Outdoor Suspension Worktable: Thin, Rigid, Strong, Lightweight Panels/Sheets

Hi all! I go into the wilderness with my research and build electronic gizmos. See this overview of our camp: https://youtu.be/RSKbZFIG62g?t=2m11s and the desk in question!

To support this me and Hannah Perner-Wilson have been trying to create tools for infrastructure for backpacking in the wild (also see her wearable studio descriptions http://www.plusea.at/?p=5385).

The tool im working on right now is a modular lightweight desk we can suspend between trees. It's actually going pretty great!

You can see Matt here soldering and building on this bench. it worked WAY BETTER than expected. I though it was gonna be TOO wiggly, or bouncy and impossible to work on. Turns out, it just worked really well!

the only PROBLEM however was with our panels. I used these sheets of like MDF (or something). They are that material that pegboards are made out of. They were great because they were thin and rigid. But they were still pretty heavy and they absorbed water.

I want your advice on materials.

I want something that
  • Is rigid! (will hold its own shape under compression and/or tension) Can support lots of tools and stuff on top
  • Strong (will stand up to beatings in the field, and smashproof inside backpack)
  • Thin (packs into backpack well)
  • Cut-able (less important) (won't give off evil fumes or particles if i need to cut or modify it at home (or even in the field)
  • Not crazy-beans expensive (like it seems like carbon fiber panels are)
I was thinking like fiberglass maybe? http://www.mcmaster.com/#standard-fiberglass-sheets/=xu6e5k is that a good idea?
Carbon fiber (though super expensive)?

what are your ideas?

Picture of Outdoor Suspension Worktable: Thin, Rigid, Strong, Lightweight Panels/Sheets
zeroping1 year ago

I'm thinking that you need something with some 3D structure, as any flat sheet is going to have a harder and harder time supporting weight as it gets thinner and thinner.

Idea 1: A pre-made panel with structure in it, like correlation but better:

This stuff seems to be common for cardboard and aluminum (Ikea uses wood and cardboard versions of this to stiffen some of the cheaper little tabletops), but you want something in between. It's like corrugated cardboard, but in two directions.


Finding this stuff in small quantities in the US is annoyingly difficult, however. All the links I find are to alibaba.

Sub-idea: Maybe you can just use corrugated sign plastic? It's only really strong in one direction, but that might be enough.

Idea 2: Can you laser-cut a material to make an assemble-able stiffener? Something like the first image here:


This would let you pack in a little bit of material, and assemble it into a rigid substructure, then unroll a thinner top surface on it.

Idea 3: Looking at Downunder35m's ideas of casting something, you really could make a conglomerate of rigid stuff (epoxy) with lightweight stuff (perlite) - the result ought to be rigid, but have enough thickness to have a chance. However, I'm not sure about waterglass - I think it'll dissolve in rain.

However you go, I think you need something with some structure internally, otherwise you're stuck to solid sheets of material, and that's going to get heavy. If you can just deal with thicker, bulkier sheets, then something pre-made is likely the way to go.

For extremely thin and rigid aluminum plates would be good.
In 3mm they should work as a good little table, 5mm if you want it bigger or do serious stuff on it.
For something homemade in fibre try this:
Take some old newspaper (not the glossy magazines!) and cut to a shape that is a bit bigger that what you need for your table.
Make enough sheets so you have some extra.
Put a sheet of baking paper on a flat surface, if in doubt use a pane of plass.
Apply a quick spray of silicone oil, just enough to cover it but not so much that you soak it.
Wipe off any excess with a paper towel or toilet paper.
Mix some fibreglas expoxy resin but use a hardener with a longer working time of around 20-30 minutes.
Place the first sheet of paper on the baking paper and use a brush to apply a thin coat of resin, place a new sheet on top and a little roller to press it on.
If not enough resin to soak the paper apply a bit more.
Continue until you reach the desired thickness.
Once cured you can cut and sand into the final shape.
By using a mold you also create quite complex shapes and structures this way.
If you need to go lighter still you can try finely crushed perlite and mix it with a little bit of waterglass.
Use a thin putty, get into shape and let dry.
Once dry place into a furnce and heat till glowing red.
The result should be fully fireproof, light and resonable strong.