Weekend Project: Book Safe

A few weeks ago, my brother asked me to come over and help him move some furniture from a bedroom upstairs — which was soon to become a nursery for his second son — to a new office in their newly finished basement. Among the items we lugged down the stairs was an Ikea bookshelf. In cleaning off said bookshelf to prepare to move it, I came across some of his old pharmacy textbooks that hadn’t been cracked open in years. Instead of sending those books to the recycling depot, though, I salvaged a couple of them for a project for which I had seen instructions in a recent issue of Popular Mechanics: a book safe.


We’ve seen them in spy movies: books that are hollowed out in the middle to allow for the stashing of cash, passports with alternate identities, or even a little nip of alcohol. Really, who would any of that would be hidden in a boring old pharmacy textbook?

For this project post, I’m going to relay the instructions in Popular Mechanics, and then add my own comments about how easily I was able to follow them.

1. Pick a hardcover book that has at least 300 pages, one that people aren’t so likely to pick off the shelf. Like the dictionary.
[Opens pharmacy textbook, stops counting at 1,600 pages] Check!

2. Open the cover and first few pages and secure the remaining pages with clamps. 


Ah dammit! When I first read these instructions, I didn’t read this step closely, and I thought I was meant to only clamp those first few pages of the book. So I brought home a couple of large binder clips from the office that I thought would do the job. The clips did come in handy later on, but I still had to run over to a friend’s place and borrow some clamps.

Another thing I figured out a bit too late into the project for my liking is that it works better to clamp the book to your workstation, rather than just clamping the pages of the book together.

3. Use a ruler and a carpenter’s pencil to mark your cutting area. The border should be at least one inch wide, measured from the edge of the page.

Measuring was a little tricky, as the measurements on the ruler I was using didn’t go all the way to the end of the ruler, so working in from the spine of the book was troublesome. Plus I kept having to move the clamps around in order to get the measurements I needed. If I’m doing it again, it might just be easier to do the measuring and marking before the clamping.

4. Cut the rectangle out with an X-Acto knife, removing about 20 pages at a time. Or if you really want to have fun, put on safety glasses and a dust mask and use an oscillating tool with semicircular blade to saw along the perimeter of the rectangle. Stop once the cuts are 3/4-inch deep. Switch to a straight blade to get the corners. 


Well, I don’t have an oscillating tool, so it’s the no-fun method for me. And though it sounds simple, this step is far more labour-intensive than I thought it would be. I had an X-Acto knife and a large utility knife, and it was a struggle, especially in the corners. Also, if either knife wasn’t sharp enough, the pages would bunch up and because difficult to cut. After more than an hour of cutting, I wasn’t nearly as deep into the textbook as I had hoped, but I was covered in a blizzard of paper shavings and getting a little frustrated at the process.

5. Flip the book upside down to dump out the cut-out pages. Remove dust with a brush or shop vac. Clean the edges with an X-Acto knife.

I assume the whole “flip the book upside down” instruction is for those using the oscillating tool. With a knife, it was easier to remove the cut-out pages as I went along.

6. Mix white glue with water to create a brushable mixture. (It should be roughly 70 percent glue, as too much water will cause the pages to pucker.) Paint the edges of the clamped section of pages as well as inside the cut surface. Remove the clamps and let the glue dry under a weighted object (at least ten pounds).


As I was planning out this project, I fretted about how exactly I would get the ratio of glue to water correct in this step. I thought about buying a new measuring cup that I could thoroughly ruin with glue. But then I realized I could use our kitchen scale and a regular old plastic yogurt bucket. About 14 grams of glue mixed with about six to eight millilitres of water seemed to work quite well.

I took the clamps off and stacked more textbooks atop the clamped section of pages. The glue was set in about six hours, and seemed to be holding up quite well when I gave the safe to my brother the next morning, on his birthday.

All in all, this was a fun project, but if I were to do it again (and I might, given that I did bring home a second textbook from my brother’s house on the moving day), I would give myself more time to get the depth I was looking for. If only I could get my hands on one of those oscillating tools …

Have you ever tried anything like this? How did it go? Any tips you can provide? Let me know in the comments below.


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