This is a quick run through of how I put together a wooden lap desk. I do a lot of work and reading either sitting on the floor or on a couch, and wanted a simple desk that I could rest over my legs or sit cross-legged underneath. This is the result.
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Step 1: Materials and Preparation
For this project you will need:
Wood - 1.5" x 0.75" stock, 343" total cut into a variety of lengths. I used red oak strips from Home Depot, since I knew I would be banging this around a bit and wanted hard wood that wouldn't dent easily.
Glue - I used the excellent Titebond III glue (the green one)
Clamps - at least 2 12"+ clamps, I recommend four, with two being 32"+. You can get away with smaller ones if you tool the project up cleverly
A saw - I used a table saw, but the cuts are really simple and can be done with a hand saw
Sand paper/sander - I used a random orbit sander as well as loose sandpaper. You could get away with just the loose paper, but as with the saw the powered version makes things a lot easier
Hand plane - A very useful tool for making everything level
A sturdy flat working area - the most important part. It makes a *huge* difference
The first step is to cut your stock wood to the required length. The layout drawing is attached to this instructable. Start with the 6 32" pieces first and work your way down in size, organizing the cuts to minimize the wasted wood. Remember to account for the thickness of the saw blade and the kerf in any cut you make! The legs have a 45 degree bevel cut - make this now for all four pieces, but do not bevel the top surface yet.
Step 2: Layout
Once all the cuts are complete, layout the wood on your working surface and do a dry fit check with all of the pieces. This is a quick and easy way to make sure you made no mistakes. This is also a good time to work out exactly how you will be clamping the desk while it glues. The method depends on what clamps are available - since I do not own any clamps that can reach across the length of the desk I had to get creative.
My first thought was to set up a straight edge on one end of my working table, and use this edge to line up the various boards. In the end I created a complete corner which proved to be very helpful when gluing the legs together.
Step 3: Assembly
Once you've worked out your assembly steps, it's time to start gluing! Start with the legs; this step is very fast and easy if you've taken the time to construct a squared rig. Simply glue and clamp, making sure you check that the legs are square to each other and their support beam.
While I was watching the legs dry I became concerned that the glue bond between the legs would not be strong enough to support the weight of the desk. I'm not sure why I thought this, since a) Titebond glue is ridiculously strong; I've never seen it separate and b) the weight is carried down through the legs and directly into the floor anyway - the glue bond at the foot of the legs should see almost no loading. Anyway, I decided to 'fix' this by putting screws through the diagonal legs. I don't recommend this approach - it's hard to screw through oak and difficult to make it look good afterwords.
Once the legs have completely dried it's time to assemble the full desk. Lay down each piece one at a time, applying glue as you go. Don't Panic! You have a good 10-15 minutes to get everything arranged before the glue hardens. Since this is faux-butcherblock style table, there needs to be a compressive force applied in both directions. Since I do not own clamps long enough for the length of this table, I used a combination of a racket-tightened strap and regular wood clamps.
Step 4: Sanding, Planing and Final Gluing
Now that the main desk is assembled it's time to smooth the surfaces, attach the lateral supports/handles and sand everything down. Even if you are extremely careful in selecting, laying out and gluing the boards there will be slight raised edges in between the slats of the desk. These can be removed several ways: the easiest by far would be to use a belt sander, like the kind used to finish hardwood floors. However, if you don't have a sander a hand plane and regular random orbit sander work just as well. Planing hardwood is not a particularly pleasant experience - I used a generic bench plane (Stanley SB4), which did the job fairly well. The key to planing is to always go in the direction of the rising grain. This is easy on the two edge pieces, however for the middle is tricky to tell which way the grain is rising. Also, unless you think about this in advance, its likely the boards will not be rising in the same direction. This can cause splinters and divots in the wood as you plane. The only method I found to minimize this was setting the blade to the smallest possible cut, and using a lot of sanding and elbow grease in areas with swirls or knots in the wood.
Once the boards were planned down I used a random orbit sander with 60 grit sandpaper to get a uniform finish over the whole desk. At this point you can glue on the outside supports. These provide convenient handholds for moving the desk around, as well as some extra lateral strength across the boards. Once the edges are secured, bevel the corners using a table saw and a 45 degree cutting angle. Congrats, your done assembling the desk! Smooth out the entire surface using 220 grit sandpaper, making sure to round all exposed edges with a coarser grit first.
Step 5: Stain, Varnish and Final Thoughts
The last step to making any wood project is applying varnish and/or stain. There are a huge number of stains, varnishes, acrylic coatings etc. available today with various chemical properties and appearances tailored to suit anybodies budget or aesthetic desires. I decided to keep it simple and used a Minwax red oak stain and polyacyrlic protective finish.
Each kind of stain and protective finish will have it's own instructions for applying, but these general guidelines almost always apply.
Sand the wood thoroughly with high grit (220) sandpaper, and remove all the sawdust with a dapm cloth or similar. When staining, use smooth brush strokes in the direction of the grain, making sure to brush out any pools as they form. Let sit for ~5 minutes or longer for a deeper color and then wipe down with a clean dry rag to remove any excess.
After the stain has dried, lightly sand and apply the first coat of acrylic. Use a foam brush to apply it evenly over the whole surface, brushing in the direction of the grain as before. After drying lightly sand and apply another coat. I used 5 coats for the top surface and three for the bottom - the exact number needed will depend on the type of finish used and the level of protection desired. After the last coat, let sit for a day to dry completely before using.
This was an interesting project for me to do, and I am mostly happy with the results. The table isn't as stable as I'd like on a couch, and the duel requirement of being able to sit cross-legged under it on the floor and straight-legged on a couch mean its not the ideal height in the latter case. Despite these issues I I believe it was worth the effort overall, and is a fun woodworking project for the hobbyist crowd.