Building custom desks: the first one is done!

First desk done before room is done.

In every failure is an opportunity: a learning experience. Patience and persistence lead to success. That’s basically the story of my desk saga.

This saga started a long time ago, with haggling over what would be appropriate aesthetically versus what I can’t live without in a home work space. Honey, I love you so much for making so many compromises. And for letting me crowd the room a bit so we can each have a desk in this room and work alongside each other. And for choosing and buying the wool rug and pad we’ll have in there!

There’s a big upside to the approaching end of this saga: we’re getting some fairly nice custom matching desks for the home office. Made from scratch by me, from my detailed SketchUp drawings all the way to final assembly and finishing. Solid oak and polished PEI 5 porcelain touch surfaces, solid oak structure, acetal wear surfaces (the feet). Each desk breaks down into 4 very strong pieces. The top has eight threaded inserts for recessed bolts in the base pieces that hold the top to the base pieces. Each of the base side assemblies connect to the rear base assembly with 2 guide pins and flanged leaded bronze bushings for alignment and 3 long stainless recessed hex head bolts from the side assembly into dowel nuts in the rear base assembly.

Two power strips are mounted to the bottom of the top in the rear (plenty of room for those pesky wall warts and 18 total outlets).

The desks are substantial. I can sit on them. I can stand on them. They’re heavy, yet they’re not difficult to move due to the acetal feet and porcelain floor. They’re a good size: the tops are 70″ long by 36″ deep. They don’t scream ‘computer desk’ except for the over-bridges (which aren’t attached to the desks and are hence ‘optional’). No cable grommets. Easily repurposed as a large reading desk or craft desk.

This whole experience was a gamble. While I trust my ability to build things, I had no luck finding any stories about someone using very large porcelain tile in a desk top. I’m sure I’m not the first one to do something like this; I just wasn’t able to find anything.

This made for some guesswork with what I needed to do in order to bring the odds of cracking the porcelain to an acceptable low. I’m very familiar with porcelain flooring deflection requirements, but this isn’t a floor; the static load is low, and the dynamic load is very low. And there are tradeoffs for weight, total thickness, space for support, etc.

The porcelain is very dimensionally stable. The water absorption rate is minuscule at .5%, and it’s very dimensionally stable versus temperature. The solid oak, on the other hand, will contract and expand a bit with changes in humidity and temperature. And the plywood is between the solid oak and the porcelain in terms of dimensional stability.

I didn’t want cement board (weight, thickness). I didn’t trust Ditra here, mainly the bond to the substrate. Floors don’t get inverted, but a desktop could when breaking it down to move.

I wound up with 1.25″ of total plywood thickness under the porcelain: 1/2″ BCX plywood glued and screwed to 3/4″ oak plywood. The porcelain is adhered to the BCX plywood with SikaBond construction adhesive. It retains some flexibility when fully cured, which allows the wood to expand and contract but not lose bond with the porcelain. The frame of the top is 1″ thick solid oak pieces, glued and doweled together as a full assembly before gluing and screwing it to the top of the 3/4″ oak plywood (edging the 1/2″ BCX plywood and standing proud of it to allow the porcelain insert with adhesive). The porcelain is intentionally recessed a little bit; if I spill my coffee on the porcelain, it’ll mostly be contained on the desk. The edges of the 3/4″ oak plywood are concealed with 3/4″ x 3/4″ solid oak pieces that are glued and 18-gauge nailed to the 1″ oak frame. Hence the total top thickness is 1.75″.

I love the desk. It’s super strong and rigid. It has enough mass to avoid monitor shaking. It accommodates the Mac Studio exactly as I intended. My keyboard, trackpad and wrist rest fit under the shelf in the over-bridge. The porcelain should be impervious to my watch bands, writing instruments, coffee spills and sweating cold drink rings.

It’s also satisfying to have gone all the way from this detailed SketchUp drawing I created from scratch:

Desk design in SketchUp.
Lots of fasteners in desk design in SketchUp; dowels, pocket holes, steel guide pins into leaded bronze bushings, threaded inserts, stainless steel bolts into dowel nuts, wood screws.

To a completed desk and overbridge.

Mac Studio on one of the desks I created from scratch.
Mac Studio on the first desk I completed.

I am coming from a Middle Atlantic ELUR 84″ wide edit center desk. I’ve had it for ages. Functionally it’s been great. Aesthetically, not so much. MDF with laminate top and edged with plastic. It’s too big for the den where I want two desks, and definitely too ugly. There was a time that it spoke to me, at the right price, for my work desk. That time has passed.

However, I did take a tiny bit of inspiration from the ELUR. The distance between the side leg assemblies is similar. As is the ability to disassemble the desk (though my fastening is much more robust). The over-bridge height is about the same.

But I wanted a spot to hide away my keyboard, trackpad and wrist rest and didn’t want racks in front of me. I wanted natural looking materials. I wanted a very durable but aesthetically pleasing top surface. I wanted the over-bridge to be optional. I wanted something I could scoot on the floor without damaging the floor or the desk. And I wanted sort of a materials theme to this room. The floor is wood-look porcelain. The walls, built-ins and french doors are wood. So despite the desk porcelain being very different than the floor porcelain, the desk follows the theme: oak and porcelain.

One of the great things about being a ‘maker’ as a hobby instead of as a professional: build what you want or need, on your own timeline, with your own budget for time and money. And today we’re sort of in a golden age for makers thanks to the widespread availability of information, from how to use free or inexpensive CAD software to how to use various power tools to ordering custom machined parts online to how to get started and advance with 3D printing.

In the case of these desks I created, the ability to create detailed SketchUp drawings was very valuable; even the pocket holes are in the drawings. This gave me the reference I needed when I finally started the build. When you’re doing this in your precious ‘spare’ time, it could take many months to complete. A week of workdays between time to spend on woodworking generally erases memories of measurements, etc. And in my particular case, the ‘engineering’ part of the desk creation is as much if not more fun than the actual assembly. There are more opportunities to be creative at no cost other than time and the electricity to run the computer hosting the drawing software. I spent a LOT of time on the drawings, tweaking and refactoring until I had something I was confident would meet all of my desires. Doing this, and being able to drop the desk model into a model of the room with the other furniture I created, was very powerful and very satisfying.

It’s probably worth noting that all of my revisions are in one of my repositories. Which makes it kinda fun to see what I did over time.

This post is too long. The gist: big effort, but I’m really happy with the result. The same is true for the under-desk rack (I’ll post about that later) and the first of two rolling drawer cabinets (I’ll post about those later too).

There are various random pictures of the desk(s) during construction and completed here:

Desk photos

Making my own office furniture: part 8

I haven’t posted a furniture update in a while…

Desk #2 has been done for a while now. It’s in the den. I love it. I’m not using it yet, because I need Desk #1 to be done before I migrate my office to the den. But every time I walk by that room, I wind up walking in there to see the completed desk and run my hands over the porcelain and oak.

The base of Desk #1 has been done for a long time. It was done before I started Desk #2, but I wound up completing desk #2 before returning to work on Desk #1.

I’m now in the process of building the top for Desk #1. The base has been done for a long time. Tonight I routed the final edge of the top and flipped the top upside down on the bench. I then assembled the base on top of it so I can mark the bottom of the top for the threaded inserts. As a reminder, the desk breaks down into 4 pieces. Threaded inserts and bolts hole the top to the base, and the 3 parts of the base are connected via long bolts into dowel nuts and aligned via guide pins into bronze flanged bushings.

I’ll post something outside of this thread about what I think about these new custom desks.

Making my own office furniture: part 7

I bought 11/32″ plywood at Home Depot and another quart of Minwax satin wipe-on polyurethane at Menard’s.

The plywood will be used as underlayment for the porcelain tiles inset in the top of the under-desk rack cabinet. I cut it to size, checked the fitment, and marked it for screws. It will be screwed and glued (TiteBond III) to the existing plywood of the top.

The tiles in the top are 17+7/8″ square. I’m using one whole one and one that I cut to 8+1/4″ width tonight on the tile saw. I slightly beveled the edge after cutting. The plan is to use Loctite PL Premium MAX to adhere the tiles to the underlayment. This isn’t a floor, and in fact in its intended use it will never have anything on top of it. But if we ever decide we don’t want it to live under the desks, it will make a nice robust top. The tiles are PEI 4, which should far outlive me for a table top. I like porcelain table tops, since they’re impervious to water and heat. If they’re PEI 4 or PEI 5 porcelain, they’re also nearly impossible to scratch. Easy to clean, sanitary, etc. I’m not going to use epoxy grout here, but that’s an option when desired.

I think this cabinet is quite nice for it’s intended purpose. I went a little overboard in the mix of materials and the front door design, but that’s the advantage of designing and building your own stuff from raw materials and parts. You can take your time and get exactly what you want, without compromising in areas that matter to you.

Looking back at this, there’s an unconventional mix of materials and components in this cabinet design. It’s a computer rack designed for a specific set of gear arranged in a particular manner, so it has rack rails front and rear. It has casters. Neither of those are unconventional. But then the cabinet itself is made of edge-glued solid oak panels (not steel, not MDF). It has a skirt to hide the casters. It has a very unconventional front door, to show the gear in a subdued manner (tinted scratch-resistant polycarbonate) and vent from the sides, top and bottom of the door. The door has solid brass butler tray hinges. It has marine grade solid brass hold down latches to hold it shut. It has a guide pin and leaded bronze bushing to make it self-center every time it’s closed. The ventilation holes are covered with filters inspired by an antique pie safe I saw in a bakery 20 years ago. The bottom of the inside is covered with a piece of UHMW so it’ll be easy to get my UPS in and out without using rack slides. The top is porcelain framed in solid oak.

You can’t go out and buy this kind of thing at a store. You could commission it, but given the amount of time I spent on the design in SketchUp, it’d be expensive. But you can build it. It requires patience, persistence, and multiple skills (and tools). But that last part… we learn by doing. If you’re not afraid to fail, you can build just about anything. And as a software engineer, I really appreciate the fact that I can spend no money on materials until I have the design nearly completed in a 3D drawing on my computer. The execution of the design just follows the drawing.

The desks I’m building follow a similar pattern. The Delrin (acetal) feet aren’t typical. Nor is the porcelain top (I couldn’t find anything on Google with respect to building a desk with an inset porcelain slab). Nor is the combination of joinery I used (dowels, pocket holes, guide pins and leaded bronze bushings, dowel nuts with long bolts, threaded inserts).

Porcelain tiles of the size I’m using are relatively new here in the U.S., and given that I’m not running stringers under the top, could be considered ‘risky’. But my fear has been allayed by handling the tiles. Despite the fact that they’re 60″ long and 30″ wide but only 6.5mm thick, I’ve not broken one just carrying them around like pieces of plywood. And they will flex a bit without cracking. I do have suction cups for placing them, but I haven’t needed them for general handling. And it’s desk tops, not workbenches. I won’t be hammering on them, nor putting a ton of weight on them. There’s 1.25″ of plywood underneath, and 1″ thick solid oak bordering. The top will be on a very strong base. I don’t think the porcelain is going to crack on me. And it’s sanitary, PEI 5 (nearly scratchproof), impervious to any fluids I’d have on my desk (coffee, water, juice), and easy to clean. It looks like polished marble but it’s manmade (didn’t require carving up the planet). It can’t be dented by writing instruments. It won’t be bothered when I spill candle wax on it. My watchbands won’t scratch it. It doesn’t care about sweat, and in fact it’s a comfortably cool surface to rest your forearms on. I can adhere things to it (cable guides, phone dock, etc.) and later remove them with no damage whatsoever.

Risky? Perhaps. But from risks come rewards and learning experiences.

Making my own office furniture: part 6

I continued making filter panels for the under-desk rack. The frames are 3/4″ wide solid oak, with a recess cut in the back to hold the screen. The screen is 22 squares per linear inch (484 squares per square inch) 316 stainless steel. It’s supported by 1/4″ square galvanized mesh, just to make it more difficult to damage the stainless steel screen when vacuuming them clean. The screen and mesh are held in the recess with a bead of hot glue which won’t be visible.

Below is a picture of one of the side panels. Obviously I’m not looking to keep fine dust from passing. I don’t want a lot of restriction. I just want to keep things like pet hair and the like out of the fans in the gear in the rack. The stainless steel screen is 70% open.

I’ve finished assembling three of the four filters. I need more stainless steel screen to complete the final filter. It’s McMaster-Carr 9230T51.

Making my own office furniture: part 5

One of the desk bases is complete. The second one is built but needs stain and topcoat.

I’ve been working on the top for one of the desks.  As a reminder, here’s the desk design from SketchUp.

The base of the top is 3/4″ oak plywood. Above that is a piece of 1/2″ BCX plywood underneath the porcelain insert. The border of the top is 1″ thick solid oak, with four 5/16″ diameter oak dowels at each joint. The border sits atop the oak plywood. Hence the total top thickness is roughly 1.75″. Solid oak trim pieces cover the edges of the oak plywood.

Below is a picture from when I was testing the fitment of the porcelain insert.  There’s a 3/16″ gap between the porcelain and the frame.  This is to allow for flexible grout or caulk, since wood isn’t dimensionally stable compared to porcelain.

Yes, that’s a big piece of porcelain. Nominally 30″ x 60″. It’s 6.5mm thick. It has a PEI rating of 5 (the highest rating), so it’s unlikely that I’ll ever scratch it. If it’s good enough for commercial flooring, it’s good enough for my desktops. The design is a marble look, and I continue to be amazed at how far along this stuff has come in 10 years. It’s pretty, and zero maintenance (unlike real stone). Plus it’s manmade; it doesn’t involve carving up the planet. And I can move it by myself.

The downside… my desk base doesn’t meet the deflection requirements for tile or porcelain. That means that until the desk is in place, I will likely not install the insert. And I’m not going to use thinset to set it, since it’d likely just crack. I considered Ditra, but I don’t really trust it to hold the porcelain if I ever move the top later. While I love Ditra, I’ve never tried it in an inverted situation which might occur if two people are moving the top. Plus thinset would make the whole thing even heavier. Note that the porcelain alone is 38 pounds. I’m guessing that the whole top will be more than 80 pounds. My intent at the moment is to use Loctite PL Premium MAX to adhere the porcelain to the plywood. I may change my mind, but I think it’s my best option.

At any rate, I’ve installed the frame on the plywood base with TiteBond III and many cabinet screws from underneath. I also pin nailed and glued the trim pieces (not seen in picture above), which are clamped and curing.

Making my own office furniture: Part 4

I’ve been very busy at work, but I long ago finished the first drawer cabinet. I also finished a second bookshelf, but am thinking I won’t be using it in the den.

I have a final design for the under-desk rack in SketchUp. Obviously I didn’t bother drawing the router profiles. But this fits under the desks and will house my UPS, power conditioner and ethernet switches.

I have most of the parts to build this cabinet, except the casters and the porcelain. The ventilated door has a tinted scratch-resistant polycarbonate window. The hinges on the ventilated door are dual-pin (usually used for sewing machine tables). Mostly because I wanted something smallish and flush (and solid brass). I suspect this means I’ll want guide pins and sleeves, so I ordered some from McMaster-Carr. I haven’t made up my mind on latch(es); one side of me says I should just use rare earth magnets. The other side of me says I should use draw latches. A cosmetic versus robust tradeoff.

The desk design is not quite done yet, but I’m close. The top is 36″ deep and 70″ wide.

The only work I’ve done on the desk is creating the feet (for two desks). They are 1″ thick black Delrin with countersunk holes. Each leg will have 1″ long 5/16″-18 threaded inserts. 4 countersunk hex bolts through each foot thread into the inserts. I used Delrin because it’s very dense, machines like butter, and is very slippery. The downside is that it’s nearly impossible to polish, but I’ll find a solution to that later. Realistically, as long as I sand off the tooling marks, they’ll probably be fine. The goal here was to make it relatively easy to slide the desk on the porcelain tile floor.

The top of the desks have a single piece of polished porcelain. The base is oak with dowel and pocket hole screw construction, plus dowel nuts and bolts so the base can be broken down into three pieces. The top is secured to the base with threaded inserts and bolts.

Making my own office furniture: Part 3

On Sunday, I cut the base piece of plywood for the drawer cabinet that will also serve as a printer stand. I also installed half of the pocket hole plugs, trimmed them and sanded them flat. I have 8 more to do for the top of the cabinet.

On Monday, the 2″ casters arrived for the drawer cabinet that will also serve as a printer star. They’ll be installed in the base I cut on Sunday. I’m still waiting for the nut inserts and bolts to arrive for that. Assuming this all goes well, it’s likely that I’ll make a second one. Kind of a symmetry thing, one on each side of the french doors. I think I have more than enough Middle Atlantic TD drawers to fill two of them, and more storage is a good thing. I’d say I could always buy more Middle Atlantic TD drawers, but the price has become obscene (like 5X more than what I paid years ago). Kind sad that if someone were starting this project today, and wanted to use three 4U and three 3U drawers, they’d spend $1200 on the drawers alone. That’s more expensive than solid 5/8″ maple dovetail drawers with 100 lb. slides from and much more expensive than baltic birch drawers with slides. Of course the advantage of the Middle Atlantic TD drawers is more usable space (wood takes up a lot more space).

I stopped at Rockler on my way home and bought a can of Georgian Cherry gel stain. I don’t really imagine using this alone, since it’s redder than I’d use in the office. But I may experiment with layering it in combination with another stain, or multiple coats and then a dark glaze. The latter yields pretty results on oak in the articles I’ve read.

It looks like the relatively inexpensive hand-held 4″ wetsaw at Lowe’s gets good reviews. If I buy one, I can buy 24″ x 24″ marble-look polished porcelain tile for the top and cut it to the size I need.

Making my own office furniture: Part 2

This weekend I realized that the 3″ casters I bought for the printer stand / drawer cabinet are not ideal. Concealing them behind a skirt forces me to place them too far away from the edges, which has the potential to make the cabinet tippy. With an HP 4050TN on top, this is obviously undesirable. So I ordered the same brand of casters but in 2″ wheel diameter. I also ordered another set of the 3″ casters, and I’ll use both sets of 3″ casters on the base cabinets for the bookcases. The base cabinets are much deeper and also shorter, so tippiness shouldn’t be an issue. They also need the additional strength of the 3″ casters.

I bought and cut the pieces for the second bookcase, and also cut the slot for the back panel using the dado cutter in my table saw. I did the same for the rolling printer stand / drawer cabinet. I glued up the latter, using Loctite PL. The main reason for Loctite PL here: strength and resiliency. I also wanted a little expansion in the slots for the back panel. It’s a PITA to clean up versus yellow or white wood glue, but this cabinet’s insides won’t be visible.

I also ordered nut inserts and bolts for the casters. The nut inserts may or may not work out; they’re intended for softwood, but I’ll be using them in plywood. It’s been a long time since I’ve used this type of nut insert, so I don’t remember if they work in plywood. It all comes down to how well they handle the glue in the plywood. The plywood itself is a softwood. The idea here is that I need a doubled-up base for strength, and plywood is cheaper and more dimensionally stable than solid wood. In the last 10 years or so, when I’ve installed plate casters in wood, I’ve just used bolts and nuts with a recess cut with a Forstner bit for the bolt head and a washer. But here I want a completely concealed fastener.

I’m still debating what I want for the top of the printer stand / drawer cabinet. I know I want a marble-look porcelain tile in the center (looks nice, very durable). But I want one piece, and I haven’t found one I like that’s big enough while not also being too big for my tile saw. I’m pretty sure I can find one though. However, I haven’t yet decided how I want to trim it (species of wood), nor how thick I want it to be overall. I really love padauk, so I might go that route despite it being considerably different than oak.

Making my own office furniture

For a very long time, I’ve been using Middle Atlantic recording studio furniture in my home office. A large Edit Center Desk (ELUR) with 8U of rack space built in and a large overbridge with adjustable speaker platforms. I’ve had the desk for so long that I can’t remember what I paid for it. Today it’s about $3,800 street price (yikes!). The rack space has been used for audio gear and a pair of power distribution units with pull-out lights since day 1. I also have three MDV-R12 rack units, which are about $480 street price today. I’ve been using those for a rack mount UPS, ethernet switches, power protection and a lot of Middle Atlantic TD drawers (which are very expensive these days). I would estimate I’ve got over $8,000 worth of functional furniture for my home office. I didn’t pay that, but that’s what it would cost today.

However… I’ve never liked the look of it for my home. It is highly functional, but it’s intended for professional work space. It’s laminated MDF, black. It’s not something I want in the den of my current home. And my sweetie doesn’t want it in there either. But the den will be my office space soonish. I need new office furniture, preferably all real hardwood (and maybe metal and marble or marble-look porcelain). As much as I appreciate the recycled nature of MDF, I don’t like it for furniture. Even with a quality real wood veneer, it’s just not the same as solid hardwood.

The thing is… I still need it to be functional. I need rack space, it’s not optional. And outside of Etsy, I haven’t seen furniture with rack rails that I’d consider in the den. And no one makes exactly the cabinets and shelves I need.

Fortunately, I’m reasonably handy. And I’ve built racks before. And I have more than 30U of Middle Atlantic TD drawers (which I really like). So…

First up is some bookshelf cabinets that happen to be 19.125″ wide on the inside and hence can accept Middle Atlantic rack rails. They’re 52″ tall, 16″ deep. Drilled for 5mm shelf pins, about 15.675″ deep inside, solid red oak sides, bottom, top and shelves. The back is 1/4″ oak plywood fitted into slots in the sides, top and bottom. I want two more of these, but I’m thinking those might be shallower (around 12″). The advantage of the 15.675″ inside depth on this first bookshelf cabinet: it’s just enough to allow Middle Atlantic TD drawers on rack rails, if desired. The intent of these is that they’ll sit on a base cabinet (more on that later), starting at about desk height (30″). So the top will be at about 82″.

Here’s a picture of a test assembly.

Testing the shelves in the new bookshelf/rack cabinet.

Here’s another picture from when I was applying sanding sealer. The gap in the rear panel is to allow AC power or other cables to enter the area where I intend to put the rack rails for a Furman PL-8C, Behringer Composer PRO-XL, Behringer Ultragraph 2-channel 15-band equalizer, UMC404HD (for me) and UMC204HD for my sweetie. I’m still debating if I need more than 6U of rack space. It would not be terrible to have a 4U drawer in here to stash headphones, though given how much I’ve been working from home during the pandemic, my headphones get heavy use. Hence the current plan is to have enough space at the bottom of this cabinet to hang two pairs of headphones (with microphones).

Applying sanding sealer to the new bookshelf/rack cabinet.

Second up is similar size-wise (19.125″ wide inside and 16″ deep), but will be a rolling cabinet just for Middle Atlantic TD drawers and my main laser printer. There will be 21U of rack space. Probably three 4U and three 3U drawers, but we’ll see. It might not be a terrible idea to have a PDU in the front (with pull-out lights) and room for an ethernet switch (and my Raspberry Pi rack?) in the back. But I want a clean look here. Sort of industrial (the drawers), but in a solid hardwood cabinet. I bought 3″ casters, all swivel but two with no lock and two with total locking. A hardwood skirt will conceal the casters, floating the cabinet about 1/2″ off the floor. Why casters? Well, the older I get, the more I wish all my furniture could be easily moved (when cleaning, when needing to get to a hidden AC outlet, or data port, etc.).

The base cabinet I mentioned… I’m still in the ideas phase. Equipment-wise, I need to house UPS, PDU, ethernet switches and cooling. Today I’m doing that in a Middle Atlantic MDV-R12 to which I added rear rails for patch panels and fans. I don’t want this stuff facing the french doors to the foyer. The racks need to face north and south. I’m picturing a double-ended cabinet, and it needs to be about 66″ long (to support three of the bookshelf units). I’m imagining it being about 24″ wide, 20.5″ of that dictated by rack width. I’ll need 6 or 8 casters for this one; it will potentially be holding up a lot of weight.

This could also be two cabinets, that could be latched together or just have a bridged top. The advantage here is simply the building process; it’s much easier for me to move smaller pieces. I suppose modularity is also an advantage, but I don’t anticipate reconfiguring this stuff once it’s in place.

Desk space is also still in the idea stage. I’d really like space for the two of us to work comfortably. The hard part is not consuming the whole room with desk. Right now, I have a big ugly desktop computer. I’ve been wanting to ditch it for years, but I’m waiting on Apple for a beefier Mac Mini with Apple silicon. I can’t ditch my monitor (I need the 38″ screen), nor my keyboard, trackpad and wrist rest. My monitor is currently on an arm on the ELUR overbridge, and it’d probably be a good idea to have overbridge(s) on new desk(s); space to hide keyboard and cables (and Mac Mini?), etc. It’s also often the ideal height for speakers.