BOOKCASE TO BAR: British Colonial Bookcase Modification

Can you turn a vintage bookcase into a bar? Yes, but not easily!

Our customer needed a multi-function storage piece for display books and artifacts and for use as a dry bar. Instead of ordering custom millwork, designer Gil Mellot of Studio 6F, asked us to convert one of our large British Colonial bookcases. He did not want to cut shelves or otherwise modify the piece in a way that couldn't be reversed. We, too, favor preserving antiques and avoiding major surgery if there are better alternatives. But we also want to serve our customers. So, we proposed inserting a dry bar segment into the middle of the bookcase; basically, adding a level.

Large bookcases are often made in multiple parts. This bookcase was segmented at the waist, with the top of the lower segment being the perfect height for serving food and drinks. The idea was good, but the difficulty was going to be in its execution. How would we match the look of the new segment to the original parts?  Was there a way to support the heavy upper cabinet and keep the serving area open?

Our workshop had an interesting task ahead, with both structural and artistic challenges. First, we had to make the new segment very strong. We hunted through our wood reserves and found hardwood beams that we milled down to match the size of the antique bookcase frame. To make the new segment strong enough, we spanned the front with a thick oak beam.

Since the old cabinet was finished in black lacquer, we knew we could substitute oak for teak. Oak is stiffer and better for this application and has a similar grain. Once the frame was done, we filled it in with reclaimed teak planks.

The next steps were artistic ones. We sanded the new addition and gave it a dark stain. On the exterior, we made the surface extra smooth and sealed it with a black/brown lacquer. Then we added subtle scratches and imperfections to simulate antique texture. Lastly, a brown glaze was applied and partially rubbed off to imitate soot and grime.

The interior presented a different challenge. The antique bookcase was painted inside like many British Colonial cabinets from India and Burma. To recreate the look of old paint, we started by matching the original color, which was cream white. Then we proceeded to add darker coats, rubbed them to simulate dirt and use. Once the new finish matched the old one, we sealed it in with a coat of dull lacquer. 

Finally, we added the marble top. The stone had been selected by the designer and cut to fit precisely into the bar area. Many antique colonial tables had marble tops with some veining so this one was appropriate to the period as well as lovely to look at. Some grommets were discreetly added to the back to accommodate cords for a blender or coffee maker. Lights were tucked into the recess above. 

We know the piece is now a favorite of the homeowner and in constant use.  We’re very grateful to Gil Mellot of Studio 6F for putting this interesting project in motion and for offering so much thoughtful input and guidance.