Introduction: Violet Closet-to-Desk Conversion
My middle son is an avid gamer. One of my first projects after moving to my new house was to build him a cool desk! Since all of his clothes are stored in a dresser, I decided to convert the unused closet in his room.
It is made almost entirely out of maple veneer plywood, with a few supports made of 2x4s. There is a ton of shelf space on either side for all of his gear. Maybe he'll actually use it to do his homework, too. HAH.
He picked the colour - a deep violet - and I surprised him by adding lighting accents. The entire process took a few weeks of work spread over evenings and weekends.
- Circular Saw
- Mitre Saw
- Drill & Driver
- Clothes Iron (for applying veneer)
- Kreg pocket hole jig
- Various measuring tools
- Various painting tools
- Stud finder
- Two sheets of 3/4" thick furniture-grade veneer plywood (can get away with using one sheet if you build fewer shelves) (will also depend on the size of the desk space)
- One or two 2x4x8s (depends on size of space)
- 1.5" and 2.5" Kreg pocket hole screws
- 7/8" pre-glued veneer banding to match the plywood
- Paint for closet interior
- Polyurethane or some other wood finish for desk and shelves
- LED lighting kit (mine is from IKEA)
Step 1: Remove the Closet Components
I started by removing the bi-fold closet doors. While I could have made the desk in such a way that the doors would still close, I decided not to. Besides, I wanted to ditch the tobacco-brown 70s-era doors ASAP.
The closet had a few shelves and bars in really weird places, all anchored to the walls with a whole assortment of different fasteners. Screws and nails of all sizes! I removed them all, and of course the fasteners left behind massive holes. It was also clear that the closet had been repainted several times over the years, each time painting around the shelves. This left behind a noticeable "dent" in the flatness of the wall.
Your closet will hopefully require less repairs.
I started by scraping and sanding away any raised areas of paint where it had pooled. A stiff painter's tool or putty knife works well for this. I filled the holes with Durabond 90, a tough drywall repair compound that is great for filling large gaps. I then smoothed everything over with thinner pre-mixed drywall compound.
Step 2: Paint the Interior of the Closet
My son chose a deep violet for the interior of the closet. The colour you pick can be anything you like, but I'd suggest choosing a contrasting colour for the desktop and shelves. But ultimately it's completely up to you!
I put down two coats of violet inside the closet. Keep some paint on hand for later, as you may end up scraping the paint when you install the desk and shelves!
Step 3: Lay Out and Main Desktop Supports
Lay down a strip of masking tape all around the interior of the closet. Using a stud finder, mark the locations of each stud hiding inside the wall. The desk supports in particular should be screwed directly into the studs for proper support.
Choose a height for the desktop. I chose 30". Knowing that the desktop would be 3/4" thick, I put a mark at 29.25" from the ground, close to the centre of the closet. Cut a 2x4 to the full length of the closet width, and fasten it to the wall so the top edge is at 29.25" (or whatever height you have chosen). I needed to use 3.5" construction screws to go all the way through the wood and the thick drywall. With one screw in, place a spirit level on the top of the 2x4 and adjust it until the wood is level. Then, drive screws along the rest of the 2x4 into each of the studs.
With the main support installed, add in the remaining smaller support pieces. These small sections should be drilled ahead of time using the pocket hole jig, so that the desktop can be fastened from underneath. On the small sections of wall opposite the main closet wall, install the short sections by carefully levelling them relative to the main support. Between the main support and these smaller sections, cut pieces to fit. In my case, I secured them using a combination of pocket holes and screws driven into studs.
As a final step, install some additional beams on an angle, extending from the edge of the closet entrance to the back wall. I used 2x4s for this, flipped onto the wider side. Attach them to the supports on the walls using a combination of pocket holes and screws driven directly through the wood.
Step 4: Cut the Desktop
I chose to use furniture-grade maple veneer plywood for the construction of the desktop and shelves. I wasn't able to fit the full-size 4x8 foot sheets in my car, so I had the lumber yard rip the sheets down the middle to 24" wide. This ended up being slightly wider than the depth of the closet. If you're also having the lumberyard pre-cut your wood, be sure to measure the depth of the closet first!
Cut the main desktop to length using a circular saw and a guide. I decided to add a small bump-out to the desktop surface that wound extend slightly into the closet doorway. This part is optional, but I think it looks good. But be warned! If your closet is the same configuration as mine, it'll make the desktop much harder to maneuver into place! I cut the bump-out using a jigsaw.
Bring the rough-cut desktop to the closet and test how it fits. You'll probably find that the wall is far more curved than it appears! Mark any areas where the wall curves and the desktop doesn't quite fit, and trim them with the circular saw or jigsaw.
Step 5: Cut the Shelves and Supports
The shelf configuration I chose here is made up of one U-shaped shelf that spans the width of the closet, plus four more shelves tucked into the spaces at either end of the closet. The U-shaped shelf is positioned so that it is just a bit higher than most large computer monitors, and is 8" deep in that area.
I cut out the centre portion of the U-shaped shelf using a circular saw for the majority of the cut, then finished the corners (where the circular saw blade can't reach) with a jigsaw. From this cut-out I was able to cut two of the four shelves.
From the excess length from the desktop and U-shaped shelf, I was able to cut the other two shelves. All of these cuts were done using a circular saw and a guide clamped to the workpiece. Remember when using a circular saw that the good side of the wood should be down!
The shelves were sized such that they filled the depth of the closet (about 23 inches) and extended to within about half an inch of the closet opening. In my case, the shelves on the left were about an inch "deeper" than the ones on the right, so be sure to measure carefully!
Finally, I cut the edge pieces and support pieces by ripping long sections using the circular saw. I cut 1.5" wide strips for the supports, and 1.75" think trips for the shelf and desktop edges. You can make your edges thicker if you like, or not use them at all, but I don't recommend it. The edges add strength (especially to the desktop) and hide the wall-mounted supports.
Step 6: Add Pocket Holes to the Shelf Supports and Shelf Edges
A Kreg pocket hole jig is fantastically useful when making stuff out of wood!
I started by using a piece of scrap 1.5" support to test the depth and settings on the pocket hole jig. I adjusted the drill depth so that a 1.5" screw could be used to fasten the support or edge to a shelf without breaking through to the other side.
For each of the shelf edges I added three pocket holes; one on each end and one in the middle.
The desktop edge has five pocket holes.
The U-shaped shelf has five pocket holes along the long edge, and two for each of the short sections.
Finally, I added pocket holes to the support strips that will eventually be mounted to the walls. You don't need many pocket holes for the supports, as gravity does most of the work. The few screws holding the shelves to the supports just keep them from shifting. In total the U-shaped shelf has six screws holding it in place, while each of the smaller shelves has two.
Step 7: Install the Shelf Supports
The shelf supports are installed in much the same way as the desktop supports. Start with the long U-shaped shelf support along the back wall of the closet. Screw it into a stud close to the centre of the closet, then use the spirit level to level out the support. Add screws in every other location where the support intersects with a stud behind the wall.
For these supports, I used a countersink bit to pre-drill holes for a flat head screw. While you can typically drive a flat-head screw directly into softwood (like the pine 2x4s I used for the desktop), doing that with maple plywood will cause it to crack.
Next, add the rest of the shelf supports. For both the U-shaped shelf and the smaller shelves I only placed supports on opposite sides of the walls, as the span was not very wide. If you closet is deeper then you will likely need to add a third support along the back edge of each small shelf, or the shelf will sag over time.
For all the shelf supports I tried to hit as many studs as possible, because they are stronger. But in some places I had to use a drywall anchor instead because things just didn't line up.
Step 8: Test-fit and Adding Shelf Edges
Once all the supports have been installed, be sure to test-fit each shelf in its proper space. As with the desktop, you'll be surprised at how not-square and not-flat the walls are, which can lead to poor fit.
I cut 1.75" edges for each shelf, for the desktop, and for the inside perimeter of the U-shaped shelf. All of these pieces were pre-drilled using the Kreg pocket hole jig. You may want a narrower or wider edge (or no edge at all!) depending on the look you're going for. But I wouldn't go less than 1.5" or you won't be able to use pocket holes.
On all the shelf edges apply a bead of wood glue to the joint, then clamp the edge onto the shelf about 0.25" from the edge. Again, you can play with this number a bit to get the look you want). If your desktop and closet are configured like mine, do NOT glue the desk edge in advance, or you might run into trouble installing it! It was a tight enough fit with the 3/4" thick wood by itself; adding the edging would have made it impossible to maneuver into place.
With the clamps in place, drive in the pocket hole screws. With all the screws installed, you can remove the clamps.
For the U-shaped shelf, I used a mitre saw to mitre the edge pieces where they met under the shelf.
With the shelf edges installed, test-fit them again just to be sure.
Step 9: Adding Veneer Edging
The easiest way to hide the just edges of the plywood is with pre-glued veneer edging. This super-thin wood comes in a variety of species, lengths, and widths. I used most of a 25 foot roll of 7/8" wide birch edging, since they were out of stock in maple. But, it turned out to be a perfect colour match!
For all the visible edges, cut a strip of edging just a little longer than the edge of the plywood. Using a regular clothes iron set to the "cotton" setting, carefully press the edging onto the plywood edge until the glue melts and adheres the edging. You may need to do one general-purpose pass first, then apply pressure on a bit of an angle to get the sides to really stick securely.
Once the glue has cooled, carefully trim off the excess edging with a new blade. While they do make little edging-trimming tools for this purpose, I find they don't give as much control as holding a hobby knife directly. Get as close as you can with the knife without cutting into the plywood itself.
Finally, sand the edge to make the seam disappear!
Step 10: Drill Cable Pass-throughs
In order to allow cables to pass between shelves cleanly, drill a 2-2.5" diameter hole in the corner of each shelf. This step is optional, but will do wonders to help hide messy cables connected to lamps, computer equipment, etc.
In the photo you'll see I used a forester bit to make these large holes, but I recommend using a hole saw instead. It'll work much faster. When you are planning the location of the holes, make sure you leave enough space to clear the supports!
Step 11: Sanding!
I set up my sawhorses outside for the majority of the sanding.
While the maple veneer plywood is already quite smooth (on one side), it will need just a little more attention to make it perfect. Using an orbital sander, sand all the exposed surfaces with 150-220 grit sandpaper.
I ended up having to sand the desktop surface in place because it was easier that trying to remove it from the closet.
Step 12: Apply Finish
I chose Varathane water-based non-yellowing finish for my desktop. If you use maple plywood I would recommend you choose something non-yellowing as well. Usually anything water-based will have this property. Why? It just looks better! Maple is a very light wood, and yellowing stain just looks bad.
If you're using oak or pine, or if you're staining the wood first to a different colour, you can use whatever you like - polyurethane, lacquer, shellac, etc.
After sanding brush off the sawdust. Then brush it off again. Then use a vacuum. Then move everything to a dust-free room and use a tack cloth to remove the rest of the dust. See where I'm going here? For a good finish, the surface of the wood must be absolutely clear of dust, and should stay that way until the finish is fully dry.
Using a natural bristle or foam brush, apply two or three coats of finish according to the manufacturer's directions. If you have a paint sprayer, this would be an excellent use for it!
Between coats, sand the surface lightly. Note that finishes like this can take a week to fully cure, depending on the temperature and humidity of the room. You can install them in less time, just don't place anything heavy on them or you'll put permanent marks on the surface.
Step 13: Install the LED Light Strip
I found a nice LED light strip at IKEA that allows you to select one of seven colours, or allow the strip to fade between the colours in a continuous loop. These types of light strips can be found anywhere, so use what is convenient for you!
The light strip looks best when installed onto the inside edge of the U-shaped shelf, so that it shines on the back wall of the closet. I scribed a line about an inch from the edge as a reference. Then, installed the little mount brackets using the included screws.
I then ran the wire around the shelf edge and secured it using the included clips. Where you run the wire will depend on the location of the outlets.
Step 14: Installing the Desktop
This step may require a helper. While pressing down on the desktop, drive one or two screws through the diagonal supports into the desktop. Be extremely careful not to drive the screws too far! A 2" screw is perfect for this task.
Then, drive in the pocket hole screws around the perimeter of the desk. Super sturdy!
As I mentioned in a previous step, it would have been impossible to install the desktop with the edge already installed. So, I glued, clamped, and screwed the edge piece after the desktop was secure. Your closet configuration may allow you to install the edge before the desktop is secured.
Step 15: Install the Shelves
Starting with the large U-shaped shelf, install the shelves into their correct positions! Again with the aid of a helper who is holding down the shelves, drive in 1.5" pocket screws from underneath to hold the shelves in place.
That's it! If you scuffed or chipped the paint on any of the walls while installing the shelves, be sure to repair the paint.
Install your equipment and enjoy your new desk!
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