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How to Upcycle an Old Bookshelf

Updated: Oct 17, 2023



I am constantly working on one project or another, my latest is how to upcycle an old bookshelf. Recently, I started refinishing and building furniture as display units for our county fair. The best way to keep costs down is to find free furniture. There are online sites where people post about free furniture or, in the case of this bookshelf, sometimes they place it on the side of the road with a free sign. The key I have found for a good upcycle is that the furniture must be made out of real wood. Particle board can be worked with but is more difficult and doesn’t last as long.

Completed Bookshelf

Steps to Upcycle an Old Bookshelf

This particular project was a wood bookcase that dogs had distressed pretty thoroughly on the bottom section. Because I wanted to give this a rustic look and it was otherwise good quality wood, I felt like I could work with this piece, despite the dog-chewed areas.

dog distressed area

I started by using a wood stripper and pressure washer to remove the old stain. It had to dry for 24 hours before I could work with it more.

Pressure washer

After it dried, I sanded the bite marks in the wood and created a uniform distressed look over all of the lower portion of the bookshelf.

sand smooth

I removed the back because I prefer a rustic feel of a pallet wall back. Then, it was time to stain it. I used wood effects that provided a charred look. This look is perfect because it provided a contrast to the lighter pallet boards. I had debated using pallet boards for the shelving as well but, in the end, I decided to give them the same charred look.

use wood effects

At this point, we needed to take apart some pallets so we had wood for the back, as referred to above. This was done best by my husband with a pallet jack. Have you ever used a pallet jack? It is a necessary tool if you work with palettes a lot. It used to take 15 minutes or more to take apart a pallet. With this tool, my husband can pull one apart in under 3 minutes.

pallet jack

Then it is just a matter of removing the nails and sorting the boards according to color and size. My favorite pallet boards have spent some time outside weathering.

prepare pallet wood

If your boards look too new, you can treat them with white vinegar to give them a more aged look.


I always sand my pallet boards to ensure they are smooth. The key is to take off all the potential splinters but leave the rustic character of each board.

sand pallet boards

I lucked out and my pallet boards ended up being the exact width of the bookcase. I used a mixture of wood glue and a pneumatic finishing nail gun to attach them to the back. To be sure that my case was square, I also used a speed square for placement.

attach pallet boards

The last step was to add my shelves. Since I was making this for the county fair, I decided to leave the shelves moveable. (We never know what exhibits we are going to get.) If I was making it for home use I would have given the shelves a permanent location.

Completed Bookshelf

I am so happy with the result of my upcycled bookshelf. The bookcase now has that rustic country flair that I was going for and that I love so much.

Completed bookshelf

I hope this tutorial of how to upcycle an old bookshelf gives you ideas for your own DIY bookshelf project.

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