The simple and classic bookshelf made with hardwood and richly finished.

The Classic Bookshelf Made of Softwood

Lumber and Plywood: Building the Best Shelves for Your Home


Building bookshelves is a great way to maximize the space in your home while minimizing the dent it makes in your budget.  Wall shelves can sometimes be more structurally weak than other types of shelving units, so it is crucial that you select the right materials when you build.

What is the best choice for your wall shelves? You can choose from: hard wood, soft wood, plywood, or particleboard.  The right choice for you depends on your budget, as well as what you expect the shelves to hold.  Let’s take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of each kind.

Hardwoods: These are arguably the most aesthetically pleasing materials from which to build your shelves.  They are also very durable and strong, so they can bear weight that materials like particleboard cannot. The downside of hardwoods is that selection may be limited at lumber yards, and the prices are sure to be higher.

Hardwood is graded on the usable pieces that don’t have defects like knots and splits.  Grades 1 and 2 are the best grades and the best choices for your hardwood shelves, but again, these higher grades will be more pricy.

An option that many people choose is softwood.  It tends to be less expensive than hardwood, and it is easier to work with.  Softwoods, like pine, are also graded.  Clear is the select cut, and is virtually free of flaws.  As you can guess, it is also more expensive than grade 2, which has more flaws.  Knots can affect the stability and strength of the boards, so shelves that need to handle weight should be made from clear pine.

Plywood is often a good choice.  The 4 x 8 foot sheets have either hardwood or softwood veneers, and a benefit of this pressed wood is that it is more consistent than solid woods.  The sheets are straight, and in higher grade panels, flaws are patched so you have a very flat, straight material.  The price is lower, but it is typically more time-consuming to cut plywood

A traditional, classic set of hardwood bookshelves appropriate in a more formal setting such as a living room or home library.

The Classic Formal Set of Hardwood Bookshelves

to size and finish the edges.

Finally, particleboard.  This is the cheapest option and is made from wood chips and wood particles. It is structurally weaker than plywood or hard and softwoods.  It can be a good choice for small shelves – as long as you remember to paint or veneer it.

Your shelf plans will usually make recommendations for the materials you need, and your shelves will only be as good as the materials you have to work with.  Choose the best you can afford, and you will get good, solid shelves that will last for years.

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