How to Upcycle a Cheap, Old Bookcase Into a New, Design-Worthy Piece

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Laminate bookshelves are an enticing buy when you consider the price point. We may all lust after the designer-decor shelving units, but often our wallets have the final say. As a young newlywed couple, my husband and I purchased one of said cheap bookcases. Over the years (and the span of five different moves), our bookcase was looking a little worse for wear. Instead of kicking it to the curb, I decided to give it a facelift.

Things You’ll Need

    • 3/4″ Pine wood slab
    • 1″ 16 gauge finishing nails
    • 1.5″ 16 gauge finishing nails
    • 1/4″ Paneling
    • 1/4″  x 1.1/8″ Trim
    • 1″ x 4″ Primed fingerboard
    • Wood glue
    • Molding
    • Nail filler
    • Fine-grit sandpaper
    • Tack cloth
    • Primer
    • Paint
    • Caulk

Suggested Tools

    • Miter saw
    • Nail gun and compressor or hammer
    • Table saw

With just one afternoon and a few inexpensive supplies, you can turn an “eh” bookcase, into a “wow” shelf.

1. Update the Backing
The back panel on most laminate bookcases is a flimsy cardboard. Replacing the backing with a thicker panel reinforces the bookcase and gives it a lot more stability. Added bonus: Many options for paneling exist, many of which can create visual texture and give the bookcase a sophisticated and updated look.

Cut a new panel using the existing panel as a pattern. Then attach it with 1″ 16 gauge finishing nails.

2. Add Trim to the Base
Laminate bookcases are typically very plain. In many bookcases there is little variation in board widths. Adding baseboard creates visual weight on the base.

When trimming out the base, create mitered joints at the corners. To make a mitered corner, cut the ends at 45 degree angles. In order to accommodate the 45 degree angles add an additional 3/4″  to each end,  resulting in an additional 1.5″ to the initial measurement.

Glue the boards in place.

Reinforce with 1″ 16 gauge finishing nails.

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3. Trim Out the Sides
Measure the sides, cut trim to fit, glue the trim in place, and then reinforce with 1″ 16 gauge finishing nails.

Measure the top, cut trim to fit, glue the trim in place, and then reinforce with 1″ 16 gauge finishing nails.

Repeat on the other side.

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4. Trim Out the Front
Measure the top of the front of the case. Cut trim to fit, and glue the trim in place. Reinforce with with 1″ 16 gauge finishing nails.

Repeat on the remaining shelves.

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5. Add Supports and Dividers
Using a piece of wood (will vary depending on bookcase) create supports/dividers. Measure the distance between the shelves. Cut the board to fit, and then nail in place with 1/5″ 16 gauge nails.

Repeat on any additional dividers.

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6. Add a New Top
Cut a board that will allow a 1.25″ overhang. The excess space will allow for molding.

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7. Add Molding to the Top
Measure around the top of the case. Cut the trim to fit. Again, cut the corners on 45-degree angles to create mitered corners. Glue in place and reinforce with 1.5″ 16 gauge finishing nails. Repeat on the remaining molding pieces.

8. Fill the Holes
Fill all the nail holes with nail filler and allow the allotted time to dry.

9. Sand
After the nail filler has completely dried, sand the entire bookcase with fine grit sandpaper. When painting laminate, the entire surface needs to be scuffed up. It can have no gloss or sheen for the primer to properly adhere.

10. Wipe Down
Ensure that all debris and dust is removed after sanding.

11. Prime
Apply primer to the interior and exterior of the bookcase. Follow the product’s instructions and allow for the allotted drying time.

12. Lightly Sand
In the event that the surface is still rough, lightly sand with a fine-grit sandpaper, and then wipe off excess dust with a clean, wet rag.

13. Paint
The original color of the bookcase does not need to dictate the final color of the bookcase. This was originally a black bookcase. I had previously painted it white, and then at a later date added the trim. The laminate can be painted any color. Again follow the directions included with the brand of paint being applied.

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So if you are considering an upgrade, might I suggest to first try an upcycle? Do it. You will be glad you did!

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