Tansu-Styled Bookcase from Walnut and Sycamore

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Project by WhattheChuck posted 06-05-2021 11:42 PM 638 views 0 times favorited 11 comments Add to Favorites Watch

My wife asked for a bookshelf for her 3 ring binders. She wanted to place it in our bedroom, straight ahead from where, if get night terrors, I’d see it. Realizing that looking at something really ugly was likely to cause the night terrors in the first place, I resolved to build a tansu-style bookcase.

I had a couple of design goals with said bookcase. One, I wanted to use my Festool Domino Joiner. Second, I usually build stuff traditionally, out of solid wood, so for this thing I resolved to try higher grade veneered plywood. Finally, I had an old glued-up sycamore panel laying around the shop that looked nice, and was far too big for any real project, so I resolved to saw it up for some visual interest.

I build in all styles, and have an excessive hardware collection, also in all styles. So I decided to go with the Tansu theme, in part to prevent myself from buying more drawer handles. I think these are from Lee Valley.

The bookcase itself is indeed made out of walnut plywood, trimmed in solid wood. The shelves are are joined to the sides with a seemingly infinite number of those little Domino things. I think that had I made another one, it all would have gone faster. There’s no question in my mind that if I had a bona-fide plywood-cutting sliding table table saw, everything would have been “square enough” the first time. The challenge with plywood that the solid wood woodworker never faces is that if things don’t fit, you just get out your handy plane and shave away. This is harder to do with veneered plywood, because if you go just a little too far, well, it’s not walnut plywood any more.

What this meant was I had to be happy with a different level of relative flatness between the solid wood edging and the plywood surfaces. And I had to resaw all the crosscuts on the shelves BEFORE I realized I needed to tune up my sliding crosscut jig.

The definite high point of the carcase are the sycamore front drawers, though. Sycamore is notoriously unstable, but as a set of drawer fronts, I think they look crazy good, and approach some tropical hardwoods for interlocking grain coolness! The drawer dovetails are my typical ones for a larger carcase—I use my Leigh Dovetail jig for the half-blind dovetails in the front, and cut them by hand for the back to keep skills up. No apologies for not cutting the front ones by hand—all that chiseling hurts my wrists.

The details are the usual set of Greene and Greene – kinda things I thought would look good. Finish is Minwax Tung Oil finish, which is rapidly turning into my go-to for an oil finish. Very predictable. Very yellow. The back is a sheet of birch plywood, chosen because I didn’t want things to be too dark inside the shelves. Considering how much veneered walnut plywood costs, it was probably a good call. But I’m not sure the thing wouldn’t look better with a walnut back. Oh well. At least I don’t think the whole thing will give me night terrors. But I’m not completely sure. It hasn’t been filled with those ugly 3 ring binders yet!

-- Chuck, Pullman, WA

11 comments so far

View Dave Polaschek's profile

Dave Polaschek

7703 posts in 1702 days

#1 posted 06-06-2021 01:01 AM

Looks good, Chuck! Shouldn’t be a source of night terrors, so you got that goin’ for ya.

-- Dave - Santa Fe

View swirt's profile


6277 posts in 4092 days

#2 posted 06-06-2021 01:37 AM

That came out great. I like joinery details of the face frame at the top and the skirt at the base. I enjoyed the story behind it too.

-- Galootish log blog,

View EarlS's profile


4555 posts in 3468 days

#3 posted 06-06-2021 12:19 PM

Nice choice of woods. I think you nailed the Tansu style too, with just a touch of G&G. This certainly is a lot more interesting to look at than a traditional bookcase with a couple of drawers.

-- Earl "I'm a pessamist - generally that increases the chance that things will turn out better than expected"

View James E McIntyre's profile

James E McIntyre

1296 posts in 2412 days

#4 posted 06-06-2021 03:47 PM

Great build Chuck. You combined the G & G and Japanese styles seamlessly, since the Arts and Crafts and the G & G styles were influenced by Japanese building techniques.

-- James E McIntyre

View woodbutcherbynight's profile


9606 posts in 3529 days

#5 posted 06-06-2021 05:02 PM

I am not up on all the styles and such. But that is a beautiful and unique build. Nice work.

-- Live to tell the stories, they sound better that way.

View Peteybadboy's profile


3501 posts in 3069 days

#6 posted 06-07-2021 08:51 AM

Really nice.

-- Petey

View WhattheChuck's profile


463 posts in 4680 days

#7 posted 06-07-2021 02:19 PM

Thanks, all!

Dave—re: night terrors, we’ll find out soon enough. I leave things to outgas for a week after finishing!

Others- re: details—hey, about 80% of what we all build are boxes. Gotta spruce them up a little!

Thanks to all of you for the support. I spend too much time on Twitter, and I can tell ya, this is a far more healthy environment!

-- Chuck, Pullman, WA

View iRestore's profile


31 posts in 674 days

#8 posted 06-07-2021 03:37 PM

Beautiful work. You also did a great job with the photos to really show this piece off!

View BlueRidgeDog's profile


836 posts in 899 days

#9 posted 06-07-2021 08:03 PM

Well made. I have a great aversion to ply for the reasons you list. Handled a great deal in my younger days and really just hate it now and dread having to man handle it.

View seminole77's profile


2 posts in 373 days

#10 posted 06-08-2021 12:22 AM

Spectacular! Thanks for sharing- good inspiration post here!

View WhattheChuck's profile


463 posts in 4680 days

#11 posted 06-08-2021 12:57 AM

BRD—well, it’s obviously a material that requires knowledge to use like any other. But as an oft one-off woodworker, I just don’t really make many multiples, where that learning would save time. What happens is I make one-offs that change in dimension (almost always shrinking!) as I make small mistakes and fix them.

Needless to say, that doesn’t work well with plywood!

Similar deal with the Domino. I’m not selling it, but I already had a pretty developed dovetail/mortise-and-tenon practice developed. I’ve resolved to practice with it, because it could come in handy some day. But don’t think I’d buy it again. OTOH—it DOES sit there and haunt me to make that set of dining room chairs I’ve threatened to make since forever, which spurred the purchase. So there’s that!

-- Chuck, Pullman, WA

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