Introduction: Mid-Century Executive Desk

About: I build things with wood. Mostly, my wife or a friend needs something and the project comes together. Sometimes I see the need for other people to learn from what I've done, so I add it to Instructables.

This desk design had inspiration from photos circulating the internet, but had specific goals in mind to better achieve what could be bought.

  1. To build a desk that resembles one that can be bought from a mass-produced online retailer.
  2. To build the desk from the online “boutique” but for a fraction of the cost.
  3. To build a desk simply without sacrificing strength and longevity of use.

With these three goals in mind, the Mid-Century Executive Desk was drafted and production of the desk could begin. Wherever possible, I used the dimensions I could buy from the store for the construction of the desk. Sticking to readily available dimensions reduced the number of cuts I needed and allowed for an ease of planning.

The resulting build looks sleek and delivers more than 24” x 48” of work area. Proven joinery methods ensure a strong construction as well as ease of material prep.

This is by no means a trivial build. There are a lot of pieces (82!) and that can be overwhelming. However, following the proven build process in these plans, you will be successful and have the benefit of learning from my mistakes.


  • (1) - 24 in. x 48 in. x ½ in. plywood
  • (2) - 11 in. x 19.5 in. x 0.25 in. plywood
  • (1) - 20 in. x 19.5 in. x 0.25 in. plywood
  • (6) - 1 in. x 2 in. x 60 in. hardwood
  • (8) - 1 in. x 2 in. x 24 in. hardwood
  • (1) - 96 in. x 2.5 in x 0.75 in. hardwood
  • (1) - 98 in. x 2 in. x 2 in. hardwood
  • (1) - 48 in. x 5 in. x 0.5 in hardwood
  • (3) - 18 in. drawer slides
  • (8) - Figure-8 table top connectors
  • (8) - ¼-20 Threaded inserts
  • (8) - ¼-20 x ½ in. Machine screws
  • (3) - 24 in. x 48 in. x ¾ in. plywood

Step 1: Top & Drawer Box Prep

Cut List

  • Top
    • A - (1) - 24 in. x 48 in.
  • Drawer Box Bottoms
    • B - (2) - 12 in. x 24 in. Tall Drawer
    • C - (1) - 21 in. x 24 in. Small Drawer
  • Drawer Box Sides
    • D - (2) 4.5 in. x 24 in. Tall Drawer Outside
    • E - (2) 5 in. x 24 in. Tall Drawer Inside
    • F - (2) 3 in. x 24 in. Small Drawer Side
    • G - (2) 5 in. x 12.5 in. Tall Drawer Back
    • H - (1) 8.5 in. x 21.5 in. Small Drawer Back

The dimensions of the top was chosen for the ease of securing a 24 in. x 48 in. sheet of ¾ in. plywood. One sheet is used for the top, and the rest of the drawer box pieces only needs the width cut as the length is the 24 in.

Using all three of your 24 in. x 48 in. x 0.75 in sheets of plywood, you will be able to prep the stock.

One sheet of plywood will be your top, pick the best grain pattern to suit your tastes.

One sheet of plywood will be the drawer box bottoms. Cut to the dimensions indicated to the right. Figure 1 at the end of the document has an optimized cut layout.

One sheet of plywood will be used to create the sides and the backs of the drawer boxes. Cut to the dimensions indicated to the right. Figure 2 at the end of the document has an optimized cut layout.

When buying your sheet goods, stand them up to make sure the dimensions match on all of them. I failed to check, one was not quite 24 in. and had to accommodate for it later in the build.

With the plywood cut to the specified sizes on the previous page, it is time to prepare the pieces for the joinery. All pieces of the main assembly will be joined using splines and corner pieces, and in two cases, dovetails.

Begin by cutting the dovetail slots. For this step, you will need pieces Top (A) and Tall Drawer Inside (E). The Top (A) will have the female dovetail slot. Using a 0.25 in. shank/0.5 in. dovetail bit, the slot should be routed 0.5 in. deep and begin 12.25 in. from both sides of the top. See Figure 3.

The mating dovetails should be cut on one end of the Tall Drawer Inside (E) pieces. Cut to match the fit of the Female slot. See Figure 4.

Next you will want to cut the slots for the splines to join the sides of the box with the corner pieces. To do so, at the 24 in. ends of pieces (A) through (H), with the exception being Tall Drawer Inside (E) from above, each of these will only receive the spline slot on the uncut end.

Ideally, you will use ⅛ in. splines, though I used ¼ in. splines and it worked out. Whichever size you choose dictates the spline material thickness and the thickness of the spline slots.

To avoid tearout when cutting the dovetails, add a piece of painters tape along the edges of your cuts. The thin veneer on plywood is prone to tearout.

I used my router table with a slot cutting bit on it. I stacked two cutters to get my a slot just a hair over ¼ in. for an easy fit. Make sure to work slowly and support the piece to prevent the bit from travelling. If possible, featherboards are your friend here.

For my ¼ in. splines, I spaced them ⅛ in. from the edge of the board. These were cut ¼ in. deep. Keep this setup for the next step!

The same result may be possible using a table saw to cut the slots, though extra care must be taken as the pieces must be stood on end to cut the slot.

The final step to prepare the top and drawer boxes for glue up is to route a 0.75 in. dado 3 in. from the back edge of all the pieces.

To make my life easier, I used a fence attached to the base of my router which could be set to 3 in. from the edge and then would ride along the back of each piece.

If you do not have an adjustable router base fence, you can do one of the following:

  1. Clamp a straight edge to each piece to line your router bit up at the appropriate point.
  2. Use a dado stack in your table saw to cut the dado at the appropriate point.
  3. Use your regular table saw blade and multiple passes to cut the dado at the appropriate point.

Route the dado 0.25 in. deep. On the backs for the drawer boxes, you will need to notch out the corners so they will fit around the corner pieces during glue up.

To avoid tearout when cutting the dadoes, add a piece of painters tape along the edges of your cuts. The thin veneer on plywood is prone to tearout.

For a quick and dirty method for an easy dado jig, you will need equal lengths of 6 in. wide by 0.25 in. thick plywood and a 1 in. x 2 in. thick piece of straight hardwood.

Glue or screw the hardwood to one edge of the flat of the plywood. Then, with hardwood clamped down to the bench and the router and bit you intend to cut your dado with, route through the 0.25 in. plywood while riding along the hardwood fence. See below for reference.

This will allow for a perfect edge to align with your intended dado cuts.

Step 2: Corner & Spline Prep

Cut List

  • Corner Pieces
    • I - (8) - 24 in. x 0.75 in. x 0.75 in.
  • Splines
    • J - (16) - 24 in. x 0.25 in. x 0.5 in.

To make the corner pieces (I), you will want to begin by milling hardwood to match your plywood veneer. In my case, I used 1x2 pieces of red oak which I ripped to a square 0.75 in. x 0.75 in. and then cut to rough 24 in. lengths (see note).

Using the same router table setup with a spline cutting bit from the previous step, you will want to run each corner piece through twice to allow two adjacent sides to have the slot for the spline cut. See Figure 5.

For the splines themselves, using a piece of 0.25 in. plywood, rip 0.5 in. wide strips to fit in the slots.

While the dimensions below suggest cutting the splines and corner pieces to 24 in. lengths, if you are able to then it is best to add an extra inch or two onto the length. This will make the glue up easier as you do not need to be as precise.

Step 3: Top & Drawer Box Assembly

To make your life easier, you are going to want to handle the glue up in stages. It is certainly possible to glue everything up at once, but why put yourself through that?

Using the Top (A), two corner pieces (I), and two splines (J), you can glue the corners to the top. Add glue along the length of the slot in the corner piece, insert a spline, add more glue to the rest of the side combine with the top. Repeat on the other side.

The same process can be used for the bottoms of the drawers (B) and (C).

Let the glue dry until set.

It is easiest to install your drawer slides at this point on the insides of pieces (D), (E), and (F).

Make note of which side is the inside! The splines should be closer to the outside of the side pieces.

To place the slides correctly, I used a 1.5” spacer lined up and clamped at the bottom of pieces (D) and (E) for the Tall Drawer boxes. For Small Drawer Sides (F), I centered the slide on the side pieces.

Once you have the drawer slides installed, you can glue together the top and the bottoms of the Tall Drawers, joining with splines and pieces (D) and sliding the dovetails together for pieces (E) and (A). It is easier to start with pieces (E) as these can take some extra coaxing to get into the correct place. Make sure to insert the Tall Drawer Backs (G) into the dadoes before clamping. You can add glue to these pieces, however, it is not necessary.

Next, glue Small Drawer Sides (F) to the outsides of Tall Drawer Insides (E) and flush with the bottom side of the the Top piece. I also placed a couple screws to attach pieces (F) and (E) together just for a bit of extra support, however, this step is not necessary.

Once the previous glue-up is set, you can glue the Small Drawer Bottom (C) to the Small Drawer Sides (F) using splines in between. Make sure to insert the Small Drawer Back (H) into the dado. You can add glue to this piece, however, it is not necessary.

Let all glue dry completely.

Step 4: Adding Trim

Cut List

  • Front Trim
    • K - (1) - 49.5 in. x 0.75 in. x 0.75 in. Top
    • L - (2) - 4.25 in. x 0.75 in. x 0.75 in.. Small Drawer Sides
    • M - (1) - 22.5 in. x 0.75 in. x 0.75 in. Small Drawer Bottom
    • N - (4) - 6 in. x 0.75 in. x 0.75 in. Tall Drawer Sides
    • O - (2) - 13.5 in. x 0.75 in. x 0.75 in. Tall Drawer Bottoms
  • Rear Trim
    • P - (1) - 49.5 in. x 0.75 in. x 0.75 in. Top
    • Q - (2) - 3 in. x 0.75 in. x 0.75 in. Small Drawer Sides
    • R - (1) - 22.5 in. x 0.75 in. x 0.75 in. Small Drawer Bottom
    • S - (4) - 4.5 in. x 0.75 in. x 0.75 in. Tall Drawer Sides
    • T - (2) - 13.5 in. x 0.75 in. x 0.75 in. Tall Drawer Bottoms

Now that the top and drawer boxes are assembled, you can mill up and attach the trim. The dimensions provided are a guideline to cut, but you will want to take measurements from your desk assembly for more accurate cuts.

For the front trim pieces, a 0.5 in. chamfer is cut on the front face.

Additionally, all front pieces of trim are joined using 45 deg. miter cuts.

For the rear trim pieces, no special cuts are needed and in my case I did not miter the corners as this desk would be up against a wall. It still looks quite nice without the miters.

To attach, you simply need to glue in place. For the top pieces (K) and (P), I aligned them using dowels. All glue ups were held in place with painters tape until the glue dried.

Step 5: Drawer Prep

Cut List

  • Tall Drawers
    • U - (4) - 20 in. x 4 in. x 0.5 in. Sides
    • V - (4) - 11 in. x 4 in. x 0.5 in. Front/Backs
    • W - (2) - 19.5in. x 11 in. x 0.25 in. Bottoms
    • X - (2) - 11.75in. x 4.25 in. x 0.5 in. Faces
  • Small Drawer
    • Y - (2) - 20 in. x 2.75 in. x 0.5 in. Sides
    • Z - (2) - 20 in. x 2.75 in. x 0.5 in. Front/Back
    • AA - (1) - 20 in. x 19.5 in. x 0.25 in. Bottom
    • BB - (1) - 20.75 in. x 2.75 in. x 0.5 in. Face

Before we begin building the drawers, please make note that the dimensions in the Cut List to the right are ideal if everything previously has been cut to perfect dimensions and glued up perfect and square. You may need to adjust for your situation.

When cutting your drawer pieces to size, make sure you are not adjusting your fence until all like cuts have been completed, this ensures consistent sides. See Figure 6 and Figure 7 for optimal cuts.

On the ends of all the sides (U) and (Y), you will need to cut rabbets to allow for easy glue ups. To do so, set your table saw blade to 0.25 in. depth of cut, and set your fence to a 0.5 in. cut from the far edge of the blade. Using multiple passes, cut the rabbets on both ends of all the side pieces.

On all drawer sides (U)(Y), fronts, and backs (V)(Z), you will need to cut a 0.25 in. groove, 0.25 in. deep. Set your table saw blade and fence accordingly. I inset the groove 0.25 in. from the bottom of the drawer. This groove will need to fit your drawer bottoms.

Step 6: Drawer Assembly

Once drawer sides, fronts/backs, and bottoms have been prepared, it is time to glue them together.

Apply glue to the rabbets on the sides and clamp the front and back pieces to them. Use a corner clamp if available to ensure a square drawer glue up.

Before adding the second side, slide the bottom into the groove we cut earlier. Add the side and glue before clamping in place. I further secured my drawers with some pin nails to hold the sides to the front/back pieces.

While not necessary, I recommend edge banding the tops of the drawers at this point.

Aligning the drawers in their respective drawer boxes, add a 0.125 in. space around all sides and attach your drawer slides. Adjust as necessary to ensure smooth operation for your drawer.

To attach the drawer faces (X) and (BB), do a dry fit with playing cards to align an even gap around all edges of the drawer face.

Then attach a piece of duct tape to the inside front of the drawer to use as a temporary drawer pull.

I opted for a nice contrasting piece of zebrawood for the front face of the drawers. This is a great opportunity to add some personal style to the finished piece.

Place a couple pieces of double sided tape on the drawer and press it into place. Use the duct tape to carefully pull the drawer out so you can secure it in place from the inside with a couple screws.

Adjusting for your specific drawer pulls, center them on the drawer and drill holes to screw them into place. You may need to use longer screws to reach through both the drawer front and face. Alternatively, you can countersink the holes to ensure your pull is fully secured.

Step 7: Leg & Stretcher Prep

Cut List

  • Legs
    • CC - (4) - 24 in. x 2 in. x 2 in.
  • Side Stretchers
    • DD - (2) - 22.125 in. x 2.5 in. x 0.75 in.
  • Rear Apron
    • EE - (1) - 44.75 in. x 2.5 in. x 0.75 in.

Sturdy legs are required to hold the hefty drawers and tops, so your best bet is to find some nice, straight grained hardwood that measures 2 in. square. You will need four lengths of these at 24 in. long. I opted to mill down some nice pieces of ash.

Once milled you will need to cut two tapers on each leg to create the appropriate look for the style of desk. If you are unable to cut tapers in 2 in. material, you can leave these legs square, however the tapers vastly improve the look.

To cut the tapers, you will begin by making a mark on one side 6 in. from the top of the leg. Make a second mark 1 in. from the adjoining corner on the bottom of the leg. Connect these lines with a pencil mark. Then, on an adjacent face, repeat the process.

The simplest method for cutting the leg tapers is to use the bandsaw and clean up the cut edge with a belt sander or a hand plane.

If you do not have a bandsaw, you can set up a taper cut on your table saw and cut through the 2 in. material in multiple passes. You will also want to clean up the cut edge with a belt sander or a hand plane.

Mill the two Side Stretchers (DD) and the Rear Apron (EE) to the dimensions provided to the right in the Cut List.

Next, you will need to finish preparing the legs by cutting shoulders on the top of the leg to attach the pieces (DD) and (EE) to.

Referencing Figure 8, mark your cuts on the tops of each leg. The two front legs will have one shoulder cut. The two rear legs will have two shoulders cut on adjacent sides. The shoulders are always cut on the faces without tapers cut. Take extra care when marking the correct faces for the front legs.

Using your table saw, set the blade height to 0.625 in. Set your fence to 2.5 in. from the far side of the blade. Using a miter gauge, firmly hold the pieces and cut away the shoulder.

The shoulders are intentionally undercut in depth to allow for a 0.125 in. proud stretcher and apron reveal.

Step 8: Leg & Stretcher Assembly

The leg, stretcher, and apron glue up is very straightforward. I recommend beginning by gluing the two sides up first. Apply glue to the correct leg shoulders and clamp the stretchers in place with each end flush with the outside of the legs. Make sure your stretchers are square to the legs before the glue sets.

Once both sides are glued up, apply more glue to the rear leg shoulders and fit the apron. Clamp the apron in place. Make sure the apron is square to the legs before the glue sets.

Step 9: Applying Finish

Before assembling the top and drawers to the legs, it is best to sand and apply any finishes.

I recommend sanding all surfaces at least to 220 grit, incrementally stepping up until you have a smooth finish.

Also, if there are any sharp edges you will want to knock them down now. This is a piece of furniture that will be interacted with and it is best to have soft corners wherever possible.

While I opted to have a stain applied before the final finish coat, you can skip this step if it isn’t required for your build.

In most places, you will be fine with a coat of Danish Oil. I applied it to all surfaces, and let it dry according to the instructions on the can. For the insides of the drawer boxes, I only applied it to the first 6 or so inches inside as there is little chance anyone will be able to see further into the drawer box.

For the top of the desk and the exterior of the drawer boxes, you might want to consider a more durable finish for longer lasting use, wear, and tear.

For this, I applied three coats of water-based polyurethane to the top of the desk, and two coats to the rest of the drawer box exteriors. In between each coat, I lightly rubbed with steel wool and cleaned it with mineral spirits.

Step 10: Legs & Top Assembly

The final step is to attach the top to the legs. To make life easier, including any moves in the future, I opted to build the desk to have removable legs.

The combination of figure-8 table top connectors and threaded inserts allow the desk to be screwed together and taken apart in a matter of minutes.

With the legs upright, you will want to countersink some holes to fit your figure-8 connectors. They should have room to rotate and move, if need by. I placed one in each of the tops of the legs, one on each stretcher, and two on the apron. The figure-8 connectors should all be pointing toward the center of the desk.

Make sure the figure-8 connectors are placed within 9 in. of the inside corner of the legs, otherwise you will be placing them in the gap below the Small Drawer.

Place the desktop upside down on a protective cloth. Roughly place the leg assembly on the underside of the desk to determine the approximate position of where the legs will be attached. Using painters tape, place a line along the inside of the stretchers, the legs and the apron. This will allow you to place some marks for drilling without marring the desk.

The outside of the stretchers should be placed 1.625 in. from the side edge of the desk. The apron should be placed 1.625 in. from the back edge of the desk. See Figure 9 for reference.

Mark the spaces where you need to drill for the threaded inserts. Set the legs aside, drill, and place the inserts. Confirm they line up with the legs. If they do not, loosen the screw in the figure-8 connector and adjust until it lines up perfectly.

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