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Dollhouse Bookcase



It's a bookcase! It's a doll house! It's a doll house and a bookcase! It's a place to hide secret treasures! It's anything else your child's imagination can conjure up.

I was not in the mood to build a plain set of shelves. Still, I knew that we needed some sort of a bookcase for my children's room. But I wanted something with a bit of zing. This was the result.

The design started as a basic three-shelf bookcase. The windows and dividers were added, to make it look a bit like a doll house. The roof and the skirt add to that, and also give some spaces to add a “secret” compartment or two. What child could resist that? The final touch on the design, was to make it look not like one house, but to give the illusion of three houses.

The complicated roof lines, the tall narrow stance, and the varied paint job, are together meant to evoke an image of three narrow townhouses such as you might find clustered together along a canal in Holland. My parents and my wife's parents were born in The Netherlands, so I really liked the idea of trying to, in some small way, connect this piece to our children's heritage.

(This photo is one that I found on the net years ago. I just wanted to give you an idea of what I had in mind when thinking about tall and narrow houses. If you do an internet search for "narrow houses in amsterdam" you will find dozens upon dozens of similar pictures.)

I started with graph paper and worked on a plan until I had this. It would be one bookcase, with three shelves. However, the dividers and the roofline, and the paint scheme -- most important of all!! -- would make it look like three narrow row houses, built right beside each other. Note that in the final product, I moved the windows so that they opened up into the smaller "rooms" rather than the larger ones.

As you can see from the notes, I was already considering the idea of "hidden" compartments. I was pretty sure I could fit one into the skirting at the base, but I also though that I could get one into the roof compartments as well.

Next, I drew this roughly out on the computer, adding the colour and some dimensions to guide me in the shop.

Colour plays a huge part of the design and look of this project. Take some time deciding on your colour scheme. I tried to come up with colours that suited a house, and yet suited a child's bedroom as well. This bookcase will be shared by a boy and a girl, so I stayed away from the traditional “gender-specific” blue and pink. The grey paint, which is used for the skirt, the roof, and for the front edge of the “walls” that separate the house, is meant to look similar to concrete or stonework. So the skirt that wraps the base of the bookcase should evoke the idea of a concrete sidewalk. The red and green are both darker shades, rather than typical brighter kids colours. The yellow I selected is quite bright, but the center “house” has the least amount of “walls” to paint, so it serves as a bright splash that sets off the darker red and green on either side. Finally, the shelves are painted white, to keep things bright and airy.

Here are a few pictures from late in the construction process. I'm sorry, but I don't have any pictures from earlier. However, the core of this project is a simple plywood bookcase. The shelves are set into dados in the sides of the bookcase. To make cutting the dados as quick and accurate as possible, cut the shelf dados first. So first cut out a piece just slightly bigger than both sides, cut the dados, and then split it into two sides.

Another suggestion is to paint as you go, which I did. Painting these pieces while they are separate, and able to lay flat, is a lot easier than waiting until the whole bookcase is assembled.

Sand all the pieces and apply primer. Do NOT paint the edges or the dados. A water-based primer will raise the grain, so once the primer is dry, a light hand-sanding with 220 grit paper will return the surface to a nice smooth state. Paint the shelves white, both top and bottom. (Do not paint the top of the top shelf, as it will be covered by the bookcase's roof.) Sort out the sides and dividers, grouping them by the desired colour, and paint. The inside of the back needs to be divided into thirds. Each third receives a different colour, depending on which part of the “house” it represents. The colour stripes do not need to touch, as the edges will be covered, either by the dividers, or by a grey stripe that will be painted on later.

This would be a good time to mark the positions of the hinges that will hold the front skirt over the “secret” hidden bottom shelf. You may want to pre-drill the screw holes now, while the area is still easily accessible, or even go ahead and install the hinge mounting plates. Once the bookcase is assembled, there will only be five inches of space to work with!

One large challenge with this project is the roof. The complicated roof line seems quite intimidating at first. However, it is really composed of three separate sub-assemblies. I built the two side sections first, and then tackled the middle roof.

The two side roof assemblies contain “secret” compartments, hidden behind a hinged roof section. The hinges which I found must to be mounted at a 90 degree angle to the roof/door. Therefore a hinge mounting plate needed to be mounted inside the top section of the roof compartment. I mounted a scrap 3x9” piece of plywood between the tops of the two gables, which is kind of visible here.

It took some trial and error to find the optimum position for the hinges. This is a good time to have a "spare" roof piece available where you can make all your tests, as I did. Otherwise, just be thankful for wood filler and paint!

The center roof section required some careful measuring, some trial and error, and some wood filler -- good thing this is a painted project! It is impossible to just follow the plans for something like this. Instead, I cut out a piece of 1/8" hardboard (stiff cardboard would do) and used that to make a pattern, which I could then trace onto the actual plywood.

The photo at left shows the finished project in my shop, after painting. Once the project is assembled and the roof is complete, you can continue with the painting that was started before assembly -- painting the outside, and touching up any damage from construction.

I waited a few days for the paint to cure and harden, and then applied two coats of clear polyurethane, to provide an extra layer of protection.

Here it is installed in my daughter's room, as she inspects one of the hidden compartments.


In Closing...
The core of this project is a simple bookcase. What makes it unique are the colour choices and the roofline. With a bit of thought, you could tweak the colours, adjust the roof, and make a new design all your own. Maybe you'll base yours on the Taj Mahal, or an English Castle, or maybe a New York brownstone? The possibilities are limitless.



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