Plans for Building a Book Shelf Around a Fireplace

Matthew Delman

A book shelf can be one of the least-complicated pieces of furniture in the living room. Depending on height, it has two to five shelves inside a frame of five pieces of wood--two sides, a top, a back, and a bottom.

A book shelf surrounding a fireplace.

However, building a book shelf around a fireplace requires more than slapping five pieces of wood into a serviceable frame and placing the shelves.

Built-In vs. Freestanding

There are two options when building a book shelf around a fireplace: freestanding, or built-in. While a freestanding book shelf can be taken with you when you move, a built-in stays in the wall when you leave. The decision between building a freestanding or a built-in book shelf comes down to personal choice.

In one version of the freestanding design, WoodDance Studio built a mantle for the fireplace to connect the two book shelves on either side. HGtv.com's design also uses a mantle to connect the shelving units, as well as a wall mount for an LCD television and an arch header between the tops of the book shelves.


HGtv.com used 3/4- and 1/4-inch thick birch plywood in constructing a freestanding book shelf around a fireplace. Two additional options are solid woods such as pine, poplar or oak, or medium-density fiberboard (MDF). Each has its benefits and pitfalls, with strength and cost the major differences--solid wood is strongest, followed by plywood and MDF. Solid wood also costs more than the other options.

Whichever type of wood you use for the frame and shelves, use 1/4-inch-thick plywood for the back of the book shelf. You'll also need wood glue and nails or screws to connect the shelves to the frame, a hand or table saw, a tape measure, wood putty, and sand paper.

The screws or nails, besides holding the book shelf together, will also serve as clamps while the wood glue dries.


Measure the space around your fireplace and on either side. Cut your wood to the measurements you want for the top, bottom, sides, back, and shelves. For a built-in book shelf, find the studs to which you plan to attach the book shelf.

Mark where you want the bottom of the book shelf to be. If you want space underneath the book shelf, be sure to include it in the measurement. Cut the top and bottom to size. Glue the top and bottom to the sides before nailing or screwing them together.

Mark the spacing for each of the interior shelves, ensuring you leave enough room for the tallest book you intend to shelve in the unit. Glue the interior shelves into position, and then nail or screw them into place. Spread wood putty over the nail or screw holes so the fasteners are covered, then sand smooth.

For adjustable shelving, cut four grooves into each side of the book shelf with 1 1/2 inches between each groove and 16 inches between each pair. Slide a 1 1/2-inch-thick metal runner into each pair of grooves. Nail the metal runners to the sides of the book shelf. Place metal spring clips into the slots of the metal runners where you want your shelves to rest.

Nail or screw the back of the unit onto the main body. This is the last step for a freestanding book shelf before you move it into place. Repeat the previous steps for the second book shelf.

Place both book shelves on either side of the fireplace. If your plan calls for a mantelpiece, attach it to both sides using screws or nails. Connect the tops of the book shelves with whatever type of header you want. It could be another series of shelves or a simple arch.

For a built-in book shelf, bolt or screw it into the wall through the back of the book shelf before attaching the mantelpiece and the header between the tops of the book shelves.

To finish the unit, either stain or paint it with the color of your choice. Stain offers a chance to enhance the color and grain of the natural wood, while paint may match or complement the walls of the room.