Bonfire of the Billys

Root Simple’s proposal for a Ikea Billy Stonehenge

We spent this weekend ridding our house of the last vestiges of Ikea, a set of Billy bookshelves in Kelly’s she-shed. As I dragged them to the street I remembered what author and woodworker Christopher Schwartz’s said in The Anarchist’s Design Book that, “it annoys me when I see an IKEA Billy bookshelf in a woodworker’s house.”

Schwartz goes on to explain why,

Yes, you get about 15 linear feet of shelving, plus a carcase that is ridiculously unstable. Only two shelves are fixed. So unless you secure the Billy to the wall (or other Billys), it will rack in short order . . . I say this with experience. When my wife and I bought our first house, we actually drove to Virginia to visit the nearest IKEA and bought two Billy bookcases. I put them together and immediately felt wronged. After a few months I let them do what they do best: fall apart. Then I started building shelves for our home.

I came to the same conclusion he reaches in the intro to his book that, in order to have decent furniture that doesn’t cost an obscene amount of money you have to learn to make it yourself.

Schwartz runs a small publishing company, Lost Art Press, that produces books as beautiful as they are useful. He has pioneered a elegant and non-fussy style, based on the furniture of working people, that is accessible to beginning woodworkers without looking like a clunky junior high woodshop project. He says,

Beautiful, durable and useful furniture is within the grasp of anyone willing to pick up a few tools and learn to use them. It does not require expensive materials or a lifetime of training – just an everyday normal dose of guts.

Millions of people before you – and just like you – built all the furniture in their homes. They might not have left pattern books behind, but they left clues sprinkled through paintings, sketches and the furniture record.

I put our Billys on NextDoor, Freecycle and Craigslist and someone, with less worries of shelf racking, grabbed them. Now when they fall over it won’t be my problem.

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  1. Once, I could have constructed shelves. Now, I cannot. Maybe I can find someone who can follow directions. This was all good to know.

  2. * So anyone with cheap Ikea furniture shouldn’t get into woodworking? I ought to go put up a sign at the tool library to turn people away? πŸ™‚

    * “only two shelves are fixed” isn’t unique to Ikea, people do like adjustable heights for their art books &etc.

    * The Billy instructions *explicitly say to secure the bookcase to the wall* – like lots of other cheap stuff, it’s engineered to just hold together when correctly assembled. “This wood joint is terrible, it has zero strength? What’s that? Yeah, I guess I skipped the step where you glue it.”

  3. I have a family of Billys. Some I built at my current home. Some I built at my last home. Some I built at the home before that. And one old great grandfather Billy I built at my first apartment back in 1997. Since I’m pretty lackadaisical about finding new furniture, the “I’ll replace it with something better later” has never come.
    It is more likely that I will learn to build better shelves first.

  4. I have a Billy that must be 25 years old. It’s moved to the garage, but just because better bookcase have replaced it.

    Billys are great and have helped many a bibliophile affordably display their passion. Don’t look down your nose at them.

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