A few months back the Apartment Therapy blog had a post on unusual bookshelves. One of the featured pictures was a USA map bookshelf, built by some architects in London. We'd been looking for some type of interesting bookshelf project and this fit the bill. There was no information on how they were built. They didn't offer one for sale. In fact, no one anywhere offers this type of bookshelf for sale. There was no option but to figure it out and build it ourselves.
I started with a template. I found a map of the lower 48 and brought it into Adobe Illustrator. I cleaned it up with lots of straight lines, knowing every curve would mean another angled cut for a shelf.
Next, I found a program online called Rasterbator, which takes your photo and scales it up to any size you want for massive printing. It cuts the photo into 8-1/2x11" pieces. I printed out the map on 84 sheets and taped them together into a giant full scale bookshelf template.
The idea was to create each state shelf individually, mounting them to the wall with drywall anchors. They'd be spaced about a quarter inch apart, leaving the negative space between them to highlight their borders. I found a slick double razor that would cut apart my template, leaving just the right gap between each state.
It is made by X-acto. I sort of inherited it in a huge lot of tools I recently bought, so I'm not sure where you can get it. Using a straightedge and a cutting mat, I cut all 50 states apart. I then began laying them out to figure how much wood I was going to need.
After doing a little research, I settled on using Baltic birch plywood. It is commonly used in bookshelves and other furniture projects. I wanted to leave the edge of the plywood visible to give it a more modern look. High quality Baltic birch plywood (BB grade) has even plys. Every layer is solid hardwood. This eliminates the holes and gaps you see with other plywood on the cut edges. Baltic birch is sold traditionally in 5'x5' pieces. I figured I'd need about 4 with all the shelves. This was mostly a guess though, because I had no idea how much area I'd need for the shelves. I built my shelves 8" deep. This accommodated most average sized novels and slightly larger books, but wouldn't be so deep and heavy that it obscured the shape of the map.
Next, I took the state cut-outs and flipped them upside down. I glued them to the plywood with spray adhesive. Don't forget to flip them over. Using a jigsaw and then a bandsaw, I cut the states out along the edge of the paper. Many of them had long straight borders, which were better cut on the table saw. I made a simple sled with which I could hold the state in line, then just slide it along the table saw blade.
Cutting took about 3-4 hours. Each state was then sanded down to 220 grit. Then it was on to the shelves.
When I started the project I wasn't 100% sure how I would join the shelves to the states or to each other. I knew I'd have tons of unique angles and any joint would need to be strong. Enter the Festool Domino. The very day I was trying to figure this out, I saw an article about it. It is a (very expensive) tool which cuts mortises of various sizes. You then place loose tenons, made by Festool, into the mortises and beautiful joinery occurs. It is designed to line up the mortises and tenons very precisely, and they fit quite tight. It can handle any angle. It was the perfect fit for this project. So perfect that my neighbor Kevin popped over
to interrupt and we used it to join some 2x10s for a desk he was building.
So I ripped the remaining plywood I had into 8" strips, measured the angles for each shelf and then cut the shelves on the compound miter saw.
I then used the Domino to cut mortises in the states as well as in the angles of the shelves.
One by one each of the angles came together. For angles greater than 45 degrees, which are a huge pain, I would cut them to 45, then use a bench mounted belt sander to sand the angles to greater than 45 degrees. You could probably build a jig to cut these angles on the table saw, but there weren't so many that I wanted to go to the trouble.
I dry fit everything together, then began sanding the shelves. I used an orbital sander to get them also to 220 grit. Next came the glue up. The loose tenons were glued into the mortises, then more glue was spread along the edges of the shelves. Clamps were placed. I used the newer Gorilla wood glue that doesn't expand. It worked really well. I liked it better than the Titebond II I've used in the past.
Gluing up the larger states like Texas and California were a bit challenging as every mortise/tenon joint had to line up and you had to get them together before the glue dried.
Once everything was glued up, I drilled 3-5 holes in each state to mount them to the wall. These were drilled slightly larger than the screws so they'd slide through and not bind on the wood as they bit into the wall anchors. I didn't want the screws to stand out, so I painted the heads to match the wood (Rustoleum satin ivory silk matched the natural birch perfectly).
For finishing, there are a million choices and you can't go wrong with most of them. I decided to make it easy. I found a clear lacquer spray at Home Depot ($5+ per can). I built a little makeshift painting station and started spraying. I did 3 coats on each one. I didn't want it shiny, just protected. The lacquer dried so fast that once I sprayed all 50 states, I could just start over on the next coat immediately.
And finally, the installation. In order to get the size and position of the map right, I projected it on the wall in our living room with an overhead projector. If you need an overhead and are in Salt Lake, let me know. My dad sells them and artists and DIYers are constantly picking them up for projects. I started with Texas, held it in place, then pushed a nail through the holes in the state to mark the site of the wall anchors. While I made the holes in the drywall, Micki placed the screws in the holes on the state shelves and vacuumed up debris. I'd then screw the shelf in place. I used the little Domino tenons as spacers when I lined up each state with the other. They were the perfect thickness. Here's a timelapse of the shelf going up.
What a crazy project. I'm not sure, but I think I put in 75-80 hours on it. The material costs were as follows: 4 sheets BB grade Baltic birch - $200, 12 cans Deft clear lacquer - $65, sandpaper and glue - $20. The last thing we need to get are more books. We've never held onto them in the past because we moved so many times, it was a pain to take them with us. Now that they'll have a permanent home, we are looking forward to bringing all the classics into our living room.