We have a young daughter, if you follow us on social media I’m sure you know it. When she was just a few months old, we got her a few books. We started with crunchy pages, different materials to be touched, colorful drawings and features that appear if she moves a guide with her tiny finger. Well, she loved them so much! Books became quickly one of her favourite things to play with, mainly with mum.
She’s a bookworm already, so my husband and I decided to make a special present for her first birthday: we made a custom Montessori front-facing bookshelf. It’s perfect for toddlers to be able to reach their own books when they want them.
This time, the idea and the basic project were mine, even though the furniture-maker of the family is usually my husband! I decided where I’d like to place the bookshelf, in an underused corner of my daughter’s bedroom, carefully measured (multiple times!) the available space then drew the project. I presented my woodworking husband a ready-to-make plan, with sizes and details of all the pieces needed!
And… it turned out pretty well! We created a perfect reading nook that’s become her favourite play corner. It’s been half a year now she’s using it, and we couldn’t be happier of how functional the bookshelf is!
It’s been a long-planned hard project that made us very proud of the final result.
Table of contents
The making of our own bookshelf
The project and the plans
It all began with a carefully designed project.
I began working from a side view. I simulated a good width for the whole piece and also for each shelf. I wanted a piece of furniture that wasn’t too wide, otherwise the reading corner would have been too small to be comfortable. After a few tests made with pieces of cardboard as made-up shelves, I decided a totale width of 32cm would be ok, and also it allowed each shelf to be 6cm wide.
I planned a total of 5 shelves, 6cm wide each. The bottom shelf had a 10cm high front, to prevent the books from falling, and it was to stand 5cm higher than the floor. Then each of the following ones would stand 10cm higher than the one below. With such a project, each 6cm shelf had a 5cm front to keep books in place.
The top shelf was designed for bigger books, so it had a back higher than the others. Two triangular-ish pieces close the sides (the bottom angle is cut to match the shape of the bookshelf).
I measured the available space for the bookshelf’s maximum lenght. I wanted it to fit perfectly! So I measured multiple times, did scale drawings, checked and rechecked.
With all the measures I always considered the thickness of the wooden boards to be 1cm.
Next: shopping time! We bought all the necessary wooden boards, all pre-cut to the sizes needed. Just for the sides we needed to cut the triangles ourselves. We also found nice pre-cut wooden letters and other small decorations to attach to the lower front. About the final color, my husband found a dark pink paint he liked, a non-toxic one conceived for children’s bedrooms. I wasn’t convinced at first, but seeing the final color I admit he was right.
Then the real work began! We started constructing the “stair” that would become the front of the bookshelf. It was not easy, the hardest part being keeping all the pieces together in the right position while the glue was hardening. Under each shelf, we glued wooden blocks for stability and strenght, under the central shelf also metal reinforcements to be sure the pieces were joined at a perfect 90° angle.
Since each front was the same size, we built a jig as a guide to follow: we wanted to be sure to build the project following the project perfectly. We left a little margin for errors!
We joined each shelf to the following one starting from the topmost one.
When the stair of shelves was finished, we added the sides, bottom and back.
About the sides, we had two rectangular boards that we cutted to give them the triangle-ish shape needed.
Next, we added the bottom. As a special reinforcement, we added under the lower shelf a few reinforcement blocks the perfect size to touch also the bottom board. We glued those reinforcements to the board to have maximum strenght here.
Another reinforcement (yes, with toddlers you never know!) was adding two strong and thick vertical boards under the fourth shelf from the bottom: those boards touched the bottom, to support the weight of the upper part of our project.
Also, my husband did a little change to the original project, for stability. To make the fourth shelf from the bottom (second to last from the top), he aske for a longer board, so the shelf could touch the back of the bookshelf.
Last addition, the back. Before glueing it to the project, though, we had to cut a couple of holes because we needed to accomodate there the wall sockets of the bedroom. We also decided to make those holes very large, to let air flow inside the bookshelf and to have room for repairs, if needed.
Describing our work makes it seem easy and quick, but in reality this was a long process, carefully planned in each step!
Decoration and finishing
Finally, the most relaxing part came: decoration and finishing.
Step one: sanding. We rounded the corners and took care that all the surface was smooth and free from splinters.
We painted the whole bookshelf pink, with white decorations on the front. We left the other parts undecorated because the plan was to decorate it with loads of books! Also, the choice to paint it all with one color was to keep the attention on the books themselves. With other colors and drawings, it would have been too crammed and confusing!
Two layers of paint were enough, completed with a little light sanding.
An important security tip
Well, after six months of use I can confirm the project was a success! Our daughter uses it a lot, it’s her favourite play corner in the house. She can reach almost all the shelves easily by now, and she’s beginning to learn how to put her books back in place.
The play corner, next to the window, is completed by a soft handmade carpet, crocheted with love by my mum.
Every time we look at the bookshelf we feel proud of our project. We didn’t think at first we could be able to make it, instead it’s goodlooking and sturdy.
And you? What do you think about this project? Is there something we could do better? Do you like the final outcome as it is? Please feel free to share your thoughts!
Download free pdf plans
Wood board calculator: make your own Montessori bookshelf
Besides a free pdf with the custom project we made for ourselves, I coded a wood board calculator.
You can input the desired sizes of your bookshelf, width and depth, and we’ll calculate the rest for you.
The results give you a list of all the wooden boards you need to cut (or ask your favourite supplier for a custom-cut). So you can have a project like ours, but custom-sized.
We also provide a visual guide, similar to the one in our pdf, to be able to identify at a glance which is which and what goes where.
Tips about Montessori bookshelves
What is a Montessori bookshelf?
A Montessori bookshelf follows the principle of Montessori furniture: each piece is child-sized and designed to increase your child’s independence. Those pieces are usually low and open, so a toddler or child can reach her own toys by herself without the help of an adult. Sometimes the height is adjustable, so the furniture can grow with the child.
The bookshelves in particular are also front-facing, meaning that books can be arranged so that the child sees the covers, not the spines. Pre-schoolers can’t read, so they need to see the images on the covers to determine the content of the book and decide which one they want. We are used to looking at book spines, but our sons are not.
How to arrange books on a Montessori bookshelf for the best?
The shelves shouldn’t be crowded, with books on top of each other: each item should be well visible and in reach. If you are worried your child would not be able to have all his books available, that’s not a real problem. Instead, rotating the books from time to time would keep your child interested.
Did you ever notice that after a short while your son looses interest in that toy that seemed the one, that he carried with him all around? Children tend to loose concentration soon, they are attracted from things that are new or they haven’t seen in a while. Not overwhelming them with too much stimuli will help increase their concentration: while playing, one activity at a time, one item at a time would be a great benefit to learn how to focus.
A few tips on displaying books on a Montessori shelf, that we experience with our daughter:
- You can arrange them from tallest to shortest, even by color, to help your child develop a taste for order and keep visual interest. An eye-catching book display will encourage your child towards books. Also, our higher shelf has more room for taller books: the tallest ones we have are also destined to an older age.
- You can group books by subject so your child could find easily what he want to read. He’ll be encouraged to follow a reading path and pass from book to book, even to create links between them. Our daughter became able to spot a feature in a book and tell it appeared somewhere in another book, even pinpoint in which one!
- Changing places, even daily as you use the books, helps your child be an explorer. Remember, you can arrange the best display, but your child will always have the final word on it! Don’t stop his creativity, but encourage it! After a while of displaying her books ourselves, with good learning results, everything changed. We stopped arranging because our daughter started to rearrange herself. She would at time take each and every book down then put them back to place. She was beginning to have her own mental order, and we wanted to embrace this. Isn’t this the basic Montessori philosophy, after all?
What's the ideal height for a Montessori bookshelf?
Seing the purpose of the bookcase, the ideal height varies with the age:
- 40 cm (or 16 in) for infants
- 60-81 cm (or 24-32 in) for toddlers or pre-schoolers
- 81-101 cm (or 32-40 in) for school-age children
Our advise, though, is to think in advance for the future: children grow fast!
We chose to make the highest shelf 65cm high (about 25 in): at the beginning we could use the lower ones and fill the others as our daughter grew. We wanted to think about the future, to make the bookshelf useful and appealing even after a few years.