Introduction: Birch and Aluminum Desk

This desk was designed to meet specific needs- it had to be:
1) Large enough to spread out a textbook, notebook computer, and writing notebook.
2) Durable, with legs that do not wobble or a span that bends under weight.
3) Without nooks and crannies that would fill up with knick knacks.
4) Modern, clean, stylish and a positive addition to my workspace. 

My finished product has douglas fir legs, a birch top with steel panels and an acrylic overlay. The edges are finished with aluminum angle. 

And so we begin with the materials: 
1 4x8' 3/4" Birch Plywood
1 3x6' 0.118" Acrylic Sheet
1 12' 4x4" Douglas Fir 
2 8' 1" Aluminum Angle
12 8x12" Galvanized Steel Flashing in Pre-cut sections
10 3/4" #8 Stainless Screws
4 4" 3/8" Hanger Bolts
4 3/8" Tee Nuts
1 Can Polyurethane Finish
Double Stick Tape
Glue
Wide Tape
Aluminum Polish
Car Wax

Tools:
Circular Saw
 Jigsaw
Square
Tape Measure
Drill with various drivers and bits
Router
Tin Snips

Step 1: Plan and Cut to Size

This step was relatively  simple for me, as my steel panels were 8x12". My final dimensions for the top were therefore 32x60". 

But layout a design on your available plywood and see what works best. With an acrylic top, you can put nearly anything underneath, I considered pictures, lights and many other designs. 

I used a circular saw to cut the plywood down, a table saw or hand saw would work just fine as well. 

Step 2: Cut Legs to Length

 This is the step you'll feel the most once you have your finished product. The best advice is to find a table you like the height of, and copy the leg length. I cut my legs to 29", and they're just on the edge of being too long. But I'm a tall guy, and with an adjustable chair it's very comfortable- if anything a taller desk forces you to sit with better posture. 

When working with a 12' beam, we chose to cut it into quarters, then down to our desired size. Wasteful yes, but easier to manage and keep square. 

Step 3: Cut Acrylic to Match Top

 Keep the plastic on the acrylic to the very end- it'll stay clean and shiny. Lay the acrylic over top of the plywood, then use a flush trim bit on a router to match the top to the plywood. 

If you don't have a router, a circular saw or even wood saw would be just fine. 

Step 4: Cut and Bend Aluminum Edges

Now you'll cut your aluminum angle to match your plywood. Measure your spans, we chose to use two eight footers, cut and bent at 16" 60" and 16". This places your seems at the sides, away from your elbows while working. 

To cut the aluminum, measure out a 90 degree angle, and cut it out with the jigsaw. Then clamp to a right angle, and gently bend to 90. 

Step 5: Drill Holes for Legs

Now you'll drill four holes in the plywood  These should be just a tad over 3/8" to accommodate the Tee nuts, and should be countersunk about 1/16". I brought the legs six inches in, and two inches from the front.

A better plan would be to go a few inches further from the front, so that the legs can be rotated and removed without removing the aluminum angle. 

Once you drill the holes, put a small amount of glue around the hole and gently pound in the nuts. 

Step 6: Drill Holes in Legs

 Here you'll drill holes a tad smaller than 3/8" for the hangar bolts. Drill in the center of the 4x4.

Screw in the hanger bolts by placing two nuts on the threaded section to act as jam nuts, then use a hex wrench or ratchet to screw them in to the desired depth. 

Step 7: Apply Finish

Next you'll want to sand all of your wood pieces, starting at about 100 grit to remove machining marks, then to 220 and finally 320 before the first coat of finish. Brush off the dust, and wipe down with tack cloth to prep the surface. 

Suspend all of your pieces for finishing, and apply finish with roller or brush. Be sure to stir your finish of choice. 

Once dry, sand with 320 grit or finer, clear off the dust, then apply a second coat. Apply as many coats as necessary, we put four coats on because the polyurethane went on a little thin. 

Step 8: Attach Legs and Metal Panels

I don't have any pictures, but you'll just have to trust me that the legs screw into the embedded Tee  nuts. Snug them up and square them off to the sides of the desk. 

Layout the steel panels in desired pattern, then tape them down with double stick tape. You could glue them, but tape allows you to remove them or rearrange them should you choose. 

Step 9: Drill Holes for Aluminum Angle

Next you'll want to layout your aluminum edging, and choose where to place your screws.

We chose to put all of the screws on the topside to prove the most structural support. We put three across the front, then one on either side of the joint on the side.

Drill a pilot hole first, to avoid cracking the acrylic, then finish with a larger hole so the screw doesn't have to chew through the aluminum and acrylic. It should be shallow enough to allow the screw to anchor into the plywood.  

Put all the screws in to test fit, then polish with a metal polish. Finish the polish off with car wax to keep the aluminum from oxidizing. 

Step 10: Clean Surface and Lay Down Acrylic

 First, remove the polished aluminum edge and acrylic. Clean the surface, and remove any grime from the steel panels. Peel off the down-facing film on the acrylic, then lay it on the table. Peel off the topside film- this moment is glorious! Suddenly the desk is brilliantly shiny. 

Screw down the edging, and you're finished!

Step 11: Finished Product

I suppose you're not finished until you admire yourself in your shiny new desk. Polish it up, then install it in your workspace!

Suggestions, questions and comments welcome and appreciated. Have fun building your own custom desk!

Comments

author
Raven1770 made it! (author)2016-04-24

I just finished mine. I had a little trouble with the legs, so I built a table frame to help secure the legs. I love how it came out!

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author
zwild1 (author)Raven17702016-04-24

Wow beautiful! This totally made my day! Nice work, and great pictures. Thanks much for sharing!

author
nanosec12 (author)2010-03-14

I think I would like to try this, but with a set of tarnished brass plates and a deeper mahogany stain.  I like the step by step of your 'ible, not too many boring details, and an overall assumption that if you are going to try this, you have some clue of what you are doing. Well written.

author
zwild1 (author)nanosec122010-03-14

 Thanks! This would look great with a little victorian flair. You could even use brass screws or put laser cut gears and things underneath the acrylic. 

author
mefistosmac (author)zwild12016-01-10

Great project. I have been looking for a bistro style dinning table and this is perfect My dimensions will be different clearly, square-rectangular top and a matching narrow longer side table to go with it. I have worked with acrylic and good acrylic while more expensive is more resistant to scratching and for all that are asking I find that Plastic polish or scratch remover for car headlights and paint with a small polisher attached to some kind of drill for speed works perfect. Also creating designs or using pre bought patterns for etching the underside is an alternative. Very clear photos and instruction. good Job

author
Chadss (author)2015-07-30

How has the plexiglass been over the years.

Has writing on it caused it to scratch?

author
tecneeq (author)2010-03-14

Not bad. Not bad at all. Did you consider to get real glas instead of acrylic sheet? Should be scratch free for many years.

author
zwild1 (author)tecneeq2010-03-14

Glass is a great suggestion- and it would look great over the steel panels.. Unfortunately the cost is prohibitive, and plexiglass is cheap, easy to work with, and lightweight. I'm also pleased with the durability so far- under normal use scratches should be a non-issue. 

author
Fieldownage (author)zwild12010-03-18

 Yeah and you can always sand the plexiglass back to clear if you need to.

author
orvis (author)Fieldownage2011-10-30

Can you sand plexiglass to clear? I've not had luck with that; is it just a matter of going to a high enough grit?

Actually, even sanding the plexiglass frosted would be a very interesting look with the checkerboard materials behind it.

author
SIRJAMES09 (author)orvis2014-09-27

IF you search the net, you will find that even in the highest polished of materials, the bottom line is, the higher the grit, the finer the scratches become...in other words, you can start out with a scratched up, ugly looking piece of acrylic & as you sand it with the different grits, getting finer grit with each change, eventually, you will have a gorgeous piece of acrylic....

Keep in mind though, "polishing" acrylic can be do 2 things:

1) it can take a loooooooooooong time to get it how you want it.

2) it can also be very hard, pain in the posterior, back breaking work..

Notice I said "IT CAN BE..." some time it is & other times it is not....all depends on the quality of the work you put into it.

author
Fieldownage (author)SIRJAMES092014-09-28

Also a good point to remember here is that it's always easier and faster to sand and/or polish 1cm x 1cm area, than 1m x 1m area. Also the bigger the area, the harder it gets to get it "evenly" sanded/polished.

author
Fieldownage (author)orvis2011-10-30

You can sand it to clear again, but it is a slow matter of working up from ~200 to somewhere above 10 000 depending on how clear you want it to be.

Oh and also you would be sanding with water on the surface (to clear the dust between the surface and the sandpaper) for most of the time.

author
SIRJAMES09 (author)2014-09-27

I can not say it enough...

ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS!! :)

author
josiahkerley (author)2010-03-18

Must be hell without a mousepad.

author
SIRJAMES09 (author)josiahkerley2014-09-27

I have used an optical mouse for more than 12 years & in that time, I have NEVER needed a mouse pad....

even some of the older mice with the tracking ball inside do not NEED a mouse pad....besides, If'n I ever need a mouse pad, I'd rather make my own....it's a lower cost that way.

author
zwild1 (author)josiahkerley2010-03-18

 Optical mice work just fine! But It's my computer-free, distraction free workspace anyhow. 

author
josiahkerley (author)zwild12010-03-18

Ok, cool.  Great looking project!

author
SIRJAMES09 (author)2014-09-27

AWESOME!!

Absolutely GORGEOUS!

Tho it does not seem hard to do, I believe that what you have accomplished, has taken a lot of time, effort, and very exhausting...

BUT,

To see the finished product, makes it all worth it. : )

TY for sharing Sir....Absolutely GORGEOUS! : )

author
krazy4projects (author)2013-03-26

Great project! I would have never thought of putting aluminum on a desk top. Bravo! I also built several desks which you can find on my website: krazy4projects.com. Thanks for sharing!

author
Danieljr (author)2012-08-14

What was the wide tape used for?

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zwild1 (author)Danieljr2012-08-15

No idea. I suppose I meant the painter's tape used when I bent the aluminum angle.

The desk is still going strong by the way, 2.5 years later!

author
kid007la (author)2010-09-18

Great instructable. Just one quick question. Where did you buy the acrylic sheet and how much did it cost you?

author
scrain (author)kid007la2010-11-13

I was able to find a sheet with the exact same dimensions listed above at Lowes for $47.75... on their site it's listed as "DURAPLEX 30" x 60" Clear High Impact Acrylic", Item #: 11289, Model #: 1AG1775A.

author
prenticehill (author)2010-09-20

How durable is the acrylic with use?

author
f2a (author)2010-07-07

Nice, you could even write on it with dry erase markers if you wanted.

author
Zeboaz (author)2010-06-01

Did you cut in more then you did on the second picture? Or simply cut all the way through the top part of the angle, and bent the bottom to fit the work bench?

author
zwild1 (author)2010-03-20

 Dpdk is right- that's only a materials cost. But simple had tools, like hand saws and an inexpesive drill, could be used to complete the project with equal quality. It'll just take a bit more time and effort is all. 

Thanks for the comment!

author
Dpdk (author)2010-03-20

Haha, that's going to be only for the materials.

author
RCMadMatt (author)2010-03-16

Very nice! Simple, yet elegant at the same time. Well done!

Matt

author
lemonie (author)2010-03-14

Very nice job, and good instruction.

L

author
zwild1 (author)lemonie2010-03-14

 Thanks lemonie!

author
ballisticboy101 (author)2010-03-14

Thanks for the great instructions. How long did this take you and about how much did it cost?

author
zwild1 (author)ballisticboy1012010-03-14

 It took about two days with plenty of downtime, a single trip to the hardware store, and $172.

I have no doubt that this could have been done cheaper, but the price isn't so far off from a nice IKEA desk, and it's much sturdier. And hey, if I get tired of the design, I'm only a few screws away from changing the design. 

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