The Blog of James Long, a Mozilla webdev

The Story of My Desk

October 17 2013

I've been searching for the perfect desk for the past few years. It took a while to even figure out what that is. I tried a few standing setups, but found that I'd rather "opt-in" to standing and only do it a few hours a day at most. My desk needed to be sturdy, beautiful, and just the right size.

The stingy and stubborn side of me kicked in whenever I shopped around. The desks that came close to what I wanted were over $400. Eventually, I decided to just build my own. The problem was that I had no idea how to build it. This is a story about tackling the unknown and persisting until it's done.

That was almost two years ago, and as of this summer, I finally finished my desk. It's exactly what I want and much cheaper too.

The final product

Although I started playing around two years ago, the above desk took just 2 months to make with about one night a week. The wood cost about $150, and I spent about the same on tools but I am already using them on other projects. Sure, you could go out and spend $75 dollars on something that mostly works, but I wanted a desk that I'll have for years and years, and also looks beautiful.

It's 5' long, 25" deep, and 32" tall. It came out a little taller than expected because I put feet screws in the bottom of the legs so that I could make the table even. Those screws added almost an inch. I just have to raise my chair a little bit though.

My innovation was a ledge in the back to hold all of your cords. Note in the above picture that there is only a single cord behind the desk: the power strip. Everything else is hidden.

All the cords sit hidden on this ledge, making the desk look nice and clean

You can do this too, with a little patience. I knew nothing about woodworking when I started. I wish I could write a full tutorial, but I don't have time. Here's a few tips:

  • Oak is a good hard wood for desks. Get the lumber yard to plane the boards for you, trust me. It's extremely important that all edges are completely flat and edges are 90°.
  • It was surprisingly hard to find untreated 4x4s for the legs (I thought Lowes and such places had untreated, but they don't). Even at the specialty lumber yard, I could only find cedar, so my desk legs are cedar. Turns out cedar is really light though, so that's nice!
  • You'll need lots of clamps. Pipe clamps are best for joining long boards together, like the desk top.
  • I used dowels to strengthen joints, but I think it was more work than necessary. Dowel holes need to 100% aligned, so I had to use a doweling jig and it was just annoying. For the desk top, you can probably just use wood glue and join them (sounds crazy, but the glue really is most of the join strength). For the base, you need something, and the cheapest and easiest is probably the Kreg jig. I resisted it because it's a newer thing and I wanted to see how the old ways worked. Now I know.
  • At first I thought I could make a desk top and just put 4 legs on it. You can't. You need "aprons" to make the desk really sturdy. These are just long oak boards that connect the 4x4 legs together, establishing the base. The top sits on top and is connected to the aprons with Rockler table top fasteners (you need to cut a shallow ridge on the inside of the aprons).
  • Stains and finishes are complicated. I used a General Finish stain and Waterlox as a sealer. 2 coats of stain and 4 coats of Waterlox (it's a tung oil so it needs several).
  • I also made a major mistake by staining the desk when it was hot and humid outside, and became gummy and was hard to wipe. It also took forever for the Waterlox oil to dry (about a week).

YouTube and google are your friends. I did extensive research for each step of the process. There are some great YouTube videos that show how experienced woodworkers achieve results. The Patrick Hosey Workshop: Farmhouse Table was one of my favorite videos which doesn't explain much but shows a lot of details. Feel free to contact me at longster at gmail.com if you have any questions.

I actually built 2 tables before this. I built the first one 2 years ago and it was just a butcherblock top with a steel base I constructed by drilling holes and bolting it together. It was horribly wobbly. Last winter I finally committed to building a wooden desk.

My first prototype wooden desk. Learned how to glue boards together and drill dowel holes. Without aprons, it wobbled.

I built a desk out of cheap wood as a prototype to learn the basics. Finally, I mustered up the courage to buy nice wood and cut into it. The rest of the story is told in the pictures below. It's been a great process to start from scratch, and force myself to learn something new. For me, it's a reminder that you can achieve something if you persist. It's too easy to give up with the excuse "I don't know how to do this", but you can learn.

My boards weren't planed, and there's no replacement for a joiner and planer. A friend has a local shop and helped me get them planed and straight.
The boards were connected with dowels (using a doweling jig to drill the holes) and a bunch of wood glue, and clamped with pipe clamps.
Joining the two end pieces. You can see the dowel holes.
The two end pieces joined. The pipe clamps are bending but I fixed that after I took the picture.
Ridges cut into the aprons for the table top fasteners. I used a circular saw so it was difficult.
I used dowels and wood glue to join the aprons with the legs
Installing the aprons (the legs and aprons were clamped after this)
The final base. The left apron is on the inside because it will have a ledge to hold all the cords in the back.
A wild desk appears!
First coat of stain. The color is red mahogany. I can't believe I did this when it was humid outside, as it became kind of gummy.
It looks nice though!
Second coat of stain. I used a milder brown color for this coat.
The final color (before finishing). It's slightly splotchy because I did this when it was humid.
The final top, after a few coats of Waterlox finish.
The final base, stained and finished the same as the top.
The back ledge will hold all the cords and other untidy stuff out of sight.
The desk in action
Back ledge in action

Make sure to contact me at longster at gmail.com if you are building your own desk. I'd love to hear about it!