Building the perfect custom desk

19 December 2012

If you're anything like me, almost all desks aren't deep enough to be an effective workspace. My requirements are simple but make an off-the-self desk a poor solution:

  • Large workspace for:
  • Deep enough to provide a workspace while still keeping the keyboard/mouse accessible
  • Easily adjustable for uneven floors 
  • Good looking 

My perfect desk is simple and big which is actually pretty hard to buy. Instead I decided to make one to my own specifications which are 30"H x 34"D x64" L. I find it incredibly difficult to work on shallow desk so depth was everything for me. The width is excessive for my everyday needs but it fits well in my office and leaves room for any of my future needs. For the desk top I decided to use a butcher block counter top from IKEA and base made out of galvanized pipe. Not exactly a complex desk but easily customized to my needs and taste.

Purchase List:

The butcher block proved to be the best combination of flexibility, cost and looks. The block was 39 3/8" x 73 1/4" which means I need to cut it down to size. A skill saw or table saw will do the trick but you should also be able to take it into a Home Depot and have them cut it down to size for you.

Once it's cut, you'll end up with three pieces; one for the desk top, and two scrap pieces. (The shorter scrap piece is a perfect size for a shelf if you wanted.) Because of the cuts we made, it's best that we re-stain to get a consistent color and protect the wood.

For the base, galvanized pipe can be a great look while giving the ability to adjust to any height or dimensions you might want. One issue with a desk top the size and weight of the butcher block is that over time it could bow in the middle causing an uneven surface. To prevent that from happening I decided a vertical support in the center of the cross bar to support the desktop closer to the center.

Another issue with pipe is that it can be greasy, sticky and marked on. Cleaning it with Lacquer Thinner will take most of that off but sometimes can look bad. I decided to paint the pipe black to make it have a consistent look but also black was a better color for me personally.

Preparing the butcher block

  1. Assemble the pipes and lay the finished design onto of the butcher block.
  2. Give yourself at least 3" from the front and 5" from the side for the size of desk we're building. This prevents bowing in the future.
  3. Cut the long piece first, so you have the proper the depth.
  4. Cut the short piece to get the desired length.
  5. Sand both sides of the butcher block and all 4 edges. This will take a while so it's best to use a power sander. You don't have to sand both sides but it will make it look better in the end plus you can choose a better side once you've gotten the cheap stain removed.
  6. Hand sand the edges to properly round them. If you use a power sander, you risk rounding the corners too much.

Assembling the pipe base

  1. Clean all the pipes with Laquer thinner. Make sure all grease and stickiness are removed. Goo gone can help too.
  2. Assemble the pipes. You can use the leverage from the hand tight pipes to make the base (cross bars and fittings) to be as tight as possible. You'll want to leave all the vertical pipes hand tight to adjust the desk level.
  3. Using a can of white primer spray paint, cover the pipes using long, consistent strokes to prevent running. It's ok if doesn't get fully covered, you can do multiple coats.

  4. Flip it over and do another coat to get any pieces that were missed and let it dry.

  5. Repeat the process you did with the primer with the paint. I went with a flat black spray paint but a satin color could look good as well.

Staining

Truth be told, there are shortcuts you can take here or you can skip this process all together but I wanted to desk that would withstand the heat of computers, water stains from cups, solder droplets and anything else I could throw at it.

First, you should prepare your space accordingly, stain is messy and nearly impossible to remove on many surfaces include a garage floor. Lay down a tarp or cardboard to protect your floor, wear appropriate clothes, gloves (latex gloves worked well for me) and make sure your space is warm. I stained the desk top in my garage in San Francisco during Fall and it took days to dry due to the brisk weather.

FYI, for all products being applied, you should never shake the can, instead stir to prevent bubbles from forming.

I started off the process by applying pre-stain with a white knit rag, this helps the wood look better and more uniform after the stain is applied. It will soak right into the wood like sponge so make sure you are using enough and not just a light coat. Let one side dry and then apply to the other side.

Once everything is dry, now is the time to apply your stain (again with a white knit rag). Some darker stains (like the one I chose) only need to be applied once or twice while lighter stains are best applied multiple times, allowing for drying and flipping in between. Note that a stain will appear darker when first applied but will lighten as it dries.

During the application process, you should take care to remove any air bubbles that may be present. If you find some after they have dired, you can sand them down, wipe down the spot and reapply the stain with little issue. Keep in mind, this can be a long process depending on how many coats are required, how warm your space is and how perfect you want it to be.

The final step is to seal with clear polyurethane to protect from everything I had mentioned earlier. Apply with a clean white knit rag focusing a smooth, even strokes. You'll see some level a sheen after each coat which can be used to find place you might have missed. To allow the polyurethane to evenly coat, do a VERY light sanding between coats. You don't want to remove the work you just did but instead want to make it even across the whole desk top.

Unfortunately I didn't take any pictures of this whole process except one of beginning coats of polyurethane.

Finished Desk

Here is the fully assembled desk. I debated about where to put a power strip. I didn't want in the floor but wasn't sure if I wanted a more industrial power bar on top of the desk either. I ended up screwing in a power strip under the desk top and zip tying the the excess cable to one of the pipe legs.

Still working on getting that second Thunderbolt display.

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