gluing. I decided to add 1/4" dowels at the corners, so I would avoid and cut nails showing on the exterior of the bookcase. I tilted the boards at 45 degrees by eye, and hand held against my bench, then with the other hand drilled the 1/4" holes for the dowels, I wallowed out the holes to let me adjust the pieces to get a perfect joint at clamp-up.

Merlin steel band clamp on base

Gluing up lower flat base


When I got the lower horizontal base made, the question arose, how do I fasten it to the 3 sided lower frame?

I could nail it into the lower frame and the nails would be hidden by the 2 vertical sides.  But what about that age old dilemna, changed across the grain from temperature and humidity??

It is only 11 inches wide, but I have read the rule of thumb is 3/16" change in 12 inches wide. I don't want this to split!!

So I went to wooden knobs that are screwed to the horizontal piece, and fit into a groove in the lower support frame.  I forgot to make the groove again (not the first time I have done this)..........but this time the depth is too far for a router table bit to reach.  I tried it and got scared of the set-up. So I did an 1850's thing, and hand chiseled out slots 1/4" wide and long enough for the button to fit in and move.  Worked ok, but took a while.  Will have to remember to route the slot on bookcase #2 !!

Weird Thing Happened

When I dropped the lower horizontal base into the groove in the bottom frame, I have too wide of gaps on both sides?      Like the lower frame was bowed inwards??   Got out my aluminum straight-edge and by God, the lower frame is bowed in?  Both pieces must have had a slight bow in them??   I might try to belt sand the middle of the horizontal board to accept the bulge so there is less air gap on both sides.  Darn, have never had that happen before !!

I was able to fix it with the belt sander, I just sanded the center portion of the board and did some trial checks as I went along.

Gluing up first side piece

Marking 58 holes per side to hold shelves

I used blue masking tape and black marker to mark the holes, so I would  not have to erase all those lines.........and it worked great.

On the drill press, I set the depth just above the bottom support steel plate.

Crack  hidden on sides

I was worried about the crack showing where the sides meet the base, but it should be fine as long as the top of the horizontal plate is slightly below the top of the base moulding.

Cutting groove in top of both side pieces before attaching 2" front pieces

Using the big yellow router bit, I held the side piece vertical and pushed the board through the bit, pushing board against the fence.

I made a mistake on the first piece, and got groove 1/4" away from the top versus the desired 1/2".  I filled it with a piece of oak, and will cut it again after it dries.

Attaching 2" wide front pieces to the sides

I decided to dowel these so I would have no nail heads showing.........if I had nailed them.

I got out the old Sears doweling kit and first drilled the holes in the sides, with the side held horizontal in the vise. The I put in the alumnimum centers and marked the holes in the 2" vertical rail.........and then drilled in the drill press. I was able to get good alignment so the outside of the 2 pieces were flush as desired.   I used 3/8" dowels.

Attaching 2 side pieces to bottom frame

My choices were screwed or dowelled..........and I decided to go with screwed. They had screws in 1850, they were just very expensive.

I marked the outline of the 2 sides on the bottom horizontal base, then drilled 1/8" holes through..........then

-flipped board over and drilled with tapered bit, deep enough to hide the head

-clamped sides to bottom, drilled tapered bit from underneath

-drove up screws from underneath

A little clumsy, but it worked ok.

Getting ready for top horizontal piece

I went ahead and drilled 2 dowel holes on each vertical side before I screwed sides to bottom

I temporarily clamped a waste piece across the front, so I could clamp the real piece against it, to try to keep it flush with the front..........worked ok in terms of getting a flush front.

Top Moulding

This is built up from 3 pieces........the back is plain flat.

For the rounded piece, I used a 1/2" round-over bit on top and bottom.

For the rounded nose piece, I held the piece vertical, and pushed it against the 3/8" round-over bit.  You have to be careful and keep it vertical so it does not flip over.

Gluing and clamping big top moulding

4 Pieces of Molding

My initial concept was not easy to make.  I remembered I had a big router bit to make sides of small boxes and decided to use that one.

Since this is a big bit, you must use about 4 passes and turn the router speed down.   The board has to be oversize to guide ok on the multiple passes, then you saw to size when done.

Gluing up top trim

Starting the pine frame

I decided to use 3/8 dowels 2 inches long for this frame, versus mortise and tenon type joints, because dowels are much faster.

When I used the Sears doweling jig to drill the holes, I made sure the jig was the same way on each board, with respect to either the front or back of the frame.........this improves accuracy of the dowel fit, because the jig is never exactly dead on center.

Used yellow router bit to make 1/4" wide and 3/8" deep groove in frame pieces in 2 passes

Fitting pine frame to oak opening

My pine frame height was right, but the opening had a slight taper from top to bottom, less than 1/4".  I marked the material to be removed with a pencil on the inside, then got out my old Record plane and easy made the pine piece tapered to exactly fit the opening :)

Gluing up 4 pine panels

Rounding the Lip on the very top piece

I was nervous whether or not I could hold that big piece vertical enough to rout a good worked ok.  I made 2 passes , both at full depth, in case I did not go full depth in some spots along the edges. Turned out nice.  Use 3/8" round over bit.

Setting up raised panel Shaker router bit set

I first tried this out in 2020 and I kept the 2 doors I made.  I should have kept a set-up piece to guide me on the next usage !!

I forgot, it takes a special fence on the router table because the Shaker bit is larger than the table opening.  I had kept the 2020 fence, so I swapped the 2 grey brackets and was good to go.

I also have a conventional curved bit I bought after the Shaker, but decided to keep it simple and just use the Shaker again.;

What is  funny about the 1850 English pattern bookcase I am basing my design up, they put the decorative part of the panel on the back where nobody can see it...........the front......that you can just plain 90 degree joint. I guess I will stay true to the 1850 english example and do it the same way.  Wonder why they did it that way?

Things left to do on 1st bookcase

1. make 4 blocks to attach top to bookcase

2. swap steel bolts for brass bolts at bottom on 2 vertical sides where they attach to base.

3. make 4 panels

4. install 4 panels in frame

5. glue up frame

6. dowel pine frame to oak cabinet at top and bottom

7. make 4 oak shelves

8. Finish

    -220 grit sand



1850 English bookcase with fancy part of panel in back, not front

Routing Panels

Took at least 4 passes because bit is so big.  Only problem was keeping panel horizontal while feeding through table, because special fence is not wide enough.  Maybe someday make a fence with a much wider table.

Assembly of panels into pine frame using hammer and clamps

back panel in oak bookcase (loose fit, not doweled yet)

1x4 pine, actual size 3/4 by 3.5", has relatively small diameter knots compared to 1x6 or1x8 boards...........I like the look of the smaller knots.........I checked 1850 English bookcase and back has knots as well :)

Using cut nails to hold panels in center at top and bottom

Today, one could use "Space Ball's to hold the panels in place and prevent them from ratting on cabinet doors. Another option today is to drive a small finish nail in the center, at the top and bottom of the panel frame, to hole them in position, but let them expand and contract in the grooves.

To be period correct, I cut off some 1.25" cut nails to about 5/8" long to hold the panels in place.

Before nailing, I used my rubber mallet and a piece of pine scrap to center all 4 panels in both directions, then I nailed them. The pine scrap and rubber mallet prevent dinging the pine.

Card Scraper

I sharpened up my card scraper and removed the little raised line from my planer, that has a chip in the blade. The card scraper worked fine!

Cabinet all built, ready for sanding and staining

Choosing the stain and shellac color

I wanted to match the color of the existing secretary in the Strevell house, because these bookcases will sit beside it.  I ended up choosing cherry stain and amber (versus clear) Shellac.

Stained parts everywhere !

Shellac is next :)

Nailed the right combo of stain and shellac on the finish :)

I am really happy with the finish..........the yellow amber shellac cuts the cherry red a little and adds a yellow shade.  I think it will match the existing secretary pretty well.

WOW, does shellac dry first. In 1 hour it is dry !!!!!!!!

I rubbed my hand after 1 coat, felt no need to sand, so I put a 2nd coat on key parts.

Had a hard time installing the 4 foot brackets in the groove........that hold on the top.   Put masking tape on to hold in place while drilling and that worked better.  Maybe on 2nd bookcase, put short 1/4" dowel to hold in place?

Design in Sketchup Warehouse

Finished Bookcase #1 Installed at Strevell House

Closing Thoughts on this Project

This project took longer than previous bookcases, primarily because I tried to stick to 1850 materials and parts. I am very happy with the finished product. Now on to building #2 unit.

Bookcase #2

On the first bookcase, I had a slight issue with dowelling and gluing the pine frame.  Some of the 3/8" dowel holes hit the 1/4x by 3/8" deep groove for the floating panels, and the glue wanted to leak out of the dowel holes onto the floating panels.

On unit #2, I went ahead and routed the groove the whole length of every board. Then, I filled the 1/4 by 3/8" groove with a rectangular piece of pine glued in.........then I switched to 1/4" diameter dowels instead of 3/8". Now the glue should not leak into the grooves for the floating panels.

I used the set-up piece to set the height of the panel router bit, but I was not taking all the material off the top of the board, and it was hard to remove the sliver. I guess next time, make sure the bit is removing all the material from the top of the wood as I run it through the router table.

To make the last 2 shelves, I tried the edge jointing bit to join the 2 pieces of oak, but when I clamped the 2 pieces together, there was an air gap at the joint?   My test pine pieces had no gap?  This bit is not a panacea to prevent having to plane or belt sand the joint when I do a glue up. Maybe have to experiment some more with it? I used the white set up piece also.