Building My Dream Desk
Besides a bed, the most important piece of furniture to me is my desk. Its where I do things that are important to me and the place I spend the vast majority of my time at. And I love large desks- they allow me to spread my things out, stay organized, and keep multiple projects going on at the same time.
And the desk I have is not just important functionally, its also a piece of family history. The desk I have was hand-built by my great-great-great-uncle- my dad’s mom’s mom’s uncle, or the brother of my grandmother’s grandmother. It’s old- best I can figure it was built around 1900 and has remained in the family ever since. It’s beautiful and has a rich history behind it. There’s a large burn mark supposedly created when he fell asleep at the desk while smoking his pipe (he hated cigarettes but loved his pipe). He was a doctor in the mountains of rural Virginia, the only doctor in the area, and made frequent house calls a hundred years ago.
So the desk is special and something I want to keep and pass on to my own kids. But there’s just one problem- its not the large desk of my dreams. I want it both ways, so 2 months ago I embarked on a project to both preserve the desk and modernize it to suit my needs so it will remain in use for another 100 years. Only problem is, I’ve never built anything in my life or worked with wood in any way. But I’m a big believer in learning by doing and that’s just what I did.
Below is an account of how I built it- not only was it a ton of fun and a great learning experience, I couldn’t be happier with the outcome. Here’s the before and after shot:
Step 1: Design Plans
First I had to figure out what exactly I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to make it into a corner desk, but wasn’t sure what that looked like. After some thinking, I realized that I could use the existing desk drawers to be the anchors on the far left and right side of the desk. I could then attach legs to the other sides of each remaining piece of wood. I didn’t want to have a table leg right at the corner where my feet would be, and I wouldn’t figure out how to do that until later.
Once this was decided, I took measurements to see what would fit in the space I had and how big I wanted it to be. I wanted the width and height of the new desk top to match the existing though, and then using the space measurements figured out how long I wanted.
Based on the measurements, I decided I needed a piece of wood 32 inches wide, 1.25 inches thick and six feet long.
Step 2: Acquire Wood for Desk Top
When I say I knew literally nothing about working with wood I mean it. I figured I could just go buy a giant piece of wood from Home Depot and have them cut it to my length and width. Turns out you can’t buy pieces of wood that big- trees simply aren’t that big!
After a trip to Home Depot I realized I would need to put planks together to fit the dimensions I wanted. A bit of research revealed that putting planks of wood together to create a desktop requires special tools and a lot of skill- neither of which I had. Instead, I called up a local lumber yard and they agreed to make this happen on my behalf. I gave them the dimensions and they placed an order with a supplier of theirs that could get the wood and put it together for me. I was expecting this to cost $300+, but to my surprise the total came out to $136.
Two weeks later I got a call informing me that the order had been delivered. There was no way I could fit the wood in my little car, so I used Kanga and arranged for a driver to meet me at the lumber yard and drive the wood to my place. (BTW, if you’re in Atlanta Kanga is an awesome way to get things delivered or have people run errands for you- app was super-easy to use and it only cost me $35 to have someone bring a truck with a trailer and take the wood to my place).
Step 3: Sand the Wood
Originally I’d planned to do the sanding in my apartment, but thought better of it when I realized that it would dust up the entire place. Next plan was to take it to my rooftop, but there weren’t any outlets up there I could use to plug in the sander. So, my friend Luke came over and we loaded the wood into his car and took it to his place where I could do the sanding.
While the wood had already been sanded, if you want a silky smooth desktop you have to sand it multiple times, each time with a finer grain of sandpaper. So, I did one pass with 80 grit sandpaper, then another with 120 grit and then a final pass with 220 grit. While the wood felt smooth before sanding, with each pass it was easy to see how much smoother the wood got.
It took about 20 minutes per pass to sand the wood, including the top and the sides. I did a single pass on the bottom of the wood since it wasn’t important for the underside to be quite so smooth. It was actually pretty tiring to sand it, as even with an electric sander you have to put a lot of pressures on the wood and cover each part of it multiple times- by the end my hands were extremely sore.
After sanding it, I wiped it down with a tack cloth (which is good at grabbing little specs of dust) and took it back to my place.
Step 4: Stain the Wood
Another thing I didn’t know before this project: staining wood is what gives it its color. Seems obvious but was news to me. I wanted the new top to match the existing desk as closely as possible, so I bought 5 different stains so I could test each and get the closes fit. I put a test pass of stain from each of the 5 on the bottom of the desk so I could compare to the desk. After it dried it was clear that the “Black Cherry” color was the one I wanted.
With that decided, the next step was to get on with the staining. I covered the entire underside of the desk with the stain, waited 2 minutes, and then used an old tshirt to wipe the excess stain off. I gave it 24 hours to dry, and because it was still a bit too light I did another coat of stain to darken it. The hard part was making sure the stain didn’t drip off the side, so I had to make a couple of passes with the brush on the sides of the desk to ensure it was consistent. I also did the staining slowly to make sure the brush strokes were clean and smooth.
After letting it dry for for 2 days, I flipped it over and repeated the process for the top of the desk. At this point- it was starting to look really good and the excitement level bumped up a bit.
Step 5: Polyurethane the Wood
The stain gives the woods its color, and the polyurethane gives it its gloss and smooth surface. I chose a semi-gloss so it would have some reflection and glossiness without being so glossy it looked like a mirror. I did the bottom first, and applied a coat of polyurethane, let it dry for 3 hours and then applied another coat.
I only did two passes for the bottom of the desk since that side didn’t need to be perfect. For the top, I did the same process as above for the first 2 coats. After letting the 2nd coat dry for 24 hours it was time to do the final coat. Before applying the final coat, I used 400 grit sandpaper to lightly sand the top of the desk. This was a last step to ensure that the end product was as smooth as possible. After lightly sanding the top, I spent 10 minutes wiping the desk clean before applying the final coat of polyurethane.
I covered the wood with with a mini-tent of plastic wrap to prevent dust and other stuff from invading the final coatof polyurethane and messing with its smoothness. 24 hours later and voila! Silky smooth and beautiful desk top was ready- now I just had to put the desk together.
Step 6: Finalize design for legs and support
I knew the existing drawers would hold up one side of both the new and old desktop- but wasn’t sure how to have the rest of it supported without a table leg being right underneath the desk where my feet would be. Because its a corner desk, I could put table legs on 3 of the 4 remaining corners, but I wasn’t sure how to support the remaining corner.
I found 3 table legs I liked that were the right height for the desk- 29 inches. They cost $20 each. For the remaining corner, I pestered a random guy at Home Depot who suggested I use a straight bracket to connect the two. So that’s what I did- I got 4 straight brackets that would connect the two desks and support them at the corner.
For the table legs, I did the same process as I did for the wood to stain them and polyurethane them. With that complete, it was time to attach the legs to the wood. I attached the table leg holder-thingy using a drill, and then drilled one side of the hanger bolt into the top of the leg. Then I simply took the leg and screwed it into the holder I’d attached to the bottom of the table and boom- I have a table with legs on one side.
The last thing I had to do before setting the table up was installing the straight brackets onto the bottom of the table- the straight bracket is basically a piece of metal 8 inches long with 4 holes in it where you can attach screws. Using the drill, I put screws into 2 of the holes, with the other half of the bracket sticking out of the table- I would later attach the other desk top to the other half of the bracket.
And boom! I have a table ready to be installed. I put the desk drawers where they need to go and put the desk top in its place!
Step 7: Put the Desks Together and Attach Them
At last I was at the final step. I installed the last table leg I’d bought on the back side of the desk. Once that was in place I put the old desk in its new position!
I was surprised at how even the height of the two desks were, though with one corner of the old desk resting on top of the brackets there were at just slightly different heights and the old desk top was a tiny bit wobbly because it wasn’t secured and there was the tiny height difference.
The last step was simply drilling a screw into the straight bracket to connect the two desks, stabilize the old desk top, and make them the exact same height.
4 screws later and I was DONE!
Step 8: Enjoy
After 6 weeks of planning, ~10 hours of actual labor and a tremendous amount of anticipation, I was thrilled when it was done- the functional plans worked out perfectly and the end product is extremely beautiful. I couldn’t stop glancing over at it the rest of the night and the next day. Even now, 3 days later I’m still thrilled about it. Its exactly what I want out of a desk, it has both family and personal meaning to me, and its something I know I will use for decades and hopefully pass on to another grateful owner at some point in my life.
I also learned a lot, both woodworking and building basics as well as a ton of little nuances and things you only learn by doing. Overall, 10/10 would do again.
32″ x 72″ x 1 3/4″ Pine Desktop: $136
3 Table Legs: $65
6 Quarts of Wood Stain + 1 Pint of Polyurethane: $35
4 Synthetic Brushes: $20
Wood screws, plastic cover, paint bucket, miscellaneous: $25
Delivery of the Wood: $35
Total Cost: $316