First Woodworking Project as Wedding Gift - Many questions on desk making!

I know this is a long post but I would be grateful to any of you for being willing to read it.

So I am going to be married soon and moving into my first real adult apartment.  As a wedding gift to my new wife I want to make us a really neat computer table setup.  We have a room laid out as an office for the two of us so I wanted to try and make a large desk that would run along three walls in a giant U.  I am planning to make it modular in the sense that it will actually be 3 straight desks plus 2 corner units and each can work independently of the others.  She is a huge steampunk fan so I want to use pipe as the structure  that I paint a brass color and then make a wood a nice dark cherry color.

While there are some great plans on pipe desks I have a few questions.

1. Most of the desks I see are MDF/Ply + pipe.  Is this strong enough to use as a desk for crafts, art, and to hold several monitors all at once?  I am sure the pipe is but I am concerned about the ply or mdf bowing.  If I use normal wood planks to reinforce the bottom will that allow it to remain more sturdy?

2. How hard is it to disassemble these? We plan on moving many times in our life and I'd like to build a design that not only can break down into the 5 separate desks but can actually be disassembled.  I hear MDF/Plywood doesn't like taking screws more than once.  If I screw the table-top into the frame using screws and flanges is that a - do it once and it is done sort of thing or can I unscrew them to move the desktop without ruining the top?

3. Assuming trying to rescrew it together would ruin the table I had the idea of creating a frame with wood blocks screwed into the flanges that had been given raised pegs - probably carved out of the wood.  The desktops would then have fitted holes carved into them - assuming I use a thick frame underneath the ply like 2/4 lumber - so that I can just lay the desktop on the pegs and weight would hold it in place.  My question is whether or not this has the same strength as screwing the  desktop directly to the frame.  Assuming the holes and pegs are well-fitted and near flush would I get enough strength for a sturdy table?

4. I've been really fascinated with the planked wood tables I've seen on here.  It seems easy enough to build a solid wood underframe and then cut plywood planks and screw them to the frame.  My only question is for corner units.  Most modern corner desks are big pieces of MDF that have been shaped.  Assuming my corner piece is straightforward - just a square table with one corner loped off - how hard would it be to create a corner desk with a planked top?  Could I do it with just a jigsaw?  

5. I've noticed quite a few of the plans use aluminum pipes and Kee Lite or Kee Klamp fittings.  These seem rather expensive, and if I am doing a cheap MDF top I want to know if there is a cheaper metal alternative that still has good structural capacity.  These are desk tops for computers - maybe 120-200 lb load limit maximum for the entire desk.  Could I use plumping pipe?  Are there cheaper fittings than Kee Lite that are still easy to disassemble when I want to move?

Thanks in advance for any answers!

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pfred25 years ago

Do you mean you want to build a desk like this?

mduhamel (author)  pfred25 years ago
Hey, yeah I saw that one too. I like the idea of having it lay on the pipes but it doesn't have any cross beams for support of the legs. I intend on doing that and probably having a thicker surface.
pfred2 mduhamel5 years ago
Well if it was me making this desk I'd use PVC pipe and melamine. But I've done a lot of projects so I know the properties of those and many other materials. I believe they fit your design criteria the best.

With adequate support you should not need a top thicker than 3/4 of an inch. Now if your skill set was much higher then I'd say a thin skin torsion box would be best. Then you could have a thicker surface, strength, and it would be very light too. But I hesitate to suggest it to you this being your first project. Still something you should be aware of though.

When I made some bookcases out of plywood I didn't band the ends, I sort of like how plywood looks on edge, and no one that has seen those shelves has said they look bad to me either.


So don't pay a whole lot of attention to what people are telling you.
jeff-o5 years ago
First off, I suggest you avoid MDF completely and use veneer plywood or chipboard instead. It finishes much better than MDF, isn't quite so heavy, and looks MUCH nicer. As in, it has a real, genuine wood grain that can be stained and whatnot. Also, don't forget to buy some iron-on veneer edging to cover up the unsightly edges. The veneer can be stained just like the table top. The edges could also be finished with a narrow strip of real wood, glued on and supported by wood pegs.

You can laminate two sheets of MDF/plywood together to get a stronger surface, but the result would be incredibly heavy. It would be better to build a support frame underneath out of less expensive lumber (finished pine should be fine). Your idea of using wood pegs to hold the table top to the frame is good, though you can't get away with just using pegs - you'll need a few screws around the perimeter as well to keep the top from lifting off.

If you like, you could also incorporate the fasteners as part of the design. Instead of using cheesy little #8 or #10 screws to hold the desk top in place, you could use big polished carriage bolts that actually protrude through the table top. There'd be a bump there, but they'd perform double duty holding down the top and adding a bit of intrigue. Just don't put any bolts where the mouse pad will eventually be...

Iron pipe fittings should be plenty strong to support the desktop if you want to go that route.

You could probably build the whole desk with a miter saw and a drill, as long as you had the big tabletops cut at the store ahead of time. Go when it's not busy so that the guy running the saw can take his/her time to get the exact dimensions you want.
Do you have any basic design that you can post? You seem to be talking in specifics.

Also is your table top going to be in pieces or one solid slab?
And have you thought of using a solid wood door and then cutting it up a bit?
Just be careful with trying to use a solid wood door: nowadays a great many have about 1/8" of real wood laminated faces, front and back, and beneath that the sides where locksets and handsets go have about 2" or so of real wood along those edges. The top and especially the bottom of the door will also have a section of solid wood to allow trimming the height of the door without hitting secondary wood or composite material. Because the field of the solid door, underneath the real wood skins, may well be fiberboard, or chunks of glued-up pine or fir, etc. Many creative and waste saving ways are used to build a solid (not hollow) core door commonly used in the industry. The result is good quality but if you start cutting deep into one of these you will have an interesting edge appearance where this build-up will now show.
mduhamel (author)  Houdinipeter5 years ago
Hey. I should have a finalized design by the end of tomorrow. I more or less am just waiting on dimensions of the wall from my fiance.

I was thinking about using planks for each of the table tops, probably screwed to a frame. If that is too expensive or difficult I may just settle for a sheet of 3/4" plywood. Each desk, however, will be fairly simple. 3 straight desks plus two corner desks like the one I linked in my original post.

I haven't thought of using a door. Are those more expensive than plywood and are they strong for load bearing?
Oh I almost forgot...another method would be to create upside down L's with plumbing pipe and 90 degree fittings. One leg becomes horizontal and the other vertical. A base flange would work as an attachment point for the wall. These are you end "legs". Just past the 90 on the horizontal you'll want to put in a T fitting so that you can run another pipe horizontally down the front of your desk. Place another T on the same pipe just before the wall for a second pipe. When set in place you'll have a horizontal rectangle with legs hanging down.

Now between the front and back horizontals you'll attach support 2x4's. Simply drill a hole all the way through the pipe large enough to pass a lag screw through. Cut your 2x4's so they fit inside the rectangle front to back. Lag screw them to the pipes with the narrow edge up at regular intervals. Your call on space apart. It kind of depends on how long your desk will be. I wouldn't think you would need more than 1 per 18" and that's probably overkill. Make sure that all your 2x4 tops are at the same height as the fittings on the end or you'll have to do some carving to get the top to fit flat. Place what ever top you have in place and counter sink screws. Fill the holes with wood putty or plugs. I've used old butcher block table tops cut down. Check a thrift store. Best (but expensive LOL) would be if you used a plywood/mdf sheet covered with brass sheeting. You can make it as modular as you want.

Pipe and fittings are like a grown up KINEX set. Just use your imagination. I wouldn't go more than 6 feet long without putting in a leg or flange against the wall. Might even want to go 4' between vertical supports.

Not really more expensive if you can "find" them. By find I mean scrounge a free one from a demo project. If you use the "frame" design you mentioned you could use a cleat design to mount it to the wall. This way you only remove screws from the cleat and not the actual desk. If the cleat wears out you can make a new one. Plus you'll need less pipe.

Just in case you don't know how to do the cleat:

To make the cleat you cut a 45 degree angle long wise down the middle of a 2x4 or what ever you have. Obviously you have two pieces now. One half attaches to the wall the other to the desk at the back. The wall cleat should be placed with the sharper edge away from the wall and the desk half should have the sharp edge against the wall. That way when you place them back together the bottom cleat "pulls" the top cleat against the wall.

Oh and I'd use square wire baskets for drawers.

estructor5 years ago
-Your question about screws in MDF: yes, penetrations of any kind in MDF are problematic at least in a cosmetic way, and sometimes in a structural way. Even if you countersink screw heads, any pressure from a small-headed fastener is likely to raise a bump on the surrounding area. The material compresses and bulges. This becomes more obvious after painting. Uneven sanding can make it worse. Factory areas have a slight sheen to them, machined or sanded areas become dull or matte and soak up paint differently. A screw or nail should not be depended upon to do much more than locate or register an MDF carcase. Other frame elements should definitely support this heavy material. I think of Medium Density Fiberboard as a mass produced sheet good that has its main value in being consistent and it uses waste wood products. But you will notice that it isn't often used for the "money" part of a product, i.e. the part that shows or gets lots of use. In cabinets the doors are often real wood, closing on a subframe of MDF. If I made a desktop from MDF, I would rest it on a frame that has blocks glued underneath for securing it. No penetrations through the top surface at all. And I would put hardwood edging all around it, mitered at the corners and attached to the MDF with biscuits.

-Your question about MDF bowing; yes you need to allow for that. MDF is heavy, as well as lacking any structural grain of its own the way natural wood does. You will need good intervals of support. If you make a wood frame as you mentioned, (in order to decrease penetrations in the "furry" MDF), you should think about having that frame be a "beam" for support as well as being a fastening unit. An apron on a conventional wood table or desk is usually at least 2-1/2" to 3" tall but longer spans need deeper aprons. Since you want to use a pipe or tube style base, you should consider having that structure incorporate inetermediate supports at rather close intervals. I'd suggest 24" max centers on such supports. Otherwise your desktop very likely to sag.

A consideration in the support for the desk is to make sure each desk section won't "rack" or go trapezoidal on you. Shouldn't rely on the top to control that. There should be some form of bracing. Ideally each desk section to have either a tall rear apron, or crossed cables,or a full panel, or two horizontal braces, one high and one low, to keep any lateral movement at bay. Different options to do the same thing. Will need something similar to restrict front-to-back movement as well. If it is a semi built-in arrangement, as others have said you can attach a cleat to the back wall for help here. Good luck!
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