How to Choose the Right Type of Wood for a Custom-Built Bookshelf?

March 22, 2024

Choosing the best type of wood for your custom-built bookshelf isn’t merely about aesthetics. Yes, the colour and grain pattern of the wood can significantly impact your bookshelf’s overall design, but there’s more to it than just that. It’s also crucial to consider the wood’s durability, stability, and the ease with which it can be worked. With an array of choices from oak, cherry, mahogany, maple, and even plywood, making the right selection can be daunting. Fear not, for this comprehensive guide will aid you in arriving at a well-informed decision on the best type of wood for your bookshelf.

Understanding Different Types of Wood

Before we dive into the specifics of each type of wood, let’s first understand the basic differences between them. Wood, as you might already know, is classified into two main types; hardwood and softwood.

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Hardwoods are derived from deciduous trees, those that shed their leaves annually. They are typically denser and more resilient than softwoods. Oak, maple, mahogany, and cherry are examples of hardwoods. On the other hand, softwoods come from evergreen trees and are less dense and lighter.

However, don’t be misled by the terms ‘hardwood’ and ‘softwood’. The classification doesn’t necessarily reflect the hardness or softness of the wood. For instance, balsa is a hardwood but is softer than most softwoods.

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Oak: The Robust Classic

Oak, a hardwood, is highly favoured for its robustness and durability. It is an excellent choice for a bookshelf that will bear the weight of countless books over many years. Oak is known for its distinct grain patterns that add a rustic charm to any piece of furniture.

Oak comes in two primary varieties: red and white. Red oak is more common and has a warmer tone, while white oak has a cooler, more neutral hue and is slightly more durable. It’s worth noting that oak can be challenging to work with due to its density, so bear this in mind if you plan on doing the woodworking yourself.

Cherry: The Sophisticated Choice

Cherry wood is renowned for its smooth texture and rich, warm colour that deepens over time due to exposure to light. This characteristic alone sets cherry apart and makes it a highly desirable choice for bespoke bookcases.

Cherry is not as hard as oak, but it is still a solid choice for a bookshelf due to its good strength and stability. Another advantage of cherry wood is that it’s relatively easy to work with. It takes stains well, enabling you to customise the final look of your bookshelf.

Maple: The Durable Light Wood

Maple is another hardwood and is an excellent choice for those seeking durability without the heaviness of oak or mahogany. It’s a versatile wood with a light, neutral colour that can fit well with various decor styles.

Maple is prized for its close grain structure, which results in a smooth surface with minimal texture. This feature makes maple an excellent choice for a bookcase, as it will provide a clean, sleek backdrop for your books and decorative items.

Mahogany: The Luxurious Option

Mahogany is often associated with high-end, luxury furniture, and for a good reason. It’s a strong, stable wood with a deep, rich colour and beautiful grain. A bookcase made from mahogany is sure to make a statement in any room.

While it’s one of the more expensive options, mahogany is known for its longevity. A mahogany bookshelf is a piece of furniture you’ll enjoy for many years, and could even become a family heirloom.

Plywood: The Cost-Effective Alternative

Lastly, there’s plywood, a type of engineered wood. Though not as esteemed as solid woods, plywood is a highly versatile and cost-effective alternative for a custom-built bookshelf. Plywood is made by gluing together layers of wood veneer, resulting in a product that’s stable and less prone to warping than solid wood.

A well-built plywood bookshelf, if finished properly, can look just as good as one made from solid wood. It’s also much lighter, making it a good option for large bookcases that may need to be moved.

There you have it! A rundown of some of the top choices of wood for your custom-built bookshelf. Remember, the best type of wood for your bookshelf will ultimately depend on your specific needs, preferences, and budget. Happy woodworking!

Evaluating the Right Wood for Floating Shelves

When it comes to floating shelves, picking the right type of wood becomes even more critical. Given their design, floating shelves appear to hang in mid-air with no visible means of support. To ensure their strength and functionality, the type of wood used must hold weight effectively without sagging or bending over time.

One of the most common types of wood used for floating shelves is red oak because of its robustness and high weight capacity. The distinct grain pattern of red oak is a visual delight and adds a rustic charm to the shelves. Although a bit heavy, red oak floating shelves are sure to last for years without losing their appeal or functionality.

Cherry wood is another excellent choice for floating shelves. Cherry wood is lighter than red oak, but its strength and stability are commendable. Cherry wood floating shelves give a sophisticated touch to any room with their rich, warm colour that deepens over time.

Maple and white oak are also popular choices for floating shelves. Both are durable and have a light, neutral colour that blends well with various decors. Maple, with its close-grained structure, ensures a smooth surface, while white oak offers slight resilience against moisture and decay.

For those on a budget, plywood is a cost-effective alternative. Plywood floating shelves, when built and finished properly, can look as good as those made of solid wood. They are also lighter, an important factor to consider for floating shelves that need to be mounted on the wall.

Building Shelves with the Best Wood

In building shelves, the best wood is the one that perfectly suits your needs, preferences, and project specifications. Whether it’s a custom-built bookshelf or floating shelves, the wood you choose should be able to hold the weight of the items you plan to place on it.

If durability and robustness are top priorities, you might opt for hardwoods like red oak or mahogany. If you want a lighter wood that’s easy to work with, maple or cherry could be your best bet. And if you’re on a budget but still want a quality product, don’t overlook plywood.

When selecting the type of wood, remember that each has its unique characteristics. The colour, grain pattern, and texture of the wood will influence the aesthetic appeal of your shelves. Solid wood, with its authentic and natural look, can add sophistication and value to your home.


Choosing the right type of wood for your custom-built bookshelf or floating shelves involves careful consideration of various factors. Aside from the aesthetic appeal, one should consider the wood’s durability, weight capacity, and workability. Whether you prefer the robust classic oak, the sophisticated cherry wood, the durable maple, the luxurious mahogany, or the cost-effective plywood, your choice will ultimately shape the functionality and style of your shelves.

Remember, the best wood for your shelves will depend on your specific needs, preferences, and budget. But regardless of your choice, good quality wood paired with excellent craftsmanship will result in a beautiful piece of wood furniture that you can enjoy for many years. So, as you embark on your woodworking journey, consider these options and make a well-informed decision that suits your taste and lifestyle. Happy building!