The Faux Metal Desk




Introduction: The Faux Metal Desk

About: Desktop Support Technician by day. Rock Drummer by night. DIY Home Improvement Enthusiast. Maker of whatever I can imagine in between it all. Professional level napper. I have a full workshop in my basem...

I woke up one day (it was probably a Saturday) and decided it was time to build a desk for my home office.  I had a design in my head and a few ideas of how to make it happen.  Here was my criteria:

1. This desk needs to be built-in as opposed to some store bought unit that sits away from the wall because of baseboards.  You know ... the desks that lure all of your objects to the back so they can fall between the space and onto the floor to be lost for several months.
2. I wanted the component box to hang or "float."  Partly because my house is old so nothing is level, but also because I liked the idea.
3. I wanted cable management because I have some OCD issue. 
4. Lastly, but most importantly, I wanted it to look like metal ... \m/

Step 1: The Basic Carcass

I decided to build the desk out of MDF, which I said I'd never do again after my closet built-ins, but it was affordable and I had a lapse in judgement. I don't like it because it's heavy, contains formaldehyde so the dust is horrible (I used a full respirator when working with it), and if you aren't careful, screws will strip holes (pre-drill everything). I won't use it again. This project took two sheets of 3/4" MDF, with extra for floating shelves.

The top is two layers of MDF cut to 24" x 6', which I laminated together with glue and screws. You can see how OCD driven I am because I laid out a grid just for the screw positions.

The cleat is a 2"x4", which I half lapped in the corner for an interlocking fit. I tapered the bottom corners, painted it to match the wall, and secured it to the wall studs.

The component box uses rabbets for joinery with glue and screws. The dado in the middle is for a shelf. The holes are for cables and venting.

Step 2: The Rivet Holes

I wanted the look of layered sheet metal and rivets, but since I wanted a flat top for practical working reasons, I couldn't use actual rivets or cut off bolt heads. I decided to use dowels because they are cheap, easily workable, and would accomplish the goal.

I laid out my lines and hole locations, set up a guide rail, and then used my plunge router to make the holes.

Step 3: The Rivets

I needed dowel plugs and I needed a lot of them. I started with a little jig that cut one at a time, but quickly scaled it up to cut four at a time. It's just a piece of scrap plywood with four holes drilled through (used drill press). I clamped a temporary fence to the band saw for my desired cut depth/width and made the first cut. After that, it was just a matter of advancing the dowels to release the cut off into a container ... repeat.

The plugs were installed with glue and a mallet, then left to dry.

Step 4: Flush the Rivets

Once the glue dried, I flush cut all of the dowels with a pull saw, which was really only 2-3 pulls per plug so not very tedious. The surface was then sanded flush using an orbital sander.

Step 5: The Paint Job

The paint process was the same for the top and the box.

1. A generous coat of Zinsser Guardz, because I had some left over from a renovation project and I really wanted to seal the MDF well due to the formaldehyde.  Primer will work fine.
2. A base coat of gray, which is a deck/porch paint I use in my basement.
3. A line of black spray paint to cover all of the dowels.
4. Shadow line of white spray paint, which covered half of each dowl. I just use a sheet of card stock to mask what I didn't want covered.
5. Some areas of red spray paint for future distressing.
6. Mask off and spray some panels silver.
7. Remask and spray the remaining panels aluminum.

After the paint cured, it was time to distress with hand sanding. Some areas I sanded lightly just to give the machined metal look, other areas I went deeper to leave scratches and let the red bleed through as if it were old rust, wear, or discoloration.

Step 6: Component Box Suspension

I guess you could call this a sliding dovetail? All I know is that it works and is made from 3/4" plywood. I screwed the two outside strips to the box using the middle section as the spacer for correct alignment. Then I screwed the middle section into the desktop. It just slides on ... simple.

Before I installed this box, I I mounted a powerstip to the back to keep all the cords out of sight.

Step 7: Edging and Face Frame

For the desktop edging I used a 2"x4". It also got the rivet treatment for visual and practical reasons. The practical reason being I needed to screw this to the desktop and then hide the screws with the dowels. You can see that it has a rabbit on the back so that it snugs right up to the desktop and supports it so we don't get any sag over the 6' span.

The face frame was made from some scrap 3/4" poplar I had, but you could easily make it out of a 2"x4" as well. Same paint job and dowels used for visual as well as hiding screws.

Step 8: Installation and Finishing

I already had the black distressed file cabinet and it functions as the support leg for the corner that doesn't contact the wall cleat. The top did require some scribing to fit along the contours of the wall, which I did with a sander, as a jig saw would've been too aggressive. It is secured to the cleat from underneath with a few metal corner brackets.

The face frame was screwed onto the front of the box and then the box suspended on its mount. The 2"x4" edging was then screwed on and and dowels were used to plug all of the holes.

I used polyurethane as the top coat. The box was finished prior to installation, but the top was done in place because I had to install the edging first. I probably did around 5-6 coats on the top. If I could do it again, I'd use lacquer, but you learn as you go I guess.

Note: There is some room to slide the box foward to get to outlets, but it's a tight squeeze. If I ever need to disassemble this, I will be able to side the box off from the back.



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    18 Discussions

    We used the same technique to fill in the bench holes on a Harbor Freight wood workbench we made for a kitchen island---If I had to do it again I might think about staining the ends a different color for contrast but they look great as is. One sank a bit so taping the underside to hold them all level---if not able to cut flush due to lack of the proper saw---might be an idea. We also toyed with the idea of using copper plumbing end caps but they didn't fit and we didn't really want to drill out all of the holes. And they were not flat in any case---who knew! Wondered about using pennies in there tho----next time!

    This is great and useful info and looks amazing!

    I made a desk 18 years ago in high school out of poplar. It still holds together and I use it all the time. This looks pretty bad ass though. I wonder if any of my shop class skills still hold up. haha.

    Lacquer-- at least, the 'real' stuff-- is very friable, and will crackle and craze if you set anything down too hard, like say... banging an old school telephone after an angry call...

    Why would you choose it? What do you know that I don't? :D

    1 reply

    I use the fake stuff for sure ... Deft in a rattle can ... at least I did until Lowes stopped carrying it. I've been using it on smaller projects and I have good results - fast dry and recoat times, wet sands smooth, waxes nice. The poly is flaking a bit and yellowed over time.

    However, I do plan on making some angry phone calls, so I might need to reconsider.

    This is so well described and documented, and it would have fooled me for sure if I saw it in person. Thanks for sharing.

    So enjoyed your offering, including the humor that laces the details together. Pretty crafty, and entertaining.

    Pretty clever work. I agree with the comments about MDF. The other drawback of MDF is that it doesn't span very far- needs lots of support.

    That is an extraordinary paint job. Lacquer is faster, and would look good too, but your polyurethane is much more solvent resistant. Great work.

    1.5" MDF! Ought to be sturdy enough...

    1 reply

    I've noticed some yellowing with the poly, which isn't terrible. I've also had some flaking of the finish, which is just weird. I can always sand it back a bit and redo the topcoat. Not a bad result from rattlecans. Imagine what you could do with an airbrush.

    Nicely done, very interesting reading as well. I like the rivet look... not something I would have thought of. I'll have to use that on a project sometime.

    Great Job !

    sliding dovetail concept was great, thanks for sharing

    THIS is the "genius" behind this project! Fantastic idea, and I'm sure it would have worked well for me!

    Great dowel cutting jig and a nice project!

    Great Design. I love the results. Thanks for sharing

    awesome job, especially the paint. just by looking at the first picture I honestly thought you put sheet metal on to of the MDF. I am about to build a work desk and will definitely use this painting technique.

    Very nice, I am impressed with your creativity with the faux rivets.