My oldest daughter has wanted a real desk ever since she started kindergarten last year and frankly our poor kitchen table could use a break from arts and craft duty. Sounds like a job for Mildly Handy Dad!
Instead of having to build or buy a second desk for little sister (you parents out there know the deal) we decided to rearrange the play area a little a build a Megadesk for both girls. In reality its more of a stretched version of a normal desk but let me just have this one little thing.
Step 1: Materials and Tools
- Plywood/Particle Board - I used some of both, all leftovers from previous projects. The side panels are 5/8" plywood, the shelves are 1/2" particle board.
- 72" x 16" Pine Project Panel - In a previous project I made my own edge-glued hardwood tabletop but it was a lot of effort, I don't really have the tools to do it the right way, and its expensive. This time around I just found a pre-glued and planed panel in the size I needed.
- Wood Filler - This may not be necessary but one side of my plywood was not as "clean" as the other and had some holes and divots that needed filled.
- Wood Stain
- Polyurethane Wood Finish - I really like the look of clear semi-gloss poly but there are dozens of options in different finishes, colors, and compounds. I unwittingly bought the "Fast-Drying" variety this time which had a wetter look but was harder to apply and gave off a lot more fumes during application.
- (Optional) Primer - Most paints that include a primer won't need a separate primer coat over a light colored wood but I had some leftover enamel primer so I went for it.
- Enamel Paint - Given the near certainty that the side panels will get kick, scraped with chairs, and generally abused I recommend the tougher enamel over a regular paint but it's not completely necessary.
- Wood Screws
- Shelf Pegs
- Table Saw - A circular or jig saw will suffice but a table saw should cut straighter and faster if you have access to one.
- Sanding Equipment - Rougher grits (100-200) prep the raw wood for sanding and medium or fine grits (400-800) give you a silky smooth finish when used between polyurethane coats. Note: A power sander is not recommended for the later passes when applying the polyurethane.
- Pocket Hole Jig - Just one option for assembly. Doweling jigs or brackets are probably more common.
- (Optional) 3D Printed Shelf Peg Drill Jig - (Link goes to an in-depth look at the jig and how to use it) This is something I've started doing whenever I install more than a couple of holes for a project but obviously not everyone has access to a 3D printer.
- Painting, Staining, & Finishing Brushes - I rolled the paint, used a cloth for the stain, and foam brushes for the poly.
- Speed Square - Not technically necessary but very helpful for assembly.
Step 2: Design
The basic criteria for my build where that it could fit two elementary age kids and fit into the space available. There was talk of a single, double-wide shelf unit in the middle, three small shelving units, both ends and in the middle, but in the end we settled on the design you've already seen in the pictures. Two shelving units on the ends.
Being "simple" the design only calls for 3 different panels: 4-6 shelves, 4 side panels, and 1 desktop.
Each type shares the same width dimension, although you can add an inch or two to the desktop for an overhang if you want. For me this was 15" and 16" for the desktop.
The length of each panel type then controls one variable of the desks design.
- Desktop: Overall length of the desk, in my case 72".
- Side: Overall height of the desk, minus the thickness of your desktop panel. For me this was 24".
- Shelf: Shelving unit width. I used 13.25" because that matched the shelf width of the existing units that would stand next to the completed desk.
Step 3: Cutting
Pretty standard stuff here. Measure, cut, verify, repeat.
Using a table saw with a locking fence is an excellent way to assure that all your identical pieces will come out the same size.
Step 4: Painting
I followed the pretty simple four step approach to painting raw wood projects that I always do: fill, sand, prime, paint.
Start by using a wood filler on any gaps, knot holes, or divots. Don't forget the edges, especially on the plywood where knots in the middle layers can cause holes you can only see once you cut though them.
When the filler is dry sand all the surfaces that will eventually be painted, taking special care around any filled areas.
Before priming/painting you'll need to clean off any dust left from sanding. A damp rag works very well here, so long as you let the wood fully dry before moving on to painting. (Yeah, yeah, ok. So it's sort of a five step process I guess). When the wood is clean apply your primer of choice, or paint & primer if you're a risk taker, per the cans directions. I've found that raw wood has a tendency to yellow out white paints so I applied a double coat of enamel primer but that's probably little bit of overkill in most cases.
Finally when the primer is dry it's time to paint. Unless your primer's directions want you to sand it, which typically isn't really necessary unless you want a super smooth finish. Apply paint coats until you're happy with the finish, out of paint, or out of time.
Step 5: Desktop Surface Prep
With this build and my shelving project I've discovered a new favorite thing: staining and finishing wood. The "application, sand, application, sand" loop is sort of therapeutic and the fact that you get tangible improvements with every step gives a nice sense of progress. That's really just a wordy way of saying that you should really try this if you haven't, you might just find a new pastime.
None of that helps you actually get it done though so lets get to it.
I tend to keep it simple for the staining, pouring small amounts directly onto the plank and spreading with a cloth of some sort. I only did one application but that will vary depending on the type of stain you use and color you're going for. Once the stain dries (check the can for specific instructions) I sand with a medium grit paper, 100-200. Remember to wipe the surface clean any time you sand.
Applying the polyurethane finish is a similar process to the stain with the major difference being that I use foam brushes for spreading. I will note that the "Fast-Drying" version I unwittingly bought this time did not clean out of the foam brushes like the previous brand so if reusing your brushes is something you want to do then make sure either your polyurethane says it's water washable or you have mineral spirits on hand. The other big change is to use a finer sandpaper, 500-800, between coats. This, along with doing three coats, is what gives you super smooth final surface.
Step 6: Shelving Prep
We have two objectives for this step: the hole pattern in the side panels for shelf pegs and pocket holes in the bottom shelf and top of the side panels. To make this easier I used a pair of jigs, one a standard pocket hole jig, the other a custom, 3D-printed jig. You can read about the design and specific use of the custom jig in this Instructable.
Whether you use a jig, a template, or old-school pencil marks you need to line both the front and back, inside edges of the side panels with holes for shelf pegs. The 1" spacing that I used is probably excessive but it was quick and easy with the jig and it makes basically any shelf spacing possible. The biggest thing to remember is that for any two side panels that form a shelf set, the four holes in the same position (counted from top or bottom) need to be as close to the same height as possible.
The biggest reason I chose pocket holes for joining everything together is because this was the first real opportunity to use a new tool. There are several other viable options for assembling everything so there's no need to run out and buy a pocket hole system, unless you've been looking for excuses to get one anyways. For doing pocket holes you'll need two shelf pieces with four holes in the bottom, two on each side, and all four side panels get two holes at the top. The shelf pieces will form the fixed bottoms of the shelf units while the holes in the side panels attach the shelf units to the desktop.
Step 7: Assembly
Ostensibly this step is pretty easy. Sixteen screws into pre-drilled pockets, how hard could it be? I guess it depends on how flat and true your lumber and cuts ended up being but getting everything lined up and held in position will probably test your patience and require an extra set of hands. There are a just couple of meaningful tips I can share but beyond that just take your time.
- Assemble the side units first then attach the desktop.
- If your desktop is going to overhang make sure you get something hard and flat to lift the shelf units up and rest them on. Scrap plywood or MDF works great.
- When attaching the shelf units use one of the free shelves to make sure the side panels get attached to the desktop with the proper gap.
- A speed square can be helpful to keep offsets the same and keep everything... square.
Step 8: Install and Enjoy
With everything tightened down and standing upright you can push the shelf pegs into whichever set of holes works for you. The remaining free shelves should then simply slide in and rest in place.
And now you're done! Load it up with your kids drawing/painting/writing supplies of choice and try not to think about it too much as your children's definition of "careful use" slowly takes its tole on your hard work.