A week ago today, a friend came over, armed with power tools, to help me assemble the record shelves at my new spot. By “help me” I mean “did most of the power work while I stood around and glued vertical supports”. That’s not out of laziness on my part; it’s more that I’ve never had particularly good hand skills when it comes to home improvement tasks and given that our nail gun could fire holes through solid pine without using a nail, I figured it’d be best to have the master handle the tools that might otherwise lead to one of us with a missing finger or nail in the forehead. To make a long story short, I am very grateful to Thes for this time, expertise and general generosity. He really wanted to help me with these; dude likes these construction projects so I was the beneficiary of his enthusiasm and largesse.

In the end, we built two intersecting shelves, one 8×8, the other 8×12. Put it all together and it should be enough, give or take, to house somewhere in the ballpark of 9000 records, more than enough to handle my Latin, jazz, soul and rock collection.

Alas, the sad (and astounding) thing is that even with at least 60% of these cubits still vacant, I’ve run the math and it’s still not going to be enough to absorb my hip-hop collection.

You have to understand: when Jeff posted this the other month, I felt it like braille make from cactus spines dipped in bhut jolokia extract. I have boxes upon boxes of “essential useless” records weighing me (and my subfloor) down (45 under the loft, another 15-20 above). Back when we moved from SF to LA in 2006, I had to keep almost all of my hip-hop records boxed, in the garage because our new spot simply didn’t have the room to shelve all of them. The fact that the vast majority of those boxes remained completely sealed for the last 3.5 years tells me that, well, perhaps not everything in there is very essential. And much of it is quite possibly useless (not for the world, just for me).

Now, I know many of you are no doubt thinking, “this is a good problem to have” and I don’t mean to sound disingenuous in complaining about this but anyone who collects anything knows that, at a certain point, the line between “passion” and “burden” can be razor thin. My rap records, amassed mostly between 1993 – 2006, are a challenge to literally fit into one’s life. Back in S.F., our two BD apartment turned into a BD because I used one of the rooms to house my records; that’s a fairly significant sacrifice. Luckily, at our new place, we had an extra room big enough to accommodate all the records but currently, only because they’re boxed and stacked. The reality is that I need to purge like mad, turning “essential useless” records into non-essential ones so I can let ’em go. It is, however, a daunting task and one that I’ve put off from doing for years now.

What much of this makes me think about is this notion of an audiobiography, a term I first heard used by friend and mentor Josh Kun. As the neologism suggests, an audiobiography is a way to think about one’s autobiography via music and that can, of course, take on many different forms. For me, I think of it in terms of how different records or genres have ebbed and flowed in import during the course of my life. For a long time, my rap library was a source of pride so it is strange to think that I know view it as a burden. It’s not that I’ve ceased to love or appreciate hip-hop but the material objects – the white label Abstract Rude 12″s I own or countless Rawkus promos for example – have ceased to be as meaningful as possessions. Like Mao’s promo-only copy of the Jazzmatazz Vol. 2 instrumentals that he’ll grip until the end of days, there are some records that I may never ever listen to but I’ll keep out of some inexplicable sentimentality. But I sense that for many other records, I’ll look at them and wonder why they’ve hung around with me for the better part of a decade.

This isn’t a bad thing. It may not necessarily be a sad thing even. But for someone with a pack rat mentality, it is a jarring gear shift.

But enough of this handwringing over “owning too many records.” I got an email from someone who runs a very well respected reissue label who was feeling my pain but only because he had 500 boxes of records to move. That put my dilemma in some perspective.

Now…someone asked for the basic design of the shelves and I’d be happy to share what we did since it’s really quite simple.

STEP ONE: The way this design works depends, first and foremost, on having each shelf be a single board of wood. This isn’t so much a structural thing as it is aesthetic. A single board eliminates any horizontal seams and more important, it eliminates any doubling of the vertical supports where side-by-side boards meet (imagine two boxes next to one another – the center verts where they meet are doubled up compared to each end. We wanted to avoid that).

Thes recommended unfinished, #2 pine boards and while they don’t have to be pine, it’s a good wood for a few reasons. First, pine boards usually come 3/4″ thick (which is sufficient for load-bearing purposes) and 11 1/4″ deep, which a bit short of the 12.5″ you’d need to completely fit a standard LP but if you don’t mind some overhang or don’t mind having an open back on your bookcase (i.e. not flush with the back wall), it’s not a big deal. Second, pine boards come in a variety of standard lengths from 6′ up to 16′ if you’re looking for the single, unbroken board method, then you need to have that flexibility. For example, my shelves were 8′ and 12′ wide, respectively, which was perfect for the dimensions of the space (which was 9 x 12.5) and it was easy enough to find both 8′ and 12′ pine boards at Home Depot and other places.

Second, pine is relatively affordable as far as wood goes. Home Depot is convenient but not always as affordable as going to be dedicated lumber yard. For example, a 12′ board at Home Depot runs about $1.66/foot. At the lumber yard, it was more like $1/foot and that extra 66% markup at HD is huge when you’re buying 300+ feet of lumber. On the other hand, Home Depot had a sale on 8′ long, #3 pine at more like .60/foot which was a great bargain. However, #3 pine is priced down because it tends to have bigger knots or cracks or rotted wood so you have to look through a lot of them to find wood that may be aesthetically marred but isn’t structurally compromised.

Third, pine is easy to finish or stain and because it’s naturally light in color, there’s flexibility in what color it ultimately ends up being. I was in a hurry so I just did a clear, gloss wood finish using water-based acrylic but I could have done some poly stain/varnish if I wanted to get fancy.

It doesn’t *need* to be pine. You could go with other wood choices, including plywood but the problem with plywood is that it’s cut as a sheet, not as a board and therefore, you’d need to cut it at least twice and with each cut, you raise the risk of unevenness which is a problem since these cases are dependent on having identical pieces of wood to make everything line up right.

STEP TWO: Calculate how much wood you’ll need. I admit, I totally messed up on the math so we had to make several repeat trips to HD. But just remember that you need to cut your vertical supports from the same boards. So calculate how many horizontal boards you’ll need and set that number aside. The math comes in when you start to figure out, 1) how tall you want each shelf, 2) how wide you want to space your verts, 3) how many verts you can get out of a board based on those dimensions.

My verts and horizontal spacing were identical: 13″. Because of that, it meant that all I needed was one extra board per shelf and that should be able to be cut into as many verts as I would need for the shelf. In other words, if I had six shelves, I’d need six extra boards for all the verts (plus one more extra board to put on top), for a total of 13 boards total.

This should have been easy math but I messed up because I was overbuying the less expensive 8′ boards and using them to create verts for both walls but I lost track of how much I actually needed. It was a dumb mistake and most people likely wouldn’t repeat it. The most important math is figuring out how much vertical space you actually have and then dividing that by how many shelves you want. Remember to include the stickness of the board itself (3/4″).

The algebra would be like this: Shelf height (including board height itself) x # of shelves + 3/4″ (for the crowning shelf) = Total record case height.

In our case, with an 8′ high wall, we had just barely enough space to sneak in 7 shelves, five of which were at 13″ high, the last two at 12.5″. This next part is very important: don’t build a shelf for records that’s any less than 12 3/4″s high. Ideally, just do ’em at 13″ if you can but if you need to shave off a bit, don’t go under 12 3/4″s. The reason is that while a rap record with a relatively thin cover and no plastic cover sleeve will just fit in 12.5, any kind of thicker cover LP, especially a gatefold, that’s also poly-bagged, will fit into 12.5 without risking dishing your vinyl.

So again, the magic minimum here is 12 3/4″.

Back on wood choices: you could find something else to use as verts like a different wood, something premanufactured in the dimensions you require. Hell, you could use cinder blocks (we’ve all been there). We went with the same pine for aesthetic reasons but structurally, it’s not required. This could become really pertinent if you don’t have access to a good saw (see below) and therefore, using pre-manufactured vertical supports of whatever material might be more advisable. Just remember that you want to cut down on any kind of horizontal shearing (i.e. the verts moving laterally) and that means finding a way to secure the verst to each shelf, ideally with nail or screws.

Spacing is the other issue. Pine boards are more flexible than other woods but my old shelves – Ikea Ivars, also made from pine – were 33″ across, could take the weight of 200 LPs (appx. 100lbs) and never sagged in the middle. I don’t know if we could have replicated the same thing here (i.e. had verts spaced 26″ apart instead of 13″) but Thes had structural and aesthetic issues with anything less than a cube-design and I agreed. I’d consult a carpenter about it if you want to move off a cube design.

STEP THREE: Assemble the tools.

The three most important are 1) a saw to cut the boards into verts. We used the best possible saw for the task – a 12″ sliding miter. The blade was big enough to cut the wood in a single pull and the sliding mechanism allowed for a more even and consistent cut which is crucial since you need your verts to all be identical. A non-sliding miter can also work but if the blade comes up too short, you may have to flip it to complete the cut which not only takes more time, but also increases the chance of an uneven cut. A table saw could also do the same thing but it too lacks the consistency of sliding miter. You could also hack saw it if you want to go real old school but…

2) Nail gun. This is for the sake of expediency since we wanted to attach the verts to the shelf in a way that was quick but secure. You could do the same thing with a hammer and nails but that’d take much longer and if you’re going to go that route, I’d suggest, instead, that you use wood screws and not nails. That way, if you ever needed to, you could break down the bookcase and rebuild it elsewhere. Since I’m not planning to move in the long term, having everything nailed together was fine by me.

3) Cordless screwdriver/bit driver. This is more for the finishing stage, when you want to secure the case to the wall via l-brackets.

And that’s really it. We also used wood glue on the verts to help prevent shearing and a pair of pliers is useful for the nails that miss and you need to yank out. Also useful – a stud finder.

STEP THREE.5: Mark your studs. Before you start filling up the wall space, use a stud finder to find where your studs are so you can easily find them later when it comes time to secure the case to the wall.

STEP FOUR: Cut your verts. Just remember, each vert has to come out the same so you want to rig your saw to produce identical cuts each time.

STEP FIVE: Begin assembling your case, shelf by shelf. What you’ll need on the front end is a piece of board cut into the exact width you want your verts spaced by. This becomes your “template” which you’ll lay down between each vert, ensuring consistent spacing.

Thes’ approach, which sounds like the sensible one, was to build the bottom shelf first in its entirety (meaning you had two boards connected by verts, forming a box). You could do this on its side so it’s easier to nail the verts to the board and then stand it up right and move it into position. I already had a subfloor of plywood and 2/4s underneath so we just screwed the bottom board into the floor but depending on what’s there, you might need an extra board to put underneath.

Once that bottom shelf is in place and secured, you build each subsequent shelf by first laying down the verts (via that template) and then nailing them in from below. This is why the staggered/honeycomb design doesn’t just look good, it also makes assembly so much easier. Think about it – you can’t nail in a vert from below if the vert is lined up with the vert on the shelf below. The only way to do that would either by 1) using l-brackets to secure the bottom of the vert to the board or 2) drilling out spaces for wooden dowels (Ikea-style!) but BOTH would be very time consuming. A staggered design is no less stable (so long as you’re consistent from shelf to shelf) but it makes assembly with a nail gun so much easier.

Once the verts are in place, you lay a new board on top and then just nail gun that into place (which goes super fast since you’re gunning down).

The crowning shelf can be tricky. If you have enough ceiling clearance to still nail down, then it’s not a big deal. But if you’re going all the way to the top, what you need to do is construct the last shelf like you did the first one – in a box shape – then lift the box on top, then secure it from below.

STEP SIX: Secure the shelves to existing studs. This is where you’d bust out your l-brackets, long stud screws, and cordless bit driver. Ideally, would have support at the base, in the middle and at top. Extra bonus if you have a corner where you can also secure them to the side or on top, to a roof beam. Keep in mind that the main load-bearing is straight down. You don’t want there to be excessive lateral pull put on your wall studs; you’re securing them simply for the sake of stability but not to be load-bearing.

And that’s about it!

I know I wrote a lot but the actual prep and assembly is ultimately very straightforward. So long as you have the optimal tools, the whole thing can move efficiently along and while it took us about 14 hours to get everything up from start to finish, that included 1) the run to the lumber yard, 2) three trips to Home Depot for things we forgot, 3) meals, etc. The lumber is something you can get ahead of time and store. If you went with pre-manufactured verts of some kind, that could also be bought ahead of time.

EXTRA STUFF: We were able to create a clean corner between the two shelves because the dimensions of the space were ideal. The two shelves practically met at that corner, with just a few inches of overlap so Thes made sure to line up the verts to create a flush, 90 degree angle from bottom to top. This isn’t only aesthetically good; it also meant we could secure the two cases together, thus providing extra stability.

Thes’ finest problem-solving moment came with figuring out how to compensate for a rafter on the roof that prevented us from putting in that crowning shelf. At first he thought he’d saw off part of the rafter to make room but then realized it’d be easier to cut a notch out of the crowning shelf that the rafter then could slide into. Brilliant.