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

Leave a Reply