Build an Office Desk
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 (www.BillThomasWoodworking.com), 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 (www.Starrett.com). 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.
Assembling the Legs, Feet and Trestle Braces
Step 10. Face nail (or screw) the front leg channel to the side leg channel. I use the fence of my miter saw to square the boards up and provide a stable work surface. Tip: While I could have used 1-1/2-inch nails in my nailer, I used 2-inch nails to get really solid connections. You have to be very careful, however, to position the nailer so the nails penetrate dead straight into the material or they will blow out. If this happens (and it probably will) pull the nail through (not back out) and hide the mar with wood filler or sand it out.
If you plan some seriously tough use for your desk, use wood glue at all connections.
Step 11. Assemble the riser legs. Set two 1-1/4-inch drywall screws every 6 inches along the leg. Make sure all edges are as flush as possible. Countersink the screw heads, but don’t drive the points through the other side.
Step 12. Position the feet. They should extend 7-3/4 inches past the front of each leg. Nail to the front/back pieces. Be careful not to nail or screw into the channel. Make sure the feet are dead square to the leg channel.
Step 13. Fasten the trestle braces. Use four nails per leg channel. Nail through the front/back pieces. Do not nail into the leg channel.
Step 14. Insert the riser legs into the leg channels. Position them so the feet are on the outside of the legs and the screw heads are facing inward.
Assembling the Table Support
Step 15. Using four 1-by-4’s 28 inches long, fabricate two L-brackets. Install them on the interior of the riser leg using four 2-inch drywall screws each. Extend them 10-1/2 inches from the front of the riser leg. This makes them plumb to the front of the feet. For extra support, I installed two sets of feet, one on either side of the legs because this connection point receives the most stress once the desk is in use.
Step 16. Fasten one table support (from Step 8) to the front and back of the L brackets. Take extra time here to get all edges flush with each other. This really helps square up the table assembly.
Step 17. For my finished height of 42-1/2 inches I extended the riser legs 13-1/4 inches from the top of the leg channel. Take time to make each leg height exactly the same. And, be prepared to have to tug on the legs to make them move. They’re friction-fit in there.
Step 18. Install the trestle shelf, a 1-by-12 cut 41-7/8 inches long. I put a 1-1/2-inch-tall bumper on the back to keep things from sliding off and a 1-1/2-inch-tall nosing to give the shelf some thickness. It’s a good idea to put stout felt pads on the feet at this time to keep the desk from scratching wood floors. If it’ll go in a carpeted room, don’t worry about it.
Cutting, Installing and Finishing the Table Top
Step 19. A table saw, especially a bench-top model, was never designed to cut full-sized sheet goods. They were intended to cut solid sawn material and smaller boards. To make life easier (and projects possible) I use a circular saw with a straight edge to guide my cuts in sheet stock like MDF, taking great care to set up my straight edge accurately. Rip the sheet to 30-1/4 inches wide and cross-cut to 60 inches long.
Step 20. Drill a 1-inch hole in the back of the table top as a passthrough for cords and cables. I drilled it 1-1/2 inches from the back and 30 inches from each edge. I then routed a beveled edge on both sides so it looks cleaner and so cords could pass through more easily.
Step 21. Position the table top on top of the table so it is centered over the supports. The sides should extend 6-3/4 inches past the outside of each L-bracket.
Step 22. Break the edge on the table top. I chose a chamfer bit to route the edges. A simple roundover or Roman Ogee would also work nicely. If you use a more detailed or larger profile router bit, take a couple of partial depth passes with the router, lowering it each time until you reach the desired profile.
Step 23. Blow the table off with compressed air or use a good whisk brush. Move the leg assembly and table top to a dust-free environment for finishing. Three coats of a high-gloss, water-based polyurethane applied with a sponge brush works—but you have to sand and tack-cloth between coats. I chose two coats of Butcher’s Bowling Alley Wax instead. It’ll bead water and repel the coffee cup rings I’m likely to leave while punching out my next novel on the ToughBook. I also like Butcher’s Bowling Alley Wax because it goes on easily and dries fast. I used boiled linseed oil to seal and protect the leg assemblies. Again, I like the way it looks and protects, and it goes on fast while drying quickly. There’s no sanding required either.
Step 24. Before assembling the desk, move the leg assembly and table top—separately—to their final location.
Step 25. “Blind screw” the table top from underneath. Pre-drill four holes in the top flange of the L-bracket into the MDF. Be careful not to drill through the top of the table top. I put a little piece of tape on a drill bit at 1-inch up from the point as a guide to keep from piercing the top surface. Set screws firmly but carefully.
The thing I like about this desk design is that you can adjust the dimensions that work for my space to fit your needs and location. This is a very flexible design. And, now that your headquarters is operational, you’re in position to take over the world.
Editor’s Note: Mark Clement is the author of The Carpenter’s Notebook and Kid’s Carpenter’s Workbook, Fun Family Projects! For more information, visit: www.TheCarpentersNotebook.com and www.KidsCarpentersWorkbook.com .