Book Cases Built at an Ashram

(Originally posted in August 2007!)

Long as this post is, it would be 10x longer if I explained to you what I was doing at an ashram for the past few days. Especially in light of my rather godless attitude that so obnoxiously rears its head on these hallowed virtual pages. So, let’s skip that part of the story. I was there to build bookcases (an odd talent for a marketing director / anarchist, but then again consider that I get to use highly dangerous power tools — maybe that’s the allure). Anyway, the locals referred to my task as “karma yoga”; I simply called it “carpentry.”

My task was to install built-in bookcases. As is so often the case in life, we start with a blank slate — tabula rasa, it’s called. Or in this case, a recently painted room in a former industrial building dating to the late 19th century. Here’s the “before” picture:

Pay attention if you’re a homeowner … These cases are a little time consuming, but are fun to build and add the value of “built ins” to your home. I’ve built a large set of these before, in my own home. It was easier in my house because we have standard 8-foot ceilings in the library. This meant I didn’t have to brace the framing to any walls — just screwed it into the ceiling and floor and went from there. In this case, though, the ceilings were about 15 feet tall. So, I decided to take them to the top of that stone archway, at about 85" tall. This meant I’d need to anchor the studs to the wall to prevent any imaginable disaster. So, I notched the studs and anchored them (into ungodly thick plaster walls!).

You may also notice in that top picture that the stud also conforms to the molding already on the wall. Normally, I’d remove such a blocking element with a sawzall or something. But the blue molding AND baseboard shown above is made of stone! Of course, I didn’t know this going in, or I’d have brought along my scribe (also called a profile gauge ). I wound up doing this the more primitive way of holding a pencil and something else in my hand at the same time and tracing the wall, thus transferring the profile of the molding onto the board — and then cutting it out with a jigsaw. So, here’s early progress framing out the left side …

Those are 2x3" studs, btw. Saved a few bucks overall by going 2x3 instead of 2x4. Left side nearly framed out:

Next is a little more progress, and showing some of the outer molding. (Funny story in a moment about the molding … See that vertical line in the top-left piece? I’ll explain that below … )

Of course, this all appears perfectly straightforward — just frame out a 12"-deep area, cover it all in premium pine and molding, and you’re golden … And it is straightforward in most new-construction scenarios. But, these “this old house” type situations are never easy. The stone molding was a bit of a surprise, as I said. Also surprising was the fast that the archway itself wasn’t centered, as I’d assumed. The left set of bookcases is 48.5" wide, the right set is nearly 52". And these old places are never square … As in life, you constantly finding yourself compromising between what is there, what is visually pleasing, and what is true/square. That’s my zen observation of the day, I guess … A closer shot so you can see the molding and decorative medallions better:

Oh, and the bottom … Those small vertical elements are called plinths. You might notice that the plinths and baseboard are sitting about 1/4" off the floor. That’s because it’s sub-floor currently. They’re installing laminate soon, so I raised those elements to allow the laminate slats to slip underneath.

So, here’s the left side, finished:

That vertical line on the top left … Yeah, what happened was I accidentally fucked up that piece of molding. But, instead of running out and spending another twelve bucks on a new piece, I decided to follow that old sage advice of computer programmers — i.e., “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature !” So, I added that vertical line element, and then repeated the “mistake” on the opposite, top-right side of the other set, thus restoring balance, harmony, and karma to all viewers:

Wood shelves can look a little plain in a case like this, so all shelf edges are trimmed with a nice 3/4" molding strip, stamped with an ivy pattern. (Sorry, didn’t make up a close-up of that.) When it was done, it looked like this:

Took about 15 hours total, plus $360 in materials. (I still have to return to do the staining, though.) Tomorrow, I once again have to golf for work. Frankly, I’d rather be building bookcases …

Jim Dee maintains his personal blog, “Hawthorne Crow,” and a web design blog called “Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine.” He’s also contributes to various publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at]