Hidden-door bookcases aren't easy to design or build, but they're always an intriguing undertaking. Every time I build one, I learn something new. I still haven't achieved the perfect unit, with a completely invisible door that works smooth as silk for years to come — not even the one shown on these pages.
In this article, I'll point out a few of the mistakes I've made, so that you don't repeat them.
Hinges & Wheels
I've installed bookcase doors that swing on regular butt hinges. Although I've always used 4 1/2- or 5-inch heavy-duty ball-bearing hinges, they tend to sag a little when the bookcase is really loaded, and inevitably need adjustment down the road. They also require a lot of jamb clearance, and work only on inswinging bookcases; there's no way to hide them completely on a swing-out design.
I've also seen cabinet shops build these types of doors using Euro hinges. Trust me, those never work: No matter how many you use, they always sag. I've seen carpenters use piano hinges, too, but then it's tough to take the case off or adjust the hinge. And even a piano hinge is hard to hide in the trim on a swing-out case.
I've also tried installing wheels and rollers on the bottoms of swinging bookcases to deal with the sag. These work okay, as long as the floor is a smooth, hard surface and there are no throw rugs. Sometimes, though, the roller leaves a telltale track on the floor, especially over carpet.
When you use a roller, at the very least you have to leave a gap at the bottom of the case for floor clearance — and that's a dead giveaway, too. Plus it's almost impossible to really hide the joints in the baseboard, no matter how cleverly you disguise them.
Given my past experiences, I've concluded that the best way to build a durable swing-out bookcase door — one that can be adjusted easily and is truly invisible — is to design it to swing above the baseboard and mount it on a center-hung pivot hinge.
Start With a Drawing
For this project I used SketchUp to find the correct location for the pivot point, which took some experimenting. The program allows users to draw an assembly and pivot it about a specified point.
Notice in the illustration how the door, when wide open, butts against the trim on the hinge side. That clearance is determined by the depth of the bookcase and the location of the pivot measured from the hinge jamb toward the strike jamb.
A 500-pound-capacity Rixson pivot hinge allows the fully loaded bookcase to swing smoothly. While case construction may vary from the design shown here, it's critical that the bookcase be strong and rigid, that the swing clearance be properly planned, and that the top and bottom pivots be accurately aligned.
I also wanted the case to have a minimal amount of clearance between the jambs, so it would just clear the trim on the hinge side and wouldn't require wide trim on the strike side. That clearance is determined by the setback of the pivot from the face of the wall.
A big improvement in the design shown here is that the bookcase swings above the baseboard. This means it won't drag on a throw rug and can be trimmed out without any visible gaps.
I wanted the case to end up about 2 3/4 inches above the floor, to clear 2 1/2-inch baseboard. My drawing confirmed that mounting the pivot base on two layers of 3/4-inch plywood would get me close to 2 1/2 inches above the floor. Because I could install the toekick after swinging the case, the exact dimension didn't matter, which made installation a lot easier.
To help prevent the case from sagging, I dadoed the sides to accept the shelves, something I don't always do for built-in cases.
To strengthen the bookcase so it wouldn't sag, the author cut dadoes for the shelves.
Before applying solid wood banding to the shelf edges, he ran them over a Collins Ply Prep bit.
This helps achieve a tight glue line.
The finished side on the strike side had to be beveled to clear the jamb.
I first prepped the plywood with a Collins Ply Prep bit ($20; 888/838-8988, www.collinstool.com), which routs a slight depression on the plywood edges, leading to a much tighter glue line. Then I banded the plywood with solid mahogany, glued and pinned it, and ran a laminate trimmer on each side to cut the surfaces flush. Before assembling the pieces, I prefinished everything with water-based polyurethane. Building many bookcases has taught me that finishing all those inside corners and edges without runs and drips is just too hard.
The author prefinishing the pieces.
The author assembles the case with glue.
He then assembles the case with screws.
To help ensure that the case wouldn't sag, I both glued and screwed the shelves. In this design, finished sides — added after the case was swinging — would cover the screws. I also glued and screwed the back flush with the sides, so that the case would never rack.
I used a Rixson Model 370 bottom pivot, which can accommodate up to 500 pounds and doors up to 3'-8" x 8'-6".
The bottom pivot includes two pieces: the bottom-pivot spindle, which mounts directly to the floor; and the bottom bearing, which must be mortised into the bottom of the door.
This Rixson pivot hinge set has a 500-pound capacity.
The author made router templates.
To guarantee that the mortises in the case and jambs would be accurate.
The top pivot is a standard Model 340, consisting of a retractable jamb-mounted pivot spindle and a finished cover plate, which are mortised into the jamb head; and a top guide, which is mortised into the top of the door. The two pieces come as a set from Architectural Builders Supply (877/631-9411, ABSupply.net) for around $150.
I learned long ago to always make templates for door hardware, especially hinges. Doing so makes it easier to position and cut the mortises perfectly — and to get their depth right. Plus, once you've used any specialty hardware, you're bound to use it again.
In this case, the bearing guides and the top jamb pivot were the same width and thickness, but because their centers varied, along with their lengths, each piece of hardware required a custom template.
Making the Templates
I started by ripping stock for the center spreaders. A standard 9/16-inch door-hanging template guide and 1/2-inch router bit will cut 1/16 inch short of the template bushing, so I made the template openings 1/8 inch wider and longer than the hardware. I ripped the spreader stock to 1 3/8 inches for the 1 1/4-inch plates. I centered the spreaders between two outer rails, spacing the spreaders the length of each plate plus 1/8 inch apart, then fastened the templates together with pocket screws.
Laying out the template stops is critical: If you get that right, the pivots will be in exactly the right position when you set the hardware into the mortise.
For each template, I marked a centerline on both axes (parallel to the wall and perpendicular to the wall), then measured from those lines to locate the stops.
For the bookcase templates, I measured 2 1/4 inches from the pivot center to the back of the first side, knowing that the second finished side would add another 3/4 inch, resulting in a 3-inch backset.
For the front backset, I measured 1 3/4 inches from the pivot to the front of the template and attached stops on that line.
So that I wouldn't have to run my router inside the house, I made a new top jamb that attached directly against the existing head jamb (more on that smart idea later). But the top template required a different layout: I measured 3 inches to the back stop and added another 1/4 inch for the gap between the finished side of the case and the door jamb.
The front backset was identical because I made the new top jamb flush with the face of the door jamb (a mistake, as I discovered later).