How to Make Cheap Bookshelves Look Like Expensive Built-Ins

How to Make Cheap Bookshelves Look Like Expensive Built-Ins
Photo: Undrey, Shutterstock

When it comes to interior design, everyone’s taste is different, but whether you think animal prints and gilded fixtures are the epitome of style or that shades of white, off-white, and near-white are the only acceptable colours in a home, one thing is pretty universal: Built-in shelving equals class. This is especially true when you compare well-done built-ins with standard store-bought bookshelves. IKEA bookcases like the near-ubiquitous Billy get the job done with a modicum of Scandinavian style, but there’s no doubt everyone who walks into your home knows they’re looking at a bookcase that retails for about $US50 ($69). That’s nothing to be ashamed of — but if your style goal is a bit loftier, there are some relatively easy ways to dress up your inexpensive bookcases.

One of the best is to transform them into built-ins. All your furniture choices make statements, and three or four Billy bookcases set against a wall make the statement that you … bought three or four Billy bookcases at IKEA one day. Built-ins communicate a bit more planning and expense. The secret is it’s easy to make them a lot more luxe than they actually are. Here’s how you can make cheap bookshelves look like expensive built-ins.

What you’ll need to create built-in shelving

As with every DIY project in your house, you’ll need some tools and supplies. The good news is that you won’t need anything exotic. All you need are these:

  • Bookcases (natch)
  • Circular saw (or table saw if you’re fancy)
  • Hammer
  • Paint
  • Interior caulk (that matches your paint)
  • Trim
  • Metal brackets
  • Drill or screwdriver
  • 1×2 wood planks (or any scrap wood)
  • Wood filler
  • Spackle
  • Finishing nails

Some of these materials can be optional depending on how ambitious you are and the specifics of your space.

Transform your shelves

You’ve got your materials and you’ve selected (and cleared out) the space in your home you’re about to glam up with some cheap built-ins. Here’s how you’re going to pull this off.

Build or adjust the bookcases. If you’ve purchased new bookcases for this project, assemble them — but don’t attach the backing. Cheaper bookcases usually come with a cardboard or particle board backing that folds up for flat-packing, but you’ll skip this step. If you’re using bookcases you’ve already assembled, remove that backing. If you think you might want to someday reverse this process, do so carefully.

Note that this will make your bookcases a bit wobbly, so be careful when moving them around so they don’t get damaged. Alternatively, you can replace the backing with something a bit more attractive, like beadboard or a textured material — the key is to not use the cheap, flimsy backing that comes with them. If there are grooves set into your bookcases for the backing to slot into, fill them in with wood filler, let it dry, and sand it all smooth.

If you haven’t already purchased your bookcases, measure the space you plan to put them in and then find the measurements of the ones you’re considering buying. Do the maths to figure out the maximum number of bookcases you can fit into the spot.

Paint. Paint the wall behind your bookcases, the bookcases themselves, and the trim you’ve selected to match.

Arrange your bookcases. Put your bookcases into the space you’ve selected. It’s best to try and fit as many bookcases here as possible in order to minimise the amount of space you’ll need to cover up with trim.

Add supports. In order to attach panels and trim to hide all the gaps, you’ll need something to nail or screw into. Find the studs in the side walls and attach a 1×2 plank to the wall so it will be flush with the bookcases when they’re in place. You might need to remove the bookcases in order to install these strips. If you’re going to need panels on top to hide empty space, attach a strip to the ceiling so that it’s flush with the bookcases below as well.

Shim and attach bookcases. Use a few shims along the bottom, if necessary, to make your bookcases level and even. If your bookcases came with hardware to secure them to the wall (so they don’t tip and fall on top of you, trapping with your phone just out of reach and causing you to slowly be consumed by your beloved cats), attach it. If they didn’t, a few metal brackets attached to studs will do the trick. Aside from the safety factor, this will also give your faux built-ins stability and a solid feel.

Then, attach the bookcases to each other. The simplest way to do this is to run a plank of wood along the top and screw or nail it in to each bookcase. You can also just screw each bookshelf to its neighbour in the same way you attach kitchen cabinets to each other.

Close the gaps. Your bookcases are in place, but you’ve got a lot of gaps around the periphery, and the seams between the cases are showing. Measure the gaps and cut medium-density fiberboard (MDF) or plywood panels to fit, attaching them to the edges of your bookcases (flush with the inner edge) and the outer edges of the strips you attached to the wall.

Trim. Cut your trim and attach it using wood glue and/or finishing nails around the edges and along the vertical edges where the bookcases meet. Depending on your level of experience and comfort with miter cutting angles, you might choose a simple trim style like Shaker-style trim, which can be very forgiving to folks who measure four times and still get it wrong.

Finish. You’ve hidden your gaps and the bookcases look like they were part of the original house build — but you’re not quite done. You need to finish everything:

  • Caulk along the edges of the trim and wall, and along the trim edges on the bookcases themselves. If you can match your caulk to your paint, great. Otherwise, make sure you choose a paintable caulk.
  • Optionally, fill in the holes for shelf supports you’re not going to use with wood filler, sand smooth, and paint. This gives it a more finished look but does remove the flexibility of being able to change your shelving configuration on the fly.
  • Touch up the paint as needed.

Boom! Built-ins. The best part about this project is that trim is designed to hide things, so if your gaps are a bit off no one will ever know once you attach the trim — and if you goof up your measurements you can often just widen your trim selection to cover more space. The best part is you just spent very little money to get a really expensive look.

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