DIY: Make a colourful bookcase

Michael Dodds and Paula van Niekerk are the talented duo behind popular Cape store Vamp. They reveal how to transform an old open bookshelf into a designer display unit by simply adding a couple of colourful backboards



  1. If applicable, remove the existing backboard from your bookshelf.
  2. If your bookshelf is painted, remove the paint with a paint stripper. If it’s been varnished, give it a light sand all over.
  3. Fill in any holes or rough areas using a scraper and wood filler. Make sure you choose a filler that matches the colour of the wood of your bookshelf. Allow the filler to dry.
  4. Using fine sandpaper over a sanding block (or flat piece of wood) sand the entire bookshelf by hand. Thoroughly wipe off any dust.
  5. Apply a coat of varnish using a paint brush; a polyurethane varnish is best for durability. Allow the varnish to dry completely, preferably overnight.
  6. Lightly sand your bookshelf again, wipe off any dust and apply a second coat of varnish. Allow it to dry.
  7. Repeat the process and apply the last coat of varnish. Allow it to dry.


  1. Get pieces of hardboard cut to size to fit some of the compartments of your bookshelf; the idea is to leave some shelves open and back others with a backboard.
  2. Fill in any holes or rough areas in the hardboard using a scraper and wood filler. Allow the filler to dry.
  3. Using a fine sandpaper sand your pieces of hardboard by hand. Wipe off any dust.
  4. Apply a coat of a water-based primer using a paintbrush.
  5. Allow to dry, then give each piece a light sanding. Repeat the process, apply a second coat of primer.
  6. Paint your pieces of hardboard using a good quality, water-based acrylic paint. We chose to paint each one a different complementary colour for added interest and to give the finished unit a unique personality. Allow the paint to dry completely.
  7. Apply another coat of paint and allow it to dry.


  1. It’s easiest to ask a friend to help with this part of the project. Hold one of the backboards in place against the corresponding compartment of the bookshelf; neatly hammer in panel pins at regular intervals to secure it.
  2. Repeat the process until you’ve attached all your new backboards.