DIY Project: Burlap Backed Bookcases

Today’s post wraps up my week of blogging about the revamp of our family room fireplace and built-in bookcases (Monday’s post detailed painting the bookcases and adding new moulding and hardware and Wednesday’s post was a low-down on designing the stone veneer fireplace).  

Now we’re on to my favorite part of the project – lining the back of the bookcases with burlap! I knew that I wanted to break up the sea of white by doing something different with the back of the bookcases and had originally planned on using paint or wallpaper but was worried that adding too much color or pattern would limit the type of things that I could style the shelves with.  After working with my daughter to sew burlap bunnies for Easter, the idea to use burlap for the back of the bookcases was born! I decided to use small upholstery tacks around the edges to anchor it to the bookcase and add a decorative touch, creating a look similar to the burlap back of my favorite chair!:
So here’s the easy DIY tutorial:
Supplies for the project are pretty basic: (1) yardage of burlap that is at least 3″ inches wider and longer than the measurements of your bookcase, (2) steel upholstery tacks, and (3) a tack hammer. I got my burlap and tacks from Hobby Lobby and already had a tack hammer on hand but if you don’t, you can pick one up for under $5 at Harbor Freight.

Start out by cutting your piece of burlap so that it is about 4″ longer and 4″ wider than the back of your bookcase. Iron out the wrinkles. One of your four edges will be a straight, “finished” edge (the original edge on the bolt of fabric) whereas the other three edges are probably a bit uneven because they have been cut – uneven is ok at this point!  Starting with your finished edge, fold over 1″ of burlap along the entire length of the side and iron it down, keeping the ironed edge as straight as possible. Next, do the same thing (fold down and iron) along the entire length of one of the neighboring sides, making sure that your folded edge is straight and that there is a minimum of 1″ of burlap folded over along the entire length of the edge. Then, using the measurements of the height and width of your bookcase back, fold down and iron the length of the other two sides of your burlap piece so that the height and width of your burlap match that of the bookcase back. The final step to prepare your burlap is to cut the entire length of the three unfinished burlap edges exactly 1″ from the ironed edge – do so by using a yard stick or tape measure and marking a straight 1″ line with a fabric marking pen or chalk:  

Once you have done this to all three unfinished edges, the back of your piece of burlap should look something like this all of the way around:

Why is it important for the folded over burlap to have a straight edge? Due to the loose weave of burlap, when you attach it to your bookcase, the 1″ piece that is folded under will show through the front and create the look of a border so you want it to be neat and even:  
The last step before you get out the hammer and tacks is to do a little math – you want your tacks to be evenly spaced all the way around. Using the measurements of the length and width of the back of your bookcase, figure out a spacing that will work for you.  I ended up putting my tacks about 3″ apart.  Finally, start nailing in your tacks – start with the top edge, then do each side, then do the bottom edge.  I kept a short ruler in my hand which I was hammering the tacks to keep them at the desired spacing.  I recommend that initially you not hammer the tacks all the way in – hammer them in just enough that they are holding the burlap firmly in place.  This way, if your spacing gets off and you need to pull out any of the tacks and move them, it’s easy to do.  Once you’ve gone all the way around the edge of your burlap, if you’re happy with the spacing of the tacks go back around with the hammer and nail them in all the way. Done!

I’m loving the warmth and texture that the burlap adds to the room and that the burlap is a neutral backdrop that gives me a lot of flexibility in how I style the shelves. Speaking of styling my shelves, I used a lot of the frames, etc. that I had on the shelves before the makeover but also added some new elements based on some of the inspiration photos I collected on my “styling bookcases” Pinterest board.  

Thanks for stopping by!  Enjoy your weekend!


  1. says

  2. says

    What is the depth of your bookcase and cabinet? I’m in the process of creating something very similar for around our fireplace. This is our inspiration!

  3. says

    What is the depth of your bookcase and cabinet? I’m in the process of creating something very similar for around our fireplace. This is our inspiration!

    • says

      Hi Jason! The base cabinets are about 18″ deep and the shelves in the bookcase are about 10″ deep. The shelves were a bit difficult to decorate because they are so shallow – I would consider making your shelves a few inches deeper than mine are. Good luck with your project!

  4. Julie says

    I love your bookcases and am thinking of doing the same to my 15 year old bookcases. They are an ugly orangey-brown oak and I just hate them! Just wondering how much time the painting took you? I read that you sanded, primed, and painted 2 coats. I also have crown moulding around the ceiling in the room that I would need to paint. I don’t want to get in over my head. I got a quote from a painter for almost $2,000 (he was going to paint the walls and ceiling too but come on $2000?) Anyway, how long did it take you for each step? Did you let it dry for days in between coats? Thanks so much for inspiring me! I loved that I was able to show mu husband what it would look like painted.


    • says

      Hi Julie! I’m guessing that in total it may have taken me about 20-25 hours from start to finish – that sounds like forever but (#1) I am meticulously picky about a perfect paint job and (#2) I just painted 2-3 hours here and there when time allowed over a period of a few weeks rather than trying to knock it all out in a few days. I did let it dry about 1-2 days between coats but you don’t have to – I just did it that way because it’s how the timetable worked out for me. Also, my shelves are removable and I removed the doors of the cabinets and painted the shelves and doors on sawhorses in the garage which was much easier than painting them in place. I did not paint the inside of my base cabinets so if you open them up, you see a whole lot of ugly going on! I figured I could do that paint job down the road if I’m inspired to do so (which is unlikely!). Good luck with your project – it will make a world of difference in your home!
      P.S. After the paint job was done, I did also add a coat of clear polyurethane just to the tops of the shelves to protect the paint from being scratched by the things I placed on them! Wait several days after your entire paint/polyurethane job is done before placing things on the shelves so your paint and poly is 100% cured and items on your shelves won’t stick!!

  5. Anonymous says

    Beautiful! We are trying to figure out how to update our bookcases now and this is a great idea. What is the paint color on your walls? Thanks!

  6. Anonymous says

    Thank you for the paint color! I can’t seem to reply directly to that thread, so I had to start a new one :) I’ve purchased the burlap to install on our bookcases. It shreds so much – did you put anything on the burlap first?

    • says

      I didn’t put anything on the burlap but I did make sure that when I made my cuts in the burlap that each of the four ends had burlap strands that ran the entire length of the side. I would guess that this is why I didn’t have any issues with shredding. Good luck!

  7. says

    this is a great tutorial… I used burlap on the shelves on the Crystal Creek house….but your idea with the tacks is a much better way to finish off the edges….mine weren’t so pretty! I might have to copy this idea soon…
    thanks for sharing…..

    • says

      Thanks Jeanette. I’m trying to decide if I should do this again in our new house. Seems kinda boring to do the same thing again but I really do love the change that the burlap made to the feel of the space!

    • Kris @ Driven by Decor says

      Thanks Stacy – yes, the sunburst mirror is from Ballard Design. They don’t have the exact same one anymore but they do have one that’s almost identical.

  8. Susan Jackson-Rafter says

    Love the burlap and would love to do the same. I think I’ll use foam core board and wrap the burlap around that. Decorative tack heads could be added with glue to get your look, but much easier to change out to achieve a different look. Stumbled upon our site through Pinterest. Love it!

    • says

      I thought about using a foam board because I agree it would be nice and easy to change out but I didn’t have the space for it behind my shelves and didn’t want to cut my shelves down. Love your idea of glueing the nail heads!

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