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Book Shelf Buying Guide


Bookshelves come in more sizes than most furniture, which makes sense because buyers choose them to fill very specific areas. Before you choose a new bookcase, make sure the overall product dimensions fit your space.


Shelf space

The easiest assurance that your books will fit is to choose a bookcase with adjustable shelving. If the shelving is fixed, you can make sure it meets your requirements by measuring your books. A library comprised of hardcover octavos (from 7 3/4 to 9 3/4 inches tall) has different needs than stacks of trade paperbacks. Be sure to factor in enough head room above books' spines so you aren't bumping the corners.

Other size considerations

If you are wall-mounting your bookshelf, locate your wall's studs. In most houses, they're spaced every 16 inches, but yours could be different. If you don't know how far apart your studs are placed, they can easily be located with a stud finder.


It's not unusual for bookcases to incorporate multiple materials for different features. If you haven't decided on wood, wood products, metal or glass bookshelves, look at their relative strengths and weaknesses.

Wooden bookshelves

Wooden bookshelves are still the gold standard. "Solid wood" is a common term for furniture made from lumber planks. Beware of making assumptions based on labels like "hardwood" and "softwood." "Hardwoods" are derived from deciduous trees and "softwoods" from coniferous trees; the terms don't connote their relative strengths. Balsa is a hardwood even though it is very soft, just as douglas fir is a softwood even though it is very hard. That said, they all make excellent, classic stock material for bookshelves. Generally, harder woods are the heavier and more resistant to scratches. Still, softer woods, if treated correctly, will keep just as well as harder woods. What is the correct treatment? Simply apply a thin layer of paste wax around once a year and, less often, an oil-based cleanser of your choosing. Dust lightly on a regular basis and, of course, avoid harm whenever possible.

Engineered wood products

You might not judge a book by its cover, but for veneered bookshelves, it can be, unfairly, a different matter. It's hard to deny the charm of pure wood furniture construction, but that kind of charm shows up in the price tag. Each man-made wood product has benefits and drawbacks, but all are environmentally-friendly alternatives. Some composites even beat true hardwoods and softwoods in strength and weight, with a fraction of the sticker shock. Common engineered woods include:


Made by stacking thin sheets ("plies") of lumber and gluing them under pressure, plywood features grains that alternate direction for strength. Several grades are available, of differing cost. Top and bottom plies can be high-quality woods to create the appearance of fine woods, but edge veneer or molding is needed to complete the illusion.


Wood chips glued together carry a much lower price tag than solid wood, and particleboard is denser and more uniform -- a great choice when cost is the primary consideration. Particleboard is not naturally as attractive as solid wood, but veneered composite boards can look and feel as good as the real thing.

Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF)

Wood fibers, tiny chips and sawdust (including salvaged waste from wood processing) collected and glued into sheets form medium-density fiberboard (MDF). Low-cost MDF makes an excellent base for veneers, its strength is consistent and it shapes well. However, it is very heavy (compared to other woods), doesn't handle water well and may split if screws are inserted into the edge.

Metal bookshelves

There's a reason most library bookshelves are made from metal: Metal bookshelves are resistant to moisture and fungus, their low-friction shelves are easier on books' bindings and metal's strength-to-weight ratio can't be beat. Their cost usually comes in below any other material. Most people prefer the appearance of wood, but you will thank yourself for buying lightweight, easily collapsible metal shelves the next time you have to move.

Glass bookshelves

Glass bookshelves weigh more, but if you plan on assembling your bookshelves only once, the style points can be well worth it. Tempered glass shelves (in wood or metal uprights, called "standards") give your home an unbeatable contemporary feel, and glass shelves' smooth, transparent surfaces add brilliant levity to a decorating piece that might otherwise be notably opaque and heavy.


Different bookshelves meet different needs. Chances are that your perfect fit is out there; knowing how various styles are described can be helpful in finding the one you really need:

Ladder and Leaning

Ladder and leaning bookshelves offer a way to optimize space while adding to your home or office decor. Their lean-to designs are ideal in apartments or dorm rooms, where a security deposit might discourage tenants from affixing anything to the walls.


Corner bookshelves work for small rooms, apartments and anybody trying to save space. In one swoop, they look great by creating an even flow over the corners in your home decor and redistribute usable space to persnickety areas.


Tower bookshelves divide space in oblique and large rooms with attractive, slender height. They draw sightlines upward in rooms with high ceilings and are excellent contrast pieces in rooms dominated by horizontal lines. Tower bookcases can also frame another significant piece of furniture, like an entertainment center, a lounger, sofa or, within reason, a fireplace.


Wall-mounted bookshelves like wall hutches are excellent for those without a lot of floor space and puzzling over what to do with their walls. The ideal wall hutches will be around eye-level and just as interesting as a well-placed piece of artwork.


The style of the bookcase also is an important consideration. It depends on the style you prefer as well as the décor of the room. If you want to go the traditional way, choose oak bookcases or pine bookcases that can be stained or painted to your liking.
If you prefer modern bookcases you can opt for the sleek, open ones that have metal legs and glass shelves.

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