It’s no secret by now that we love our new kitchen (you can see the full reveal here, and what’s inside our cabinets here). Buuuuuut there’s a feature just beyond the kitchen that competes pretty hard for our affection: the new built-in bookshelves around the doorway to our living room.
They’re sort of an “homage” to the original built-in bookshelf that existed when we bought the house, just amped up and more balanced to fit our new open layout.
And speaking of homages, you may have noticed that they’re not terribly far off from the original built-in bookshelves that came with our second house, which wrapped around the cased opening that separated our dining room and our office.
And this time we got to correct one of the sad flaws of our second house’s inherited built-ins: the shelf depth! Hardly any of our books would fit on those shelves since they were so shallow (only around 6″), so we made sure our new ones are BBF (big book friendly).
But enough about old spaces, let’s talk about how we created this new shelving situation. This is what we were left with when the kitchen was rounding third base and gearing up to slide into home. Note the non-final lights over the island that we later switched out for more substantial pendants.
Actually, note a lot of things about this pic – we still had some paint touch-ups to do, some chair rail that had to come down during demo still needed fixing, and – well – those walls were looking pretty empty.
Believe it or not, at one point we actually considered scrapping the bookshelf idea entirely because we worried it would be too busy with the floating shelves in the kitchen. We wondered if just doing simple walls with maybe a sconce or some framed art would be the smarter choice. Thank GOODNESS we pushed through that hesitation because this wall full of shelving is one of our favorite features in the entire house.
For the bases, we knew we wanted some closed storage to hide all of our photo albums, old yearbooks, and other random bookish stuff. We considered buying more of the same exact cabinets that we have in our kitchen, but we realized we didn’t want it looking like our new kitchen was creeping its way into the living room. So we grabbed two of these unfinished, stock cabinets from Home Depot, which have a similar but not identical door style, and still fit with the style of our home.
To make this stock size (30″ wide x 30″ tall x 12″ deep) work for our space, we had to get a little creative. I built a platform out of scrap wood to raise it high enough so that the top would line up nicely with the top of the chair rail (accounting for the “counter” piece I’d be adding later). You can see that also lifted it nicely so the doors wouldn’t interfere with the baseboards. And adding some 2 x 4″ blocking to the back gave the cabinets some extra depth so our upper shelves could still be 13″ deep without jutting out right to the edge of each base (it’s always nice if your base cabinets are a bit deeper than the shelves above them).
I know that looks
kinda all sorts of crazy above, but all that blocking got covered by these unfinished end panels. I also added a 1 x 2″ along the bottom edge to give the baseboard something to rest against along the front. And no, matchbox cars aren’t a crucial part of this project, they’re just the reality of chipping away at something over several days with kids in the house. They love to “decorate” things… even before they’re done.
If you’re wondering how they got there… it’s because I think someone thought I was building him a secret hideout.
Besides the adorable 2-year-old, a couple of other things were going on in that photo above. We also secured filler pieces to the sides of each cabinet to bridge the small gap between it and the wall, so it all looked flush and built-in once everything was caulked and painted.
The tape you saw on the wall was us trying to figure out how many shelves we wanted our bookshelves to have. The long, narrow top shelf that spanned the entire wall was a given, so the real question was whether we wanted three or four shelves on either side. Enter painter’s tape to the rescue!
With both options marked with tape, it was clear to us pretty quickly that we liked how the right side looked more airy and easygoing. We hoped it would keep things from looking too cluttered and also liked that it would accommodate some of our bigger books and taller shelf items. So three shelves it was – each 15″ tall and 13″ deep. Totally BBF.
With that decision made, I
scrawled planned out all of my materials – trying to be as efficient as possible with my cuts so I wasn’t buying more MDF than I needed. I won’t attempt to narrate what you’re seeing below, but if it helps I was pretty much just duplicating my process for the built-in bookshelves upstairs. So if you’re looking for more steps & photos, here ya go.
We chose to prime and paint most of our materials BEFORE installing them, just because it’s faster to do it this way since you can roll all the boards and sides quickly ( painting them after they’re installed can make you prone to pooling puddles in seams and corners). We still did touch-ups once everything was installed, but that went nice and quick. The color is Simply White by Benjamin Moore (in a semi-gloss finish) which is what’s already on the other trim in the room.
Building the two side bookshelves was easy – again, I just followed the same process I documented upstairs. It was figuring out that shelf across the middle that was a little bit of a thinker for me, since we had never tackled that before.
I couldn’t find specific instructions on how to do this, so I just landed on something that would work by holding things up and using the old noggin. I basically took advantage of what surfaces I had to secure things to and then added pieces where I didn’t have something to screw into. For instance, I started by adding sections of “header” boards across the back (STEP 1) that would give me an edge which I could then nail the vertical dividers into (STEP 2). Once those dividers were in, I could screw the bottom in from below (STEP 3).
The pic above is just a mock-up that I did while I was figuring this all out (the bottom piece was actually 8 feet long and spanned the entire length of the doorway), but doing a dry run like this to work things out is never a bad idea.
The shot below is how it actually looked as it started to come together. I’ve added some arrows to point out some additional places where things are secured. You can see I added a scrap piece to the ceiling too, which helps keep everything square. I also found that resting the board on the top of the doorway molding added a surprising amount of stability too.
You can also see in the photo above that those skinny shelves over the doorway are “double thick.” It’s a little hard to explain why, but it has to do with the 1×2″ pine I’d be facing all of the shelves with to create the look of thicker shelves. The long, 8ft bottom piece makes everything look good from below, while the smaller top pieces in each box help make sure the items sitting in them are level with the shelves on the ends. And as you’ll see below, once the 1×2″ facing pieces are added it all looks like one continuous, thick shelf (crown was also added but had yet to be caulked).
One thing I wasn’t happy with was how visible my “header” pieces were. We didn’t encounter this problem upstairs because that design had a much chunkier crown molding treatment that hid it. But in here, it just wasn’t something we wanted to see everyday.
So I cut some scrap pieces of plywood and fit them in there so that, once caulked and painted white, it would all look like one big seamless surface back there.
So once every seam was caulked and the touch-up paint dried (we gave them around 10 days to fully cure), we could put it all together for our final result.
Having all of these shelves to fill was like Christmas for Sherry. Our book stash was already plentiful (there are even more books in the built-ins below!) so all of those books are things we’ve actually read and love (aside from a few handed down from relatives that are more of the keepsake variety). The 15″ shelf height did inspire some creative stacking in spots that didn’t have tall books (note the books laid horizontally atop a few of the vertical stacks on the left side – which weirded me out at first, but actually adds some nice randomness and a casual vibe to an otherwise meticulous-looking arrangement).
After starting with a completely randomized assortment, we landed on this “color grouped” arrangement that helps all those books feel a little less chaotic. There’s not a literal gradient or rainbow across the whole wall, but we put all of the blue-ish books together, the brown-ish books together, etc. We’ve never been people who organize our books by author or genre, so it’s easier to remember the color of the book for us (“it’s that green one!”) than read every single spine since we never had any system of organization before. So while we’ve heard from folks who just couldn’t deviate from having their books grouped by type or last name, the color thing works nicely for us.
And because we’ve been asked a few times, nope, we don’t buy books for their colorful covers (it’s always content over color around here). But we have noticed that hardbacks are typically covered with colorful fabric under their paper jackets, so if we know we love a book enough to buy it (as opposed to borrowing it from the library) we like to splurge for hardback when we can – especially at the used book store. And yes, we toss the book jackets. We used to save them but realized they spent years in bins so we let them go (not smart if a book is a collectible or a first edition, but none of ours are).
Also in our quest to make these cabinets feel related but not identical to the kitchen, Sherry found this which has a polished nickel finish like our kitchen hardware, but its mechanics are so unlike the pulls in there that it really differentiates them. I wouldn’t recommend them for frequently used cabinets (it’s a two step opening process: flip latch up, pull open) but since we go into these so rarely, they’re perfect.
Maybe I’m tooting my own horn a bit too much to say it feels like these were always here, but we both can’t imagine the house without them anymore. They make the living room feel cozy and lived in. They add more architecture to the room. And they return some of the storage function that was originally there in that corner built-in (and then some!).
And as much as we love how open and airy this feel during the day, we’re also quite fond of how it feels at night when we turn on the living room lamps and dim the kitchen lights. We’ll have to try to capture it on camera for you guys at some point. Oh and do you see those old ceramic tiles leaning on the shelves (one is a P and one is a 7)? They’re old wall tiles that used to mark subway stops & lines that we bought secondhand from an antique vendor – and they’re probably the coolest things in our entire house. Seriously.
Speaking of things on the shelves, Sherry “Moodboard” Petersik lived up to her middle name and made this for you guys. It’s full of books we own & enjoy, along with some similar (or identical) objects from our shelves:
- Succulent candle (it smells ridiculously good)
- ‘s full of cool aerial shots by Gray Malin
- Tall blue vase to add some height & color
- Sculptural pink bowl to sit on top of a book stack
- from way back in the day
- Patterned bowls add some curves to all those straight book lines
- = one of Sherry’s all time favorites
- Ceramic pineapple with a pink top. Enough said.
- is chock fulla good stuff
- Gold & marble llama book ends, just doing their llama thing.
- Faux succulents LIVE 4EVA! (mwah-hah-hah)
- Soft pink vase with a gold edge = all the swooning
- Em Hendo’s (complete with gold spine)
- Wood & marble frame (framed art + books + curvy stuff = yes)
- are straight up framable art
- A faceted wooden box = great for height, warmth, and hiding stuff
- Stylish pokey things are always a good idea
- This gold dipped frame‘s great for working in more photos/art
- Had to do it, it’s ! And the navy blue spine shines proud on any shelf.
P.S. Speaking of things in our house, here’s a page full of our home’s paint colors & stuff we’ve bought/loved.
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