Bookcases can be built out of any sturdy material, but many people choose wood for its aesthetic appeal, compatibility with various decors and durability. Hardwood, softwood, plywood and composite wood all make good bookcase materials, and each has both benefits and drawbacks.
Hardwood lumber is cut from deciduous trees such as balsa, maple, oak and cherry and is not necessarily harder than other woods, despite its name. This is the heaviest type of wood, has distinct grains that are easily accented by stains or varnish and is resistant to scratches and nicks. However, if you plan on frequently moving the bookcase, its weight will be an obstacle, especially if the bookcase is large.
Coniferous trees such as cedar, fir, spruce and pine are the types most used to make lumber. Like hardwood varieties, softwood is not always soft in composition, as its name implies. Softwood can be as durable and scratch resistant as hardwood if you treat it with commercial applications to strengthen its surface before staining or varnishing. The advantage of softwood over hardwood is its weight, which makes bookcases lighter and easier to move.
As its name reflects, plywood is manufactured by gluing together thin layers or plies of wood together and pressurizing them to form a solid piece of lumber. The grains of the plies are alternated for maximum strength. Plywood comes in different grades based on the type and quality of wood used in its manufacture and its thickness, which affect its price. Plywood surfaces can be painted, stained or varnished to resemble hardwood or softwood, but the edges reveal the compressed, glued layers, so they need to be covered with molding or veneer to give them a finished look.
Composite Wood Bookcases
Particleboard and MDF -- medium-density fiberboard -- are made from wood byproducts. Wood chips are glued together to make particleboard, and MDF consists of sawdust and minuscule chips and fibers from various kinds of wood mixed with glue and formed into lumber. Composite wood is considerably less expensive than real wood, can be stained and finished and, if purchased with veneer exteriors, closely resembles genuine wood. Bookcases made form manufactured wood products may not move as easily or be as sturdy as solid wood or even plywood.
Bookcase Building Tips
Since books come in many shapes and sizes and bookcases are also used to display knick-knacks, candles and pictures, bookcases with adjustable shelves are most versatile. If you build a bookcase with permanently fixed shelves, it's best to vary the shelf heights to accommodate different sized books and curios. Make the top shelf of a bookcase with unmovable shelves book-friendly by edging it with molding tall enough to contain books stored there. If you extend the bookcase sides a few inches above the top of the bookcase, the boards will serve as built-in bookends.
Cassie Damewood has been a writer and editor since 1985. She writes about food and cooking for various websites, including My Great Recipes, and serves as the copy editor for "Food Loves Beer" magazine. Damewood completed a Bachelor of Arts in English with an emphasis in creative writing at Miami University.