Introduction: Aluminum Plate Desk With LED Illumination

Are you interested in building your own desk? This guide provides detailed instructions of the structure and assembly of a metal-plate desk, with schematics you can modify to fit your needs. No gimmick design, but a practical, full-size, easy to transport desk you will be comfortable with using for years. For a more unique addition, this guide will include the installation of LED-based ambient lighting to the underside of the desk.

Purpose and Design Choices
This construction seeks to create a practical, metal home-office / gaming desk. In designing everything, I found it very difficult to find well-written instructions for DIY desks that weren't gimmicks, such as "Cinder-Blocks and a Door", or "Hang a Desk From Your Ceiling." This guide is meant to be educational, easy to understand, and highly-detailed.

Large desks are heavy and difficult to transport, this desk is designed to be light-weight, sturdy, and easy to assemble. Kee-Klamp joints are the basis of the construction, and require only a Hex-Wrench to attach or remove. Aluminum is the plate material, for the reasons of A) Rigidity, less flexible than steel; B) Weight, lighter than steel or hardwood; C) Soft metal, easier to polish, cut, and drill; D) Resistance to corrosion or discoloration.

Investment
This is a costly project, the total for the two desks, with parts, shipping, and tax, was around $420. This price is assuming that all plates are obtained used, not new. There is also a large investment in time, I designed and assembled everything during the weekends over two months. This does not include the cost of power-tools, which are listed on Step 1. The cost can be lowered by not using flanges for feet, and buying only one large plate. Despite being over $400 for two desks, it is easy to spend more than that on a low-quality, particle-board pedestal desk; the burden of cost for this project is time, not money.


Every day I use this desk, and I am extremely satisfied with the results. I hope you enjoy and learn from this instructable, and encourage you to adapt and modify this knowledge to suit your needs. Good luck, and enjoy!

Step 1: Tools, Parts, and Costs

Overview and Access
The tools and parts used in this guide are common, what I use is not necessarily the best. If you do not own these power-tools, ask a neighbor, relative, employer, or friend to borrow theirs; the DeWalt angle grinder used in this guide is a borrow. Many work benches are stocked with sad, unused equipment, with owners that would be glad to see them put to use. Making this desk at a reasonable cost requires resourcefulness.

Power Tools
  1. Jigsaw w/ 12-16 TPI Blades - Used to cut the plates. To properly cut aluminum, you should be using a plasma cutter. As I do not have access to one, this will have to do. Blades are $8 per 5-pack at Lowes, I used three blades during this project. Don't use tungsten carbide or wood-blades.
  2. Power Drill - Drills the holes that connect pipe-flanges to the plate. Two bits were used, a 1/4" and 9/16".
  3. Angle Grinder w/ Steel Wire Brush - Cleans and polishes aluminum. Since scrap-aluminum comes with scratches, creating brush-patterns makes it look new, reduces the visibility of wear-and-tear, and is quite beautiful.
  4. Mitre Saw w/ Steel Grinding Disc- Cuts the pipes used for the frame. A hacksaw will work, but is exhausting.
Misc Tools
  1. Four-foot Level - Measures everything.
  2. Sharpie - Marks everything.
  3. Hammer - For making bolts flush.
  4. Crescent Wrench - Tightens hex nuts.
  5. 1/4" Hex-Key - Tightens Kee Klamps.
  6. Cutting Fluid - Makes your jigsaw cut much faster, vibrate less, reduces heat, and keeps your blades from wearing out.
  7. Acetone - Cleans up pen marks, dirts, and oils.
  8. Bar-Clamps - Hold the plates to a stable surface.
  9. Saw-Horses or Cinder-Blocks - You need the plate elevated to cut it properly.

Safety Equipment
Fabricating effectively requires safety, if you're hurt, the project can take longer or be canceled. A wood speck in your eye will eventually go away, an aluminum speck can dig in and require a trip to the hospital. I take safety very seriously, so I can continue making fun projects.
  1. Wrap-Around Eye Protection - I use sunglasses, and keep my head as far back from the jigsaw as possible. Available for cheap at any hardware store.
  2. Leather Gloves - Leather over synthetic, the metal is going to become extremely hot, especially when polishing with the wire brush. Your tools will become very hot after hours of use, not to mention sharp edges. Mine were $6 at the local hardware store.
  3. Earplugs - Your hearing only degrades with time, take care of it.
  4. Dust Mask (Optional) - During polishing a lot of aluminum dust fills the air, breathing it for awhile makes your nose and lungs stuffy.
Desk Materials
1/4" Aluminum Plates - The most difficult to obtain material for cheap. A new 4' x 8' x 1/4" plate costs about $400. All of the plates came from my city's scrapyard. Every purchase situation will be different, everything can be done with one large plate; Two plates were purchased due to projects not relating to the desk.
  • A 4' x 8' x 1/4" plate ($107). A full desk can be made with just one of these.
  • A 38" x 66"' x 3/16" plate ($31). I do not like anything lower than 1/4", this is what was available, being thinner requires more bracing.
  • 1" Overhead Canopy Pipe - Schedule 40 (Structural) pipe is available, but not necessary for this project. Electrical conduit piping, if it fits the flanges, can also be used.
  • 1/4" Diameter 1" Long Carriage Bolts and Nuts (1/4" #20)
    • Carriage-bolts are smooth on top, I do not recommend hex-bolts. Also acceptable are elevator bolts. List of Bolt Types.
  • Kee-Klamps - The joints that connect everything together, they use a hex screw to tighten onto a pipe and are easy to attach or remove. The difference between vendors is brand name and finish (chrome vs. galvanized), they all work equally well. The price difference for a 90 Degree Two Socket Tee is $12 at Simplified Design (Not recommended) vs $3 at Lab Safety Supply -- it adds up.
    • Two Recommended Suppliers
      • Lab Safety Supply - The cheapest supplier I could find. They sell galvanized, good selection. Extremely fast shipping. All connectors were purchased here.
      • DrillSpot - Great prices, absolutely amazing customer service. They sell both brand-name Kee Klamps and generic galvanized. I bought my 1" Flanges from them, but about 25% of my flanges have a hex nut that won't thread due to defects.
    • 14x 90 Degree Two Socket Tee 1"
    • 4x Single Socket Tee 1"
    • 18x Railing Flange 1"

LEDs Tools and Parts (Optional)
For ambient lighting / underglow. This step is moderately costly, but it adds greatly to the value of the desk.
  • 3W Luxeon LED Stars; 4x Red and 6x Blue.
  • 5W 3.3 Ohm Cement Resistors
    • Three were needed, pack of 10 from cn-resource on eBay.
  • 65W 12v Laptop Power Supply.
  • 15 W Soldering Iron, Solder, Wire - Instructable on How to Solder by noahw.
  • Artic Alumina Ceramic Thermal-Epoxy - Glues the LEDs and transfers heat to the underside of the plate.

Step 2: Design & Process

Overview
There are two desks, a primary desk for holding a monitor, keyboard, and accessories, and a secondary desk for holding various materials and a second display. The two desks use a tube-based frame for their supports. The tubes are connected together with Kee-Klamps, similar in function to PVC connectors. Flanges attach to the ends of the legs for two uses: connecting the plate to the frame, and acting as feet to not damage the carpet. To stabilize the legs, there is a semi-closed lower frame connecting them.

Schematics are visible below.

Polishing
The aluminum plates were obtained at an outdoor metal scrapyard, as a result the plates were covered in mineral deposits and dirt, having a few scrapes. To remove the flaws, as well as make a beautiful swirl pattern, an angle-grinder with a steel wire-brush is used. The top of the plate is heavily swirled, the undersides are lightly brushed to remove dirt. Heavy polishing on the top surface hides dirt and grime, and is easy to clean with metal cleaner.

LED Lighting
Luxeon Stars are connected to the underside of the plates to provide ambient lighting. They are powered with a laptop power-supply and controlled with a switch on the Rear Plate. Thermal epoxy connects the LEDs to the plate, transferring heat to the plate which rapidly dissipates. The plate does not even get slightly warm.

Process Order
  • Plates
  1. Plates are cleaned with a broom, water and rag.
  2. Plates are measured and cut with a jigsaw or plasma cutter, then cleaned with acetone.
  3. Polishing of both sides with the steel brush, a light pass on the underside for dirt. The top receives a heavy smoothing pass, then a swirl pass.
  4. The polishing is only done a section at a time to prevent heat warping.
  5. The edges and corners are ground down with the brush to remove sharp-edges.
  • LEDs
  1. Luxeon Stars are epoxied on and allowed to dry.
  2. Wires connect the LEDs in series, resistor is attached.
  3. Laptop power-supply has its connector cut off, and is soldered to a 9v battery connector for easy hookup.
  4. Wire extensions are created and connected.
  • Frames
  1. Flange holes are marked, and drilled out.
  2. Bolts are inserted through, and lightly tightened onto the flanges. Plate is flipped over, and the carriage bolts are hit with a hammer to lock them in place. The nuts are then fully tightened with a crescent wrench.
  3. Legs are lightly attached to the flanges.
  4. Pipes are measured and cut with a mitre saw or hacksaw. Then assembled into frames and dropped over the legs.
  5. Tightening of Kee-Klamps.

Step 3: Measuring and Cutting

Measuring
Mount your plate onto sawhorses or cinder blocks with some bar-clamps. With a level and sharpie, mark full lines for your cuts. Measure twice, cut once.
  • Primary Plate is 28" wide x 66" long.
  • Secondary Plate is 27" wide x 48" long.

*If you have a Plasma Cutter, use it, for those of us without one, follow along below*


Jigsaw Tips and Instructions
  • Secondary hand guides from the front-curve, primary hand on the grip, cut with the hold-speed button maxed or it gets tiring.
  • Lay a thick stripe of cutting fluid along the line. It shouldn't cause the sharpie to bleed ink. Use a 12-16 TPI (teeth per inch) thick-metal blade.
  • Run at a medium-high speed (4.5 / 6 for my Jigsaw), along an edge of the sharpie line (rather than down the middle), this forces you to produce cleaner cuts.
  • Don't push the Jigsaw into the cut, it will pull itself as it cuts, forcing it just dulls the blade. It will always cut slower than you want it to.
  • If you are fighting to control the Jigsaw, it is kicking back or vibrating heavily, then the blade is dull. Don't keep pushing through with a dull blade, it just makes nasty, hot cuts. Only two or three teeth need to be dull for it to be useless.

Step 4: Polishing

Cleaning
Use Acetone or another solvent (grease cleaner) to dissolve the sharpie marks and remove the cutting fluid. If your plates have any dirt, remove it with a broom. Give the plate a quick rinse with a towel and water.


Important Notes for Polishing
Friction polishing produces an extreme amount of heat, too much heat can
A) Heavily oxidize the aluminum (dull shine, it can always be polished away once it cools off).
B) Physically warp the plate into a curve.

Don't polish the whole plate in one go, work in 10-20 minute bursts distributed across the plate. Give it time to cool down.


Underside Light Pass
Pick a side to be the top surface. Whichever side has less deep scratches is best. This step is just to keep the plate from rubbing off on your carpet or dropping dust. Move the brush quickly along at an angle of about 30 degrees. If you work on the floor, It's easier on your back to rest your elbow on your knee and pivot.

Top-side Scratch Removal & Heavy Pass
For scratch-removal move slightly perpendicular along the cut (20-30 degrees rotated) at a brush angle of 70-80 degrees. Remove any and all dull spots on the plate. Side-cast light makes it easier to see dull spots. Move in a left -> right, up -> down pattern in strips across the plate. The pictures provide examples.

Swirls
Vigorously push the brush in tight circles while working at a 0 degree angle. The grinder will do most of the work, just keep it under control.

Step 5: Mounting Flanges

Marking and Drilling
Four inches from the corner of each plate, lay the flange center over your mark. Using a sharpie, mark in the holes. Drill through the sharpie marks. Start with a 1/4" bit, then expand to 9/16". If a hole is slightly off, attach the flange tightly with two bolts, then drill through the misaligned holes.

Carriage Bolts
These bolts have a round head with a square base directly underneath it. The threads should pass through, but the square base under the head should not. A 9/16" bit is perfect for a 1/4" diameter carriage bolt. Place your bolts through the holes, lay the flange over them, and lightly thread a nut onto each bolt. Flip over the plate. Place a cloth over the carriage bolt, and smash it with the hammer until it is flush. If the bolts are popping back up, they will become flush once we tighten them. The corners of the square base should cut into the plate, keeping the bolt from rotating.

Tighten the nuts with a crescent wrench.

Step 6: LED Installation Part One (Info and Mounting)

LED Information
All of the LEDs are wired in series, into one LED and through the others.

A single 5W 3.3 Ohm resistor is used for 3x series Blue and 4x series Red, each color when running at 12 volts.

I use LEDCalc.com to calculate my resistor types. The names mean:
  • Volts: The "punch" power of electricity, how hard the electrons jump into the wires, determines the brightness.
  • Amps: The "weight behind the punch", the volume of electrons flowing into the wires.
  • Watts: A comparison term that is simply Volts * Amps.
    • A watt can be used to compare total electricity levels with one number.
    • A watt can be a measurement of how much heat an resistor can dissipate before failing.
  • Ohm: A magic number of how much electricity the resistor prevents from passing through. Higher wattage ratings are better, that means they can get rid of heat faster.
You need to know three things to calculate a resistor:
  • Power Supply Voltage: The average voltage put out by your power supply. Usually something like 12v or 16v for laptop chargers. I've found the best results (power, size, heat) with 12v supplies.
  • LED Forward Voltage Drop: The voltage that most efficiently lights the LEDs. Some variance is fine, a LED rated for 3.4 can handle 3.2 or 3.6.
  • LED Current: Measured in milliamps,almost always 750mA for Luxeons.
These values will be provided from wherever you buy your LEDs, the resistor you get depends on how you wire them up.

LED Mounting
Scrape with sandpaper, or polish with the wire-brush, wherever an LED will be bonded. It needs a clean connection to the aluminum for proper heat transfer, so rub the scrape with some acetone and a rag. Mix your Artic Alumina Ceramic Thermal Epoxy, about the size of a pea from each tube for three LEDs. Apply to the aluminum plate, press down the LED, and move it in a little circle until there is total coverage. Wait ~10 minutes for the epoxy to harden.

Step 7: LED Installation Part Two (Wiring)

Wires
Measure out your wire from the negative of one LED to the positive of its neighbor. After cutting, trim off 1/8" of plastic sheathing from the tip of each wire.

Tinning
*Note*
Don't hold the iron to the LED terminals for too long, too much heat will fry them, two seconds of contact max.

Using flux and solder, or rosin-core solder, apply solder to the terminals of each luxeon star where a connection will be made. Separately add solder to the exposed ends of your wires, so a strong connection can be made quickly. For your resistor, fold one end into a tight U shape, according to a picture below, this allows for easier install and stress-relief.

Connect your LEDs together according to the images and diagram below, out of a negative into a positive. Two positive wires come from the power supply into the resistor at the start of each series. The final negative of each series join together, and return to the power supply.

Power Supply
On your power supply, chop off the end connector, and solder the two wires to a 9v connector. There is a wiring diagram below.Solder the colors backwards to the 9v connectors. The colors reverse with each connection due to how they connectors are made. So for the connection to each group of LEDs only (not power-supply side), solder the black wire to the resistor, and the red wire to the negative lead out the last LED.

Step 8: Pipe Frame

Cutting Legs
This is a custom desk, make it fit your sitting height. I measured office desks and my natural arm-resting height, the average desk height was 29.5" (750mm). Take into account the thickness of the plates and flanges, a total of about 1/2" for me.I suggest a miter saw, if you don't have one, a hacksaw.

Go ahead and lightly tighten the flange hex-screws to the four legs.

Eyeballing Frame Pipes
Slide two Two-Socket Slip-On Tees over two of the legs, place your pipe alongside them, mark and cut with your saw. The images provide examples. Once the upper-ring pipes have been cut, tighten the Kee-Klamp hex screws lightly. Then place the ring over your four legs, which you will likely need to push on to fit.

Repeat this process for the center-bracing, ensure that the Klamps are all tightened at the same height.

Tightening
Don't over-tighten the Hex-Screws, you'll end up bending the pipe and weakening the hold. When you first feel strong resistance, it's tight enough. Tighten everything.

Step 9: Closing

I hope you have enjoyed this instructable, and apply the knowledge to your own projects.

If you have any questions, critiques, constructive criticisms or comments, please feel free to ask and I will be glad to answer.

Thanks for reading!

-QuackMasterDan

Comments

author
anjel jasso made it! (author)2013-03-26

Hey just wanna say i love your intstructables and always incorporating the lighting stuff, super cool!!

author
CrushBot 2000 made it! (author)2012-01-17

Are you using one monitor for your pc and xbox? If so, how?

EDIT: bad phrasing Do you have to unplug and replug any time you want to switch? Multiple inputs? Or some special rig?

author
QuackMasterDan made it! (author)QuackMasterDan2012-02-20

There are three Xbox 360s in the room. One for the 42" TV (HDMI), one for the 36" CRT TV (Component), one for the 24" computer monitor (HDMI). For the computer it sits next to, we just switch the HDMI cable, takes about 20 seconds honestly. If you want multiple input, I'm pretty sure you can buy a VGA cable for the 360 online, they used to make them a long time ago, but they're no longer manufactured new.

author
CrushBot 2000 made it! (author)CrushBot 20002012-02-20

Thanks! Love the 'ible by the way. I'll look into finding one of those cables.

author
seanmichaelragan made it! (author)2011-11-07

I love overengineered stuff. Are you worried about the plate corners at all? They look pretty pointy.,,

author
QuackMasterDan made it! (author)QuackMasterDan2011-11-08

That was a consideration, they could easily have been rounded during initial cutting. In the end, I smoothed them out a bit with the angle-grinder, but yes, don't bonk your head on one.

author
John Culbertson made it! (author)2011-10-28

Hey Dan, when preparing the surface for bonding LEDs, you should clean the surface with a rag and solvent before applying the adhesive, as just blowing on it might not get all the aluminum dust off the surface. Because it is not structural it is not a big deal, but just good practice.

author
QuackMasterDan made it! (author)QuackMasterDan2011-10-28

Thanks, good to know, I will add that into the guide.

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Bio: I have a passion for tweaking things. Whether it be modding video game consoles, creating custom laser displays, or any creations with lights I love ... More »
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