How to Build a Bookcase with Hidden Compartments
High style, tons of storage — and clever hidden compartments.
IntroductionCan you keep a secret? This bookcase contains more than meets the eye. Behind the magnificent Arts and Crafts styling, there are 10 hidden compartments. Some are big, some are small, but they’re all easy to build, and most of them don’t reduce regular storage space at all. I splurged on the wood and built this bookcase with rift-sawn red oak for a total materials cost of $700. The straight-grain lines of rift-sawn oak give furniture an authentic Arts and Crafts look. But you could use rotary-cut plywood and plain- sawn solid oak and cut your costs by about $225. Either way, it’s a bargain price for an heirloom like this—even if you don’t have anything to hide.
It may look complicated, but this bookcase is mostly a collection of plywood boxes dressed up with solid wood: drawer boxes, cabinet boxes…even the columns are nothing more than tall, skinny boxes with decorative faces. The bridges, too, are just shallow boxes with arched fronts. If you can build boxes, you can build this bookcase.
Project step-by-step (11)
Build Boxes Out of Plywood
- Start with the column box sides (A and B).
- Rough-cut two sheets of plywood to 80-1/4 in. with a circular saw.
- Trim them to their final length of 80 in. using a straightedge and a router fitted with a flush-trim bit.
- Mark the dado locations on the plywood and cut them.
- Note: You’ll have to add your own bearing to the plywood bit.
Cut Four Dadoes in One Pass
- Repeat the procedure for the cabinet sides (C), cutting the plywood to 30-in. lengths first.
- Cut the four sides for the door cabinets from a single width of plywood.
- Note: The bottom dado on the drawer cabinet is lower than on the door cabinets in order to create the hidden compartment below the lower drawer.
- With the column and cabinet sides cut and machined, the next step is to lay out and drill the adjustable shelf holes.
- Cut the shelf parts for the columns (S and T) and cabinets (F and G) and cut the dadoes and rabbets as shown.
- Hold off on the cabinet tops (D and E).
- Dry-fit all the parts to make sure everything goes together right.
- Note: We pre-finished the interior parts of the door cabinets before assembly. Tape off the dadoes to keep them free of stain and varnish.
- Make sure the cabinets are square before you drive any screws.
- Assemble the drawer cabinet from the inside out, starting with the shelves and dividers.
- With the cabinets assembled, determine the final measurements for the tops and the upper compartment bottoms (D and E).
- Note: The bridge bottoms (D and E) are the same size as the cabinet tops and should be cut at the same time.
- With the tops cut to final sizes, lay out and cut the dadoes on the underside of the drawer cabinet top.
Assemble the Cabinets and Columns
- Assemble the cabinets and columns with glue and screws.
- Glue and clamp the tops to the cabinets.
- Note: Screws and a little glue are fine for most of the assembly; screw heads will be covered up later. But use clamps rather than screws on the outer sides of both end columns.
Add the Compartments
- To build the bridge boxes, add the sides (P, Q and R) to the compartment bottoms.
- Double-check your work by setting the bridge boxes on top of the assembled cabinets.
- Note: It’s critical to build the bridge boxes so they’re exactly the same width and length as the cabinet tops below. Fortunately, that’s easy to do since the cabinet tops and the compartment bottoms are identical.
- To build the secret compartment below the bottom drawer, cut and rout the compartment sides (HHH) and install them at the bottom of the drawer cabinet with screws.
- Cut the lid to the compartment (H) and drill a 1-in. finger hole.
- Ease the edges of the hole with a 1/8-in. round-over bit.
- To build the compartments behind the middle drawers, cut the false backs (FF) and spacers (GGG).
- Drill a pair of holes for the rare earth magnets toward the end and on the edge of each spacer.
- Secure the magnets with epoxy.
- Install the spacers at the back of the cabinet (one reason to leave the cabinet backs off for now).
- Epoxy four washers on the back of the false back where the magnets make contact.
- Add a finger hole and you’ve got two more hiding places.
- Cut the two false rails (EEE) that hide the drop-down boxes in the door cabinets.
- Glue the drop-down box lip (FFF) centered on the lower edge on the back.
- Position the false fronts in the cabinet to act as a stop for the doors (don’t forget to consider the thickness of a felt or cork bumper).
- Fasten with glue and screws.
- Build the drop-down boxes (U, V, JJ) from scrap plywood.
- Embed two rare earth magnets in the top of the back edge.
- After the epoxy has set, grab some leftover paint and goop up the magnet faces.
- Set the box in place and push up on the back edge to mark the corresponding holes in the underside of the top.
- Drill and epoxy in the magnets under the top.
- Cut and fit the backs for the columns and the cabinets. Pre-finish the backs of the two door cabinets before installing them.
- To complete the cabinets, cut and fit the hardwood trim (DDD) for the cabinets.
- Use glue and a brad nailer to fasten the trim.
- Sand the hardwood flush and smooth.
Complete the Columns
- Cut the column backers (MM), columns (NN) and column bases (PP).
- Leave the columns (NN) a little long.
- Machine the crown (LL).
- Assemble the crowns with glue.
- Glue and your fingers are the best way to assemble the small parts of the column crowns.
- Hold them together for a few seconds, then leave them undisturbed while the glue sets.
- Pro tip: Any wood glue will work, but molding glue bonds faster and won’t run all over the place.
- Machine the stock for the crown cap (QQ) and base (RR) and cut to size.
- Note: You’ll want to sand the individual parts to 180-grit before assembly.
Set the Column Blocks
- Lay out all the column face parts on the column backer.
- Adjust the final length of the column so all the parts fit per-fectly on the backer.
- Screw the columns and bases to the backer through the back of the column backers.
- Nail and glue the crown base to the top of the column.
- Attach the crown with screws from behind and nail the cap in place.
- Note: You should have four very nice- looking column faces that are ready to mount on the column boxes.
- Drill a series of holes for 1/2-in. magnets in the edge of the column box.
- Pro tip: It’s best to do this on a drill press with a Forstner bit so the holes are flat and perpendicular, allowing the magnets to lie perfectly flush. We spaced four magnets along each edge of the column box and one in the middle of each shelf for a total of 11 magnets.
- Epoxy the magnets into their holes.
- Pro tip: Use the paint trick mentioned earlier to mark the location for the magnets in the column backer. Set the column on the box and the paint will leave marks where the other magnets go.
- Drill magnet holes and epoxy in the magnets, taking care to orient the magnets correctly so they grab the magnets in the column boxes and don’t repel them.
- If you don’t want a secret compartment in a column, simply glue the columns to the column boxes. Position the columns so they overhang the edges of the boxes by 1/4 in. on the sides. Secure with a few brad nails and clamp.
Assemble the Whole Thing
- When the columns are complete, join them to the cabinets.
- Screw through the cabinet boxes into the columns.
- To install each bridge, clamp it in place and then add screws.
- Install the backs that cover the space between the columns above the cabinets.
Make Perfect-Fitting Top Panels
- Glue up the boards to make one solid top.
- Pro tip: To create tight-fitting access panels with an uninterrupted grain pattern, start with a glued-up blank. Make the blank about an inch oversize in length and 1/2-in. extra in width.
- Clamp up the top using the access panels as spacers between the blocks.
- Note: Old business cards work great as spacers around the access panels. Be careful not to glue the panels in place.
- Rip a 2-in. strip off the back edge and a 4-1/4-in. strip off the front and set them aside.
- Take the middle section and cross- cut the panels and blocks in sequence.
- Reassemble the top using the panel cutouts as spacers.
After the Glue Has Set
- Remove the panels and trim the edges for a clean fit.
- Note: The result is a top with access panels that fit perfectly without a lot of fussy fitting. The grain pattern is uninterrupted, which helps keep the panel visibility low.
- Build up 3/4-in. and 1/2-in. plywood to make the top.
- Stagger the joints between the 3/4-in. plywood and the 1/2-in. plywood by cutting one length of each to 6 ft. and the other to 4 ft. and butt- joint them end-to-end with biscuits and glue.
- Glue the 1/2-in. plywood to the 3/4-in. plywood with the butt joints staggered so the 4-ft. length of 1/2-in. falls under the 6-ft. length of 3/4-in plywood.
- Use screws to clamp the two pieces together, taking care not to leave any screw heads exposed where the top overhangs the cabinets (use clamps in these areas).
- Rip and cut the access panels in the same manner as with the hardwood top, then add hardwood trim to cover the plywood edges.
Build the Drawers and Doors
- Cut the door parts (HH, ZZ, AAA and BBB) and assemble with biscuits.
- Note: Plywood works fine for the panels, though you get a better look with real hardwood panels.
- Assemble the drawers and doors with glue and a brad nailer.
- Pro tip: Reinforce the drawer joints with a few trim head screws. The screws guarantee the joints won’t pull apart, and the trim heads aren’t much bigger than a finish nail hole.
- Measure the openings for doors and drawers and adjust your cuts accordingly.
- Note: Shoot for an exact fit; then plane the door edges for a final fit. The drawer bottoms are sized to stick out past the back of each drawer by 1/4 in. The protruding bottom acts as a drawer stop against the back of the cabinet. This also allows you to easily fine-tune the fit. Simply plane the plywood edge to adjust how far back the drawer sits in the cabinet.
Finish the Shelves
- Take the bookcase apart.
- Finish-sand everything to 180 grit.
- Note: We used a Mission Oak stain (see the Buyer’s Guide) and topcoated with a wipe-on gel varnish. There is no need to finish the areas that cover each other such as the outsides of the lower cabinets and the lower parts of the columns.
- Enjoy your bookcase and try not to tell everyone about all the secret compartments. It’s our little secret!
Originally Published: September 01, 2017