Introduction: Convertible Standing/Sitting Desk for $200

There's evidence that sitting for long periods of time is bad for your health. However, standing for long periods is also not great for your body, and trying to switch from a sit-down desk to a standing desk too abruptly can result in a sore back and aching feet.

So although it would be healthier for us all to use standing desks, ideally, you'd like to be able to ease into it gradually -- and hopefully without needing to schlep your computer back and forth between two desks.

To accomplish this, I designed and built a convertible standing/sitting desk. My computer stays put, and I can smoothly and easily adjust my desk up and down to either stand or sit in front of it.

This desk is designed like an elevator. There is a counterweight at the back that is attached to the desktop, and both the desktop and the counterweight move up and down on drawer slides that act as guiding rails.

In this project, I kept things very simple. I bought my supplies at Home Depot and had them "rip" my wood, i.e. cut it to the correct sizes for me (you pay a little extra for this.) Then all I had to do was drill my guide holes and bolt everything together like The Thing That Came From Ikea.

The entire project cost $200, not including my local sales tax. The equipment list is in the last step of this Instructable.

By the way, if you've got modest carpentry skills, you aren't obligated to birth a pseudo-Ikea-monster like I did. You could certainly make a more permanent (and attractive) version of this desk using wood glue and proper joining. You could also scale this desk up to a larger size, because as long as your desktop platform is braced adequately, you can throw a sock full of buckshot in the counterweight to lift a heavier desk and computer.

Step 1: Think About the Measurements

To start, you want to figure out the desired dimensions of your desk, including what heights you want the desk's surface to be at when you're standing and when you're sitting.

Based on various resources on the internet, such as this one, regarding the best ergonomics for your computer workstation, the general rule is you want your keyboard to be roughly at same the height as the bottoms of your elbows when you've got your hands on the keyboard and your upper arms hanging relaxed by your sides. You can easily measure this distance with a tape measure.

My desk had to go up and down by 17" to be usable for both standing and sitting. This is convenient because 18" is a common size for drawer slides.

In the sitting position, the desktop needed to be about 25" above the floor for me, while in the standing position, it had to be about 42" high. Because I wanted a 3" backstop on the desk, and I also needed the paracord connecting the desktop and counterweight to be suspended above both objects via pulleys, 48" turned out to be a convenient choice for the uprights on the desk's frame.

You should determine what footprint you want the desk to fit into and how large a desk surface you want to work on. Note that if your desktop sticks out too far, you may need to design better bracing for its underside than what I used (which was sturdy shelf brackets.) There could be a lot of torque on the front edge of your desktop.

My desk fits into a total footprint of 24" deep by 32" wide, which I needed because of the space it has to fit into in my home. The desktop is only about 15" deep and 32" wide. Obviously, I don't have a computer tower sitting on my desktop -- there's no room! Instead, I have my laptop on the monitor pedestal and a peripheral keyboard below it.

Keep in mind that, for this sort of design, you have fewer options for storing things under your desk because there are moving parts down there.

Step 2: Making the (guy at Home Depot Do My) Cuts

For the flat surfaces of the desk, I used Home Depot's "Pine Shop" boards, which are not ideal (pine is a bit too soft) but which are exactly the size they're advertised to be -- no shrinkage. I bought two 16"x36" boards and one 20"x36" board (all 3/4" thick), and I had them cut by the store as in the image above. The labeled sections in the image above were used in the desk's construction as follows:

  • A - top of desk
  • D - backstop for desktop
  • B - top of monitor pedestal
  • C1 and C2 - sides of monitor pedestal (9" is the height)
  • E1 and E2 - front and back of counterweight box
  • H1 and H2 - sides of counterweight box
  • J1 and J2 - bottom of counterweight box
  • F and G - to create storage space on the desktop

Step 3: Doing the Cuts for the Frame

For the frame of the desk, I needed three 2"x2"x96" fir pieces. Due to shrinkage, their cross-section is really smaller than 2"x2", which meant that my drawer slides (used as guide rails) stick out from the legs more than I wanted. This is only a cosmetic issue, however.

I had the fir cut by the store as in the image above. The labeled sections in the image above were used in the desk construction as follows:

  • A1 and A2 - uprights for frame
  • B1 and B2 - horizontal support legs for frame
  • C1 and C2 - "slider" legs for desktop
  • D1, D2, and D3 - horizontal supports for frame

Step 4: Assembling the Counterweight Box

Here's how the counterweight box goes together. Note the sides are a little too tall. That could be easily fixed with a saw, but I didn't bother because the counterweight will always be hidden in the nook where I plan to put my desk.

Step 5: Assembling the Frame

Here is how the frame goes together. There are two 48" uprights. These attach to a base formed by two 24" sections, which I call the horizontal support legs.

There are also three horizontal sections of 28" that separate and support the uprights of the frame. Note that one of these 28" sections is mounted at the *back* of the horizontal support legs, on the floor, to form a U-shape for better stability.

I attached the U-shaped base to the frame in such a way that the counterweight box will completely rest on it when it is at its lowest position. Also, the front of the horizontal support legs extend out as far as the edge of my desktop, which aids stability.

Useful Hint! See that middle support? Mount that bastard higher than your kneecaps, because I didn't, and now I'm really regretting it (although it will be an easy fix.) For aesthetic reasons, however, do try to mount the middle support low enough that it will be hidden by your desktop when the desk is positioned for sitting.

Also useful: I put a T-brace on the junction between the uprights and the horizontal support legs, down at the floor. Adding this extra reinforcement is important because that joint will be susceptible to damage. The uprights carry all the weight of your desktop and counterweight, so every time they wobble, they exert a large torque on that joint. Since L-braces would get in the way of the drawer slides on the uprights, we have to use T-braces instead. I only used one per leg, but you could put one on each side of both legs for added strength.

Step 6: Assembling the Desktop

Here's how to attach the backstop and monitor pedestal to the desktop. Do note, however, that I had to remove the backstop later to attach the slider legs to the desktop.

Connecting the monitor pedestal involved tracing where the pedestal side sat on the desktop, then drilling my guide holes.

Step 7: Attaching the Slider Legs

The desktop will sit on a pair of vertical slider legs. These legs attach to the drawer slides that guide the desktop up and down.

I designed my desk to have only two heights that it could be adjusted to. For the lower (sitting) position, the slider legs actually rest on the horizontal support legs; they can't go any lower. When the desk is in the higher (standing) position, the counterweight box rests on the horizontal support legs so that the desktop can't go any higher. I have lock-pins to keep the desktop in place, but this bottoming-out design should help stability.

The drawer slides I chose are Richelieu Accurides, because they have a very smooth action. However, you can buy other slides that cost half as much if you're okay with a bumpier motion.

I got a bit paranoid about attaching the slides, because if they're not parallel to one another, the desktop will jam instead of sliding up and down smoothly. Normally, with these drawer slides, you push a lever on one part of the slide to detach that section. This allows you to attach the two halves of the slide separately.

Due to my paranoia about making sure the slides didn't jam, I didn't do this. Instead I attached both slides to the uprights, then placed the slider legs on them and traced the shape of the slide.

Then, I took the drawer slides off the uprights and screwed them onto the slider legs. Then I reattached them to the uprights by pushing the (now-attached) slider legs up out of the way. The photos do show this process, although not necessarily clearly.

Lastly, I attached the shelf brackets that will hold up the desktop. I chose decorative ones, but you can get industrial ones that offer more knee-room for half the price.

Step 8: Attaching the Counterweight

I attached the counterweight box using the same technique as in the previous step (i.e. by NOT separating the slides into two pieces), except that holding the box out of my way while I screwed in the drawer slides was a whole bunch harder due to the extra weight. As you can see, I had to jury-rig a cradle for my counterweight!

Step 9: Attaching the Desktop to the Slider Legs

As mentioned earlier, I discovered I had to remove my desktop's backstop before I could screw the desktop onto the slider legs, but this was easily done.

Once it was done, I rested my desktop on the slider legs (and their attached shelf brackets), then I traced the outline of the slider legs on the underside of the desktop.

I determined where I wanted my screw holes to go, then I carefully measured those locations and reproduced them on the top surface of the desktop. Then I replaced my desktop on top of the slider legs and drilled the guide holes that would allow me to bolt it all together.

Step 10: Attaching the Hardware for the Pulley System

Next, I put up the pulleys. You could possibly do this with only two pulleys, but I used four (two on each side) to more-evenly distribute the weight.

Note you could also probably use hitching rings instead of pulleys here. There would be more friction and more noise, but I think they would work. However, I found the cost of the pulleys was comparable to buying hitching rings instead, so unless you can't find as good a deal as I did, I'd recommend the pulleys.

Using a plumb bob, I placed the eyelets for the paracord cable that will connect the desktop to the counterweight. Note that I placed the eyelets on the desktop aligned front-to-back and the eyelets on the counterweight aligned side-to-side. This was so I could feed the cord sideways along the back of the desk and then up through the pulleys. By having one long cord, instead of two separate ones, not only will the cord self-correct if one side of the desk has too much tension on it, but I also won't have to mess around with getting two cords tied to exactly the same lengths.

Step 11: Finishing Touches

I added a hole through the desktop to allow me to pass power cords through it. Note you have to be a little careful with your wires with this sort of desk, because the cord must be long enough to reach the standing desk height, which means it will also be slack enough to get in the way of the moving parts when you lower the desk again. I actually found my decorative shelf brackets came in useful in this regard, because I could wind my power cords around the decorative bits to keep them away from the sliders.

To make the hole, I drilled large holes around the perimeter of the area I wanted to punch out, then sawed between them, and finally filed the hole into shape with a very rough rasp, then smoothed it out.

I also created some storage space on my desktop for pens, etc., in the form of a small box. Don't look too closely at it; I didn't do a very good job!

I also drilled holes so I can lock the desk in place at its two positions. A pair of carriage bolts (with the threads scotch-taped over) are acting as my lock-pins for now.

Step 12: The Finished Product!

Finished except for paint, but you can actually see the details better this way. Note how the string (which will be replaced with paracord later) threads up from the counterweight, through the pulleys, down to the desktop, and then *sideways* to the other eyelet of the desktop. This allows any imbalance in the tension of the cable to self-correct. If you had two separate cords, you'd have to fight to get them the same length.

Also note the action of the counterweight and the slider legs under the desktop. In the high position, the counterweight is on the ground. In the low position, the slider legs are on the ground. I still need the lock-pins for stability, but this bottoming-out of the design elements helps keep the desk solid. That said, if you drill more holes in the uprights, then you can make this desk adjustable to suit a variety of people.

Thank you for reading my Instructable!

Full Equipment List:

  • 2 x (16"x36"x3/4" pine board)
  • 1 x (20"x36"x3/4" pine board)
  • 3 x (2"x2"x96" fir post)
  • 2 x (#10 3/4" wood screws)
  • 35 x (#10 1-1/4" wood screws)
  • 20 x (#12 2-1/4" wood screws)
  • 2 x (carriage bolts suitable to use as lock-pins)
  • 4 x (1/4" pulleys)
  • 2 x (pair of 18" drawer slides)
  • 2 x (8" shelf bracket)
  • 2 x (8" T-brackets)
  • 4 x (large eyelet screw)
  • 1 x (3m of static paracord)
  • Sandpapers
  • Paint