Monday, April 15, 2013

IKEA BILLY Bookcase Review

Ikea BILLY and BENNO Shelves
Who doesn't like books?

It doesn't really matter anymore now that we have the interwebs and digital distribution, so bad question. Lets' try again.

Who doesn't like wall decoration?

Maybe some who enjoy blank canvasses, but large amounts of vertical wall space can come in handy.
In my room, there are two huge bookshelves that store my books, games, movies, boxes, computer parts, bike helmets, magazines, and just about anything stackable. They are immensely useful and they make me look/feel important... And I also have a CD/DVD tower from when we actually still used CDs and DVDs. Am I dating myself?

If you haven't guessed by now, they are Ikea BILLY bookcases. They were bought at different times and hauled home by yours truly, and mommy's car, years ago when we didn't care about messing up our car. It was a time when you could ram a 2 m long package through the trunk and use the interior as a wedge or fitting device. Through the years, I have seen the BILLY line "evolve" through the use of more colourful foils or surfaces. It doesn't look like those ideas lasted very long because I don't see them for sale anymore.

The BILLY series is one of those typical modular series from Ikea. It's not as customizable from the ground up like the GALANT or VIKA/Table Bar series, but it's still pretty customizable. Once you decide on your colour (black, white, birch, black-brown, medium brown), you pick a height (106 cm or 202 cm) and width (40 cm or 80 cm), and then move on to additional shelves, doors, height extensions, etc.

When I got my first bookcase, I had the choice of a grey plastic finish and beech veneer. Both seem to have since been retired. However, black was not an available choice back then -- would have been nice to have. If you choose a veneer, you pay a pretty big premium. Using the 80 cm wide and 202 cm version as a reference, you pay $30 more for a veneer ($99) bookcase compared to a cheaper surface material ($69) shelf. Only the white and black are available in the cheaper version. And lucky you, they've dropped the price since I got my bookcases too. My black-brown veneer 80 cm x 202 cm version was $115 about a decade ago.


BILLY: 80 cm x 28 cm x 202 cm in black-brown - $99 (focus of this review)
BILLY: 60cm x 28 cm x 202 cm in grey - retired, don't remember price

Apparently, the 80 cm x 28 cm x 202 cm shelf weighs 83 lb (website). I did not think it weighed that much. It was probably a decade ago when I bought these shelves (2008 or earlier, maybe even around 2004), so my memory is probably a bit fuzzy. What I do recall is that I had someone help me carry this thing home and to hold things up when I put it together. At 83 lb, this thing is very heavy.

There should be three anchor shelves with screw-type mounts that hold the bookcase together: the top, middle, and bottom shelves. Upon closer inspection, I found that the older grey BILLY used screws through the sides for these anchor shelves. However, the newer black-brown shelf used those screw-lock dowel-like devices -- screw one end in on one piece, push the other piece into it like a dowel, then lock it in using a small cylindrical device through a hole. All other shelves should only be attached using a steel dowel-type mount with no screws.

I don't know if they've changed the construction in the past decade (I'd check the online instructions to see the latest design), but my shelves were and continue to be sturdy. The rated load capacity of each shelf according to Ikea's website is 66 lb. Do recall that we're talking about the wider spanning 80cm version: it should be the weaker one that's more prone to breaking due to bending and shear. Well, that's assuming that all BILLY shelves are the exact same except for width.

This item was constructed primarily on the floor laying flat. After attaching the three main shelves, I nailed on the fiberboard backing, put it upright, attached the rest of the shelves, and tilted it up.

Side of Billy Bookcase: See screw points at top and bottom of photo.
It's only 28 cm deep and will tip if I'm not careful. In fact, Ikea strongly emphasizes that you should attach a wall anchor to prevent toppling (website). It's a very good and safe thing to do.

Me being lazy and having a rule against punching holes in walls, I just weighed the lower shelves down and try not to hang off the shelf. If it tips over and injures me, then my fault. I don't recommend you do this. Having said that, I have not had any tipping issues and I have tried to tip it from the back around mid-height -- note that I did not try that hard considering how dangerous it was. Sideways sway isn't that big of an issue, but again, it's a good idea to just anchor it and be not have to worry, especially if there are kids or pets involved.

Billy Bookcase: Standard Shelf Mounts (not top, middle, bottom shelves)
Expandability / Customizability
Like I stated earlier, this is a typical modular Ikea piece. You can add and replace shelves, put on a top height extension unit, add doors, and even put on lights. Aside from the extra shelves and lights, these accessories do not run cheap. The shelves themselves are $20 a pop for the fancier veneer versions and $10 for the cheaper ones, doors go for $50 per half, and the height extension is $40.

The doors are nice if you want that polished feel and hate dusting. Otherwise, you can just avoid the darker colours to minimize the visibility of the dust, or dust more often. To me, a closed shelf just isn't as accessible or welcoming. I could probably use an extra shelf or two on my two units, but there are enough included in the base unit to get through comfortably unlike the IVAR system -- there isn't really a "default" with IVAR.

And if you manage to break any shelf other than the three anchor points, you should be able to replace it for $20 or less.

Everyday Use

It's not just a bookshelf, it's a storage space with a back. I use mine for DVDs and CDs running two layers deep, magazines, books, important documents, wires, boxes, etc. It's versatile and sturdy. My shelves have lasted around a decade with no signs of wear and tear. The only thing I'd change if I went back is the colour: I wish I'd gotten the birch veneer. Who knew birch veneer would be the most lovable, un-retireable colour at Ikea -- they retired beech veneer:(. The dark colours really accent dust, so unless you want to dust a few times a week, get a lighter colour.

If you really don't care, just go with the white version. It's cheaper, dust doesn't show up (other blemishes will) easily, and it looks "pristine". Considering how long I've kept mine, I'd have no trouble going back and splurging the extra $30 on the nicer veneer ones.

Again, these things are very heavy, especially when loaded up with books. They, like most other Ikea and particleboard furniture, probably don't hold up well during long moves. I've only ever had to move these things across a room, and I slid them fully-loaded along the floor as they sat on top of a piece of cardboard. These pieces of cardboard were actually put in place after I first assembled them.

If I were to plan for moving, I would think about dumping all the nails they supply to attach the back. They would be replaced with really small screws instead. This way, I could just disassemble the entire thing easily in case I need to make a big move. Otherwise, I'd be pulling nails for an entire day.

I am completely content with the BILLY bookcase line, especially now that the price has dropped a bit from way back when.

And in case you want some other ideas, check out these alternatives to the BILLY system.

IKEA IVAR Shelf Review 
IKEA GORM Shelf Review
Ikea Leather Couch Review