Introduction: Large Writing Desk

For my Year 12 Industrial Technology Timber Major work I decided to build a large Jarrah writing desk. This desk was a large and expensive project but from every step of its construction I learnt valuable skills and ideas that would make building a similar desk much easier and allow for a wider range of customisation. As well as help with aspects of life making and everything in-between.

The Lay out of this Instructable

I don't expect any one to build this exact desk, so I'm writing this instructable with the goal of sharing the tips, skills, ideas and tricks I have learnt along the way. Rather than focusing on the process for each step I'm gong to focus on what I learnt and what I took away from that part of building the desk.

If you want clear or specific information on the research, designing, planning or construction process of the desk or any component of it, at the bottom of this Instructable is a copy of the Portfolio and plans I submitted with the Desk and on the next step is a YouTube video documenting the production of the desk.

Step 1: Production Video

Here is the production video for the desk

Step 2: Designing the Desk

I really wanted this to be MY desk, and that meant designing it from the ground up. I used Fusion 360 to construct and develop a design for my desk. The key things that were really useful here were:

1. Looking at other Desks

Looking at other desks for inspiration and documenting this was actually part of the portfolio I had to collate for my major work but it is something that I plan on using for almost every project I undertake now as it was such a valuable process that helped me collate my ideas and find features that I did and didn't like

2. Using CAD modeling.

I was a relative novice in Fusion 360 but designing the desk in CAD software was invaluable to my design process. Whether you are have never used it before or are a seasoned pro, modeling a design in CAD can be incredibly helpful. I was able to generate plans and get a better idea for the size of my desk. So give it a go, there is a range of free software available and most of it is fairly easy to use. CAD can be a really powerful tool in designing and planning a project.

  • 2.1 Designing an Easily Edited Model

I decided to design every part of my desk, all the rails, stiles, runners and panels as their own separate files and then collate them in the one file. This meant that if I wanted to change a dimension I didn't have to pull the model apart to edit it, instead I could simply open the file for the necessary parts and edit them there. I'm not sure if this was the best way to do it but it made editing and redesigning some substantial parts of my desk fairly easy. If anyone knows a better way of editing models in the future, let me know. but when building a model making sure you can edit it is really important.

Step 3: Side Frames

I cut the side frames to length the used a variety of jigs and tools to cut the Joints.

To cut the mortice and tenon joints on the stiles and rails I used a mortice drill but a similar action can be replicated with a drill press or careful use of a power drill. This quickly removes most of the waste material. I cut the tenons using a jig that I designed and built out of scrap. This jig was especially effective as most of the joints on my project were the same depth so I was able to re use it multiple times. the jig left a little on the end that I had to chisel off.

Cutting the Half lap joins was a little trickier. Mainly positioning the join reliably. I made a variety of different versions of the jig, the key issue was the alignment over the joint. I ended up attaching a small stop block on the end of the template which sat on the shoulder of the tenon. I then used the same router jig to cut the pin for the half lap as I used for my tenons.

3. Use Jigs:

Jigs are fantastic. you can design and build them yourself or buy pre made ones. either way they make repetitive and precise work very easy , bringing a new level of consistency to your work

  • 3.1. Develop Your Jigs

Getting a jig right on the first try is fantastic but developing a jig and improving on its design always produces a better jig, whether it is more versatile, more durable, more accurate or more effective overall. rebuilding a jig with a few improvements can make it so much better.

Step 4: Side Frame Pannels

I cut a rebate along all internal edges of my side frame before I glued the frames up. I did this using a router. To hold the pieces in place I used a benchtop jig. I used a couple of blocks with lines on them that showed me where to clamp to stop the router at the right point on the small pieces. On the larger pieces I marked the length of the router base in from the join and clamped the piece there to stop the router from cutting the top of the mortice off.

I then cut the veneered plywood panels to size after I glued the frames up. I used beading joined with a mitre join, nailed into the frame to hold the panels in place. I had to predrill the holes into the beading so as not to split it with the nail as the nails went through the skinny edge of the plywood.

4. With Routers Like These Who Needs Enemy's (Chip Out on Routers)

Routers are infamous for chipping out large chucks of wood. This is caused by the direction the router bit spins. The challenge is that the spin of the router bit also makes it only safe to move the router in one direction. The router frequently chipped out large chunks of my mortices. There a few ways you can try and stop this. You can route a notch out at the end of the trench then cut from the other end to it which can help as the router cuts the area it would normally chip out differently. The best method however is to clamp another piece of wood against the area that chips out. Unfortunately I wasn't able to do this because of the area I was routing. So keep the chip out of routers in mind when cutting joins

Step 5: The Inlay

I used a CNC at a local makerspace called Robots and Dinosaurs to cut the gumleaf inlay into the back (front? which side of a desk is the front or back anyway) of the desk. I then inlayed it with blackbutt, another species of eucalypt tree.

5. Don't be Afraid to Go Old School

I was originally planning on using photoshop to edit the picture of the single leaf to look more like the sketch I had done but I quickly discovered that photoshop was more difficult to use than I had time for. So I printed out 4 copies of the image then cut and paste them onto each other to create the final image which I then scanned. Its worth going old school every now and again, often the results are better than you would have gotten with technology.

6 Use Your Local Maker Community

When I started building my desk my teacher said I should be able to use the CNC at a another school nearby. When he moved to another job that opportunity closed so I had to find a CNC somewhere else. I was expecting to have to pay someone to do the CNC for me but after lots of google searches and skimming over Redditt threads to find a commercial place in Sydney I found a maker space just up the road. After a mate helped me convert the jpeg scan of the gumleaf to an svg I went along and was shown how to use the X-carve by one of the friendliest groups of people I have ever met. So if you don't have a tool or a skill, don't rule it out, find a maker space or group near you. you might learn more than you ever expected

Step 6: Assembling the Pedestals

I cut locking mitre joins down the back corners of each pedestal to create a string join for the pedestal. Unfortunately I adjusted the Router bit wrong once which meant that it cut the tooth off the mitres on one of the corners. so I decided to replace it with an insert mitre join. I then built 2 support frames for each pedestal to add strength to them, I screwed the frames in at the top and level with where the kickboards would go. I used a variety of band clamps to glue up the frames, then screwed and glued them into the side and back frames and pulled it all together with band clamps.

7. Be Adaptable

I cut the tooth off one of my locking mitre joins so I had to either settle for a weak join with limited alignment, or adapt the join. Knowledge of your subject matter or even just a good Pinterest board on it can really help you solve problems and adapt your project to accommodate mistakes. As well as not relying on one option, being open to a new solution or idea along the way can really lift your project.

Step 7: Making the Drawers

I widened the filing drawers using a biscuit join then cut all the wood for my drawers to length before I thicknessed them down from 19mm thick to 12mm. This was a slow process and it was really important to only thickness one side of each piece so as to not jam the thicknesser. Once thicknessed I set up a the dovetail jig and cut through pin dovetails on all the front corners of the drawers. I then used the touter table to cut a through housing in the back of the drawers before cutting the slot for the base on the table saw.

8. Buy Materials the Right Size

I was only able to buy the timber I was using in 19mm thick boards, this made thicknessing the wood down to size an incredibly slow process. It consumed vast amounts of time especially as Jarrah is a very hard wood. So if you can, buy your materials close to the right size it will save you time and money as you wont be paying for waste materials or new tools and blades to mill it to size.

9. Use Test Cuts and Pieces

I cut a variety of test pieces to finesse the fit of my dovetail joins these allowed me to dial the jig in and produce consistent and tight dovetail joins. I did the same anytime I used a router on my project. Test cuts on scrap timber ensure you don't stuff up on your finished product.

10. Take Your Time, Avoid Silly Mistakes

While cutting my dovetails i was rushing to get them all cut before the end of the last period of the term. in my haste I made a comedy of errors which I was very fortunate to be able to fix. Things like using the straight cutter instead of the dovetail cutter and cutting the join on the wrong end of the timber could have easily caused a major problem. If I had slowed down, thought through my actions and not given into the time pressure I am sure that my drawers would have come out even better than they did

Step 8: Installing the Drawers

I cut my drawers to skinny, I still haven't figured out if it was a maths error, if I just used the wrong number or if it was a combination of both. Because I cut my drawers too skinny, I first had to glue in stringers to block out the pedestal ensuring the runners fit. I then installed the soft close drawer runners. I used a spacer to keep constant spacing when installing the drawers. I tried to use wood screws but the Jarrah was too hard so I switched to sheet metal screws which worked really well, they also came in sizes short enough that they didn't protrude through the side of the drawer.

10. Measure Twice, Cut Once

Had I measured the width of my pedestal more carefuly, I wouldn't have had to glue in the stingers and I would also have more space in all of my drawers. This old adage always runs true.

Step 9: Making the Desktop

I got the Wood for my table top from my Grandfather on the other side of the country, so along with a literal ton of wood we had it sent over and then got some of the larger logs milled to size by a guy with a saw mill. I then cut an insert tongue and groove joint in the edges of the timber using a router table. I glued up the table top in parts so as to get better joins in a more manageable process, the finished table top is ~60Kg so doing as much work in smaller chunks was imperative. After gluing up the table top I filled all the natural holes holes with epoxy. this was a slow but rewarding process.

11. Do Big Jobs in Small Parts

The desktop was so big that doing it in smaller parts was vital. Breaking a job into smaller parts is a really useful skill. Breaking big jobs downs makes them accomplishable, it gives you clear goals and points where you can evaluate your progress and adapt it.

Step 10: The Kickboards

I cut the kickboards roughly to length then used the router table to chamfer the top edge. then using a drop saw I cut the mitres on the ends and glued them up.

12. Safety in the Workshop

Working in a wood shop, or any type of workshop is inherently dangerous. there are many ways however that we combat and mitigate risks. while using the router table on a similar project I cut my finger on the router bit when the work piece slipped. this was a combination of a variety of stupid mistakes, I wasn't using a fence as the bit had a bearing and I figured I could just push against that, I was using a small test piece, I was feeding the piece in from the wrong direction. a trip to hospital and micro surgery to stitch it up and I was fine, but be careful. Always take the relevant precautions and never try to rush the job.

As for the router table the key thing is to make sure you are feeding the wood into the bit the right way, so that it doesn't grab and throw the work piece.

In general, never remove guards or fences, always have a safety on/off switch and ALWAYS wear the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Step 11: Making and Installing the Drawer Fronts

To create a continuous grain effect running down the front of my draw fronts I started by domino joining 3 boards together then cutting them to length using the table saw. I used a plunge router with a flush cut bit on a template to cut the curve. I based the template off the leaf from a Jarrah tree, which I felt was a good link to the wood I have made the desk out of. Then I used a bearing tipped bit in the router table to cut the cove for the fingers.

I used 4 screws to attach the false fronts to the drawers after I had applied the finish to the drawer fronts. I predrilled and countersunk these holes to minimise the impact of the screws on the drawers.

13. Line up Your Joints

I was rushing to get the domino joins in on time and didn't think to line up my biscuit joins so that they wouldn't be cut into. As you can see in the last photo Murphy's Law prevailed. while cutting the drawer pulls I cut into the join, worse still it was on the up facing pulls. While I don't notice it much now it is certainly a blight on the appearance of my desk. when joining pieces of wood that you intend to cut, think about where you will cut and avoid putting the joins there.

14. Alternate the Growth Rings on Boards

When widening timber especially if it is through or back sawn it is really important that you alternate the direction of the growth rings on the end grain. For example if one board has rings cupping down then the board next to it should be positioned so its rings cup up and so on. This stops the widened board from bowing horrendously in one direction. The boards will still inevitably cup over time but by alternating the growth rings you can drastically reduce the impact it has on the board overall.

Step 12: Final Parts and Assembly

So that the table top would attach to the pedestals easily and without having to screw anything in and out I decided to use a system of rails and tracks. The double benefit of this was that it gives a bit of a floating desktop impression from some angles. I used thick 40mm x 40mm jarrah with a 20mm^(2) trench cut out of the top corner then joined onto the top support frame using a half lap join. Then I used a router jig to cut the half lap joins for the frames that attached to the table top

I don't have many good photos of this process, check the plans for better details of the rail design and implementation.

Step 13: Finishing the Dsek

I ran some test pieces with finishes then decided to use Wipe on poly for the drawers as it was quick and easy. To finish the desk top and pedestals I sanded it to 180grit and then used a 2 part poly urethane called Aqua Cote (Info Here) to finish the surface

15. Go To Shows and Fairs:

I found Aqua Cote at the Sydney Timber and wood working show, the guys who distribute it know heaps about it and were happy to share. but its not just one or 2 products. Every stand at shows and fairs are manned by people who care about their product and you getting the most of it. Often these are garage operations or small businesses that don't have a large online presence so shows and fairs are the best place to find them. so go to your local shows and fairs, support the small businesses in your area, you never know where you'll find your new go-to finish

Step 14: The Files

Portfolio: this is the folio I had to submit with my project. if you want to know almost anything about my desk it is probably in here

The Plans: I generated these plans off the model I built in fusion 360

Furniture Contest 2018

Second Prize in the
Furniture Contest 2018