Solid Wood Computer Desk for Only $50 in Material!




Introduction: Solid Wood Computer Desk for Only $50 in Material!

My son needed a desk to accommodate dorm-room life.  As someone who enjoys making things from scratch, I thought this sounded like a perfect project...until I priced real wood (not MDF :-)

Realizing that hardwood flooring comes in strips ready to interlock, I figured a little glue would let me make solid wood panels any width I wanted.  A little more thought and by extending boards and leaving gaps I could connect  the panels with tongue and groove easily.  I also thought it would be unique and allow for a little artistic expression.

   Hard wood flooring - 55 square feet
   Glue - a good polyurithane
   Paint, stain, and the finish of your choice
   1/2" plywood - 1/4 sheet for the backing and 1/4 sheet for the drawers.

   Tape measure
   Markers and pencil
   Table saw
   Chop saw
   Small pull saw
   File or rasp

This project started looking at a number of possibilities for the raw material:
  • MDF - might as well by a flat pack and throw it away the 2nd time you try to move it.
  • Veneer Plywood - Not a bad price, but more work to make a face frame and once you by the face frame material its getting expensive.
  • Scrap pallets - too much work to sort and prep the material - plus a new set of jointer and planer blades.
  • Pine boards - cheap but not very strong or attractive.

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Step 1: Plan Your Project

Begin by planning the desk around its use.  In this case, we knew that we’d need space for  a large-case PC, a flat screen monitor, and ample storage for CDs and other miscellanea.

You don’t need fancy CAD software or a degree in advanced trigonometry.  In fact, all we used was graph paper for the design phase and butcher paper for the full-scale templates.

Because the flooring was exactly 2 ¼” wide, we figured that each grid square on the graph paper would be equal to that.  After a scale drawing of the desk was made, we then separated it into panels that we would assemble separately which would fit together to form the desk.

He wanted a space invaders themed desk (Yes, the old video game) so the sides have eye holes for the aliens, holes to put illuminated plastic for the shots and a house and laser base will be added with bright green duct tape on the sides.

Step 2: Make Full Sized Templates

You can use a variety of paper to make your full-sized templates.  From the backside of wrapping paper to rosin paper, plotter paper, and ever newspaper; all would work in a pinch.  Here, you can see that we settled on large sheets of butcher paper.  These have the advantage of being plain white as well as being wide enough that we only needed one piece per panel.

We decided to make a simple rig to hold our markers.  Using this, we could pull the butcher paper across and get straight, even lines at any length we needed.  To do this, drill several holes, 2 ¼” on center (the width of our flooring, remember?), just big enough to hold all of your markers.  We used different colors to make it easier to place things later.

Clamp the marker board to a table and, using a few pieces of wood to guide the paper, slowly draw your paper across the markers.  The picture explains it much better....

Using your marked sheets, measure out the placement of each piece of flooring.  Since the separate panels will lock into each other (mortise and tenon style), we allowed gaps ¾” high at several key locations.  These gaps not only help to lock the final piece together, they also can serve to make designs, in this case a popular throwback game involving invaders...from space.

Due to the slight translucency of butcher paper, it is fairly easy to line up the templates, one on top of the other, to ensure that the mortise-and-tenons match up perfectly.

Draw each of your panels full sized on a sheet, include gaps for mortises and holes you want.  Use a highlighter to lay it out then a black marker to show the actual edges.  If you make a mistake, just put tape over it and keep going.

Although the lines didn't come out straight they were good enough to layout the planks.  The ends were drawn by taping the paper square to the table and using a T square.  that way the end cuts would be straight.  For the mortises we only drew position and used cut off pieces during layout to make the gaps the right size.

Step 3: Calculate and Buy!

Now that we have our design and templates made, it’s time to calculate the over-all square footage of flooring we’ll need to buy.  The standard formula applies...length times width for each piece, then add them all together.  Ignoring the intentional gaps and cutouts gives us a rough amount to which we added 5% to allow for cut-offs and mistakes.  In our case, this added up to 54 square feet of flooring.

You can go to any home improvement store and buy hard wood flooring for around $3 per square foot.  Discount stores like Lumber Liquidators typically have it for $2 per square foot.  If you ask around, you can even find some leftovers or broken cases for less.  Ours cost $0.50 per square foot for Hickory!  It was pre-finished, which gives you a very good finish one side, but you’ll need to do some experimenting in order to find a matching stain for the unfinished side.  I recommend buying unfinished flooring – it’s cheaper and you can apply whatever finish you like so that both sides will match.

We had originally planned to buy unfinished wood, plane the grooves off the back so both sides would look smooth.  But when we found the closeout wood at $0.50 per square foot we changed the plan.  Instead of planing the backs we opted to black them out.

Step 4: Layout and Organization

We found it easier to sort our wood by length so that we could find pieces which closely matched our layout.  This allows for less cutting and fewer wasted materials.  Because the pieces have tongue-and-grooves to match end-to-end, as well as on the sides, we wanted the longest whole pieces for the edges of the panels to ensure strength and stability, whereas for the middles we could match up shorter pieces and snap them together readily.

We were careful to find pieces that were the perfect length but would up with a few areas where the groove on the end of  a piece shows.  It didn't matter much since we were blacking out the backs but for a finished piece you should make sure to trim all the exposed ends.

Step 5: Cut to Length

We started by selecting the pieces for the front edge of the desk.  Using a table saw, cut off the tongue so that the front is smooth (we will round the edges later, although you can do it now if you like).  It isn't a bad idea to mark the pieces with tape and numbers so you don't use the wrong piece in the wrong place.

This is also a good time to select the back pieces that will be notched to accept the back panels and cut the rabbets for them.


We actually built the entire desk before we decided where to put the back panels, then we took it apart and cut the rabbets.  In total we assembled and took apart the desk over 8 times without any problems.  We even stacked it up once to see how it would flat pack - and it looks great, as long as you can pickup 300lb of wood in one box :-)

Step 6: Full Sized Layout

When laying out the flooring pieces on the full-sized template, keep in mind that you’ll want to assign the longest pieces to the areas that can benefit from the extra strength, mainly the edges of your panels and the desk surface (so as to minimize the number of seams).

For each plank of flooring, these were the steps we followed:
  1. Using a chop saw, trim the plank to length.
  2. With a small hand saw and a hammer and chisel, trim the portions of the tongue where mortises or holes will come through a panel.
  3. Most of the pieces can be cut by length.  With some of the panels, you can speed things up by cutting several planks the same length.
  4. Because of the tongue-and-groove construction, it is very easy to dry-fit everything together as you go.  Doing this ensures that everything fits properly and also allows you to make changes on the fly.
  5. As each panel is fully assembled, put strips of painters tape across all the pieces and number them.  That way when you take it apart to glue it you can keep the pieces in the right location and align the tape edges. If you have to adjust a panel after you put the tape on it, add a straight line across the tape to help align the pieces.

You could cut out the exposed tongues with a chisel but since we were taking the panel apart to apply glue, we just marked them with a pen and trimmed them before adding the glue.

Step 7: Gluing and Clamping Each Panel

We used Gorilla glue, but any polyurethane glue should hold.
  1. Wipe both the tongue and groove with a damp cloth – the glue will react with the water and expand to fill in the gaps between the tongue and groove.  You don't need to get the wood wet, just a little moist – it shouldn't feel wet after you wipe it.
  2. Put a small bead of glue in the bottom of each groove and spread it with a scrap piece of tongue to cover the whole groove.
  3. A soft face hammer and some speed clamps will pull the pieces together and help align them.
  4. Gluing the panels on wax paper will keep them from sticking to the table :-)
  5. Because hardwood flooring is designed with the top face a bit longer than the bottom (to keep the floor nice and tight), your panels will have a tendency to bow upward when you clamp them from the edges.  The easiest solution we’ve found is to clamp it straight down onto a hard surface.  This should eliminate the bowing until the glue hardens.
  6. Read the directions for your glue to see how long to leave everything clamped down.  I recommend doing a single panel first, start to finish, before attempting the others, just to make sure that everything is accounted for and you don’t get any surprises.
  7. Scrape off any excess glue within a day so it doesn’t get too hard to remove.

The dried urathane glue comes off easily even on the finished surface, we used  a metal scraper with a rounded edge so it wouldn't scratch the finish.

Step 8: Assembly and Finishing

Finally, you can assemble the desk to make sure all the panels are the right size and have all the right holes in the correct places.  You may need to trim some of the tenons (use a file for minor adjustments and saw for larger cuts) and either open any mortises that are too tight or narrow the tenons with a block plane or sander.  You want to  have a snug fit but not too tight; remember everything will get a little thicker once you paint or seal the wood.

Your desk will likely need some back panels to add lateral stiffness.
Use 1/2” plywood to make back panels.  They should go completely across the desk to make it rigid (so it doesn't sway back and forth)  Cut a rabbet in the back edges of the desk where the panels will be attached.

We followed these basic steps to finish off our desk:
  1. Round and sand any exposed edges.  For this, you can use a router or a power sander.
  2. Using a piece of scrap flooring, make a simple template to drill holes for the screws that will hold the desk together.  Put at least 2 screws through a panel where another meets it at right angles.  These will keep the panels from pulling apart.  The tongues and grooves will handle the structural connection.
  3. Once the desk is screwed together, check to make sure it’s square, then fit the back panels and drill and screw them into place.
  4. This is your last chance to trim any overhang, round additional edges, and make sure your screws are flush.  Step back and make sure you are happy with the result.  Take a seat and write something...pretend to type on your keyboard.  Any final adjustments should be made now.
  5. We decided to paint the unfinished side of the flooring flat black so first, we needed to stain and seal any exposed ends and rounded corners.  Basically, anything that we still wanted wood-colored, like the ends of the tenons.
  6. You can stain and seal your desk any way that appeals to you.  Since our flooring was finished on one side, we had to match the stain (trial and error on some scraps) for the exposed ends of the tenons.

So that’s the project.  We created a unique look and learned a lot of new techniques in the process.  Next: A bookcase!

(Shameless self-promotion: We timed this Instructable to coincide with THIS CONTEST, so, if you like, feel free to vote for us.)  :)
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    15 Discussions


    3 years ago

    I made one real similar, the hardwood flooring makes good tabletops, but you really need to pay attention and make sure everything glues flat. I tried making panels out of 4 hardwood units, and when gluing everything together one of the panels was off just a bit. put that at the back so it was not obvious


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Great looking desk. MDF is still an available option. The blue big box store carries premium MDF. Much denser than industrial MDF (which is what the cheap, flat pack stuff is made of). It is more expensive ($33 for a 3/4" 4x8 sheet or $24 for a 1/2" 4x8 sheet) but holds up amazingly. I built an entertainment center out of the 3/4" material using pocket hole joinery and I can stand and jump on it and it doesn't move. And it's still cheaper than solid wood in most cases.


    5 years ago on Introduction

    I work in a factory that makes hardwood flooring and had the same idea.

    We are allowed to take small amounts of rejects so I plan to use unfinished five inch hickory.

    Free wood FTW.

    Added bonus is the hickory smells so good when you cut it.
    Pity you can't use the scrap in your smoker.
    A lovely project.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Ricardo Furioso
    Ricardo Furioso

    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Ahhh. It was the SIDEWAYS PHOTO that held the key to the marker jig.
    I kept overlooking it because it is sideways.


    5 years ago on Step 8

    Just the idea I needed to make my new desk. Absolutely great! I need to get rid of my bulky formica and metal I got for free from my sons workplace.


    5 years ago

    So clever and cost-efficient! Added bonus, the final product looks so sleek and chic!


    5 years ago

    Very cool! Love your material choice too!


    5 years ago

    I love the idea of using wood flooring as your source of material! And that desk turned out great!

    I'll try to find some pallets to do this with.

    Sand them and nail them :D

    Though I do need to get some stain and hinges.