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
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
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
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
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
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
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 (see Figure 1).
Figure 1.To strengthen the bookcase so it wouldn't
sag, the author cut dadoes for the shelves (A). Before applying
solid wood banding to the shelf edges, he ran them over a
Collins Ply Prep bit (B), which helps achieve a tight glue line
(C). The finished side on the strike side had to be beveled (D)
to clear the jamb.
I first prepped the plywood with a Collins Ply Prep bit ($20;
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
(Figure 2). Building many bookcases has taught me that
finishing all those inside corners and edges without runs and
drips is just too hard.
Figure 2. After
prefinishing the pieces (above), the author assembled the case
with glue (bottom left) and screws (bottom right).
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 (Figure
Figure 3. This Rixson
pivot hinge set (top) has a 500-pound capacity. The author made
router templates (middle) to guarantee that the mortises in the
case and jambs would be accurate (bottom).
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
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
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
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
For the front backset, I measured 1 3/4 inches from the pivot
to the front of the template and attached stops on that
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
Making the Mortises
The rest was easy. After adjusting the depth of cut on the
router bit, I attached the templates to the case. Because of
the stops on the back of each template, positioning was dead
on; I needed only one clamp to secure the templates.
The top pivot guide requires a through-hole for the upper pivot
spindle (Figure 4). I traced around the guide, then drilled out
the hole with a paddle bit; a block of wood clamped to the
inside of the case prevented tear-out. A false top shelf,
installed after the case was swinging, would hide this
Figure 4. Because the
top pivot has a retracting mechanism, the author first traced
its location onto the new finish jamb (A), then cut out the
finish jamb (B) and the original top jamb (C) to allow for its
operation. A laser (D) was key for aligning the top and bottom
Next, I mortised the new top jamb for the retractable
jamb-mounted pivot. A wide through-hole must be cut for the
pivot linkage, which I started with paddle bits and finished
with a jigsaw.
After that, I was finally ready for installation.
Installing the Case
I began by placing the new top jamb over the existing jamb,
then traced the cutout for the top pivot linkage. I drilled a
series of holes with paddle bits and knocked out the waste with
With the top jamb and pivot installed, I shot a laser plumb
line from the center of the pivot to the two-layer
plywood base on the floor, locating the exact center of the
bottom pivot. I double-checked the location with my tape
measure, in case the jamb was out of plumb or twisted. Since
the jamb was about 1/8 inch out of plumb at the bottom, I moved
the bottom plate slightly so that the case would hang as flat
as possible in the plane of the wall.
Note that the plywood spacers at the bottom are 1/2 inch
narrower than the jamb. I allowed 1/2 inch for the toekick
beneath the cabinet because a recessed toekick makes it nearly
impossible to notice any gap between the top of the kick and
the bottom of the case.
Hanging the case wasn't difficult. As with any pivot door, I
first retracted the top pivot by backing out the set screw
(Figure 5). When I'm hanging a door, I usually set it
perpendicular to the jamb, place it on the bottom pivot, then
lean it back against the top pivot. That way, I have
comfortable control over the door while I back out the set
screw and retract the top spindle.
Figure 5. To install the
case, the author first retracted the top pivot (top left), then
rocked the case into place (bottom left). At this point he
realized he had forgotten to provide a screwdriver access hole
to drop the pivot back into place. By trial and error he was
able to drill a hole from underneath (bottom
It's easy to position the door directly under the spindle and
then run the set screw back in, pinning the door into place.
But with a bookcase it's not so simple.
Fortunately, this was one problem I had anticipated, which made
me feel pretty good. I had designed the case 1/4 inch short of
the opening, which provided just the right gap between the top
of the case and the head jamb. I backed out the set screw
halfway, then placed the case on the bottom pivot and
straightened it up in the opening. The top of the case barely
scraped across the bottom of the set screw, while the top jamb
pivot spindle dragged over the top of the case and then dropped
like magic right into the pivot guide. Amazing!
It was at that moment that I realized I couldn't reach the set
screw with a screwdriver: I couldn't run the screw in to secure
the case completely, and I couldn't back the screw out to
remove the case. Suddenly I wasn't feeling so smart anymore
— and it got worse.
On my first attempt at drilling a simple 3/8-inch access hole
through which I could reach the set screw with a narrow
screwdriver, I couldn't seem to find a drill bit sharp enough
to get through the plywood. I tried a paddle bit first, then a
twist drill. On the third attempt, I realized I was drilling
right into the bottom plate of the pivot hinge.
Determined to overcome my own stupidity, I thought about it,
then drilled a second access hole, located on a radius layout
out of the way of the bottom hinge plate. Now I could swing the
case until the new hole lined up with the set screw. Luckily
this strategy worked. I turned the screw and drove the pivot
spindle all the way into the top guide.
Next time, I'll lay out the access hole when I'm making the
bookcase; I'll use a compass to swing an arc so I miss the
hardware mortise in the top.
Trimming the Case
Attaching the finished sides after swinging the bookcase made
the case easier to maneuver and gave me more wiggle room when I
centered it in the opening. I painted both finished sides with
glue and secured them with a few trim screws from inside the
case (Figure 6).
Figure 6. After swinging
the case, the author attached the finish sides (A), then
installed a shim made from high-density plastic to support the
bookcase from beneath (B). With the case in its final closed
position, he scribed and installed the bead (C) and head trim
(D), leaving only a slight gap to allow the case to
Before starting the trim, I installed a shim made from UHMW
(ultra-high molecular weight) plastic, which is pretty slippery
stuff (about $18 for a 3/4-inch-by-12-inch-by-12-inch sheet at
ripped a 1 1/4-inch length of the material, then cut a long
shim using a Festool guide and saw. I sized the shim to just
touch the bottom of the case when the door is closed, which
should prevent any minor settling and keep the moving joints in
the trim at the top of the case tight.
Trimming the top of the case was tricky. The joint between the
architrave molding (parting bead) and the top of the case must
be invisibly tight, yet still provide 1/16 inch of clearance
for the case to swing.
And that's where I made another mistake: I should have ripped
the new top jamb down, to hold it at least 1/2 inch back from
the face of the jamb, so that the architrave molding would run
back inside the jamb and past the bookcase, putting the joint
out of sight.
When I realized I couldn't hide the joint any other way, I
swallowed hard and removed everything from the opening. After
ripping down and replacing the head jamb, I hung the case back
in the opening and started installing trim again.
I scribed the horns on the architrave molding to fit the wall
and butt against the head jamb inside the opening. Then I
installed a frieze board and finished the entablature with a
two-step cap rabbeted in several passes on my table saw.
The base details went on next. With the case closed, I milled a
piece of mahogany toekick and scribed it to the floor, leaving
1/8-inch clearance to the bottom of the case. Using trim head
screws, I attached the plinth blocks and casings, making sure
to securely attach the strike side piece that remains on the
cabinet and acts as a stop when the cabinet swings closed. I
also added a strip of peel-and-stick edge banding
(www.fastcap.com) to the
side of the case so I could hold the trim back and leave a
reveal; otherwise, as I mentioned earlier, the case wouldn't
open 90 degrees.
With the case tight against the wall, I drilled a 3/4-inch hole
through the side and into the jamb. A 3/4-inch by 5-inch-long
dowel with a mahogany grip locks the case in the opening
(Figure 7). (I hide the grip with a stack of books so that no
one but JLC readers will know how to open it.)
Figure 7. A mahogany
dowel (far left) locks the closed bookcase in place. A false
top panel (left) completes the job.
I installed a false top to cover the access and pivot holes in
the top of the case, then loaded the thing with books. As I'd
expected, one slight tug slips the case free from the shim, and
the door swings open with a swoosh of air. One day I might even
tape and mud the joint between the jamb and the wall. But for
now, no one but me and my dog will ever see it anyway,
right?Gary Katz moderates the
JLC Online finish-carpentry forum and is a frequent contributor