I started by shopping, assuming the only way I could have an industrial-style bookcase was by paying a hefty sum for one.
As this style of furniture has become more popular, many different companies and craftsmen have begun offering variations on the theme: rustic, sturdy shelving units, and tables made from planks of wood and plumbing parts.
Meanwhile, the Internet has also become crowded with instructions for making these pieces. It sounded relatively easy. But I was skeptical: I’d never made a piece of furniture before.
It took a conversation with interior designer Kyle Schuneman to convince me I could do it. Schuneman has created industrial shelving units himself and has posted a tutorial on Pottery Barn’s blog. He told me that with a bit of effort and planning, anyone could design and build an industrial bookcase for their home.
So I tackled my first piece: a low-slung, three-shelf bookcase fastened with 1-inch-thick pipes and flanges. Since then, I’ve built six more items, including a display stand for vintage typewriters and a tiny end table exactly the right height for a reading lamp.
My step-by-step instructions have evolved with experience. These are for a basic bookcase, but can be modified depending on what you’re making.
Wood planks: Reclaimed wood is a great choice but can be hard to find. You can make a rustic-looking piece with new wood that’s been cut to size at a home-improvement or hardware store.
Keep in mind that actual sizing doesn’t conform to the popular names for dimensions of wood (a 2-by-4 isn’t exactly 2 inches by 4 inches), so you may need to ask a salesperson for assistance.
When planning your piece, consider having deeper shelves on lower levels and slightly shallower ones on upper levels.
Steel pipes (also called nipples) and floor flanges: These are commonly available in gray or black steel, sold in various sizes at home improvement stores. Pipes of a given thickness (1/2-inch, 3/4-inch or 1-inch) can be attached to flanges of the same thickness. Surprisingly, these will be the most expensive pieces of your project, with each costing several dollars. Thicker pipes will give a more industrial look; thinner pipes a slightly more delicate one. Or get creative and vary the thicknesses of the pipes on each level.
Wood screws: I use flat-head Phillips screws. Size depends on the size of the pipes and flanges.
Wood stain or paint: Your choice, plus clear shellac or polyurethane to seal the wood.
Adhesive furniture pads: Optional, to make the finished bookcase level.
Electric sander: You can sand the planks by hand, but an electric sander will save time and effort.
Electric screwdriver: Optional, but it’s another time and effort saver.
Choose the exact size and shape of the item you’d like to create. For bookshelves, you may want to get the deepest planks available at your home improvement store. Usually planks listed as 2 inches by 12 inches by 12 feet are available. The actual depth is closer to 11 inches, but this is deep enough to comfortably display books or other items.
If, for example, you’re making a piece that will be 3 feet wide and have four shelves, have that 2-inch-by-12-inch-by-12-foot plank cut into four equal pieces. Then buy 12 pipes that are 10 inches long (you’ll use four on each level) and 1/2-inch thick, with 24 1/2-inch flanges.
The final piece will be approximately 3 1/2 feet tall.
Sand, stain, prep
Sand each wood shelf to smooth and round the edges. Then paint or stain as you wish, making sure each piece fully dries before you apply the next coat.
Finish with a clear coat (glossy or matte) to protect the wood, then let dry fully.
While the wood is drying, clean each pipe and flange with soap and water.
1. Spread a drop cloth or old sheet out to protect your floor, and then place the wood plank that will be the bottom shelf on it. Arrange the flanges with two on each end, approximately 1/2 inch in from the edge of the wood.
If you’re making a wide piece (more than 3 or 4 feet), you may want to put an extra set of flanges and pipes in the center for support, for a total of six pipes supporting each level rather than four. (Or you may do this simply because you like the look of the extra pipes, although you do lose some shelf space.)
2. Holding each flange in place, drill a hole through each of its four holes and then secure a screw in each hole. Once all the flanges on that level are solidly secured, screw a pipe fully into each one and then screw another flange to the top of each pipe.
3. Place the wood that will form your second shelf upside down on the drop cloth, and place the bottom shelf upside down on top of that second shelf. (It’s easier to drill down rather than up, which is why you flip the piece here.)
Carefully drill holes and secure the flanges to what will be the underside of the second shelf. You will now have two shelves securely attached to each other. Set this piece aside.
4. Repeat this process with the other two pieces of wood so you have two sets of shelves secured. Now it’s time to connect them.
5. Place the bottom section on your drop cloth and arrange flanges along the surface. Before drilling and screwing the flanges to the wood, make sure the holes for the top flanges don’t match up exactly with the holes for the flanges underneath that shelf. (If necessary, adjust the top layer of flanges so the screws from one layer of flanges won’t hit the screws from the layer below them.) Then drill and screw in these flanges.
6. Screw pipes into the flanges on top of the second shelf, and then screw the final layer of flanges into the top of these pipes.
With help from another person, lift the assembled top two shelves and place them on top of the pipes and flanges that are extending above the second shelf.
Now you’ll need to drill upward, unless your piece is small enough that you can flip it over entirely. Before drilling holes, again check that this final layer of flanges does not have its holes matching up directly to the holes in the layer above.
If necessary, twist the flanges slightly to avoid having the two sets of screws bump into each other inside the wood. Then drill the holes and screw those flanges to the shelf above.
7. Because the planks sold at home improvement stores are not always perfectly level, you may find that your bookcase is slightly uneven on the bottom. If necessary, use the small adhesive furniture pads on one or several corners to make the piece level.
You may also wish to buy a safety tether to attach the bookcase to a wall.