Introduction: MORE NOMAD FURNITURE: a Folding Desk

Picture of MORE NOMAD FURNITURE: a Folding Desk

How to read this Instructable: (A) Read the titles of Introduction #1 and Introduction #2. (B) Choose either #1 or #2 to read in its entirety, depending on your local conditions. (C) Or read them both. (D) Proceed to step 1.


I built a folding desk, out of wood, which folds flat (standing) to an unobtrusive package ~7 inches deep, 30 inches tall, and 5 feet wide, and opens up to a 24 inch deep by 5 feet wide work area. It works. Please have a look by passing directly to step 1.


Scenario the first, wherein we consider those times we lacked a folding desk, and so we suffered a set-back

How often has it happened to you, that you stumbled across a Situation for which if only you had had a folding desk, benefits would have fallen into your lap like ripe fruit plucked just in time and washed in the sparkling waters of deep-woods Maine once held sacred by pre-European natives and polished against the soft thighs (the entirely proper upper frontal portions thereof) of vestal virgins (of whatever sex and gender pleases you most)? Picture this:

Yeah, I'd hire you right now on the spot for this creative job of planning a multi-generational, interstellar coloniza-tion voyage, and pay you tons of money with full medical benefits and weeks of paid vacation per year, IF ONLY you had brought your own desk with you to the interview, because, as you see, we're short on desks.

Wicked bummer, as they say in my native Massachusetts. You need to carry a folding desk in your vehicle.

Scenario the second, during which inspiration came, then went: went so bad it done gone

On a deserted volcanic island just south of the Philippines, the tropical vines brush your cheeks as you push through the jungle, up the peak. The sweat has been washed from you in one of those sudden showers that sweep through like vague curtains. Ahead, a cliff wall still dripping from the shower seems to glow as the sun emerges and electrifies the clinging droplets, and see the work of a human hand! Initials emerge, 'A.S.' followed by an arrow, and the arrow points into a cave concealed by the angle of buttress-like rock. Your pace quickens, the razor grass rasps your bare shins, leaves red lines that weep their own little glistening droplets, but no matter -- there's a skeleton before you, reclining on a ledge in the cave, and a few rusted masses of steel that were once implements, and one piece of shining gold that once covered the face of a watch. You pick up the gold watch, open its cover like a doctor examining under ban-dages, and there it is, an inscription -- this is the watch of Arne Saknussemm!

It hits you like a flash of tropical sun spearing through the squall -- Verne was writing geography, not fiction. All of a sudden Professor Hartshorn's Geology 106 course -- taken years ago -- all falls into place. He would be so proud of you. A revelation -- you must retrain, re-theorize, offer the world shocking new theories. The slopes of the volcano drift under you in your sliding, tumbling, careening return voyage to the tourist camp. You must start now, a PhD dissertation hovers at the edge of cognition, no, two PhD dissertations, one for Geology, and one for Comparative Literature, since Verne too must be re-visioned.

You arrive at the camp, bruised and disheveled. Fellow adventure tourists offer you bottled flavored water, iced delicacies from the cooler, barbecued exotica carried up the slope by the guides for lunch. The helicopter turbine spools up to whisk you back to the resort (the guides must walk) in time for cocktails, but no, no, you reject this foolishness, you despise a life spent in wanton, arrogant pleasures. You must write, you must start now, but all is lost. You can't start. It is gone. You need a desk to organize your project and map out the location of the cave. You need it now. Where is your folding desk, which can be carried anywhere? You never built it. You n-e-v-e-r built it.

Scenario the third -- a True Story

Your friend works for a very real, innovative high school. They are what the future of urban education should be. They do many things well, but of course, they have no money. Educating teenagers is not considered a valuable enough of an occupation to warrant any attention from the powerful. Classes are small, true, your colleagues are agreeable and full of hope; you could get education done in such a place, but.... teachers don't have their own desks. There's no room besides no money. They migrate from class to class, bringing their stuff with them. Your friend needs a folding desk that would store right under the chalk tray of the blackboard when not used, and quickly fold out to spread out and correct those essays, and just as quickly fold down again to travel to whatever new location the small school will offer next. She needs one, and you build it. For real. It works. Please have a look.

-- photo, completed desk in classroom

Footnote: I just discovered that Automater built something of similar design. Go see:

Step 1: Materials and Design Paradigms

TOOLS: cross-cut saw, electric or hand-drill, screw driver (I also used bit-and-brace with screwdriver bit; much cooler than battery driven screwdrivers; I bought this at an antique shop and just used it because it was still strong), block plane or radius tool to break sharp edges, pencil, measuring thingies, sanding thingies, clamps, and a counter-sink tool.

MATERIALS: 1 x 4 or 1 x 3 pine boards, laminated table-top available at most commercial home improvement stores. A few screws, glue, four small hinges, one long piano hinge, optional chair/table leg-bottom plastic protective thingies.

MY DESIGN -- Three components: (1) support stand: a standing structure like a book case with-out the shelves (but wait! You can also build a bookcase and add a desk top over its front: just make sure you store books there not often used). (2) Fold-outs that will fold out and support the desk top. (3) The desktop hinged in some way to the front edge of the bookcase-like skeleton.

Subsidary structures in include diagonal bracing on the back of the support stand. How can you get there? Here's how: (A) Follow this instructable slavishly, or (B) follow my less proscriptive design paradigm below (Eternal Rights to the Paradigm granted to Instructables):

Design Paradigm Stage 1 -- Perform ergonomic thought experiments to decide the dimensions needed for your folding desk. English teachers need a minimum of 5 foot desk top width and 24 inch depth or we lose our minds. Generally 28 to 30 inch height works best for the Standard Human but feel free to vary that as needed. Just sit somewhere, pile your usual stuff around you, and move around in typical ways. Take notes about the things that fall off the table, the things that you bump with your elbow, the things your forehead hits when you pass out from exhaustion and collapse forward onto the desk.

From these notes you will grow a basic ergonomic schematic. All good things flow from this spiritual engineering.

Design Paradigm Stage 2 -- Think really really hard about how you will locate your folding desk, thus:

Must it be stored in a high traffic area such that you don't stumble against it? (as at the front of a crowded classroom, thus setting a thinness parameter; if not, you can relax that parameter and make it bigger in folded down condition so you can add features such as storage areas or draws on it).

Will it need to travel in a vehicle often? (if so, will it fit in your car? what parts will be scraped and what parts will scrape your car, thus how shall you round off edges and protect it from scuffs and so on? mine fit in my Ford Focus hatchback with a little slow fitting and push-ing).

Will it need to be nomadic once in a building? (put plastic slidy things on the bottom, or use wheels that contact ground when you tilt one end up to tow -- see my 'toolbox/workbench' instructable).

Step 2: Build the Support Stand (looks Like a Bookcase Frame)

Picture of Build the Support Stand (looks Like a Bookcase Frame)

Step 2 -- Build the support stand

Cut pine boards and fasten into a bookcase-like frame minus shelves that will stand 29 inches high and 5 feet wide. The boards should be wide enough so the completed desk will stand on its own. I use 90 degree clamps used in picture framing to hold the side pieces to the top piece. Once clamped, glue and screw. Drill pilot holes for screws for best results. use sheetrock screws for good holding power in softwoods.

Yes, you can see that the side is bowed (warped wood) and sticks out in the picture; this and other flaws were more or less planed smooth and square later, though not to perfection; I am a rough carpenter whose work looks best when photographed from distances of 15 feet or greater. If I were a good carpenter, I would be nearly perfect, and that might threaten various physical laws.

-- 2 photos: 90 degree framing clamp used; screws to fasten sides.

Design Issue -- If you plan on storing in safe place or attaching to a wall, then the stand need only be deep enough for the plane of the rear diagonal (lateral) supports, the foldout support legs, and the table top if you nest the table top inside -- all told, it could be as thin as three inches, but then it won't stand up well. Mine was ~9 inches deep, and it stands up as any book case would.

Step 3: Brace the Support Stand With Diagonals (with Plato's Approval)

Picture of Brace the Support Stand With Diagonals (with Plato's Approval)

Plato felt that triangles are a near perfect form. They are the minimal geometry by which worlds can be made. The world is just surfaces composed of zillions of joined triangles (but did he un-derstand spherical geometry to attain fair lines in all things? A great question!).

Think of it, anything less than a triangle is an incomplete form. A line is infinite -- you pull at it and it just keeps on falling in your lap; you pull that line forever and never see the job done. Terminate the line between A and B and nothing better happens. It's a line, one dimension, ar-guably hardly even there: very bad. Lines are responsible for wars and lawyers. Two lines form an angle, but unclosed, sharp, hurtful, dissatisfying incomplete. But a triangle! Oh!

This is a good time to triangulate your support structure against lateral forces. You can build a giant X that becomes 3 triangles once joined to the structure. Then you can add one more board that joins the X in the middle from the center of the top piece, making more triangles as well as supporting the structure against vertical loads. You'll see. It's all very easy, beautiful, and func-tional. Triangles, in a nutshell.

So look at the pictures. First add one diagonal and fasten on. You may need to creatively use clamps and bungee cord to compress the legs into the diagonal and hold it there for marking, drilling, and screwing.

-- photos of diagonals being braced from slipping with temp screws, clamps, and bungees.

Step 4: Rabbet the Diagonals Into Each Other for Grace

Picture of Rabbet the Diagonals Into Each Other for Grace

When you add the second diagonal to form the X, test fit, cut, and mark where it forms the X on both boards. Then chop out the facing sides between the marks to let one fit into the other.

(A) Mark where diagonals cross each other.

(B) Use measuring thingie such as compass to mark depth of rabbet cut (one half of 3/4s of an inch, whatever that is. I think it is 3/8s inch, right?

(C) Use a crosscut saw to make several cuts down to the depth line.

(D) Hog out the stuff with a wood chisel; smooth with a bastard file.

(E) The second diagonal is ready to inset here and screw to the legs of the support structure. Screw it in at the X place too.

The support stand is now strong laterally. But what if you lean on it? The 5 foot long top will sag, s add the vertical support from the center back of the top and down to the X of the diagonals. Now the support stand is very strong.

This is a good time to round off all edges as aesthetics demand and patience allows. I had a ra-dius tool but now it is dull and hard to sharpen. A radius plane would be great (radius all edges BEFORE you screw boards into a structure) but it is not in my budget yet (and yet I just bought a rabbet plane, go figure. I must be having a lucid daydream of building a lapstrake wooden boat). A block plane and sandpaper will suffice. Rounded edges do not damage as easily as sharp 90 degree edges.

Step 5: Build the Foldout Legs

Picture of Build the Foldout Legs

Easy -- they fit inside the support stand, hinge to swing out vertically. I built simple rectangles, fastened in shiplap style, with boards wide enough to require no diagonals for strength. Mark the overlaps, mark the depth (one half of each board thickness or 3/8 inch in this case), make many saw cuts down the depth line, and chisel, or, in this case, just two saw cuts per shiplap if you are good at sawing -- best of all. See photos.

I did the shiplaps IN THIS CASE on a drill press and cleaned up with a chisel. Faster to mark, saw, and chisel as we did with the rabbet on the diago-nals, what was I thinking? I know: I have 'chronic milling machine envy.'

Thereafter, clamp, glue, square with a square, and let dry. Then test fit under the support stand because at this stage you need that little boost of satisfaction of seeing how the thing will look in the end.

Step 6: Attach Foldouts to Sides

Picture of Attach Foldouts to Sides

Clamp the foldout legs to the sides and mark where the hinges will go. The hinges will be set in about an inch which will make legs flush inside the support stand. If you intend to nest the table top inside there too, then the legs will inset ~2 inches and the table top on the outside of that to be flush with the front of the support stand. That is graceful. I did not do that.

To make hinges lay flat I ground holes in the inner stand legs for the hinge part of the hinges to set in to.

I screwed the hinges to the rectangular foldout legs (also gouged out wood to let the hinge intoi the wood so it would lie flat, see photo with the chisel), then clamped these to the sides of the sup-port stand, then screwed the hinges to the stand. Make sure the foldout legs will swing freely un-der the top of the support stand.

You can add now any little plastic thingies to the bottom of the support stand legs and the foldout legs. I used chair leg floor protectors.

Step 7: Add the Table Top

Picture of Add the Table Top

The table top was purchased as one unit from a commercial home supply store, 24 inches by 6 feet. Space and ergonomics dictated a foot be cut from an end. I opted to attach this table top so that it rests on the front edges of the support stand, gracelessly exposed when folded down. I had reasons, (a) hinge geometry, (b) how screw heads protruded slightly when piano hinge would be attached, and so on, (c) the table top would rest on a solid support and not swing around and bang things irritatingly when hit by toes, air currents, and high-speed insects. But the tabletop can bang the front of the support stand, so I added hasty rubber bump pads by using too-large hole-grommet rubber things (thinner is better; I used what I had; I don't even know why I had them since they are designed to slip into holes in sheet metal). I think I should have nested the table-top in and worked around the various protruding hinge and hinge opening angle issues. Enough. It is done. Here's your chance to improve the project.

Anyway, (a) attach the piano hinge (it gives a lot of support, that's why I liked it) by clamping, drilling 10,000 pilot holes, then screwing it to the support stand. (c) Then locate the table top against the hinge, clamp the table top down, drill pilot holes, and screw the screws.

Finally, in my case, I had to protect the piano hinge from opening too far and stressing its at-tachments, so I added a stopper-string so that you can lift the tabletop only so far before folding out the support legs. Again, other hinging methods would avoid such little irritating issues.

Yes, I eventually sanded smooth the ugly hole-filling compound.

Step 8: Done

Picture of Done

-- No more steps. Not really. OK, two more:

(a) Drill a hole with a large diameter drill for inserting of fingers for moving the table around, since this is, after, nomad furniture. (b) Sand (I go up only to 220 grit since I am lazy), then coat with the coating of your choice (I used waterbased polyurethane, 3 coats because I was in a rush as usual; also, I hate finish work; 5 coats are better; maybe even 15 or 20).

Bring the table to its location (celebrate it's first nomadic function) and be happy knowing that you have eased some of the world's paperwork through woodwork.


papitoeletricista (author)2017-10-10

Great job!

Thanks. it is still in use at the school, I am told!

Pink&BlueDesigns (author)2014-02-12

I absolutely love this! This is exactly what I need for homeschool. I will try to make 3. Two for the kids 1 for me. It would make the moving and setting up at the homestead so much easier.

Thank you! I hope they work out.

NinjaBoy12 (author)2013-05-25

Any idea how much this cost total?

Wade Tarzia (author)NinjaBoy122013-05-26

The cost was in the tens of dollars. Cheap lumber bought at a big-box store, pre-laminated pine shelving (the quality of the laminated panels has been overtly going down at Home Depot, bad on them). Probably under $50.00. More like $35? I do forget.

manishrkp (author)2012-11-28

Good one, durable. Thanks for sharing...

ArtsyFartsyGirl (author)2011-10-15

Ok, female question here...where did you purchase the slender green and pink containers under your desk? Are they plastic or metal?

My friend bought those. That is her classroom. They are plastic. She shops a lot at Office Depot, or Staples, and scavenges when possible. They are kind of interesting aren't they, those 'truncated' milkcrate thingies?

Hi,Wade. Thanks for your reply. I'll see if I can track down a few, not that I NEED them (Ha!)

OghmaOsiris (author)2011-08-23

For a nomad dining table, you can just duplicate the hinge on the other side and make it expand twice.

They were selling a similar table at Crate & Barrel for like 350.

Wade Tarzia (author)OghmaOsiris2011-10-21

Yes, good idea! I'm not that smart. I never think of these things! No, really :-)

fazgard (author)2011-08-15

Great work, I'm modifying your design for my own ends, thanks for the great write up!

btw, I find it hard to believe that you're a blogger (yes, this is sarcasm) - Very entertaining read!

mightywombat (author)2011-01-25

This would be a cool way to add workspace to a compact or space-challenged workshop.

adidame (author)2010-03-08

I agree about the writing (awesome).  I am totally going to incorporate "Wicked Bummer" into my vernacular.

p0g068 (author)2009-09-23

nice writing ! too bad there is no patch for that! thanks buddy

bootkidz (author)2009-09-05

always wanted a folding desk - great space saver

unjust (author)2007-10-19

very sharp. is there a reason you chose to mount the top to sit above the top of the frame instead of mounting the hinge so it would sit flush?

Wade Tarzia (author)unjust2007-10-19

Good question. I keep asking it myself, "Wade, what was your reason?" I'm not being sarcastic; I sometimes do really stupid things, indicative of a brain glitch of some sort, which I only discover later, despite 'measure twice, cut once' proverbs. So, I was wrestling with that hinge, putting it here, putting it there, wondering what would be the lowest profile, how it would bend, and where would the screws go. I arrived at the configuration you see mostly because the counter-sinking on the metal hinge holes did not well allow for the size of the screw heads, so that a flush mount would have not looked very flush, if that makes any sense. I opted to place the hinge so that there would be no interference from slightly protruding screw heads -- very slightly protruding, but just enough to irritate. But I do not totally falsify the glitch hypothesis!

carpespasm (author)Wade Tarzia2009-06-14

For those not grading english papers on it, one could probably just mount the piano hing on the underside of the table and not have to worry about not so countersunk screws or tilting table tops. On the other hand, if you wanted a collapsible drafting table this would be a great design, just make the gate legs a little shorter so you get the tilt you need.

charlessenf-gm (author)2008-01-07

Nice work, good inspiration. Buy yourself a router, you have demonstrated the skills and talent and have the need - tell the wife I said its OK

Thanks. I do have a router, and now that I also have an ex-wife, I can buy any tool that MasterCard says I can, such as the rabbet plane I just got in a 'mythical' anticipation of building a lapstrake boat ;-) but I do not use the router much; I confess it scares the shit out of me. I imagine its 20,000 rpm blade catching on something (or me doing something stupid) and jumping out to raise havoc on my body, though I do use it on occasion, and on my next project -- a desk with niches -- I will again (stay tuned). (Oddly enough though, my ex-wife would not have been pleased if I had bought a router, though she would have liked the things I would have made with it. Nothing really has to make any sense, does it, as long the law of physics still does? ;-)

carpespasm (author)Wade Tarzia2009-06-14

For something like this a table router would be good as well and wouldn't risk any nasty bumping jumping power tools. Just find a suitable workbench (or plywood and saw horses) and bolt it to it. For work pieces like the parts you do on this desk it works great. I've made blank necks for cigar box guitars in much the same way. Beats the pants off using a rasp to shape the whole thing.

Actually, the drill press is more likely to "throw you" or catch your sleeve than a router. My nemesis was a flimsy "table saw" (at th time) mounted on the floor when it sliced neatly through a couple of my fingers (put back on at the hospital). I have had a drill press throw a few more things at me than my various table saws, but can't recall the router hurting anything but its own power cord when it dropped out of the table - cause I failed to tighten a nut. When your ard can do it, go for the 3.5 HP Porter Cable or equivalent, Its beefier and powerful enough to serve as a shaper and heavy and stable for hand-held routing. Enjoy the creativity!

I agree about the drill press. I was hurriedly making canoe parts a couple of years ago to get to the water, and a one inch forstner bit caught my fore finger; luckily the rotation direction kicked my finger out again. I am staring at the massive scar right now! I have learned a little to work slowly and if I am in a rush, it is a bad time to be working. Actually, my worst cut is from a Japanese double-edged hand-saw. Years ago I was not yet used to a pull-saw and 'forgot' the saw had teeth on the upper side as I tilted it and neatly sawed right down to the bone with surgical speed!

msbarrk1 (author)2008-02-22

"Wicked bummer." I love it! I'm from upstate NY, and when I throw one of those sayings out down here in the South, the looks of bewilderment are priceless. Back to the desk, this would also work great for centers in an elementary classroom where space is tight. At home, I really need to make an eating area that folds down, and with a few adjustments, this would work. My daughter and I just moved into a studio apartment, so the 4-6 seater is a little bit too big. By the way, reading through your comments is very entertaining!

Wade Tarzia (author)msbarrk12008-02-23

Yes, this is a perfect desk for a studio apartment. In fact, you can establish a theme (or whatever they call it in interior decoration trade: a motif?) and built two or three of these exactly where you need them. To save money, they need not be freestanding but rather you could screw the hinge board to the wall. If your landlord might discover that, then, you can still build a free standing version. I am happy you properly interpretered the 'wicked bummer' phrase. That is how I test for people's home regions ;-)

aydiosmio (author)2007-10-25

Oh, those are DASHES, not hyphens!

Wade Tarzia (author)aydiosmio2007-10-26

Yes indeed, dashes. The "double-hyphen = a dash" comes from the typewriter days, when it was the accepted and easy way to get a dash or a hyphen out of one mechanical key. The convention continued into the early word-processing days when "insert special symbol" menus (or anymenu at all!) were not available, or you had to key in macro-codes just to get a printer's dash. Now of course with the desk-top revolution (a revolution old enough now that most of you are too young to really know what that was and meant) you can insert 2-em and 3-em dashes (short dash, longer dash) and so on. I still use the double-hyphen as a quick way to make a dash while typing. However, that shows my age (almost 50); younger folk growing up post-Macintosh-era are sometimes confused about hyphens and double-dashes. yes, this is a nerdy conversation, but if you are ever feeling in a nerdy mood, talk to older folk who are printers or writers and listen to their pre-desk-top-revolution tales! They will sound as strange as fairy tales -- perhaps their tales will recount the sound and smell of a waxing machine and rub-on symbol pages and evoke a horror as sublime as Bluebeard's forbidden room! ;-)

multiplecats (author)Wade Tarzia2007-11-10

Oh boy, this really takes me back! Mdash, ndash, hyphen... *nostalgic sigh* I'm sorry to see them going. Even I've fallen victim to the common bastardized ellipsis.

By the way, I really like your table design. I've got limited space -- a studio apt. -- and folding the table away when done with it is a great idea. I don't know why I didn't even think of it before now. It's not like my dining table is an old drop-leaf, or that my couch has fold-away armrests, or that I haven't become the queen of storage remedies since moving here. Silly me! I'm going to go through my scrap wood pile later on and see if I can put one of these together, just on a smaller scale. If I'm successful, I'll post a photo.

Wade Tarzia (author)multiplecats2008-01-07

Did you ever get to it? Such a project is made simpler by the cheap and ready-made laminated 'tops' sold at Home Depot. They have sizes such as 2 x 6 feet, 2 x 4 feet, 18 inches by 4/6 feet. In fact, if you bought two, you have all the wood you need for the top and the sides, and a few simple saw cuts, and some hinges, completes the project. Good luck.

laernmoer (author)2007-10-25

The folding table surface looks like it angles downward with a slight tilt. Was that intentional? If it wasn't, I was thinking if you could cut a small triangular shim to mount on the underside of the table, it could let the legs slide up and you could raise the horizontal surface so the whole table is level and still have a stable surface. If the center section of the fold out sags, next time you could split the piano hinge in the middle and make a slider that swings out to support the underside of the center as well. The piano hinge is probably sturdy enough though. Great idea, entertaining instructable. (-:

Wade Tarzia (author)laernmoer2007-10-26

The tilt was intentional to the extent that (1) I knew it would be there, and (2) it is a convenient tilt angle for an English teacher correcting losts of essays. It is not convenient for other things such as (1) aesthetics and (2) serving food on, which I am told it was used for last night by school staff during parent meetings. Yes, I can spacer-it-up-level by simply addinglittle blocks to the tops of the foldout legs (or the gate-legs, as I am told by Isloan is the proper terminology. My friend is using the table, and at some point I will ask her what she would like to change about it, and I will make the changes -- the joy of wood, and of being the builder of a thing!

Wade Tarzia (author)2007-10-26

Your hinge placement suggestion is logical, especially for hardwood. I didn't do that because I felt that a vigorous upward-unfolding of the tabe top would make the table "meet its stops" with enough force that the screws would rip out of the soft pine or tear out a strip along the grain in the planks. The hinge screws on my pine clothing-chest, under less stress, have loosened up a lot because of twice-daily opening of the lid, even though the lid hinges are protected by spring-loaded mechanisms. The fold out table is used in a high school classroom, where any thing can happen (last night the school staff borrowed it to serve food on during parent meetings -- I wonder how they solved the tilted table top issue?), so I opted to protect the hinges and screws. I think, though, that your method is aesthically better and I should have done that: I could simply let the table "test to destruction" and fix later if it broke. I design and build so quickly at times that improvements become evident later. The joys and tragedies of building without plans -- understand, forgive, and live happily with your tradeoffs -- good 'advice for life' ;-)

!Andrew_Modder! (author)2007-10-18


Leon Close (author)2007-10-18

I like the idea. Never before has an Instructable made such good use of the hyphen.

Wade Tarzia (author)Leon Close2007-10-18

I'm glad you like the hyphens. It's hard finding a person nowadays who appreciates this undeservedly hated punctuation!

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