Adjustable Shelving – Old School Style

I knew I wanted the shelving in the bookcase to be adjustable. I didn’t want to have to make everything the same height, or try to guess how many shelves I need for tall books, and how many for small shelves. And, I’m also smart enough to know that I’ll likely move things around a lot, so flexibility is key.

Speaking of moving things around, how do you organize your books in your house? I absolutely will not organize them by color, or turn them around so they all look neutral. I’m not mad at you if you do the color thing – it kind of looks fun – but it is not for me. I am a little mad at you if you turn them all around because HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT THE BOOKS ARE? What is your sorcery?

So, I wanted adjustable shelves. But, I didn’t want the peg-with-a-shelf-pin thing. Or metal strips. Those are all so functional, but I thought it would really make things look too new and modern.

We have this antique roll top secretary desk that we actually bought for the Library, and it ended up being about an inch too wide – we knew it might be close, but it was too beautiful a piece to pass up. It’ll end up in the parlor. Anyway, this has adjustable shelves, and we used this as the inspiration to add some old-school furniture techniques to the Library bookcase. We’ve established in several previous posts that I am – in fact – terrible at blogging, so this is where I inform you that you just have to take my word for it. The desk is beautiful. It has adjustable shelves. They look like what we created for the Library. And I have no corresponding photos to prove it because the desk is deep in the upstairs room that is serving as storage and there are too many boxes in front of it to get decent picture. I’m actually the worst.

There are surely proper names for all these woodworking pieces, but I call them the “Cogs,” the “Slats,” and the “Shelves.”

I typed that sentence above, and then immediately got mad at myself.  “AMY. You research EVERYTHING. Find the answer, and do this post right, woman.”

I am going to continue to use my names for everything, but I can now speak with better authority. The shelving system that we used, modeled off the desk that we have, is called a “Sawtooth Shelf System.” There are several posts about them online (see HERE, HERE, and HERE), which I only discovered now, after we built everything. So this is fun! This type of furniture making was popular before the industrial revolution. (Spoiler Alert : we used ALL THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION to make ours. Don’t get too impressed.)

I found this picture online that shows, pretty much exactly, what the inside of the desk we have looks like. This was our starting point.

First, we had to make the “Sawtooth” parts – or as I’ve been calling them, the “Cogs.” To do this, we started with thin pieces of 3/8″ plywood.

Doug set up the saw with a dado stack. Which, apparently, is illegal in some countries? Not in this one, so we’re all good. WHEW. Once again, I had no idea about something until I sat down to do the blog post. WHO KNEW.

A dado stack is when you use a set of saw blades to make a wide cut (the dado).

Here’s a fun video of someone else explaining how to set one up!

Here is ours!

Set up a block to give you your spacing for the cog section.

Here it is set up with the fence!

We cut four at a time. You need one set of four for each box of the bookcase. By cutting them in a stack of four, that meant each box would be exact within itself. If sometime was a millimeter off, it’s okay, because each box doesn’t have to match each other. This video shows MUCH more clearly how the cuts worked. This was done for the whole length of the strips, and for four sets total.

Which created A LOT of sawdust. HA.

Our postal woman drew this in the sawdust one day. She’s the best.

This is a great way to make your own dental moulding, as well!!!

Once they were cut, I had to paint them. These were terrible to paint, but I made it slightly less terrible by spray painting the insides red first. That helped. But really, painting all these angles is awful, so just put on a fun movie or audio book and make it a party until it’s over.

Ta Da!!!

Installing these snugly is SO important to make the shelves work.

The pattern is kind of cool. I was afraid it would look too rustic, but it looks great.

And once you step back a little, they really melt into the background.

Next up – the shelf slats! These were made out of the same plywood as the cogs.

A GIANT stack of them.

These weren’t as terrible to paint, but still, I recommend creating a party. It is still SUPER TEDIOUS.


From the last bookshelf post, a reminder of the shelves….


Here’s me showing you how they work! Also, if you don’t know how curly hair works, it does whatever it wants. It’s a little bonkers here but I’m not mad about it.

It’s just so dramatic and amazing and I love it SO MUCH!





  1. Thank you for detailing how this system works. The precision involved is impressive and I love how it looks.

    I’ve never heard of people shelving their books backwards. Is that really a thing?

  2. Love your shelves! They look a lot sturdier than the usual pin/hole systems with most adjustable bookshelves. I arrange all my books by author (if I have a lot of books by one author) or by subject matter with the tallest books at the left and then going down in size. I have a lot of quilt books in my “library” so they are arranged by sub-categories like scrap quilting, Civil War quilts, reference books, etc. And, all my books face with the titles showing! Seems kind of silly to do it otherwise and I actually read my books so it’s kind of handy to be able to see the titles!

  3. Absolutely gorgeous!! I loved learning about dados. How did you attach the spacer block so it didn’t move. Also, how did you attach the cogs to the shelving walls?

  4. I love that you chose this method of adjustable shelving. I have some Victorian furniture pieces with these sawtooths, but because they weren’t cut precisely by modern industrial gear like you have, each slat is slightly different from the others. Woe to you if you mix up the slats. One of my bookcases has the slat ends cut at an angle, so after moving house, it was tricky to get them back in correctly. I suppose each was hand cut, and therefore has endless possibilities for getting it placed wrong. Aren’t you glad you’ll never have that problem? Still, I love this style of shelving. Kudos to you!

    1. I can totally see how that could happen! That’s why we cut four together, and then labeled them still after that – we were terrified of getting them off by even a little!

  5. Also, per how to arrange books–I’m with you on nixing that shelve-with-the-page-ends-out trend. So obviously an arrangement for books never intended to be read! I have all my fiction arranged in alphabetical order by author. My nonfiction is arranged by subject, and then alphabetized within those subjects. Be sure you leave room on some of the shelves for new book acquisitions or you’ll be shifting an entire wall of books to squeeze one more in.

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