how to extreme

Build an Office Desk

Cabinet, Construction How-To, Furniture July 27, 2006 Sonia


In my life as a carpenter, author and business owner, I spend long hours at my desk banging away at my ToughBook keyboard. When it came time to upgrade my old hand-me-down writing surface, I already knew what I wanted in a new work space. First, I wanted to customize the desk’s size to the spare bedroom in my home that serves as my World Headquarters, or what normal people call their home office. Second, I wanted adjustable height. My body doesn’t like being stuffed in a chair with my arms crimped around the keyboard all day, so a desk whose height gives me the choice of sitting on a stool or standing to fire out e-mails, jot notes, or field a call eases my lower back pain and carpel tunnel symptoms just thinking about it. Finally, I wanted to break down the unit somewhat so it wouldn’t take an entire rugby team to lift it and the theoretical geometry department at MIT to figure out how to get it up the stairs.

The good news is that I was able to design and build the exact desk I envisioned all those long days at my old spine-twister for about $150 bucks—cheaper than many low-end units you can buy at the office supply store. And I made it of readily available materials using basic shop tools and techniques. I wouldn’t call this project easy, but on a scale of 1-to-10, one being hanging a picture and 10 being the skill level of my friend, Bill Thomas (, I rate this about a six.


Tools and Materials

The main tools required for this are a miter saw for cross-cutting stock and a table saw for ripping stock, in addition to basic measuring and marking tools. I also used a pneumatic finish nailer, a cordless drill/driver to make the connections and a router to ease the edges on the desk surface. I used a circular saw to trim the feet. If you don’t have a pneumatic nailer, you can also screw the parts together using 1-5/8-inch trim-drive screws. Another neat look is brass wood screws and grommets.

As far as materials, Number 1 select pine makes up the frame of the body. You’ll need a minimum of three 1-by-6-by-8’s and three 1-by-4-by-8’s, however, I always get a couple extra of everything in case of mistakes. Pine is soft, comparatively inexpensive and forgiving to work with using carpentry skills and tools. Whatever you choose, select clean, straight stock at the lumber yard. Also let it acclimatize to your shop by storing it flat and letting it dry for a few days. Of course, only do this if your shop space is dryer than the place you bought the material. The best option is to let it acclimatize in the office space where it’ll eventually live.

You could upgrade the pine to a different species like cherry or maple, but those materials are a bit less forgiving and more expensive. However, they are very stable and look terrific.

The top is made from one sheet of 3/4-inch Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF), which is flat, dead smooth (good for writing) and easily worked. I finished the top with a Butcher’s Bowling Alley Wax and the leg assembly with boiled linseed oil.


Preparing the Legs and Trestle Assemblies

This desk has telescopic legs for height adjustment—it retracts low enough to sit at, but extends high enough that you can stand or use a stool, like a drafting desk. The riser-legs fit inside a channel that you build from 1-by. Here’s how to layout and build the channels and adjustable leg assemblies. Be particular about getting measurements dead-on for this.

Step 1. Rough cut the 1-by stock to 4-foot lengths.

Step 2. Rip four 1-by-6’s to 3-9/16 inches wide. These are the left and right side of each leg channel. Save the offcuts for use later.

Step 3. Rip four 1-by-4’s to 3-1/16 inches wide. These are the front and back of each leg channel.

Step 4. The pieces and parts here are easily confused for one another, so after cutting them, label and separate them. Blue painters tape works well for this.

Step 5. Lay out and cut the feet from two 24-inch-long 1-by-6’s. I use my Starrett ProSite Protractor for laying out angles like this. The tool is a godsend for figuring funky angles ( I clamp the blanks together and cut them both at once using a circular saw.

Step 6. Cut leg channel fronts and backs to 28 inches long.

Step 7. Cut riser legs 28 inches long.

Step 8. Using the cut-off saved from step 2, cut two table supports 43-3/8 inches.

Step 9. Cut two 1-by-4’s 48 inches long for trestle braces.