How to Build a Personalized Desk/table

Introduction: How to Build a Personalized Desk/table

Ever wanted that perfect desk for your work habits? Ever had that corner in your apartment that needed a table but you could never find something that fit? This instructable will lead you through the process of researching, designing, and building a table for your specific purposes. For your reference, I present the plans and process for my table, and you are certainly free to duplicate my table, but unlike most instructables, these specifics are intended as an example only, and the main purpose here is to learn to build furniture tailored to your personal needs.

This instructable is organized as follows:
Research and Design

We're building our own table, whether because we're tired of tables that aren't quite right, we have a space that no table on froogle will fit, or we just always wanted our very own kickass table that no one else has.

The premise here is that you'll be building from standard lumber from somewhere like Home Depot, that you might not have a garage, that you haven't built furniture before, and that you haven't worked with any wood longer than 12" before. All of these were true for me. The only requirement is maybe that you aren't afraid to deal with arithmetic in units of inches and 1/16-inches, and you enjoy thinking in 3D. If instead you want to work with recycled lumber, consult these excellent instructables here and here, but hopefully this instructable can still help you with planning.

In regards to time commitment, research and design took about the same amount of time as planning, while actual construction probably took only half of that. In my case I did the thinking and researching over a week, and then actually got the lumber and built everything over a weekend.

Step 1: Research and Design

The first step is to figure out what your requirements are: physically, functionally, and aesthetically.

Examine your intended space and see if there are any special "landforms" or other furniture you want take into consideration. Review tables in your life experience that you really loved. If you are building a desk, consider your work habits; if you are building a table, consider what you want to use it for.

It is helpful here to google images of various table types for inspiration. In particular, look at the types of super-expensive "custom-made" or designer tables, because they tend to have more creative solutions for different requirements; and yes, you are building a custom-made table (minus the super-expensive part)!

It is also particular helpful to find a bunch of different tables (friends', parents', Ikea, whatever) and sit at them to see how they feel. Consider miming the various activities you want to do at your new table; the point here is to make sure you also get a physical bodily sense of what you want.

So for example, my room has an awkward corner on the only side with the window; specifically, I have a radiator on the ground jutting out about 6" from the wall and a window sill above it jutting out about 3" from the wall. These physical requirements meant that my table legs needed to be further in from the edge of the table surface than 95% of the tables you can buy. Secondly, functionally I wanted a table that suits the type of work I do, which includes things like drawing, reading, xacto knifing paper, as well as significant laptop work. I also really missed the surface area and height of the art studio tables from my college days. Lastly, aesthetically I wanted a plank top, sort of in the style of rustic/tavern tables, and I was willing to trade off some surface levelness for this.

Do you want a shelf on the side? A shelves above? Do you want a foot rest? Do you want the height of a bar table where you can both stand and perch?

Once you have a pretty good idea of what you want, the next step is to figure out the precise dimensions and draw up a plan of the structure.

Step 2: Planning

Now that you have a design, it's time to get out a tape measure and a bunch of scrap paper, and start converting your "user requirements" into quantitative inches.

For most of us, this part won't be a linear step-by-step process and you'll most likely find yourself cycling through the following steps multiple times to make sure all requirements are met and all the measurements fit together in the end. Don't worry -- this how design and engineering works in real-life, even if tutorials everywhere are written in step-by-step order.

The first part of planning involves figuring out the dimensions of your space and the dimensions that your body finds comfortable. Look up the measurements of the tables you googled and mime it out in your space with your measuring tape to see how you like it. You should also to measure a variety of real tables in order to get a sense of what 24" by 48" feels like, or what a bar table height (usually ~40" from the ground) feels like.

Some measurements you'll particularly want to pay attention to are the distances between the seat, the table surface, and the foot rest (if you want one). Getting these distances right will ensure that your table is comfortable for you to sit at for long periods of time. There are some generic measurements that will work for most people (you can figure these out by looking at Ikea measurements, for example), but you can also take this opportunity to optimize the table for yourself. Again, the best approach is to find a bunch of table-chair combinations that you enjoy sitting in, that you have sat in comfortably for long periods of time, and measure them.

In the second part of planning you'll start adding lumber dimensions to the equation. In the U.S., lumber comes in a number of standardized sizes. If you ever heard anyone talking about a "two-by-four " they are talking about dimensional lumber. You can read up on this wikipedia article here  but basically you want to make sure your desired dimensions can all be built by pieces of dimensional lumber so you won't have to split planks or anything like that. What is called a "two-by-four " actually is a piece of wood that is 2" by 4" before drying and finishing, but after processing ends up being 1-1/2" by 3-1/2" when you see it in the store. The wikipedia article there has an excellent chart that will tell you the actual dimensions of various sizes.

When converting to lumber dimensions you might find that you'll need to adjust your ideal table dimensions so that you can get wood pieces with minimal sawing. For example, my ideal table surface was 24" by 48", but the closest approximations to this was either seven 1x4's for a total of 24-1/2" across, or four 1x6" for a total of 22"; 22" felt too short so I went with 24-1/2" by 48" in the end.

In the third part of planning you want to be aware of fundamental table structure to ensure a sturdy table. Look at this instructable for a sturdy barebones table. Basically, you will want four legs and at least four supports in between each of those legs to keep the legs from splaying out when you put weight from above. In my design I have pieces on the side and back of the table and foot rests to hold the legs together, as well as the rails of the table top. (During the construction process, before the rails of the table top was attached, the front legs were wider apart than the back legs, for example.)

For the fourth part of planning you'll want to have a rough idea of the number and types of screws you will need. Wood screws come in various sizes (e.g. #2~#10) that indicate the diameter of the screw, and various lengths. You'll find them referred to in the store by these two numbers, e.g. #10x1-1/4, meaning a size #10 screw with 1-1/4" length. You can look up the precise diameters of various numbers here , but for the most part you don't have to worry about it. For furniture projects #10 is a nice versatile size. The question then is what lengths do you need. If you are joining 3/4" depth to 3/4" depth you'll want a screw that is almost 1-1/2" but not quite, so 1-1/4" is appropriate. If you are joining a 1-1/2" thickness to anything you'll want to make sure the screw is at least 2" long, and if you are joining that to a plank on the long side a 2-1/2" will be even more sturdy.

Lastly, you'll want to consider aesthetics somewhat. I did not, for example, want any screws on my table surface top; this meant everything had to be screwed into from under the surface. I also wanted minimal screws visible from the table side, so I put joins all on the same side of the table legs as possible. Sometimes you won't have much of a choice and laws of physics will dictate that you put a screw in a certain position, but sometimes, you can come up with clever solutions.

Below are my plans. Notice that I made names that made sense to me for every piece; don't copy my names unless they make sense to you too, otherwise I'm not being held responsible if a real woodworker tells you you named something wrong.

Once you've finally figured out every dimension of your table, it's time to acquire materials!

Step 3: Materials

If you've gotten this far, the most difficult parts are through and the rest is mostly arithmetic and manual labor. The goal of this step is to acquire the minimal amount of lumber you need. I recommend starting by break down your dimensions into a list of specific lumber pieces you will need (see image). Then, sort these by lumber dimension and determine how many feet of each lumber size you will need. You might need to call your local lumber supplier to double check that they have say, 1x4's in 8' or 10' planks. Your goal will be to fit as many of your pieces into dimensional lumber pieces with minimal trash.

You'll also want to consider the type of wood you want. Pine is cheapest and softest, but also easier to put together (generally you can screw wood screws directly into pine with a power drill without pre-drilling holes) . The downside here is it looks less nice, is more prone to warping, and is not as sturdy. I chose to use popular, which is considerably more expensive (for the project here the wood cost very close to $200 although I forget the exact price tag). Weigh your options and see what you want.

Lumber is sometimes sold by the foot and sometimes sold by piece depending on your lumber supplier. Home Depot for instance, sells pine by the piece and poplar by the foot. The latter ended up being convenient for me because I had all my pieces cut to size at Home Depot, with the result that I didn't have to pay a single inch extra for any lumber I didn't use.

When you are buying the lumber, if you don't have a power saw at home, it is probably also helpful to get everything cut to size at the store. Converting lumber into smaller pieces also usually makes it much easier to haul back home. Home Depot charges 25 cents per cut in theory; in practice I didn't get charged at all, but 25 cents is pretty cheap for the amount of time you'll save from sawing everything by hand. Alternatively you can save that money and invest in a powered saw. If you do get it cut at the store, you'll want to let the guy know that you want precise cuts; the machines can be very precise, but usually the staff are lazy and will make sloppy cuts (can't really blame them because in most cases their customers don't need precise cuts).

Screws come in small baggies of quantities under 10, or giant boxes of 50 or 100+. Depending on the plans you drew up, paying for a box might be way more economical. I got #10 x 1-1/4" in a box of 100, and #10 x 2-1/2" in a box of 50, and used about 70% of each box.

Now that you have your nice pile of stock and pile of screws, it's time to gather the tools.

Step 4: Tools

At the barest minimum you will need:
power drill
drill bit (for #10 screws a 5/32 is good)
saw horses (the only thing not pictured below)

If you chose poplar or other harder woods, you might also want a countersink bit (see here for a great intro to countersinking) so you can drill your screws flush with the wood surface (see picture below). A sander might also have been useful but I didn't find myself needing it enough to justify getting one.

If you are getting these tools for the first time, for me the costs came out to be approximately the following, when I went for the cheapest version of everything in Home Depot /
saw $10
saw horses $20
clamps $20
drill+drill bit set $50
countersink bit $8

Other things you'll need to gather:
measuring tape

Step 5: Construction I

Now comes the exciting part where all your hitherto intangible ideas start to materialize. For the overall process, there's not a whole lot to say here other than have patience, and measure everything twice. Rushing will generally lead to mistakes, and an extra hole in wood cannot be undone (yes, I have extra holes in my table). With that, here I will just describe how I assembled my table. Hopefully some of the tactics I used will be useful for your table.

A note for those of you who wonder about the countersink: the steps are simply 1) mark off, 2) drill with bit, 3) drill with countersink, 4) screw.

1. The Sides

Start by assembling the sides to the posts. The critical thing to keep in mind here is that you'll be needing to drive screws into your posts in two different directions at right angles to each other: two to join to the plank on the side and two to join to the plank along the back of the table. To avoid screw collision inside the post, you want to make sure you stagger them in the third dimension, which is height. If you look in the close-up picture you'll see that I actually marked off four heights to attach a 1x4 (3-1/2") on the side -- at 1/2", 1-1/4", 2-1/4", 3" -- and then I drilled in the lower set, that is, at 1-1/4" and 3" from the end. Later when I attach the back plank, I will drill at 1/2" and 2-1/4" from the end.

In my design my side planks were attached to the inside of the posts, so I measured off 3/8" from the edge of the post. This is where it is easy to lose track of which side is "inside" and "outside" of the table; I found it helpful to layout all my pieces so I could keep track of orientation, and walked around them with my tools.

For screws, because you are drilling into a long plank on these and (1) don't have to worry about anything sticking out the other side (2) need more stability because the surface area of the join is small, make sure you have at least 1"-worth of screw extending in the side planks.

2. The Shelf

Along with the sides I also had a small shelf. Order of attachment: (1) inner side to table legs, (2) outer side to the bottom, (3) bottom to the inner side, (4) little back piece.
First attach the inner side the same way you had attached all the other sides thus far. For the bottom, first put it in place to make sure it'll fit, if not you'll need to trim off with the hand saw. Ideally the piece will take a little knocking to get into place, but it shouldn't be loose nor you shouldn't need to jam it. Once you have the right size, attach the outer side to the bottom by dividing the length into four and putting in three screws. (You see in the picture I used four screws but for such a small shelf where I don't plan to put anything heavier than a couple books it is overkill; you could use just three.) Drilling loose pieces at 90-degree angles is slightly tricky when you can't get a clamp wide enough to go around them, but I just held it down with my hand and drilled carefully.

Now on the posts, mark off the center of the bottom plank (3/8" from the edge of the last side plank) and drill and attach the bottom. <> With these two attachment points at the end of the plank, mark off two more points between them and attach a couple more screws to distribute the weight.

Lastly I put in a miniature piece of wood at the end to stop things from falling out the back. I knocked it into place and it fit so well I decided not to put in screws after all because first, I only needed that piece to stop tiny things like pencils falling out the back, and secondly, I wanted to have a minimal amount of screws showing on the side of my table for aesthetics' sake.

3. The Tray Tracks

Next I put in the "rails" or "tracks" along which my tray will slide. The distance calculations are slightly trickier here because I needed to allow some space for sliding and for the tray's uneven surface. So I measured the position of the bottom rail at the height at which I wanted my tray (my tray surface is 33-1/2" off the ground), and put the other rail at a distance above, equal to the thickness of the tray (3/4") + 1/8" for extra space. I used three screws distributed across each rail; the precise markings for these don't matter, but you do want to be careful of where the side planks' screws are and make sure you steer clear of them. Since I was attaching 3/4"-thickness to 3/4"-thickness, I used 1-1/4" screws to attach the tracks.

4. The Foot Rest Sides

Mark off your foot rests; mine are 7" from the ground. Again, watch out for your orientation and make sure you know which side of the post you are attaching that particular foot rest piece to. Since I don't have a three-way join here I just marked off even distances and used my 2-1/2" screws. Again there's not a great way to clamp these while you drill, but a method that worked for me was to lay them down on a flat surface along the side where the foot piece is flush with the post, so then you only have to worry about not letting it slide more than 7" from the end of the post.

5. The Back

Assemble the back by putting everything upside down, and mark off on the posts in the same way you marked off for the sides: mark off four distances and drill in the set that is NOT where you drilled to attach the side. For me this was marking off at 1/2", 1-1/4", 2-1/4", 3" from the end, and drilling at 1/2" and 2-1/4" from the end. Use your 2-1/2" screws here.

6. The Foot Rest Cross Beams

Clamp the foot cross beams in place as shown, and mark off two points to drill. The trickier part of this step is measuring accurately on both foot side pieces. Measure twice, three times; measure from both ends of the side piece. The posts will have a tendency to splay on this end so nothing will look like it is aligned until you attach the foot rests at the right measurements. I had two cross beams in my table; once you have one attached, the splaying problem is gone and the other will be much easier to attach. Now you can stand up your table!

Step 6: Construction II

7. The Table Top

Precision will be critical in this step. This is where you will be glad that you spent that extra time to pick the straightest lumber you could get at the store. A speedsquare, or anything else you can use to ensure the precision of the right angle, will be helpful, although I didn't have one myself. Slight misalignments will result in gaps or uneven heights in your table surface.

Get all your planks together, and mark off guiding lines to where the cross beam will go. Measure twice or three times, and also verify the distances between your marks. On the cross beams, measure off guiding lines to indicate where the planks will intersect, and based off of those, distribute two screws per plank. The guiding lines will be what you use to position your pieces when you drill.

Once that is all done, drilling and screwing is fairly straight forward. Clamp the cross beams on both sides and just make sure you position it correctly (use the square if you have one). Press hard to make sure planks sit tight together before you secure the clamps. Use the shorter 1-1/4" screws and work down both cross beams, one plank at a time. When you are done it should look like this.

8. Attach Partial Table Top to Legs Structure

Now you'll need to unscrew the first and last plank of the table top. Remember which one front and which was back, and also which orientation they were. Why, you ask, when we just put it in in the last step? The reason is because the first and last planks would be very difficult to drill once we attach the table leg structure (you'll have trouble drilling straight in the resulting corner unless you have a very very small drill), whereas you can still power a screw at a slight angle, especially if it has screwed into before.

So now mark off the middle of the cross beam and make sure that your "projected screw path" will not hit any of the screws already inside your post. In the back, you'll be able to avoid them by drilling on the "outside" of the post and bypassing the back plank entirely, while on the sides you'll be able to do this because earlier you had attached the side planks using the lower set of the four measurements.

9. Attach Last Pieces of Table Top

Now flip your entire table upside down and reattach the first and last planks. If you put them back in their original positions correctly, this should be effortless. You can easily use a screwdriver if your drill doesn't fit.

10. The Tray

Finally, build the tray in the exactly same way as your build your table top (observe how much faster you are at it this time around ;-)). First you'll want to double check that each of the tray planks fits in the width of your table, and trim with your saw if necessary. When you mark off, you'll want the cross beams to be just a little further in than the thickness of the tracks so they almost run along each other but not quite, so it'll be easier to slide out.

11. TADA!

That's it! You're done! If you've followed this far, I hope you found this instructable helpful to start you thinking about building personalized furniture. If you've just finished your own, congratulations!! Do post pictures and let us know how the process went for you!

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    5 Discussions


    8 years ago on Introduction

    I love the desk, I'm thinking about building one. My plastic table just isn't very space conservent!


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Good Job on the hard work that you have done. I like the way you studied what works for others and applied that to your own creations. I have built many pieces of furniture for my own place and sometimes have to be creative in my build design and construction methods (not all of us can afford all the neat toys (tools) and have to come up with alternatives) good luck on your future projects. Someday in the future if I happen to remember I'll take some pictures before a project is complete and post an instructable (I always get caught up in the project at hand and the thought of documentation comes too late)
    Sorry for the long comment again GOOD job and may you have many successes in the future


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    I know the feeling, I've built more projects then I can remember myself. I get caught up in the problem solving and building and totally forget to take pics. for
    future reference and for creating instructables.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks! I hope it is clear and useful to people!