Personalized Lapdesk




Introduction: Personalized Lapdesk

About: I'm a professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern University. I do a lot of hobbies, including amateur astronomy, woodworking, and Lego modeling among many others.

My family is a family of book readers, letter writers, journal keepers, and sometimes iPad users. We have our respective desks in a study, but our house has great spaces where we like to relax and spend time. Our living room is cozy with its fireplace, our library is a comfortable sitting space with great light and a view outside, the family room is in front of the television. So this holiday season, in order to make the spaces a little more friendly to our activities, I decided to make us all lapdesks.

There are, of course, plenty of nice lapdesks commercially available, but why would I do that when I could try my hand at making our own, and customizing them for each member of the family?

My requirements were:

  • Pillowed bottom
  • Work surface big enough for a Moleskine journal, an iPad, a pad of paper, or a laptop
  • Individualized for each family member

Step 1: Materials

For materials, I have a stack of birch plywood left from building my telescope that would be great surfaces. It is 1/2 inch thick -- perfect for this application.

I don't really sew (beyond hand stitching things) and don't have a sewing machine, so I opted to make the pillowed bottoms out of zippered pillow cases. The size of the zippered pillow cases I could find was part of the defining the size of the desk, because I wanted the pillows to be completely underneath the surface. I founs small ones in the travel section at Walmart

Building Supplies:

  • 1/2 inch plywood
  • Zippered Pillowcase
  • Buttons
  • Sticky Back Velcro
  • Bean bag beans

Finishing Supplies:

  • Laser printed decorative design
  • Artists gel medium
  • Spar Urethane

Step 2: Desk Board Layout

I didn't want to have simple rectangular lapdesks. When I am working I usually need more space up there for things I have on the desk (my phone, a calculator, etc.), so I opted for a roughly trapezoidal shape: wider near the top. I also opted to round the corners, and make a body cutout on the side closest to you.

I laid the pattern out on posterboard, beginning with a rectangle roughly the shape of the maximum dimensions I wanted for the desks (in my case, 16" x 22"). To make the corners, I have a junk drawer of lids from the kitchen of various sizes that I can use for this purpose. To make a larger arc for the body cutout, I used my daughter's hula hoop to trace a curve.

Once the pattern was laid out, I put some typical items on it to make sure it felt sized appropriately. I also checked that the pillow case would be entirely inside the pattern.

Step 3: Wood Cut-out

I transferred the pattern to the plywood, and cut out the basic shapes with a jigsaw.

I didn't want to have unfinished edges, so I ran the long edge in my router table with a round-over bit.

I couldn't get the body cut into the router table, so I took my palm sander to it, and realized it was much quicker and easier to simply do all the edges with the sander instead of using the router table!

Step 4: Removing Pencil Lines

There were some pencil marks left on the wood from the pattern transfer. To remove them I used an "old woodworker trick" a friend taught me -- rub the pencil line with isopropyl alcohol, and it removes the pencil line!

This works very well for light surface lines; if you have pressed hard into the wood with your pencil, the alcohol will remove some of the pencil, but you'll have to get the rest of it with an eraser and sandpaper.

Step 5: Pattern Transfer Preparation

In order to get individualized images onto the lapdesks, I decided to use a technique that is often used to transfer images onto wood using laser printed images and artist's gel medium.

Important Point 1: this method only works with toner printed images, not with images printed on an inkjet printer.

Important Point 2: the image transferred to your desk will be mirror reversed from how it appears on the printed page, so if you want it to have a certain orientation on the desk, flip it using your favorite image processing program before you print it!

Cut the images down to very nearly the edge of the printed image, as the gel medium will leave a residue in the entire paper outline on your lapdesk.

Step 6: Pattern Laydown

Using a foam brush, put a thin layer of the gel medium on the printed side of your pattern. There is a delicate balance you are trying to achieve here:

  • Not enough gel medium, and the image will not transfer
  • Too much gel medium, and it will form a thick layer when cured and the paper will not easily come off

I make long strokes over the entire image to try and get rid of blobby spots and make it as uniform as possible.

Flip the image over onto your desk (gel side down), and press it into place. I use an artist's roller to make sure it is uniform and there are no bubbles. Be careful -- rolling it out will press excess gel medium outside the edges; clean these up with a rag.

Important hard part: wait and be patient! I usually wait a full 24 hours, letting the gel medium dry out and set.

Step 7: Paper Removal

Once the gel medium has cured, you can remove the paper.

Spray the paper down with a spray bottle; you'll see the pattern as the paper becomes wet. Once the paper is wet, you can rub the excess paper away using your fingers or a rag.

If the paper was pressed well against the wood, the image will completely transfer. In reality, there are often places were the image does not perfectly transfer, but I tend to not worry about these -- the small missing bits give the artwork a bit of a "distressed" look, which is in vogue.

You'll notice that the gel medium soaks into the wood, changing its appearance. Once the water dries, I brush the entire surface with gel medium to insure that the surface looks uniform when finished. Do not do this until after you have removed the paper -- sealing the paper with gel medium from the top will prevent you from removing it!

Step 8: Urethane Finish

After another day letting the gel medium dry, I ran over the surfaces with 220 grit sandpaper, then applied several coats of spray urethane to protect them.

I couldn't easily support the desk boards to hand brush them, nor could I spray both sides simultaneously. Instead, I laid them on two dowel runners, and sprayed the upward facing side. When that side was dry, I flipped the desk over and applied several coats of urethane to the back as well.

Step 9: Pillow Preparation

The pillow should not be overstuffed or it won't easily conform to your lap. I decided to pin the pillow cases with buttons, just like your couch or armchair is. This makes "pockets" for the filling to reside in without getting all bunched up on one side of the pillow or the other. I choose colorful plastic buttons from the craft section to match each of the desk designs.

The pillows are attached with velcro to the lapdesks, so they can be removed if needed for washing or repair. On the opposite side of the pillowcase from the buttons, I put six velcro tabs (self-adhesive) tacked down at the corners with needle and thread. I don't expect the velcro to need replaced often, but if it does the hooks are what I expect to replace -- hooks go on the desk board, and fuzz goes on the pillow case.

Step 10: Pillow Laydown

I pressed the hook tabs onto the mounted fuzz pieces on the pillow case, but did not remove the cover from the adhesive strips

Flipping the pillow case over on the desk board, I positioned it correctly, then removed one sticky tab cover and pressed it into place. With it securely fastened, I moved onto the next tab, and removed the cover and fastened it. Slowly, I worked around to all six tabs, insuring they were positioned correctly and the pillow was in the location I wanted.

Step 11: Pillow Fill

I filled the pillows with left-over styrofoam beads meant for a bean-bag. This gives the pillow some ability to be shaped and formed depending on how you have it on your lap.

The beads are notoriously clingy, building up large amounts of static cling with handling, so it takes a bit of effort to pour them into the pillow (and then more effort to clean up the ones that got loose!), but the result is excellent.

Step 12: All Done!

I am very pleased with the way these lapdesks turned out, and they are already getting a lot of use!

Some observations now on the back-end about what I might do differently next time:

  1. You may have noticed on the original patterns I had laid out a place to cut a handle near the top of the desk. I opted not to do that, as I didn't want a gaping hole in the writing surface. In retrospect, a handle is useful for grabbing it from the side of the couch and lifting it up to your lap. I'm considering adding handles in the form of braided paracord to the underside, where they will be out of the way.
  2. The world tree pattern was quite larger, and left a few high ridges of gel medium. I wasn't sure it could be sanded away (I'm going to do an experiment to find out), but could have avoided them if I had cut more closely to the trunk of the tree, the way I did for the other patterns.
  3. An annoyance I have when I travel is that hotels don't always have lapdesks! I think I'm going to try and make a version that will fit in my suitcase next!

I hope you find this Instructable useful, and enjoy making your own version of a lapdesk!

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    5 years ago

    Hi, nice instructable. Check out also this method for toner transfer


    5 years ago

    The other way to transfer the printed medium is by using heat. We used to do it when we made a scrap books. You do everything you had done before except for not use the gel medium. you lay your printed pattern on the surface and then you take an iron or a woodburning tool with the flat button and run it over the page and it transfers the ink on to your surface then you can either would burn the pattern in or just leave it as is.


    Reply 5 years ago

    With laser printed images? Or ink printed images?

    I didn't know this trick, but will definitely try it -- it would remove the time needed to make the gel medium dry and cure. Thanks for the tip!


    5 years ago

    these things are pretty awesome!


    5 years ago

    I'd definitely be interested in seeing one made for travel. Would you use a foldable board, or just keep it smaller? Maybe an inflatable camping pillow for the underside?


    Reply 5 years ago

    I was thinking I would size it based on my smallest carry-on so it would sit in the bottom and not have to fold. A deflatable pillow is a great idea!