Introduction: Pack Flat Plywood Desk

Picture of Pack Flat Plywood Desk

Recently I was in the market for a new desk.

I wanted to make a desk that was able to be disassembled and packed flat, made from few and easily obtainable supplies with simple tools.

The desk can be created from the following supplies:
1 4'x8'x3/4" A-1 plywood sheet
2 4' 3/8" steel rod
2 3/8" nuts
2 3/8" wingnuts
8 washers
8 screws
Some woodglue

You will need the following tools:
Tape measure
Circular saw (or other saw for making large cuts in the plywood)
Coping saw (for cutting the notches)
Several clamps

I also recommend a squaring device such as a speed square.

Step 1: Create the Tops and the Sides

Picture of Create the Tops and the Sides

Divide the plywood into 4 pieces measuring 2'x4'. You could have the lumber yard do this for you, or use your own tools.

Two of these will be for the top and bottom of the desk and two will be for the sides. I recommend using the smoothest and most regular surface for the top of the desk.

Step 2: Cut Notches Into the Sides of the Top and Bottom Pieces

Picture of Cut Notches Into the Sides of the Top and Bottom Pieces

There needs to be a notch in the top and bottom of the sandwich you will build. Measure out a notch that is 6 inches from the front and the back of the desk and 1 1/2" deep. Use your coping saw to cut this. Repeat until both the top and the bottom of the sandwich have the notches cut on both sides. You will have cut four notches when this is complete.

Step 3: Cut the Tabs in the Legs

Picture of Cut the Tabs in the Legs

Measure and cut out two of the corners of each leg. Since I'm using 3" high boards for the sandwich and the top and bottom of the sandwich are 3/4" thick I need the depth to be at least 4 1/2". I wanted to be sure things fit snugly and didn't mind the overhang so I made mine 5 1/2" deep. The width of each cut should be 6". This makes the tab match up with the notch you cut in step 2.

Step 4: Cut the Sandwich Spacers From the Legs

Picture of Cut the Sandwich Spacers From the Legs

You'll need four 3" x 24" spacers for the inside of the sandwich. Unless you are making a desk that is about 4' tall you can cut them from the legs.

You could do this step earlier, but I waited until after I was done cutting the notches and tabs just in case I made a mistake and had to change things.

At this point you should also cut your desk to the height you want it to be. Since you're making it yourself you can customize it to your chair and your liking. Just make sure you cut the legs to the same height.

Step 5: Sandwich the Top and Bottom Together

Picture of Sandwich the Top and Bottom Together

Clamp, glue, and screw the two outside spacers to the bottom of the desk. Make sure they are flush with the edge. Next, clamp and glue the two inside spacers to the bottom of the desk. You should not need to screw them in. After the glue has dried clamp and glue the top of the desk to complete the sandwich. Screw the top of the desk to the outside spacers.

Step 6: File and Sand the Notches and Tabs to Make a Tight Fit

Picture of File and Sand the Notches and Tabs to Make a Tight Fit

Chances are the legs of the desk will not fit into the sandwich on the first try. Use a file to remove materials from both pieces until the legs slide in and out easily.

Filing is a major pain. Not only is it labor intensive and time consuming, it can damage the veneer. If I was doing this again I would have spent more time or gotten another tool to do the cuts to make them more accurate. More accuracy on the cuts would have make the filing portion a piece of cake.

Step 7: Drill Holes and Install the Steel Rods

Picture of Drill Holes and Install the Steel Rods

Drill two holes in each leg so that the rod can be installed. I put the holes about halfway between the top and bottom of the leg and about one inch in from the back.

The rod I used was 3/8" in diameter.

Step 8: Sand, Finish, and Install

Picture of Sand, Finish, and Install

Sand all surfaces on the desk to make them smooth, clean and regular. Use your favorite paint or varnish to seal the desk. Do this while it is disassembled. I used clear matte polyurethane. I also didn't sand off much of the numbers/plywood markings because I kind of liked them.

When your finish is dry insert the legs into the sandwich and insert the rods into the legs. Use nuts and washers on the insides of the legs and a washer and wingnut on the outside to tighten and secure the legs.

Originally I wanted to have two 48" threaded rods as the extra support. I couldn't find any at my hardware store so i had to get four 24" ones and two couplers. This turned out to be great because it made it much easier to put the piece together.

Step 9: Marvel at Your Greatness

Picture of Marvel at Your Greatness

Once assembled the desk provides a large sturdy surface for working. It's ability to pack flat will help me greatly the next time I move. It's pretty sparse and simple to make but I think it could become a platform for people to build specialized workspace furniture for.

Thanks for checking out the Instructable. Please let me know if you have any questions.


throughthehaze made it! (author)2015-10-22

Made this for my Sons room, he was struggling with somewhere to Study, and this was a quick solution. I made it slightly smaller than yours 36"x20" to fit in his space, and also set the dividers in dados so I didn't have to screw them, as well as cutting a mortice rather than a notch to receive the legs. I didn't have any threaded bar, so I welded a nut into the end of a piece of conduit cut to length and bolted this through the side. Probably a little more faffy than your one, but I like to get all the tools out occasionally. Thanks for the inspiration

BartholomewH (author)2015-05-27

how simple and effective!

B52Gunner (author)2013-08-16

My son and I made this desk so he could take it back to college. Very easy to build and a great design. We've gotten quite a few compliments on it. This is my favorite instructable so far.

milkbarn (author)2010-11-06

Your boards of canada reference is great.

DIYhomecenter (author)2008-03-31

I had a desk like this but it started bending after 2 years wih a 17 inch old school monitor on it.

drocko (author)DIYhomecenter2008-03-31

I think it's unlikely that the top of the desk will bend under weight-- there's a lot of wood and structure there. The legs I could see bending over time. I've been using the desk since I finished it in December and have had no problems with stability or bending.

The Dark Ninja (author)drocko2010-07-29

Hows it holding up now?

rapidprototyping (author)2010-07-25

why not real wood why not a tressel design table either coffee table or desk

drocko (author)rapidprototyping2010-07-25

Why don't you do this and post an Instructable about it?

paracord junky (author)2010-05-16

nice.  now shove some shallow drawers into those spaces for better storage and to cover the edges.  and you wouldn't have to worry about your pencils rolling away. 

stephenniall (author)2009-05-29

wow very nice and simple

acornman (author)2008-12-20

Carry the box - tab idea further... make another box section exactly the same as the desk top but a third of the depth (narrower) .cut a tab to the width of the new box at the bottom rear of both side legs with spacing either side . The sides are then dropped into the new box at the back.Now you have tied the sides together without the rods and provided a foot rest at the same time, also assembly and disassembly now require no tools!

josiahkerley (author)2008-11-30

You know, if you're having a problem filing, you may want to invest in some quality files. I used a set of stanley's for years, then I use a friends Rockley's, and it was like a torch through butter.

neuralstatic (author)2008-07-06

you were talking about the pain of filing... would a belt sander help here to grind away that excess from the cut?

drocko (author)neuralstatic2008-07-06

I'm sure it would. Don't have one though!

ursus57 (author)2008-01-26

Great quick and storable item-some one will steal this and patent it. Will build, for the grand brats.

csmithblues (author)2008-01-22

my only question is this: is there any advantage to having the leg tabs "hover" over the surface of the desk? Fantastic instructable by the way.

drocko (author)csmithblues2008-01-24

Thanks! There's really no reason for the legs to hover over the top of the desk. I did it because I wanted to be able to have a functioning desk even if my cuts were not super accurate. I suppose I could cut it down now, but then all my pencils would roll off it.

Amir (author)2008-01-10

Before I saw this, I thought that I had a desk that couldn't be improved on. -It's a piece of melamine spanning a gap between two small filing cabinets. but not only does yours look really cool, it's got storage. I love it.

macdadyabc (author)2007-12-31

thats a pretty good design. i did a project like this a month ago, but instead, i mounted a peice of mdf to a wall with hinges, and two legs on hinges as well. so i just lift it up, and it only sticks out about an inch or two. its nice to see other ways of thinking

drocko (author)macdadyabc2008-01-03

I saw something like you described on the Cool Tools blog a few weeks ago. Are you describing something like this?.

macdadyabc (author)drocko2008-01-08

more or less, yah. mine has two legs ,though, instead of a drawbridge-type- suspension. same basic idea

Xamu (author)2008-01-03

I have a recommendation or 2 which will make your desk very much more stable.

1) Instead of using a nut and washer on the threaded rod in between the legs to hold the legs apart, carefully measure the distance between the legs for each rod and cut a piece of 1½" (or thereabouts) PVC plumbing pipe. It is important to cut the ends squarely so you might want to buy an inexpensive miter box. (That will also help you practice with your Japanese hand saw.) Another related trick is to wrap a piece of stiff paper around the pipe until the edge of paper is straight and then you are guaranteed to draw a perfectly square line around the pipe.

After you have the pipe cut to length, slide the rod through the leg, the pipe, and through the other leg. Instead of using the washers and wingnuts, use the washers and regular nuts.

Make sure that the pipe is absolutely square to both of the legs (using your speedsquare) before tightening with a wrench. With 3/8 threaded rod you should be able to really tighten those suckers good.

I recommend that you place one of your PVC encased rods half-way up from the floor along the back of the desk (which I see you have done). A second PVC encased rod can/should be placed much lower and a bit more toward the front (like 6-12" from the back) so, in addition to stability, it can also act as a footrest. (Having the second rod right under the desktop doesn't make the desk very much more stable. By taking it out of the same plane of the rod on the back, you minimize the parallelogram racking stresses. It will also make the desk much more comfortable to use. You might need to do some trial and error to find the most comfortable footrest position but I'm guessing that 5-6" off the ground will be best.

2) You were left with four squares of scrap plywood from when you cut the tongues for the legs. Take one (you actually may need two depending on how straight you saw) of those squares and cut it on the diagonal (make sure one triangular piece has 2 factory edges - not 2 triangular pieces with 1 factory edge each). These will become gussets to strengthen the joint where the leg meets the bottom of the table top. Use the factory edge whenever possible. If the sides of the waste piece you cut (to make the tongues) are not square, don't sweat it. Just get another square waste piece, cut on the diagonal (as above) and use the factory

Pre-drill all holes and screw the gussets about 2-4 inches in from the back of the desk. Why? Two reasons - 1) having the gussets in more means you are stabilizing more of the leg. 2) You might want to put a clamp on the corner and you'll need the overhang so the clamp can grab.

drocko (author)Xamu2008-01-03

God ideas! I've been using the desk as it is in the Instructable since I built it and I"m finding that it's a lot more sturdy than many of the comments imply. If it starts to wobble in the future I'll add some enhancements like you suggest. Thanks!

Xamu (author)drocko2008-01-04

Sorry, didn't mean to imply your design wasn't very sturdy. You have a very innovative design that applies forces very differently than most furniture. What's cool about it is that the threaded rods can either pinch-grip the top by moving the inside nuts outward (rod compression) -or- the threaded rods can push outward against the outside edges of the top by moving the inside nuts inward (rod tension). But all that force is concentrated at the back of the desk (which isn't ideal). So, it would probably be beneficial to have some additional bracing. Ironically, you have leveraged (literally) a weakness of the design (long thin legs) into a strength by turning them into levers. I can't tell if the fulcrum is the point where the leg meets the desk or where the top threaded rod meets the leg - I'm guessing the former. Bottom line, your desk should give you good service for quite some time. Good job!

Wade Tarzia (author)2008-01-04

Nice! I like the storage niches underneath. Are the plywood side 'legs' a little wobbly?

texastiger (author)2008-01-02

Thumbs up for a simple build for a very usefull piece of furniture / workspace. One suggestion would be to cut a square panel out of the bottoms of both legs. This would reduce weight, give you some raw material for another project or for the scrap pile and would not affect the stability of the desk.

drocko (author)texastiger2008-01-03

Smart idea. Originally i considered cutting a slit in the center of the legs at the top ( I think you can see it in the original drawing). The idea was so that cords could be run through the leg and not have to hang over the top of the desk. I didn't do this because I was more interested in just getting the desk up and running. Maybe I'll add it later.

jh_cirque (author)2008-01-02

Nice build. Noticed that you use Festool equipment. How do you like them? Considering buying a few pieces for an upcoming project. Are they worth the premium cost? Like the small form factor since I have no space to store larger pieces. Thanks.

drocko (author)jh_cirque2008-01-02

Ah, I love my Festool tools. I bought them when I built my loft because I knew I'd be working right where i was living and I would need to be able to store and transport them easily. The are great for this. Their dust collection is so good that I can easily work in my living room and just clean up with a broom and vacuum when done. If you've got the money for them and you think you'll get a lot of use out of them then I'd say go for it. The initial investment is pretty steep, but once you have the guides, a dust extractor, and an MFT table you can add other pieces to the set easily for relatively low cost.

pikwitonei (author)2008-01-02

Nice Festool shop

DrStoooopid (author)2007-12-31

nice build, I might have to put one of these together.

sickdog74 (author)2007-12-31

Very nice, I might have to build this!

Videk (author)2007-12-30

Nice desk, have to say I like the idea for the legs and the peg at the top. Wanted to say though, you would have a easier time filing the wood with a rasp, basically a woodworker's file, the one shown in your picture is made typically for metal and used occasionally for plastic. Good job though!

Austringer (author)2007-12-30

Nice. If one were inclined you could dress this up with things like iron on edge banding or take it all kinds of places artistically with a jig saw. I was going to echo Zzag's suggestion about crossing the streams, er, wires but since he did, I won't. Cool stuff.

bekathwia (author)2007-12-24

Boards of Canada, hah!

We're doing obscure BOC refs? Then I say music has the rights to children, who have rights to pack-flat desks. Which gets me thinking... This is actually a pretty cool kids' project, seems like. Save having to get different desks as they grow; just make different uprights. And if they're old enough, this seems like one they could do themselves with supervision, or they could mark the measurements in pencil and have Mom and Dad do the sawing.

drocko (author)JustAnotherDave2007-12-30

That's not a bad idea. My parents have this large table that is made of a very soft wood. As a kid I noticed that when I did my homework on it the stuff I wrote on the paper sometimes was imprinted (debossed?) into the table. When you look closely you can see the history of what happened on the table by investigating it closely. All my old homework assignments, right there in the table! History like that is pretty cool and having one desk surface for a long time could be a great way to reduce your footprint and keep your history with you.

That should be "right" to children. I'm apparently thinking in copyright terms.

drocko (author)bekathwia2007-12-24

Hopefully the desk will work out and not end up as fuel for something like the Campfire Headphase :)

maruawe (author)2007-12-25

this works well but I had a problem with movement. to solve this I notched the uprights six inches from the floor and three inches from the edge, I made a four inch cut 3/8 wide and 4inches wide I inserted another piece of 3/8 plywood to protrude 2 inches drilled a 5/8 hole and inserted a 5/8 dowl rod. This back piece made it sturdy enough to put some heavy laser products on the desk. Hope that this works for you also

drocko (author)maruawe2007-12-27

Good idea. I think if I understand your design correctly you'd need a little bit more wood. This would make the desk shallower, but probably a lot more sturdy. I'm using the desk set up in a corner so it gains stability from two walls. Also, I'm probably only going to be using it with a laptop and smaller projects.

zzag (author)drocko2007-12-30

Nice design. I would guess some of the movement is there because the design is a parallelogram (the only stability is the thickness of the sandwich putting a coupling force on the legs). If the parallel rods were arranged in an X-shape instead, the movement would be reduced. And if the plywood is stiff enough, the 'X' doesn't necessarily have to be made of rods. E.g. could be rope with turnbuckles. Separate as much as possible, running diagonal from sandwich to floor.

flio191 (author)2007-12-26

this is really nice! i think i might try and make this out of natural wood shapes :D +1 rating

xtank5 (author)2007-12-25

Me like!!! :) I must remember this for when I go to college or university. very convenient.

dacker (author)2007-12-24

Decent! I'd love to see more 'One Sheet of Plywood' projects like this.

drocko (author)dacker2007-12-24

Yeah I think that limiting the material like this helps to create a better project. Working within that challenge forced me to think of a new way to join wood. Not to mention that it's difficult for me to get and store a lot of wood...

shortbus (author)2007-12-24

Interesting... I like it.

GorillazMiko (author)2007-12-24

looks like something great they would sell in ikea! if i were to do this, it would be in my room as a work table :D great instructable!

drocko (author)GorillazMiko2007-12-24

Thanks! When I showed this to my friends they suggested I start a store called RoKea as a play on my name...

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