All About Custom Built-In Bookshelves and Costs in NYC

Understanding the costs, materials, and installation of custom bookshelves

Custom built-in bookshelves in a bedroom

(Above) Sweeten homeowner Claudia’s custom built-in bookshelves in NYC

Built-ins: Resourceful and good-looking

You’ll find built-in bookshelves defined as entire pieces of cabinetry that are extensions of a wall. They are known for being clever space-savers and are a substantial piece of millwork. Typically custom-sized—from floor to ceiling and any width—these built-in cabinets offer up maximum storage.

With the expertise of Sweeten contractors from NYC, we break down the elements that go into the cost for custom built-in bookshelves: materials, labor, and site conditions. Have a better understanding of what goes into the process of creating millwork, and how it factors into your renovation budget as a whole.

Average costs on built-in bookshelves 

While a basic internet search brings up a lot of information on kitchen remodeling costs or bathroom renovation costs, rates for built-in cabinets are harder to find. This is due in part to the uniqueness of these projects—no two are the same! 

That said, many millworkers rely on a linear footage model as a basis for calculating pricing, with various factors affecting overall cost. In urban areas like New York City, the range starts between $800 to $1,000 per linear foot for basic open shelving.

Why are custom bookshelves so expensive?

The number one misconception is the expected cost. Experienced GCs will guide you on the several important factors that will attribute to creating your custom built-in bookshelves, according to NYC-based Sweeten contractors Nina and Ilya.

  • Materials – “Lumber is expensive,” said Nina. “It may not look like it but there’s a lot of wood involved in turning the raw material into the finished product.” 
  • Labor – This cost includes “preplanning, labor, studio, and shop work to prefabricate the product,” they said. “It then gets delivered to the site for installation.”
  • Site condition – The existing condition of the space will determine if additional time and attention is required in designing or installing the project. Are the walls bowed or the floors uneven? Are there finishes that need to be matched to existing furniture or flooring? Other site variations can affect the price. Read more about site conditions below.

Custom built-ins result in a one-of-a-kind piece made to your exact specifications that fit precisely into your space. The work that goes into a custom built-in piece often extends beyond what homeowners can imagine: Skilled experts source the materials, design, build, and perfect the unit before transporting it from the workshop to your home.

In the end, you are paying for both service and craftsmanship, elements that are usually missing from an “off-the-shelf” experience.

(Above) Deeksha and Joe wanted an old-style NYC built-in bookcase

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A note on material delays

The contractors note that markets have been experiencing a backlog in the supply of materials in many sectors. “We’ve been experiencing some shortages in wood, lacquer, and paint,” said Ilya.

For NYC homeowners interested in renovating, consider finding a licensed general contractor, scheduling, and signing them to lock in material prices. Your contractor will be able to get your material orders in the queue.

They suggest building the delays into your timeline. “It’s taking 12–16 weeks for cabinets and built-ins from start to install,” said Ilya. “Stock cabinets deliver the fastest,” he said. “The more customized the design, the more it will add to the delivery time.”

Custom bookshelves: Materials, installation, other features

To get an accurate estimate, you’ll need to take a few other variables into account. For example, the average range of $800 to $1,000 per linear foot usually assumes that the unit will be no taller than eight feet. Excess height will translate into higher costs. 

Custom built-in cabinets in a living area

(Above) A Manhattan couple’s Central Park West renovation

Here are other factors that can impact the budget of built-ins:

Materials for custom bookshelves

The multitude of options includes solid woods, plywood, medium-density fiberboard (MDF), veneers, high-pressure laminate, and melamine. The good news is you’ll definitely find a style to suit your style and needs. Some points to think about:

  • Solid wood is the gold standard because it is both classic and timeless. While solid wood is usually strong and sturdy, some types may crack, buckle, or shrink when subject to heat and humidity.
  • MDF is a good option when you’re on a budget or if you plan on painting the shelves. It is composed of dried, pressed recycled wood fibers and resin. It withstands temperature changes better than many kinds of wood. It also acts as an excellent substrate for veneers.
  • Plywood is an engineered wood like MDF but essentially made of pressed sheets of wood veneer, which is why layers are visible along the edges. Higher grades of plywood are used for cabinets and shelving, while lower grades are what you might see in housing construction and subfloors. As with solid woods, you can choose different types of plywood such as maple, pine, or birch.


Finishes for custom bookshelves

After choosing the materials, decide how you’d like your shelves finished. Options to consider:

  • Paint is the go-to option. With this route, there may be a price difference based on the method of application (brush, roller, or spray), and the quality and brand of the paint you choose.
  • Solid lacquer is a popular choice, which provides hard, glossy finishes that range in the level of sheen from clear to colored. Lacquer produces an extremely damage-resistant finish. It’s ideal for projects that see a lot of traffic, such as low shelving in a child’s room.
  • Varnish is usually transparent but also comes in a range of glossy to satin finishes. Like lacquer, it produces a durable finish.
  • Unfinished shelving creates a more industrial contemporary look.

A lot of labor goes into producing a high-quality painted finish. (For a case study, read about the time and labor spent on Kate and Arthur’s DIY cabinets.) The entire process can take up to five days and include up to four coats of primer and finish. Compared to two to three coats of a high-quality clear lacquer that can be applied in as little as one day. The additional labor costs easily offset the savings of less expensive, “paint-grade” materials.

Custom built-in bookshelves in a home office

(Above) A built-in desk and shelving for Sweeten homeowners

Site conditions

The type of building structure you live in—house, apartment, walk-up, or elevator—contributes to pricing differentials when it comes to built-ins. Projects in apartments often take longer to deliver and install than those in houses. “Labor costs increase when materials need to be maneuvered in a walk-up building,” Ilya said. 

In addition to the logistics of parking and unloading on a busy city street, some apartment buildings have strict work hours for contractors. This can limit the amount of work that they can finish in one day, stretching a one-day installation into two. 

Features and components of custom bookshelves

Simple open shelving is the least expensive built-in option. Most experts don’t calculate costs per additional drawer or door. However, the more features you include, the higher the overall cost. Glass doors or shelves, a floating desk, and lighting all add cost in time and materials.

Custom built-ins may conjure up visions of grand homes but, in fact, are great space-savers in smaller homes. These cabinets are the touch of millwork to up your storage game in any room. When you’re ready to get started on your home remodel, work with us to renovate with the best contractors in NYC.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog, Sweeten Stories, for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation with Sweeten.

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