Vintage Dining Room Bookcase Before and After Tutorial


Hello!  Hope your weekend was swell.  It was rainy here, and we had some wonderful food and enjoyed catching up on some classic films (Mysterious Island–great for Halloween with special effects by Ray Harryhausen, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro with Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward and Ava Gardner!)


I am so glad to be able to show you our new vintage bookcase that now lives in our dining room.  From a pile of reclaimed wood . . .



my husband and I created this:



Here are some before shots of what we had in the dining room prior to our new bookcase.  The little bookcase didn’t provide enough space for the many notebooks full of sheet music that we have and that we like to keep for easy reference close by the piano, which is also in this room.  So stuff tended to get stuck in anywhere we could fit it in!



I had been thinking about adding a bookcase to this space for a long time, but we could never find one that was the right size.  I wanted it to fit so that it took advantage of the entire wall space, yet did not obstruct the window and would allow us to leave the grandfather clock in place.   Plus I wanted the shelves to be the proper dimensions so that they would hold notebooks neatly.  We looked at ready-made bookcases, but they either weren’t a good size or were way too expensive.  At this point, we thought we should go ahead and build our own, and do it as cost-effectively as possible.


We found a wonderful reclaimed wood source in Portland, Oregon, and it’s called Green Star International.  If you live in the area and like to use wood for projects, I highly recommend that you check this place out!  (I am not paid to promote this place–I just think it is a fantastic source of wood that’s good for the environment and wanted to tell you about it.)  Kevin, who is the warehouse supervisor, gets reclaimed wood that has been used in large ships that come into the ports in Portland.  After arriving in port, much of the wood used to stabilize the shipped items on the huge vessels was being thrown away.  Green Star now comes in and brings this wood to their warehouse, where they go over it all, take the nails out, cut it to manageable lengths and prepare it for people (like us!) to buy.  The prices are super-inexpensive, with 8-foot long 2X4s selling for around $1(Have you priced those out at a lumberyard–this is a steal!), and they also sell dimensional lumber, firewood cords and bundles, as well as tropical hardwood species.  We had purchased wood from them this summer for several garden projects, and so we headed back to see what was available for our bookcase.


We were very lucky to find wood that had been used as the benches in an old gymnasium. (This is why there are holes in the “before” wood picture–that is what you grab onto to open up the benches when they were in the gym! We left those holes and they are on the sides of the finished bookcase.)  We were told that this is old-growth Douglas fir, which you usually can’t even find to buy anymore, but it is very strong and beautiful and would make the perfect wood for our bookcase.  We picked up enough wood for both the dining room bookcase and a second matching, smaller, bookcase that we will build shortly for the living room, and it cost about $70 total!  Thank you Kevin and Green Star!


Now the fun began.  We have never built a bookcase from scratch before, but no time like the present to start, right??  So we jumped in with the big bookcase for the dining room.  Its dimensions are 27 1/4 inches tall and 8 feet long.  The bottom shelf is 12 inches deep, while the middle and top shelves are 11 inches deep, and each shelf has a height of 12 1/8th inches.  The wood we used was 1 inch thick and various widths.


I found some plans online for those console tables with the “X” on either end, and I thought that might be nice, but we’d have to adapt it a bit to work with the size we wanted.  So the work began.



And stopped, and began again.  The bookcase was taken apart probably a dozen times, trying to get it just right and the plans were modified and adjusted.  But to no avail.  Finally, the “plans” had to go buh-bye from our design.


And a new design was born, of my husband’s own making, with solid wood pieces that were screwed, glued and clamped together to create the width needed.  One of the biggest challenges in building this was trying to get narrower pieces of wood into one solid piece.  Many different ways were tried, but what worked the best in the end for the bottom shelf was a connecting bracket that was used on the underneath side.  It looked a lot like a cheese grater to me, and you use glue on the edges of the wood, and then hammer this bracket on the underside to help clamp it together.  Of course, he used big clamps as well to hold everything in place for the glue to dry.  When the glue dried, he flipped the wood over and attached a narrow rectangular-shaped bracket on each end of the wood.  The bracket came with holes on each end for screws, and he screwed it down over the seam where the wood was glued.  The middle shelf was created out of a piece of wood that was already the correct depth, so it was just cut to length.  The top piece, as well as the side pieces, were glued together.  Now we were in business, and the work progressed pretty rapidly!  The side pieces were screwed into the bottom and middle shelves, and the tops of the screws were covered with a bit of wood filler which, after it dried, was sanded down to a smooth finish.



I was a little obsessed with making sure we could fit notebooks on the shelves, and kept checking and rechecking!



My sweetie went a little crazy with the wood filler, and then had to go even crazier with the sander :)  But it all worked out in the end, so it’s okay.


Then when he had the construction of the bookcase done, I could jump in and finish it.  I wanted the bottom of the bookcase to be ivory, and the top to be stained dark brown, a color combination that works perfectly in the dining room and the adjoining living room.  Some of the wood was pretty beat-up looking on the surface (remember this wood had been used for decades in a school where it suffered quite a bit of natural distressing!), and so this wood was used for the base and would be painted out.  We saved the nicest pieces for the top so that I could stain those.  All of the wood had a glossy protective finish on it when we bought it, which all had to be sanded away.  This took quite a while, and had to be done carefully on the top piece that would be stained.  You have to sand with the wood grain, not in circles, or all those circles will show when you apply stain to the wood.  But eventually it was all sanded down.


I primed it using my favorite Zinsser Cover Stain Oil-Based Primer Stain Blocker Bond Coat.  After it dried, I applied 2 coats of Moroccan Sand ivory semi-gloss acrylic latex paint from Pittsburgh Paints.  In between primer and coats of paint, I used fine grit (400) sandpaper to smooth out the surface, used a lightly damp cloth to wipe off all the dust and proceed with the next coat.  To finish it and protect the paint, I applied 1 coat of Clear Satin water-based Minwax Polycrylic protective finish.  Now I had to be patient, because it needed to sit for 5 days to cure and harden the surface.  We hauled it out of the garage and into the basement so I would have room at the sawhorses in the garage to stain the top.


I’ve never stained wood before, so I thought I’d be safe and practice on the bottom of the shelf, which would be mostly hidden when it was installed.  I first used Minwax Pre-Stain wood conditioner before the stain, which helps the wood to soak up the stain evenly.  I applied it with a lint-free cloth, and let it sit for 15 minutes.  After I wiped off any conditioner that remained on the wood surface, and then it was time to stain.  I used Minwax Wood Finish stain in Dark Walnut.  I applied one coat using a brush and going with the grain of the wood, and let it soak in for 10 minutes, then I carefully wiped off the excess and blended it all together, wiping with the grain of the wood.  I then let it dry overnight.  I thought it looked fine, but I wanted it just a bit darker, so I followed the same steps for the top only I left the stain on for 15 minutes before wiping and blending it.  The final step, once the stain was good and dry  (it took over 48 hours–we had rainy weather that added moisture to the air in the garage)  I gave the top a coat of water-based poly and then let it cure for 5 days.


The big day arrived, and we could finally bring it into the living room, where my husband attached the top.  It had to come from the garage up to the front door–21 steep steps!–because there was no way we could get that behemoth up the basement stairs and make the corner into the dining room.  The top was attached with wood glue and L-shaped metal brackets that screwed the top to the base on the back of the bookcase.


Now for the fun part–filling it up and decorating it!








I gave a tutorial on how to make these easy decorative pots.  The graphic came from the wonderful Graphics Fairy.







I love how the stain came out!  The deep rich color is wonderful, and I love that you can see all of the cool aging that the wood has gone through over time.  This wood really has a story to tell, of all the kids and parents and teachers who sat on those benches throughout the years, so we left a lot of the holes in the wood and left a lot of the surface imperfections so that it would all show through the stain, and give it some vintage charm.


Not bad for a couple of first-timers, huh?



Cost breakdown:


  • Wood–$70 (enough for 2 bookcases, so this bookcase took about $46 worth of wood)
  • Hardware, screws, glue, sandpaper–some of this we had on hand already, but we spent about $12
  • Primer–$17/gallon (this was way more than I needed for just this one project–I used much less than a 1/4 gallon, so around $3.  I bought a gallon to use on several more projects, and I highly recommend the paint-on primer to the spray-paint primer for this project–it goes on thicker and gives you a nicer surface for painting in the end)
  • Paint–$17/gallon after $4 rebate (this is also way more than I needed for this project, but I have other plans and projects for the remainder.  I used much less than 1/4 gallon, so call it around $3)
  • Pre-conditioner and wood stain–$15 for both (this was way more than enough for this bookcase–I’ll use up the rest for the other bookcase and other projects–call it $3 for both)
  • Minwax Polycrylic protective finish–I already had this on hand, but if I had to buy it would cost around $14 for a quart.


So total cost to us for one big bookcase:  $67.  Pretty good for a custom-built piece that fits the space perfectly and will last and look beautiful for many years to come!  Soon I’ll show you another DIY project that is a decorative component on our bookcase, so stay tuned.


Have you ever built bookcases before, and do you have any helpful construction tips?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments, so stop by for a visit!


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About AthenaMG

Athena McElrath is a Master Gardener with a love for gardening, decorating and cooking inexpensively. She enjoys working out in her urban garden in Southwest Washington State, watching the hummingbirds and other birds and insects, eating the wonderful vegetables, fruits and herbs that she produces from her garden, and just having a great time hanging out under the pergola with her family and friends (that is, whenever it stops raining long enough).
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25 Responses to Vintage Dining Room Bookcase Before and After Tutorial

  1. Rukmini Roy says:

    I absolutely love this. Such a great transformation.

  2. I came over from Knick of Time Tuesday, and am very impressed by your bookcase, it looks terrific!


  3. cassie says:

    it’s amazing what a darker stain can do- it looks so rich and warm now!

  4. Michele says:

    The bookcase is beautiful! You all did a wonderful job. It looks good and also extremely practical.

  5. Anne says:

    Nice job Athena! Love that stained wood top!!

  6. Mindy says:

    That’s fantastic! I love, love, love the color of the stain and how all the wear shows through.
    I’m especially excited to check out the link to your wood source find. I LOVE finding old wood to give a new life to, so that kind of place is right up my alley.
    Looks really great. Congrats on a dual job well done! :)

  7. Carolynn says:

    Hi Minerva!
    Wow…wow…wow! What a transformation! Your bookcase is incredible. I love the warmth it gives, not mention the great storage. Thanks so much for the tip about Green Star Intl. Now, when we start building the shelves in my craft closet we’ll know where to go. We live in Bend and it might be worth the trip.
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments on my blog…I do hope you are able to find a soup tureen soon.

  8. Donna Wilkes says:

    What a wonderful bookcase. I love the warmth of the dark-stained top.

  9. Poppy says:


    So nice to meet you! Thanks for stopping by my place and for all the wonderful info re: your Greek ancestry! Love this bookshelf; so cozy and love the way you have styled it! Glad to be following you back!

    Have a great day!


  10. Jill says:

    Very nice and a ton of space!!

  11. Wow, great transformation! I really turned out beautifully. And it looks wonderful in it’s new home. Thank you for sharing with us at TTF this week!

  12. Athena,

    Ahh, the things we have time to do when we are not out in the garden. I love the way your bookcase turned out. The stain color is lovely and I like the way the wood grain shows through.

    Yael from Home Garden Diggers

  13. debra says:

    SO much hard work and effort but oh my did it pay off in the end.
    you have a gorgeous and functional piece that is exactly suited for what you needed it for. AND you have a phenomenal post about it too! :)

  14. oldthings says:

    Wonderful makeover ! I love the view of that old wood !
    Have a nice weekend !

  15. Oh my gosh…it is gorgeous!

  16. Thistle says:

    What a wonderful transformation (and I love the Gene Kelly quote)! I love the height and how it fits the space perfectly :)

    Have a great day rock star!

  17. Heather says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your amazing bookcase makeover at my linky party last week! I am featuring it today on my blog here: Would love if you could share any other great projects or recipes at today’s party which is open now here (thanks again and have a great Sunday!):

  18. Sharon @ Elizabeth & Co. says:

    What a perfect piece for that spot! And I love the rich wood top! Nicely done!

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  20. gail says:

    great job on the book case! I too, love the way the stain came out! very pretty!

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  23. Tom asta says:

    Hi. I came acrossed what I think is a vintage book case. Can find a name on it.
    There was a gold paper tag on back telling what cind of hard woods it was made
    from. I like to no if you can help. How old it coud be? Who made it and where?
    Thank you /. Tom