Introduction: Collapsible Desk
When I set out for college, my dad gave me two books: Nomadic Furniture and Nomadic Furniture 2. These books by James Hennessey and Victor Papanek contain tons of great projects and commercial products that were available in the early '70s.
Projects from those books and several Instructables (like the Nomad Desk) inspired me to make a new desk that easily folds and collapses for flat travel.
All materials were acquired for roughly $100 from a local hardware store, making this an effectively inexpensive project
Step 1: Call Forth the Tool Army
I've split the list into parts based on what I would like to have had, and what I actually had. It's doable either way, but I probably could have cut off a good bit of time from the project given more suitable tools.
Handheld Circular Saw
Concrete Floor/Random 2x4s and 4x4s
Home-made plumb bob (thread and weight)
Step 2: Assemble the Materials
No project is complete without something out of which to make it. I called upon the ease-of-use of plywood and pine board, stained and coated to perfection. All pieces are screwed together or hinged or both.
(2x) 2' x 2' x 3/4" Plywood Squares
(2x) 1" x 4" x 8' Pine Board
(1x) 1" x 2" x 8' Pine Board
(1 box) 8 x 1-1/4 Wood Screws
(6' - 8') #4 Braided Picture Wire
(4x) 2-pack Hinges (1.5" long non-removable pin 4 screws each)
(4x) #210 x 1-3/16" Eye-screws
(2x) Quick-Release Keychain Dealy-things
(1qt) Acrylic Coating
When selecting the plywood squares, lay them flat on the floor to check if they are shaped like a potato chip. Flat is good.
Look down the length of the pine boards to check for straightness in all directions. It is worth your time to get straight wood. You may have to go through a few dozen before you find a good one.
Step 3: Hack the Wood to Pieces
The 1x4s will be used to make the frame of the desk that mounts to the wall. I used the handheld circular saw for all of these cuts, but a miter saw would have helped immensely (which is why I asked for one for Christmas).
The plywood squares are used for the desktop. I used the handheld circular saw to cut one in half, but a table saw would have helped immensely (too big for the Christmas list).
The 1x2s support the wings of the desktop while it is open. I used the "hhcs" for this as well, but would have preferred mitered ends...
Let's get cutting:
Cut one 31" piece off of each 1x4. These will be the vertical sections of the frame.
Now cut one 35.5" piece off of each 1x4. These will be the horizontal sections of the frame.
With one of the remaining 1x4 pieces, I cut two 9.5" lengths off with a 60 degree miter using the HHCS. The measurement was taken on the shorter face. These will act as supports for the 1x2s when the desk is closed. You'll see.
With the other, I cut an 8" piece with 45 degree miter. I also cut two piece 1.5" long to support the other 1x2 pieces when collapsed.
The single 1x2 board is cut into two 35.5" pieces. The remaining section is cut in half.
Cut one of the sheets of plywood in half. Which one, and in what orientation is up to you. I tried to match the grains up a little.
(2x) 35.5" 1x4
(2x) 31" 1x4
(2x) 9.5" 1x4
(1x) 8" 1x4
(2x) 1.5" 1x4
(2x) 35.5" 1x2
(2x) ~12" 1x2
(1x) 2'x2' Square 3/4" plywood
(2x) 1'x2' Rectangle 3/4" plywood
Notes on cutting:
Hand-held circular saws come both left and right handed, but I've found that neither are to my liking. It is very tricky getting all the miters to work out right and to the correct length. If I did it again using a HHCS, I would leave out all the miters and cry myself to sleep.
Lay out all the pieces as in the last picture to make sure you have everything. Once you start staining and coating you won't want to have to cut more pieces and deal with dust again.
Step 4: Construct the Frame
Screw the 1x4 pieces together into a square rectangle.
The frame itself really is only the four longest pieces of 1x4. The other pieces aren't quite as functional. We will be using the square of plywood as a starting point to keep the frame square, then we'll be drilling holes and screwing things together. All the frame screws will come from the back of the frame, so they will not show when the desk is hanging on the wall.
First, lay the Horizontals down and then place the Verticals on top of them. The frame is "face-down" at this point. Match up all the external corners of the wood, keeping everything square to the plywood edges (eye-balling it works fine for this part). Drill a pilot hole about 1" diagonally in from the corners. Screw in a #8 1-1/4" into each hole so that the frame is all connected, but can still pivot at each corner.
Now that each corner has been screwed in, push the whole thing out of square. Not a good shape for a desk. Using the quick-square along one of the Horizontals, slowly push the frame back until it is square. This should be as accurate as possible, but there's enough slop in the whole desk that it doesn't need to be perfect. Drill four more pilot holes in each corner, about 1" in from the interior corners. Screw them together and you'll have a nice rigid frame for your desk. woo!
Place the two 9.5" pieces of 1x4 on the Verticals 8" down from the bottom of the top Horizontal. I flipped the frame face-up and marked off where they should go, then flipped it all back over and made sure it all lined up. Drill pilot holes and screw as before. I used 4 screws on each 9.5" piece placed similarly.
Center the 8" piece of 1x4 along the back of the top Horizontal and screw in as usual (don't forget pilot holes). With both pieces firmly together, sketch out a 4" x 1.75" rectangle centered on the bottom of the pieces. this will be the handle. Drill out the corners and use a hobby saw or jigsaw to remove the material. The handle can really be any shape you want. I filed mine to a nice shape that feels good to hold.
Completed frame construction. Sand all edges and faces to prep for finish work. I suggest being very methodical about where you sand to avoid repeating sections.
When drilling the pilot holes, remember that your screws are only 1.25" long, and the double thickness of the wood is only 1.5", which doesn't leave much room for error if you don't want holes showing through. I suggest only drill about 1" into the wood, which can be done by eye, or you can tape off your bit above 1" so that you can see when to stop. Keep the bit spinning fast, but feed it in slowly with control. I only ended up with one hole where I didn't want it for the whole project. It was the last one I drilled, too... bummer.
Step 5: Construct Main Desktop Section
Here we will be adding the supports for the wings to the main desk. The supports will be lined up with the pieces that were added to the frame.
To begin, check all sides of your plywood square and decide which way you'd like it to go. Lay this in front of you like the desk would be. Now take the two wings and figure out which way you'd like them to be. Lay them to the sides of the main desk as they will be after completion.
Fold the two wings over onto the main desk like they are hinged along the abutted edges. Now flip the whole thing over along the top edge. You should be looking at what will be the underside of the desk, with the leading edge of the desk at the top. Place the frame over the plywood face-up and right-side-up. Make sure the plywood is centered in the frame -- you can measure if you're really picky. Lay the 1x2 pieces as shown.
The first long piece is flush with the leading edge of the desk, and should stick out about 6" on each side of the plywood (the two ends flush with the outer sides of the Verticals). The second long piece is 8" down from that one, which should put it's upper edge on the two mitered pieces on each Vertical. It also sticks out roughly 6" from the plywood. The two short pieces are placed flush with the lower edge of the mitered pieces on the Verticals. This is what the desk will look like when collapsed.
Use the quick-square to straighten the shorter 1x2s and drill three pilot holes on the end connected to the plywood. Drill 5 pilot holes in each of the longer pieces into the plywood. Make sure the top 1x2 is flush along the length of the leading edge of the plywood.
Fasten the four pieces to the main piece of plywood. I made sure to get a nice hold by using wood glue along with the screws. This may not be necessary.
Desk so far, arranged as it will be when complete. Note that I added my handle after this step originally -- just needs to be done before you finish the wood. Things are starting to look nice. Sand the edges and faces of the desk pieces.
Step 6: Stain (better Than the Band)
To finish the desk, I used both a stain and an acrylic finish. You can buy a 2-in-1 product that will do both, but I chose not to. The stain gave the wood a nice rich color and the acrylic sealed it up nicely to avoid dirt and moisture causing problems later on.
Many colors of stain are out there, but I like the natural look of the wood, so I bought "Natural" flavored stain. It is very thin in consistency and is really just a penetrant that helps seal the wood. One coat worked for me. The stain soaked in very quickly, and I was able to flip the pieces over onto little blocks to do the backs fairly soon after the fronts. It shouldn't be tacky at all, so the little blocks won't leave marks. This step is very straightforward.
Step 7: Carve Spaces for Desktop Hinges
To fold the desk up as one piece, we need hinges. I chose to cut places for the desktop hinges after I stained the wood, but before I put the acrylic on. You could do this before the stain, I guess.
Measure 6" from the leading edge of the desk. Place the front edge of a hinge here and center the pin over the break in the wood. Trace around the hinge carefully and then use a utility knife to carve out the shape of the hinge. The carved out portion should be as thick as the metal of the hinge plate, leaving them flush when installed. Repeat this process three more times for the other hinges (the back two measured off of the back edge). Cut out a little tiny triangle on each corner of the hinge to make room for the head of the hinge pin.
Push the plywood together and place the hinge in its home. If it doesn't fit flush, keep carving. Trace the holes onto the wood for later.
Step 8: Coat Entire Desk With Acrylic
To give the desk a nice, semi-shiny surface that is easy to clean and repels dirt and grime, I used Polycrylic coating. I opted for the semi-gloss clear finish, but it also comes in matte and super-gloss and a variety of shades. This can get tricky because of the tackiness of the acrylic.
I started with the back and edges of the desk, using blocks to keep the pieces off of the cardboard I had over the floor. I let this dry overnight and then flipped it to coat the front. I applied one coat to the back of the desktop and the frame, but applied three coats to the top of the desktop and leading edge for durability. Follow the directions on the can of acrylic for the proper time to let dry between coats. It is also good to sand lightly with fine sandpaper to remove any fuzz from the woodgrain between each coat.
Be patient with this part. It may take several days depending on how busy you are, but it's worth getting a good finish.
Step 9: Assemble Desktop
Now we're ready to start final assembly. Begin with the desktop.
Line up the three pieces again, and make sure all the hinges still fit in their carvings. The hinges have a little slop in them, so as long as you did a decent job keeping everything straight this should all work out.
Carefully, and exactly drill pilot holes for the hinges, remembering that you've only got 3/4" of material and the hinge screws are tiny. Don't break through. Screw them all on and you've got a nifty folding desktop that isn't connected to anything.
Step 10: Attach Desktop to Frame
Center the desktop into the frame as before (and as shown) and attach two hinges 1/2" in from each side. These will be hidden, so no need to counter-sink them. Don't forget pilot holes, wouldn't want any split wood this late in the game.
Add two more hinges between those two, evenly spaced. I'm not sure if you really need 4 hinges, but all the load at the back of the desk goes through these hinges, so it's better to overdo it.
Prop up the desk, fold it down, and fold it out. You now have amazing desk-hinging action at your fingertips. I really like how the wood grain worked out in the end.
Step 11: Mount It to the Wall
To securely fasten the desk to the wall, you need to find your studs. In the States, studs are 16" apart. We will be centering the desk over one of these, and screwing the Verticals to the two adjacent studs. It is convenient that our desk's Horizontals just so happen to be 35.5" wide, because that puts the center of each of them over the center of a stud.
Finding a Stud:
A stud is a vertical 2x4 (actually 1.5" x 3.5") in your wall to which is mounted either drywall or lath and plaster. Lath and plaster is a pain in the butttt. Drywall is nice. Either way, the studs are placed 16" apart. There are several ways to find a stud:
Drill holes until you find one (have filler ready)
Use a magnet
Tap on the wall (not so accurate)
Use an outlet (they're attached to studs)
Use a stud finder (somewhat useful)
Mark off three adjacent studs where you want the desk.
Attach the first corner:
Drill a pilot hole in one of the outter studs. The height of this hole is determined by how high you want the desk. You may want some people to help you hold up the desk temporarily while you find a good height. Mine ended up being 25.5" from the ground, which is iffy given the carpet.
Drill a pilot hole in the center of the corresponding corner of your desk and then drive a screw through until it just pokes out the back. This makes it easier to guide the screw into the wall hole.
Rotate the corner of the desk up until the screw matches the hole and then drive it the rest of the way into the wall. Somewhat snug -- you still need to be able to rotate the desk up.
Attach the other corners:
These are somewhat trickier, especially without a helper. Using a person or crutch, hold/prop the desk up so that everything is level. Use a level if you have one, or a plum bob if you have one of those. The desk is still collapsed at this point. Drill the other three holes and drive the screws in. Tighten all four screws so the desk is nice and secure to the wall.
Step 12: Add Cables
The desk won't really work unless you have some legs or cables, so let's get to it. I used #4 braided picture wire because it was the strongest they had and is very bendy.
The cables will be passing through the seams in the desktop and attaching to an eye-screw at each end. The top two will be screwed into the top Horizontal and the bottom two will be mounted to the underside of the main desktop piece.
Mark the edge of desktop on the top Horizontal and draw a line. Drill a short hole at a 45 degree upward angle and screw in the eye-screw.
Attach a quick-release keychain dealy-thing to the top eye-screw. Drill and install two more eye-screws to the underside of the desktop about 1" down from the 1x2 and 1" in from the side.
Attach the the cable to the bottom end of the quick-release and pull it past the lower eye-screw with the desk in the "down" position. Leave the wings folded over the center. Cut the cable 8-10 inches past the eye-screw. Thread it through and double it back up, keeping the desk level front to back. This creates a crease in the cable that we will use later.
Fold the desk back up and use the crease made earlier to get the length of cable correct. To make the "knot" I just threaded the wire through and then twisted the loose end around the cable for about an inch, then doubled back and kept wrapping.
Undo the quick release, open the wings slightly, and pull the cable up through from the lower eye. Redo the quick release while the desk is lifted slightly and then you're good!!!
More pictures of the cable ends. I retied the first one after I worked out a good method.
Step 13: Add Stuff
Now you have your very own folding desk mounted to your wall. While you may not need it for the same purpose as me, I think the idea is customizable enough. I was thinking it'd be nice to have some smaller versions of these around the house to fold out during parties and such so people have places to stand around and support their beverages and snackses.
Updates for later:
Latching mechanism (for flat mode)
Also, if any actual carpenters/woodworkers have any tips or whatever, they'd be greatly appreciated.