Introduction: Cheap and Easy DIY Dorm/apartment Furniture
When my roommate and I moved into new apartments our 3rd year of college, we realized that it would be difficult to find furniture that matched our desire for simple, robust construction and adhered to our strict student budget. We found all currently available furniture was either too expensive or simply cheap and fragile. Since we have access to a woodshop, we decided to make our own furniture and designed a bed frame, nightstand, and desk to meet several requirements:
• The furniture had to be robust as to withstand daily usage, parties, and the like for at least a couple of years
• Fabrication had to be quick (in about a weekend) and easy, with as few specialty tools or skills as possible
• The aesthetic had to be clean and simple yet functional
• Everything had to be built as cheaply as possible
With the resources available at the Invention Studio at Georgia Tech, we were able to fabricate all our furniture over the long weekend before move-in. We are very happy with all the pieces we made and wanted to encourage you all to consider making your own before shelling out tons of money for generic IKEA furniture. Here's how we did it!
Step 1: Design
The first step to any project like this is to design and plan everything. This is essential for adhering to a budget and streamlining the fabrication process. We used Fusion 360 to design all the furniture. This allowed us to lay out the furniture on virtual floorplans of our rooms. It also allowed the two of us to easily collaborate on designs from a distance. Of course, using CAD to design 2x4 furniture is a bit overkill, and pencil and paper would be sufficient. As mechanical engineering students, however, overkill came naturally.
To keep the furniture as cheap, versatile, and sturdy as possible, we relied heavily on dimensional lumber available from any home store. After designing the frames of the nightstand, desk, and bed, it was carefully planned how each required piece would come from 8ft 2x4s with minimum waste.
The bed was designed with a foam mattress in mind, which requires a solid surface for the mattress to rest on. The alternative, a spring mattress, usually sits on slats. Due to this design decision, buying several large sheets of plywood was also necessary. If designing for a spring mattress this additional material is not needed.
Step 2: Materials
- 10x 8ft 2x4 stud
- 2x 4x8ft plywood sheet
- 1lb 2.5in construction screws
- 4x 8ft 2x4 stud
- 1x 2x4ft 3/4in melamine sheet
- (optional) 1 roll iron-on melamine edge tape
- (optional) 1x4ft plywood sheet
- 2x 8ft 2x4 stud
- 2x4ft plywood sheet
- 2x Paint roller kit
- Multipurpose latex primer (the cheap stuff at Sherwin Williams)
- Latex interior paint (we went with SW 2808 brown and black)
• The quantities above are rough estimates and can be improved through careful planning. We ended up making 3 desks, a bed, and a nightstand using only 2 full sheets of plywood, 3 lbs of screws, and 25 2x4s. By combining the required lengths of all the pieces creatively into the stock wood, we were able to get away with buying less wood while minimizing wasted material. If possible, build your furniture all at once and with a friend or two. This allows you to coordinate lumber use as efficiently as possible.
• Melamine is a coated wood product that is relatively cheap as well as water, stain, scratch resistant. For these reasons, it makes a perfect desk or counter top. In hindsight, melamine would have also made an excellent choice for the nightstand and even the bed if you can afford it. If you'd like, you can buy iron-on rolls of the coating to cover the bare wood edges of the melamine and improve the look and feel of the furniture.
• The desks we made have a piece of plywood on the back that serves several purposes. Firstly, it helps to reinforce the structure, adding stability to the frame and legs. Secondly, it adds a convenient place to attach Command hooks or other cable management solutions. This piece isn't totally required, but since we had leftover plywood from the bed frame, we thought it was a good idea. If you're just making a desk, it might not be worth the extra money or hassle. Up to you!
Step 3: (OPTIONAL) Prepare the 2x4s
• Since we have access to an awesome wood shop in the Invention Studio, we decided to trim and surface all the 2x4s to clean them up. This also resulted in an extremely clean and modern aesthetic. Firstly, we thoroughly checked each stud for nails and staples that would destroy the tablesaw or planer blades. If finishing the studs this step is critical. We then trimmed a 1/4" cut off each side of the 2x4s on the tablesaw to remove the filleted edges on the lumber and square up each board, reducing the width from 3.5in to 3in. Finally, we took one pass on each side of the boards with the planer, reducing the thickness from 1.5in to just over 1.25in. The planer removed any discoloration or roughness from the boards and left us with a smoother surface. If you don't have access to these tools or you're really pressed for time, this step can be omitted, just remember to adjust the dimensions accordingly.
• BONUS: The cutoffs from the tablesaw (long, thin pine strips) made excellent firewood for a few nights. That weekend we were between a student dorm and our new apartment and had nowhere to live, so we ended up camping at a nearby campground. The cutoffs allowed us to cook for 3 nights over the fire, for zero extra money. Score!
Step 4: Cut the Lumber to Size
With the aid of our CAD model, we created a cut list detailing the required dimensions of every piece of lumber in the project. We also labeled each component in cad and marked the corresponding lumber with a pencil to ensure that we could assemble each component in the end.
All the 2x4s are cut at simple right angles, so many tools can be used to cut them to length: a jigsaw, hacksaw, circular saw, or crosscut sled on the tablesaw. We chose to use a miter saw, but use any tool you have. Just be sure to measure each piece accurately and take your time cutting each piece precisely. Small errors are probably ok, but they could lead to misfitting components when the parts are assembled.
We marked and cut the plywood with a tracksaw, but you could use a circular saw, hacksaw, or other to cut these to size. On the nightstand shelf, a jigsaw was used to cut the notches in the corners. It's important that the cuts are made square, as they are used to pull the frame into alignment during assembly. Any errors here could lead the bed frame to be crooked or out of square.
Step 5: Assembly
Everything was assembled with screws using a three step process:
First, we used a cordless drill to make pilot holes using a drill bit as large as the core (minor diameter) of the screw. This prevents the wood from splitting, which was especially crucial as many screws mount into the ends of boards. Then, we used a countersink on the pilot holes to allow for a cleaner look. This step is optional, and we found that the 2x4s really didn’t benefit from this step. Lastly, we drove the screws into the pilot holes using an impact driver. This worked great to quickly and easily screw everything together. Theoretically all the screws could be driven with a hand screwdriver, but we recommend using an impact driver or at least a power drill.
For most of the joints, we carefully checked the CAD model to understand how the pieces fit together, then used a large square to hold everything in place while two screws were driven into each joint. Using a square isn't strictly necessary, but it helped tremendously in keeping all the joints true and precise. It is definitely recommended if you can find one and if you cannot, building a square with scrap material is also a valid and easy option.
• Having a buddy to hold pieces in place while you drive screws is incredibly valuable. They are often more responsive and adaptable than clamps.
• When adding the desk tops, use a ruler to mark where the desk structure goes, then mark where to add screws. Drill the pilot holes, and flip the desk over and onto the structure, aligning the marks with the 2x4s underneath. Countersinking is absolutely necessary on the melamine to prevent cracking the protective finish. This method kept everything aligned and ensured that the screws went into the center of the 2x4s.
• When screwing in the plywood sheets, using a screw about every 14-16in worked well. More or less screws can be used as you please. We used the same 2.5in construction screws that were used for everything else, but with some careful planning, you might be able to save some money by using shorter screws for the plywood.
Step 6: Sanding
Sanding everything isn't strictly necessary,
but it's a great idea and totally worth doing. The only reasons I would consider not sanding everything are:
1. You really can't get your hands on an orbital or belt sander
2. You're really that pressed for time
These are both totally reasonable and justified reasons, but in any other case, take the time to sand your furniture. This knocks down any sharp corners or edges and helps soften all the lumber for a better feel. This was especially critical for the bed frame as the mattress lays directly on the plywood. Don't go crazy, but use an orbital sander or belt sander (or both in our case) to sand every surface of every piece of furniture at 150 and 220 grit. This step took us the better part of a day but was totally worth it in the end. The furniture feels and looks great.
Top tip: we made the questionable decision to sand in the lobby of a campus building. If you choose to follow us in that regard, do a meticulous job of vacuuming and sweeping up all the fine dust or risk a strongly worded email from the faculty advisor to your makerspace.
Step 7: (OPTIONAL) Painting
It's not required to paint your furniture, especially if you
like the look of bare wood. However, it is recommended to use an oil, varnish, polyurethane, paint, or similar to seal and protect the wood from liquid, stains, and scratches. We opted for paint.
For the best results, paint everything with a layer or two of multipurpose primer using a roller and brushes, then apply a topcoat of interior latex paint. This gives the smoothest, most even color. In our case, we were getting tired and running out of time, so we painted directly on the wood without priming on several of the pieces. This leaves a slightly rough texture, but it still looks great. For us, the paint quality was of low concern, we just wanted to seal and protect the wood while improving the look of our furniture, and our rush paint job did just that.
Top tip: lay down some dropcloths to keep from angering facilities. If you choose to paint in the loading dock, as we did, do it on the weekend so you don't interfere with deliveries.
Step 8: (OPTIONAL) Finishing Touches
At this point, you have totally functional
furniture! Congrats! We chose to add a couple small finishing touches to improve the look and feel of our furniture even more, and feel free to do the same. This isn't a comprehensive list of the tweaks you can make, so get inspired and make your own improvements!
1. Melamine edge banding. We bought some melamine edge banding that irons on to the exposed edge of the desk tops, protecting and hiding the ugly particleboard core. This stuff is $4 a strip and very easy to apply, so I definitely recommend it. Just follow the instructions on the packaging.
2. LED underglow. I bought some RGB LED strips on Amazon that came with a "smart" controller, which is WiFi enabled and connects to my Google Home. I 3D printed some small clips at the Invention Studio and used hot glue to attach these clips to the underside of the bed frame and desk. This allowed me to mount the LED strips more securely than the included adhesive backing. This addition is totally unnecessary, but the voice-controlled LED lighting is awesome and really impresses anyone who comes over. Plus, my apartment didn't come with an overhead light, so this gives me some light in my room at night.
3. Free office chairs. This one is tricky - we had planned on buying some cheap chairs on Amazon, but the week after we finished our furniture, the Mechanical Engineering department threw out some old office chairs. They have some wear and small rips on the armrests, and the fabric pattern is a bit dated, but you really can't beat the price point of absolutely free!
4. Cheap mattresses. We wanted to buy new mattresses, but we’re college students and have a matching budget. Naturally, we took to Amazon and found some super cheap queen-sized 12 inch thick foam mattresses. This isn't a product endorsement or anything, but we think they are super comfortable and even cheaper than some of the used options we’ve seen locally. Definitely worth checking out.
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