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I come from a family that is not shy about woodworking, so I am not scared of building a carcass with dados for shelves, tacking on a face frame, then trimming it out; however, I would love to hear others' views on the advantages and disadvantages of these two popular methods. Instead of the traditional build I just described, the many homeowners will take a pre-fab bookcase from IKEA ( IKEA Billy ) and trim them out to make them look custom.

  • Which method is considered more valuable to a home's value?
  • Which method is stronger?
  • Which method is easier to finish (paint or stain)?
  • Etc.

I plan on doing a series of these built-ins as my next DIY project, and the IKEA Billy method intrigues me. It would so super fast, but I am wary of it. The adjustable shelving with the pins makes me ponder them, but I am not sure how much they would really be used to adjust the height of the shelves.

  • It's worth noting that it's possible to modify IKEA furniture in certain ways quite easily. I did so with my Father, when building wardrobes to facilitate non-perpendicular walls. It means we have some shelves with no door on the end, but it fits the room perfectly, giving an even better finish. – Baldrickk Mar 12 at 15:47
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    I can't comment specifically on Ikea's shelves, but my experience with several other similarly priced brands is that if you actually use the wider models as bookshelves the sawdustboard shelves will slowly sag. Despite the name on the box, they don't actually have enough strength to be filled with books although they're presumably fine with lighter knickknacks. – Dan Neely Mar 12 at 16:05
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    @DanNeely I have a 30-year-old Ikea bookcase with 900mm shelves that has had twenty volumes of a New Grove Dictionary of Music on its top two shelves for at least 20 years. The rest of the second shelf is taken up by ten volumes of the 1951 edition of Grove in a slipcase, and they've been there for all 30+ years. These are large heavy books. The sag in the middle is less than 1/8": barely visible. And note that Ikea only have narrower bookcases now. – user207421 Mar 13 at 0:11
  • Once I get the shelves put where I want, I never move them again. That adjustable bit is great for first setup, But you'll likely not be switching things around much. Dadoes are stronger, but also forever, so don't mess up. – Wayfaring Stranger Mar 13 at 0:19
  • Do I need to select and answer for an open ended discussion like this question? – Evil Elf Mar 16 at 20:38
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I have experience with both. I'll try to answer your bullets and then some other thoughts.

Which adds more to a home's value? Well, typically bookcases don't add to the value because some people want them and some don't. If you wanted to build them in, you're typically going to go custom with that and build it yourself. The rigid dimensions for a pre-made bookcase will normally not allow it to look truly built in. Also the particle-board-covered-with-paper finish is not going to look good in the long run and could actually detract from the home value because of the cheapness.

However... I have used the more modular Bestä system to make a built in TV entertainment area that looked very custom and fit the area well. The reason this worked better is that the "lower quality" IKEA frames were mostly hidden by doors that have better materials and finishes. I wouldn't have ever built in a Billy.

Which method is stronger? This is going to largely come down to your building skills and materials, but custom can be stronger. However, Billy bookcases when properly assembled will be strong enough for their purpose. Any weakness will only show when it's time to move the bookcase. They don't hold up to twisting and racking forces as well because they are not glued and only use a few locking fasteners. They are great for sitting in the corner and holding things tho!

Which is easier to paint or stain? Custom is going to take the lead here for sure. IKEA uses a particle board covered with a paper-based finish. This can't be sanded or easily repaired if scratched, nicked or drilled. It's designed for you to leave it the color it was made, and they do come in a variety of colors. I'd worry about adhesion issues and what happens to the paper finish when it gets wet (if using water-based paints) and it can't be stained because it's not wood. There are a few solid wood items that IKEA makes, so none of this applies to them. They are just wood and you can do whatever you want.

So, you say specifically you want a built-in project. Unless this is a very low cost home I wouldn't consider Billy bookcases. They can't be easily painted and can't be easily repaired (like if a shelf peg breaks out). They just are not intended to be that type of furniture.

As far as stand-alone shelves go - they are great and I've found that you typically can't build your own for less money. What you pay for lumber and hardware/fasteners might be a little less expensive, but not by much. You'll end up with a nicer custom product in the end, but not cheaper.

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    "They are not glued" - they are when I make them ;) – Baldrickk Mar 12 at 15:43
  • @Baldrickk Indeed. In fact, I've noticed more of these kits coming with some sort of wood glue included for the dowels. Someone noticed a little glue solves a lot of problems... – Machavity Mar 12 at 18:16
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    One note: In my experience with it, IKEA's engineered wood furniture is covered with actual wood veneer, not a wood-print paper veneer. There may be exceptions, but the Billy is not one of them. – Theo Brinkman Mar 12 at 21:00
  • @TheoBrinkman My experience is with the white ones. Interesting that Billy has wood veneer at their low price point. That would paint much better. – JPhi1618 Mar 13 at 2:47
  • @Machavity IKEA kits still come without glue - at least my Sister's coffee tables and my new Wardrobes still came without any. A quick trip to the local DIY store solves a lot of problems :) I've found that the ones that do come with glue tend to be less well built in general... maybe because the glue helps them get away with it? – Baldrickk Mar 13 at 10:39
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The Ikea Billy adds no value to the home since it's obvious to anyone that it's just Ikea furniture. Built-in shelves add some value if well-executed.

Which is stronger is entirely up to you.

Ikea is well-engineered particle board and cardboard honeycomb (which is strong), but the backs are simple pressboard and are the weak point of Ikea furniture. The backs are vital to keep the furniture from tramming. Consider replacing the backs with 1/4" or 3/8" plywood and fasten it very securely with screws into pre-drilled holes.

Which is easier to finish? Ikea Billy, as it comes finished.

Billy is 1000 times easier. Measure, buy, knock together. Any self-respecting woodworker who can follow directions will be able to assemble an Ikea kit while watching TV. You know perfectly well what it takes to design, build and finish shelving from scratch.

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    Both great answers just want to add that Ikea is very underrated the hardware that it comes with is superior to many custom jobs that I've seen. Unfortunately for resale Ikea is perceived as cheap. – Joe Fala Mar 12 at 15:21
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    What is tramming? I assume from context it means going out of square, but, the only similar reference I can find on the internet is to tramming a milling machine, which seems to be process of making it square. – stannius Mar 13 at 3:34
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If you want strong bookshelves, you need to consider sagging. I can highly recommend playing with the sagulator (http://www.woodbin.com/calcs/sagulator/) which helps calculate expected sag.

I have an alcove approximately 90cm wide, and I originally used an 80cm billy bookcase which fitted near perfectly. The shelves sagged, and it looked tired after just a couple of years. However, I liked the adjustable shelf option.

I replaced it using bookcase shelving strips (eg https://www.toolstation.com/bookcase-shelving/p87119) screwed directly to the side and back walls, and solid pine shelves. This wasn't significantly more expensive or time-consuming than the billy bookcase, but looks much better.

The key difference is that I've got supports on both sides (1 each), and supports at the back (2, equally spaced). It's still only 4 points of contact, but by distributing the weight on the shelves across the back I've eliminated any sagging, even though it's loaded with heavy recipe books.

  • That calculator is fantastic. – Evil Elf Mar 16 at 20:36

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