Tag Archives: Mortise and Tenon Joinery

Tall Oak Bookcase

I designed my tall bookcase with a small footprint to hold a quantity of books without occupying a lot of floor space.  The case is just under 83″ tall, but is only 31″ wide.  No one wants a bookcase toppling over on them, so I designed the lower cabinet section and base to project forward, thereby  bracing the upper portion.  The sides of the case are primarily made from two full length, 14″ wide, clear, 1″ thick, red oak boards . . . too nice to be cut down.  I started with a simple but scaled drawing to guide my work.  I worked out the details and made separate drawings as I went along.  [All photos copyright symbol Max Vollmer,  Click on any photo to enlarge]

Drawing for bookcase. [Click on any photo to enlarge]
Because the wide oak boards were very slightly cupped to begin with and would have a tendency to do so with changes in ambient humidity, I decided to restrain that tendency with a 14″ wide solid top that is attached to the sides with dovetails (see photos below).  To create the basic rectangle that makes up the case, I also cut dovetails into the bottom edges to accommodate two small cross pieces.  At this early stage, I cut dadoes for the shelves and for the oak plywood back to come.

Dovetails at top of case.
Solid oak, 1″ thick top.

Having cut tongues on the individual 14″ wide, 1″ thick shelf boards, including the extra deep shelf that doubles as the top for the lower cabinet, so that they would slide into the dadoes on the sides, I was faced with the initial assembly of the long case.  As you can see, I set the two sides on edge on two sawhorses, then affixed the solid top and two bottom cross pieces, using four very long pipe clamps to hold everything in place while the glue dried.  [Aside: an option would have been to join the shelves to the case sides with sliding dovetails, but I don’t have a shaper or router table so I opted for saving time.]

Shelf/lower cabinet top.
Sides spaced and braced.
Glued and clamped.

With the shelves glued in place, the basic case took shape.  The shelf spacing is graduated from bottom to top:  approx. 13, 12, 11, and 10 inches respectively.  The dovetails joining the solid top to the sides can be seen in the photo below.

Basic case.

I made and attached the trim pieces at the top of the case and installed the oak plywood back.  The back provides rigidity (i.e. 90 degree corners) for the whole case.  I also applied trim pieces to both front edges of the upper case to hide the shelf dadoes and to generally improve the overall appearance.

Custom made oak trim.

To finish off the raw bottom edges of the sides and to provide some of the stability envisioned in the original design, I cut long grooves, technically “stopped dadoes,”  into two pieces of  2″ thick oak to make what look like “shoes” to cover the “feet” of the cabinet.  I then applied a face frame for the lower cabinet section.


Face frame in place.
Detail showing the face frame aligned with the “shoes.”

For the cabinet doors on the lower section, I made panels out of a streaked and water stained piece of red or black oak that I rescued 40 years ago from the mud of John Root’s sawmill yard in Fishersville, VA, where it had been driven over multiple times by a forklift.  It had “character” and had been hanging out in my wood stash all these years just waiting for the right application.

Frames and panels with mortise and tenon joinery.

The doors, with brass pulls, were installed with brass leaf hinges.  An adjustable  shelf was added in the lower cabinet section.  All that remained then was to finish the bookcase with one coat of Minwax (natural) for a sealer and two coats of Watco Danish Oil (clear).


I finished this tall chest in late May.  The primary wood is American Black Cherry, about 90% of it from one tree.  Cherry plywood was used for drawer bottoms and the back panels, while quarter-sawn white oak was used for the drawer sides and backs.  The entire chest, inside and out, has three coats of hand-rubbed Watco Danish Oil (Natural). The solid brass drawer pulls (called “bridge” pulls) and knobs for the cabinet doors came from Crown City Hardware in Pasadena, CA. The hand-cast, solid brass hinges are from Horton Brasses in Cromwell, CT.  From concept drawings to completion, this took me about 160 hours.  (Click on any photo to enlarge.)


The chest is 72 inches tall, 34 inches wide, and 22 inches front to back.


Each panel in the cabinet doors is made up of a book-matched pair of boards which were beveled first on the table saw, and then finished with a hand plane.  The door frames are quarter-sawn cherry with the rails tenoned into the stiles.  The transition molding and the crown molding were cut on the table saw as coves and then split into the quarter round profile.  The outer edge of the crown molding was extended with solid stock.


The drawer fronts are graduated from bottom to top (9.5″, 9″, 8.5″, 7.5″) and each drawer front is one solid piece of American Black Cherry.


Quarter-sawn, Eastern white oak was chosen for its stability in the drawer sides and backs.  The half-blind dovetails were all hand cut with a 14 ppi saw and chisel.


Shelves and center divider are solid cherry.


The upper section of the chest is a separate unit and can be removed for transport.  Back panels for the upper and lower sections are 3/8″ cherry plywood (cherry both sides).


The “Makers Mark.”