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Simple Modern Computer Desk

Two days plus two sheets of plywood equals one new computer desk

FH00MAR_COMDES_01-2Family Handyman
This sleek computer desk has the look of a contemporary classic, but it can be built in a weekend with basic carpentry tools and minimal carpentry experience.

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Time
Weekend
Complexity
Moderate
Cost
$100 – $500

Step 1: You can build it in two days with simple tools

I designed this desk so it wouldn’t require a lot of carpentry experience to build. Take a close look at Fig. A. You just cut eight panels from 3/4-in. birch plywood and apply some easy-to-use iron-on edge banding. The rest of the project consists of drilling holes, cutting the pieces and assembling them with special fasteners. You’ll be done in a weekend and still have time to apply the first coat of finish.

To do this project, you’ll need only basic power and hand tools: a circular saw, hacksaw, drill, screwdriver, hammer, tubing cutter (Photo 9), utility knife, some wrenches and an old clothes iron. The thin-veneer edge banding that covers the exposed edges of the plywood can be trimmed carefully with a sharp utility knife, but I’d recommend splurging on a double-edge trimmer (Photo 4). Once you see how quickly it trims the edge banding, you’ll be hooked.

Here’s what this desk can offer you:

  • Lower shelves on both sides to hold your computer’s processor and printer as well as your stash of reference books
  • Two upper shelves handy for keeping track of paperwork, setting up a reading lamp or storing CDs.
  • Large workspace with enough length for three chairs; now you can have your favorite Internet tutors or game partners right at your side.
  • Extra 2-1/4 in. space behind the back panel to hide the cord clutter of phone lines, printer cables and surge protector outlet strips.
  • Pull-out keyboard tray that’ll conveniently adjust up and down or to any angle.
  • Special knockdown fasteners to make it fast and easy to put together and take apart, a real asset on moving day or on those back-and-forth trips to college.

Figure A: Cutting List

Birch plywood is a good choice for this desk. It’s stable and the fine wood grain complements the aluminum tubing and the stainless steel nuts and washers.

Additional Information below for a complete Cutting List.

Step 2: Make precision plywood cuts with a simple jig

Photo 1: Build a cutting jig

Cut your plywood shapes from 3/4-in. sheets of hardwood plywood. Use a homemade straightedge made from 3/4-in. plywood strips clamped to the sheet for super-straight cuts. To make a simple cutting jig, cut a 4-in. strip with the factory edge from an 8-ft length of 3/4-in. plywood. Then cut a 12-in. strip from the same piece (without the factory edge). Screw the 4-in. strip to one side of the larger piece, lining up the cut edges. Then cut the larger piece, using the factory edge of the 4-in. piece as a guide. You now have a perfectly straight cutting jig sized exactly to your circular saw. To make cuts, just align the edge of the wider piece with the mark you want to cut.

Photo 2: Sand lightly

Sand any rough edges of the plywood smooth and flat to make an even surface for the thin adhesive-backed birch edge banding. Be careful not to round the edges.

Cut the plywood pieces as “exact” as you can. To make it easy, build a simple jig like the one shown in Photo 1 using two strips of plywood. If you don’t feel confident of your cutting ability, go to a full-service lumberyard and ask to have it cut for you, usually for a small fee. Just insist that they use a fine blade in their panel saw so your crosscuts (the cuts opposite the grain) don’t splinter the surface veneer. Offer to buy them a new plywood-cutting blade if you don’t like the look of the first cut.

Accurate cuts are the key to making sure the panels all fit precisely with the special knockdown fasteners. I’ve found that the fastener will still work if you’re off the mark by 1/16 in., but any more than that spells trouble.

Step 3: An old clothes iron works best to apply the edge banding

Photo 3: Apply birch-veneer banding

Iron on the adhesive-backed edge banding using the cotton setting. Heat the veneer until it’s hot to the touch. Cut each piece of edge banding so it’s about 1/2 in. overlong on each end and trim it flush with a utility knife once the glue sets. Keep pressure on the edge banding after ironing by running a small 2×4 block back and forth until the glue sets (about 20 seconds).

Photo 4: Trim banding flush

Trim the edges of the edge banding flush with the front and back surfaces of the plywood with a double-edge trimmer or a utility knife.

The simplest way to cover exposed plywood edges is to use adhesive-backed birch edge banding (get it at your home center). A hot clothes iron melts the adhesive and bonds it directly to the plywood. If the adhesive oozes out on the sides, it may ruin a good iron, so buy a secondhand unit from a thrift store. Before you start, cut the 7/8- or 13/16-in.-wide edge banding about 1/2 in. longer on each end than needed.

Preheat the iron on the cotton setting. Place the iron on top of the edge banding as shown in Photo 3. I moved my iron about 2 in. per second along the veneer, but you’ll need to see what works best for you; if you go too slowly, you’ll scorch the wood. Once you go from end to end, make a second ironing pass. The veneer should be hot to the touch. After the second pass, secure the veneer in place by pressing a 4-in. block of 2×4 back and forth along the entire length to ensure a good bond. If you notice a glue failure at any time before finishing, you can always go back and reheat it (or even replace a damaged strip).

Trim the edge banding once it cools. Put the veneer face down on a workbench and cut the ends flush with a utility knife. Then trim the edges as shown in Photo 4 with a utility blade or the special double-edge trimmer. Don’t trim the overhanging edges of the banding all at once; do it in several passes. Don’t try to trim too closely; you can clean up the edges with a sanding block and 150-grit sandpaper.

Step 4: Measure three or even four times when drilling holes for the fasteners!

Photo 5: Drill holes for fasteners

Mark the hole centers with a scratch awl, then drill the holes for the knockdown fasteners with a special 25mm Forstner bit.

Knockdown fastener

Pins are screwed into the center of the plywood. The protruding heads fit into the hole in the knockdown fastener and are locked in with the screw. (Note: KD is a widely available brand.)

Photo 6: Insert fasteners

Position each fastener correctly and then tap it in place; you only get one chance at it because there’s no getting them out once they’re in. (See Fig. B for details.)

Photo 7: Drill pin holes

Make this simple hole-alignment jig from a combination square: Just drill a 3/16-in. hole in the center of the square blade anywhere along the length. Set the square so the hole lines up with the center of the plywood edge. Lock it in place. Now drill through this hole about 1 in. deep into the plywood edge with a 3/16-in. brad point drill bit. It’s best to use a brad point drill bit, because it has a center point that keeps the bit from wandering as you drill.

The knockdown fasteners have a main body that fits into a 25mm-dia. hole drilled into the plywood surface. The mating plywood panel has a pin that fits into a hole in the body of the fastener. To tighten these two panels together, a screw turns an internal cam in the fastener body that snugs the pin into the fastener body, similar to tightening a nut on a bolt. Exact placement is critical. Measure the locations as shown in Fig. B. Then be sure to tap them in the correct orientation.

The hole for the fastener body is about 9/16 in. deep, which leaves less than 3/16 in. of plywood at the bottom. This is touchy stuff; a hole driven too deeply can pop through the other side and ruin a panel. If you’re worried about breaking through, mark the fastener height onto the side of a carpenter’s pencil. That way you can check the depth as you drill by dropping the pencil in the hole as shown in Photo 5. I’ve never had the drill bit penetrate the plywood (yet). Just be careful, and you shouldn’t have a problem either.

Figure B: Fastener Location Guide

Use this guide when drilling the holes for the knockdown fasteners and the aluminum tubes and threaded rods.

This guide is also available below in Additional Information.

Step 5: Drill the recessed holes for the tubing and then drill the holes for the threaded rod

Photo 8: Drill tubing holes

Drill the shallow holes for the tubing first at the locations shown in Fig. B. Then drill the 1/2-in.-dia. holes for the threaded rod.

Photo 9: Using a tubing cutter

Cut the aluminum tubing with a plumber’s tubing cutter. Adjust it to the size of the tube, then rotate the handle as shown. After each revolution, turn the knob about a quarter turn until the pipe is cut. It usually takes about eight revolutions. Resist the temptation to screw the cutter down too hard and cut too fast.

Accurately mark the locations for the tubing and threaded rod as shown in Fig. B. Notice that the lower shelves, A1 and A2, as well as E1, have recessed holes on the top and bottom. In contrast, the top (D) and the upper shelf (E2) have recessed holes on one side only. Carefully visualize how the pieces fit together before drilling each one.

Now drill the recessed holes for the tubing and the holes for the rod (Photo 8) into the top (D) and small upper shelves (E1, E2). It’s worth your time here to make a heavy paper template to get the centers of all the holes exactly placed. This will ensure perfectly aligned shelves.

Be sure to mark your hole locations and then use an awl (Photo 5) to push a small starter hole into the surface. This shallow starter hole will help you align the small spur on the bottom of the Forstner drill bit.

Step 6: Assemble the plywood panels, then insert the tubing and threaded rods

Photo 10: Cut the rod

Saw the 1/2-in. threaded rod with a hacksaw. You can clamp the threaded rod in a vise as you cut it; just don’t mar the threads within 2 in. of each end. If you don’t have a vise, you can support the rod with a 2×4 block with a groove cut in it and some soft-grip clamps as shown. Always thread a standard nut onto the threads beyond the cutoff. Remove the nut after the cut to help restore the threads.

Photo 11: Fasten plywood pieces together

Join the lower shelves to the uprights first, then attach these assemblies to the back. Finally, insert the pins into the fasteners, then turn the screws until the wood panels pull together tightly.

Close up

Align the plywood edge with the layout marks.

Photo 12: Assemble the legs

Assemble the front legs. The bottom of each leg has an extra standard nut that fits inside the tube to keep the rod centered (Fig. A). Once both legs are attached, lower the desk and check to be sure both legs and upright panels are contacting the floor at the same time. If they aren’t, you may have to trim your tubing or add a washer or two at the bottom.

Photo 13: Place top shelves

Add each top shelf after precisely drilling the holes. You have to be very fussy about making sure your holes match from panel to panel. It’s best to make a paper pattern and mark each hole with a scratch awl.

The two lower shelves (A1 and A2) must be attached to the two upright panels (B1 and B2) first. Insert the pins of the fasteners into the holes and turn the screws until they’re tight. Next, attach these two assemblies to the back (C). To complete the desk frame, lay the top upside down on the floor (a carpeted area works best) and attach the top in the same manner.

Now, insert the long tubes between the top and the lower shelf (Photo 12). You need to push the top and the lower shelf apart slightly to fit the tube into the recesses. Next, thread a standard nut onto the bottom of each of the long rods and push the rod through the lower leg tube and then through the upper long tube. You’ll have to fuss with the rod a bit to get it to come through the top. Finally, slide the washers onto each end and thread on the acorn nuts. Make sure the tubing is still in the recessed holes. Tighten the nuts firmly without crushing the wood. (This is a desk, not a pickup truck frame.)

Finally, attach the upper shelves, E1 and E2, to the desktop. Fit the tubes into the recesses and fish the rod through the tubes and holes in the shelves. Slide the washers in place and thread the nuts onto the ends of the rods.

Step 7: Apply two coats of urethane for a cola-resistant finish!

I used an oil-based polyurethane for a tough finish that’ll enhance and slightly darken the birch into a beautiful warm color. If you prefer a clear coating, choose a water-based finish.

Take your desk apart and sand all the surfaces with 220-grit sandpaper. Wipe the surfaces with a regular cloth and then a tack cloth to remove all the dust. Brush on the urethane, watching for any drips and smoothing them out with your brush as they appear.

The next day, lightly sand the entire surface with 220-grit sandpaper to remove any bumps or trapped dust. Wipe with a tack cloth and apply your second coat. Let it dry for two days before assembling your desk.

Additional Information

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • 4-in-1 screwdriver
  • Adjustable wrench
  • Circular saw
  • Clamps
  • Combination square
  • Cordless drill
  • Drill bit set
  • Forstner drill bits
  • Hacksaw
  • One-handed bar clamps
  • Orbital sander
  • Punch
  • Sanding block
  • Tape measure
  • Utility knife
  • Vise
You’ll also need an old iron and a double-edge veneer trimmer.