the industrial bookcase.
© 1998 Jamie Zawinski <jwz@jwz.org>

I made my own bookcases out of half-inch galvanized steel pipe. And now I'm going to teach you how to do the same!

Once all the supplies are assembled, the project should only take a few hours. If you buy new pipe and fittings at retail prices, the frame itself will run you about $300. If you have glass cut to use for shelves, that will probably add another $300. Your mileage may vary. (Presumably used pipe can be obtained somewhere more cheaply, but I don't know where that place would be.)


Step 1: Go shopping.

You will need the following tools:

You will need the following building materials, easily found at any large hardware store:

(I'm told that these short pieces of pipe are called ``pipe nipples'' and would be referred to as, for example, ``a 5" nipple,'' but I just can't say that without giggling.)

These measurements will yield a 6' 3" inch tall by 3" 9' inch wide bookcase of six shelves (seven, if you count the top.) The usable shelf area will be 10 1/2" by 14" deep. If you decide to depart from this design, bear in mind that the joints add 1/2" to the height, and 2" to depth.

You'll probably have to get the pipes cut, since unless you lead a charmed life, whichever hardware store you've picked won't have enough of all the things you need. They tend to stock a few of each of the things listed here, but you're buying an awful lot of them.

Most hardware stores will cut pipe for free, so it's not a big deal.

However, make very sure you measure everything before you leave the store! It is critically important that all the pipes that are supposed to be the same size actually be the same size. Practically speaking, you can probably manage to make things still work out ok if the variance between the longest and shortest pipe is within an inch, but your life will be much simpler if you keep the variance down below half an inch.

When working on this project, and especially when you go to pick up the pipes, wear clothes you don't mind getting oil on. The process of cutting pipes involves oil and sharp little bits of metal, so be careful how you pick things up, and wipe everything off pretty carefully before you start working on it, or your carpet will never be the same again.

If you buy things in two trips, or worse, from two different stores, make sure that you're getting the same thing! In particular, you want to make sure that all of your joints are the same model. Some have raised lips around the openings, and some are polished to a shine while others are flat; plumbers don't care about this sort of thing, but you might be annoyed if there's that one corner of your bookcase that shines while the others don't...

Step 2: Construct the vertical poles.

This should be the first step because it's more important that the shelves be level, than that the front edge and back edge be parallel, and its easier to compensate for differences in the pipe lengths early on in construction.

Construct four poles. Each one will use:

The 5-inch pipe goes on the bottom; the 3-way joint goes on the top. Don't bother screwing it together tightly yet.

Once all four are assembled loosely, you need to make sure that they are all the same height, and that all of the joints line up (and that all of the openings in the joints point in the same direction.)

Now, note that the optimal tool for this task is the pipes themselves. Rather than using pliers to tighten things, simply screw any two extra pipes into adjacent joints, and use them as levers. This makes it really easy to tighten these things, and to ensure that everything points the right way.

Did I mention that each pole has to be the same height, and that all the joints have to be pointing in the right direction, and that all the joints must line up? Did you check it again? Good.

Step 3: Construct the side ladders.

Take one of the poles you constructed, and screw seven of the 12-inch pipes into it (by hand.) After you do this, and the screwed-in short pipes are lying flat on the floor, the remaining openings in the seven joints should be pointing up.

If some are pointing up, and some are pointing down, you screwed up in the previous step. Take it apart, and rotate the joints around. Make sure to re-check the height and alignment of this vertical pole with the other poles.

Take another pole, and lay it down next to the comb-like structure you've just assembled. This one, also, should have the open parts pointing up. Adjust as necessary.

Now here's the tricky part.

Those of you who are geometrically-minded and have thought this through might have noted that what you've got here, basically, are objects that must be attached end-to-end in a loop, and that all attach by screwing in clockwise.

And that just doesn't work at all: you can't do it.

So, what you need to do is screw one end in really tightly; then unscrew it from the tight end, while simultaneously screwing it in to the other end. You end up with something that's not screwed into either end very tightly, but that (it turns out) will be sufficiently tight anyway.

(This is another reason we did the uprights first: so that the looser part is the poles that make the horizontal shelves, rather than the the vertical supports.)

For the first connection (I recommend the one at the top) you can screw in one end tightly, and then screw in the other end by rotating the second upright around it.

For the other six, you'll need to do it the hard way. So, grab your vice grips, and crank those poles down.

Attach the grips as tightly as you can, else the grips will slide, and will actually tear a layer of metal off of the pipe. It's not that big a deal, but does make it harder to get a second grip, and the pieces are sharp.

Doing the first one is tough; they get easier as more are hooked in, and the overall structure is more rigid. Basically, you need to set the loose end of the pipe into the socket you want it to go in to; hold it in place with one hand; and unscrew the other end with the vice grips. Pressing down helps.

Once you've put it all together, you've got a ladder! Some of the rungs may be a bit wiggly (if so, try to turn them by hand so that they are screwed into both sides about equally.)

If you did things right, it should support your weight. If you did things wrong, you'll fall on your ass.

Ok, now repeat, and build the second one.

Done? Now put them back to back and make sure everything lines up. If not, do it again.

Step 4: Attach the shelf supports.

Welcome to the third dimension!

Do this in basically the same way as you constructed the ladders. Place one of the ladders flat on its back on the floor, and screw in all 14 long pipes.

As with the ladders, pick one corner, and screw the other ladder onto the upright pipe, by rotating it around. As the thing you're rotating is six and a half feet long, that's not the easiest thing to do, but the alternatives are harder.

Once that's done, strap everything into place with duct tape, so that it doesn't slip off and torque itself all out of whack. Duct tape is, as always, your friend.

Now here's the tricky part.

Do the same ``screw it out to screw it in'' trick as you did with the ladder rungs. I recommend doing the second top one first (the mate to the one that is already screwed in.)

As you get more and more of them screwed in, you'll hopefully note that it's getting harder to do. If so, that's good -- it means that everything is fitting together snugly.

Step 5: Stability.

Now put the feet on, and stand it up!

Get out your level. Are all the horizontal pieces straight?

Does it wobble? The first one I built wobbled, because the lengths of the pipes were not very uniform, and I had to compensate for that with loose connections. The second one hardly wobbled at all, because the sizes were exact.

If it wobbles, your secret weapon is Loctite® ThreadLocker 242®. This stuff is like magic. It goes on as a very runny blue liquid, and when it seeps into the threads, it dries as strong as steel. (Ok, that's an exaggeration, but you won't be able to break the seal with your bare hands, you'll have to use tools.) Drip a little of this into the loose joints, and by the next day, they will be loose no more. However, note that it does dry blue. Exercise care, if you care.

Don't lock down the disc feet, however, because you might want to adjust those later to compensate for an uneven floor.

Step 6: Shelves.

Now you need to decide what to use for shelves. I had glass cut for my shelves, but that's kind of expensive (half the total cost of the bookcase was the cost of the glass.) The glass I used was 3/16" thick, and tempered. It's stronger than it needs to be; slightly cheaper glass would probably work just as well.

The trick here is, octagons. You want shelves that will get support from all four horizontal pipes beneath them. So the shelf size you want is 44 inches by 14 inches, with 2 inch corner cuts:

If you go with glass, you'll need LRF (little rubber feet) to keep the glass from sliding and rattling (since glass-on-steel is not known as one of the world's most high-friction bonds.) Conveniently, when I picked up the glass, it came pre-equipped with LRF, so I just used those.

I think it looked better without the LRF (the lines are sharper) but it's just not practical, even when weighted down with books. With the feet, the shelves don't slide or rattle at all; without them, they do.

And there you have it: a very cool metal bookcase. It's not the cheapest bookcase in the world, but as far as stylish metal bookcases go, it's actually fairly inexpensive. I found it surprisingly hard to find metal bookcases in stores, and those that I did come across were either: store-room utilitarian tinkertoy contraptions; made of rubber-wrapped wire mesh; or, more than a thousand dollars (if they were actually good looking at all, which mostly they weren't.)

If I build another, I'll probably get a little more creative with the design, and make some of the shelves be different heights, or perhaps leave a larger opening on one side, by having some of the middle shelves not go all the way across. However, this will be tricky, because in my hardware store travels, I've never come across pipe joints with more than four sockets; more creative designs would require 5-way or 6-way connectors, I think, but apparently that's just not a connector that is in demand in the plumbing world...

If any of you actually build one of these, let me know!

Update!

A year later, I built another, this time to serve as shelves for my CDs. That project didn't go as smoothly as this one did. read all about it.


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