Rowboat Bookcase - Canadian Woodworking Magazine

Rustic Project: This shelving unit offers both unusual form and function. It serves both as a decorative piece and a storage facility for books or decorative items.

By Denis Roy


Rowboat Bookcase

The leisurely lake theme fits in well at home or at the cottage. Its extreme lightweight belies its strength. If affixed to the wall to avoid tipping, the larger sizes will easily hold a heavy load of books.

Laid horizontal, the resemblance to a real rowboat is so striking that you might be tempted to see if it floats! If you do try to float it, however, you won’t be rowing very far!

Since a rustic look is desirable, this project is perfect for beginning woodworkers.

The odd hammer mark or scratches left from the sander will add to the rustic look that you may wish to achieve. A suggested finish is dark green or blue paint on the outer sides and a simple flat stain on all other surfaces. A clear topcoat can be added for extra durability, but may detract from the rustic look.

The bookcase can be built in a variety of different sizes, each differing slightly. The tallest is as high as a doorway and the smallest can stand on a countertop or be hung from a wall. Choose the appropriate size to fit your needs. This plan will detail the construction of the most universally suitable 69” high shelf.

This project can be built from a variety of different materials. You can use up leftover materials you have around the workshop, or use recycled materials such as fence boards. The back can be made from ¼” or ⅜” plywood or from tongue-and-groove pine or cedar. The sides can be made from ⅛” or ¼” plywood, hardboard or even leftover wall panelling (⅛” is preferable, due to better flexibility). Your choice of materials will affect your method of construction and your method of finishing.

Obviously, used fence boards will require the use of paint or solid stain, whereas new spruce or pine can be finished with a transparent stain or topcoat. Plywood sides may be stained but wall panelling or hardboard will need to be painted on both sides.

The 1x6 boards specified for this plan can be lower grade wood, with one notable exception: the four long strips (¾” wide by ¼” thick) must be cut from clear, straight, knot-free wood. If you get lucky, you can often find an 8-foot board in the #2 grade pile, but be prepared to pay more for one higher grade board, if necessary. If buying one special board for these strips, an 8-foot 1x4 will produce the required number of 8-foot strips, with a few extra to allow for breakage.

Rip ¼” strips from this selected board, using your table saw. Keep cutting until you have four full-length strips that can be flexed to the side profile of the boat without breaking. You will also need additional strips to tack together your tongue-and-groove back. Although it is more convenient to keep ripping ¾” wide strips at this stage, 1 ½” wide strips will be a little easier to work with. This is a good way to use up portions of 8-foot strips that turn out unusable because of the weakening effect of knots.

If using tongue-and-groove boards for the back, lay them out on the floor or a large table to give the required overall dimensions. Often, lower grades of tongue-and-groove pine can be bought cheaply, with shorter boards included in the package.

The shorter boards can be used within the panel if full-length boards are used in between them to reinforce the assembly. The joints in the shorter boards should line up with the tie strips, which will reinforce and mask them. You may have to cut the shorter pieces to get the joints to line up with the intended elevations of the tie strips. Mark out the elevations of your shelves, as shown.

The tie strips should be approximately centered between the shelves. Feel free to change the elevations of the shelves to suit your needs. The shape of the finished bookcase prevents you from making any sort of adjustable shelves, so make sure your chosen heights are correct, at this stage.

Note that T&G (tongue-and-groove) pine comes in differing widths. I have seen 3” and 3 ½” widths, which are both suitable. Use 5/16” thick boards to save on cost, weight, and bookcase depth.

Pull the joints in the T&G tight and tack them together with ¾” or 1 ½” wide strips, ¼” thick. Use wood glue on the strips and nail them into place with ½” brads. Don’t worry about setting the nails or filling them with wood filler. The exposed nails look very boat-like. You may choose to sand the strips first, or leave the saw marks, emphasizing the rustic look.

If using plywood for the back, simply mark the elevations of the shelves and move on to the next step. Note that ¼” plywood is thick enough for this purpose, but that nailing the 1” nails into the edge of it will be tricky – ⅜” plywood would be much stronger and easier to nail.

Lay out the shape of the sides on the back by tacking 1 ½” nails into the points where the marked shelf elevations meet the sides at the measurements shown. The points are measured from the center line and must be the same on both sides. Your shelf elevations and your center line must all be square to keep your boat shape symmetrical.

Note that if you have changed the elevations of the shelves, your measurements will differ from shown. Mark the elevations shown on this diagram in order to determine the nail positions.

Taking one of your 8-foot strips prepared earlier, flex it around the nails, holding it in position with additional nails tacked in on the outside of the curve. At the point of the bow, you may have to modify the flex of the strip a bit to force a 90-degree point. The 90-degree point simplifies cutting the top brace later. You may also find that the wood strip wants to create an even curve, while the shape of the boat is uneven. You will need to force the curve to match the desired shape.

Note that the shape of your boat only needs to approximate this one. Feel free to modify it if you like. At this point you can even customize the overall dimensions.

Using a jigsaw or bandsaw, cut the back to the final shape. Note that if made with thin tongue-and-groove pine, the back is quite fragile at this point. Handle it very carefully to keep it from breaking apart, getting help if necessary.

Cut the top brace (#2) to a triangular shape by using the table saw setup shown.

The part can be cut from a scrap piece of 2x4 or 2x6, trimmed to the finished length of part #2 for the size of boat you are building. Your finished part should be a right angle triangle (one corner at 90 degrees). The lengths of the edges should be about 1 ½”, but are not critical Once completed, the top brace is shaped like a prism.

Edge glue 2x4 or 2x6 stock to create the proper width for the transom (#5), as per the parts list. Measure the bottom of your bookcase at the 1 ½” elevation to determine the length. Use a bevel gauge to measure the angle of the corner where the side of the bookcase meets the bottom.

Transfer the angle to your table saw blade angle. Trim the ends of the transom to match the angle. Transfer the shape shown to create the cutout in the transom. The cutout is optional, as its only purpose is to make the bookcase more boat-like. Use a 1-litre paint can to trace the curves, keeping in mind that the shape does not have to be exact.

Using glue and one 1 ½” screw, install the top brace at the top of the back, as shown. The back is prone to splitting so be sure to drill and countersink the screw hole.

Using glue and four 1 ½” screws, install the transom at the bottom of the back, as shown. The screws should be evenly spaced across the back. Wipe up any squeezed out glue with a wet rag. Make sure the parts are both at 90 degrees to the back. At this point, the assembly can be laid flat on its back or leaned on a wall.

Cut the sides (#4) to final width and a little longer than the dimensions given in the parts list. Apply glue at the top trim and screw it into place, as shown. The top trim is prone to splitting, so drill and countersink your screw holes. Tap in ¾” brads along the rear edge of the sides, every 6” or so, starting at the top and working your way to the bottom. Don’t try to use glue here, as the squeeze-out will be excessive. When you reach the bottom, apply a bit of glue along the transom end and hammer in three 2” finishing nails into the transom, as shown. At this point, the side will overhang the transom a little, which you can trim off with a belt sander.

Repeat for the other side.

Cut parts #15 to dimension, trimming one edge to 45 degrees, as shown. This can be done with a belt sander. Apply a bit of glue and tack into place with a few ¾” brads, covering the screw heads.

Cut the inner edge strips (#16) and the outer edge strips (#17) to fit the edges of the sides, adjusting the dimensions as required. Apply glue to the inner strip and flex it into its approximate position. Apply glue to the outer strip and clamp the two strips to the edge with C clamps, starting at the top, and working your way down to the bottom.

Tack the top of the outer strip into the top brace with a ¾” nail and the bottom into the transom with a 2” nail – not too close to the end so as to avoid splitting. Wipe up any squeezed out glue with a wet rag. Repeat the process with the other side.

When the glue has dried, sand the edges with your belt sander to blend the three pieces of wood into one. Note that the upper end of the outer strip should mate evenly with the top trim. The ends of the inner trim don’t need to mate perfectly at the ends because they will be covered over later.

Edge glue spruce or pine 1x6 stock to create the required widths for the shelves, leaving them a little longer than the dimensions given in the parts list. Note that the width of the shelves may have to be modified slightly to fit evenly between the back and the inner edge strip. The front edge of the shelf should stop ¾” from the finished edge of the sides. Sand the surfaces of the shelves even with a belt sander. You can leave the sawn edges unsanded.

At one shelf elevation (previously marked on the back), set your bevel gauge to the angle of the end of the shelf and use it to transfer the angle to your table saw.

Cut the ends of the shelf to match the required angle.

Attach the shelf using three or four 1” screws driven through the back, evenly spaced. Make sure the shelf is level and square to the back and hammer in three 2” nails into each end. Repeat this process with the remaining shelves.

Cut the shelf edges (#10, #11, #12, #13) to dimensions given in the parts list, leaving them a little long. Place shelf “A” edge (#10) across the front of the shelf and trace the shape of the inner sides on the overhanging ends. Cut the ends to shape with a band saw or jigsaw and check the fit.

Sand all exposed faces of the piece, rounding over the front edges slightly with the belt sander. If you prefer, you can round these edges over with a router in a router table.

Install the edge with a bit of glue and two or three 2” finishing nails. Repeat with all shelves.

Once all of the shelf edges are installed, tap in one 1 ½” finishing nail through each end, securing the side rail to the shelf. These nails will reinforce the thin strips that comprise the rails.

Trace the shapes of the bow trim (#18) and the stern trim (#19) from the templates onto 1x6 spruce or pine stock. Note that there are two stern trims, which are mirror images of one another. Cut them to shape with a band saw or jig saw. Check that the curvature matches that of the shelf side and adjust as necessary. Drill ¾” or 1” diameter holes in the locations indicated on the template. A Forstner bit is best for this. Note that these holes are purely decorative and enhance the boat-like appearance of the bookcase. Feel free to eliminate or modify them as desired.

Sand the parts and round over the edges with the sander or router. Apply glue and nail them into place with 1 ½” finishing nails.
If you like, set nail heads with a nailset and fill the holes with wood filler.

Complete final sanding with an orbital sander, or by hand sanding. Apply finish as desired. Check that the back is plumb to the wall, gluing wood shims underneath to adjust.

If heavy objects will be placed in the bookcase, it should be secured to the wall at the top, for stability. A loop-style picture hanger can be screwed to the very tip of bookcase, protruding at the top. A screw can then be driven through it into the wall. The screw should be driven into a wall stud or some sort of an anchor.

DENIS ROY is a power engineer and furniture designer
based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. 

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