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How to Build a Cheap Desktop

How To Build A Cheap Desktop TIPS

DEAR TIM: I need to build two cheap desktops. I'm lucky in that I have small cabinets that the top can rest on.

One top is for my man cave and the other one is for a hobby and craft center for my wife and young kids. I'm looking for durability, afford-ability, ease of construction and good looks.

Realize that I have limited skills and tools. What would you do if you were me? Can I do this for less than $100? If you can offer a solution, I'd be most grateful. Travis S., Morgan Hill, CA

DEAR TRAVIS: I've got great news for you.

Little Time & $$$

You can build these desktops in no time at all and I can bring them in under budget for you assuming you need no more than 16 feet of total length for both desktops. Believe me, 16 feet of desktop is quite a bit.

CLICK HERE to get FREE & FAST BIDS from local finish carpenters who can build this desktop in minutes.

Height Above Floor

The first thing to realize when you're building a desk to work at is the height above the finished floor. This is critical if you're using standard chairs that are not adjustable with respect to height.

Most tables that you eat at have a finished height above the floor of 29 to 30 inches. This works great for adults, but not so well for young children.

This desktop was built in one hour with one sheet of plywood and two pieces of thin molding. Photo credit: Tim Carter

This desktop was built in one hour with one sheet of plywood and two pieces of thin molding. ©2017 Tim Carter

Blocking For Adjustment

You may want to keep this in mind as you build the desktop for your hobby and craft center. If I were you, I'd consider designing a simple desk or workstation where the top can be raised by putting blocking under the supports as your young children grow. Just keep that in mind.

Plywood's The Best

I've had huge success in the past by using 4 x 8-foot sheets of 3/4-inch-thick plywood as a desktop. If you cut a piece of plywood like this in half lengthwise, you end up with two pieces of wood that are 24 inches wide by 8 feet long.

Get Fir

My favorite plywood for a project like this is A/C Fir. Fir is a somewhat tough wood species and the letters A and C stand for what each side of the plywood looks like.

You'll rarely, if ever, find this product at a home center. You'll need to visit a local old-fashioned lumberyard for great plywood like this. Believe me, when you make the trip to the lumberyard, you may make it your favorite place to get products!

"A" Side Is Nice

The A side of the plywood looks almost like a gorgeous piece of furniture with no knots or major defects. The C side forms the underside of your desktop and that surface will have some shallow knotholes and other defects.

©2017 Tim Carter

 

24 Inches Deep

I almost always make my desktops 24 inches deep. This depth provides ample space for larger desktop computers and just about anything you'd put on a desk.

It's also a perfect depth, in my opinion, for a craft or hobby workspace because you can put along the back edge of the desktop 8-inch-wide shelves for supplies and still have abundant workspace for most things you're working on.

Plywood Desk Video

Watch this video I made of desks I built for the AsktheBuilder.com Intergalactic headquarters. These had interesting plywood gussets that supported the ends.

Simple Tools

You only need a circular saw to make the needed cuts in the plywood.

This is a wonderful corded saw. It will last generations if you care for it. It cuts very accurately. CLICK THE IMAGE NOW TO BUY THIS SAW.

Be sure you use a sharp blade and always make your cuts with the A side of the plywood facing the ground. This minimizes splintering of the finished side of the desktops when you cut 90 degrees across the grain of the plywood.

CLICK HERE to get FREE & FAST BIDS from local finish carpenters who can build this desktop in minutes.

Plan Cuts

You need to plan your cuts so that you end up with a factory edge of the plywood facing out where you'll sit at the desktop. It's very hard to cut a straight line using a hand-held circular saw without fancy clamps and straightedges to guide the saw.

This clamping straightedge will allow you to make PERFECT straight cuts. You can get extensions so you can cut the full 8-foot length of the plywood. CLICK THE IMAGE NOW TO BUY THIS FANTASTIC TOOL.

Trim For Edges

I always cover the unattractive edge of the plywood with thin strips of solid wood molding. Most old-fashioned lumberyards will stock a piece of wood that is as wide as the plywood is thick.

This wood strip will only be 1/4-inch thick and it is available in lengths up to 16-feet long! I always use regular yellow carpenter's glue and small 1 and 1/4-inch finish nails to attach this strip of wood to the plywood edge.

Sand Lightly

Once you have the desktop built and the wood strip on the edges, then you just need to sand it with a medium sandpaper and finish it.

Stain & Urethane

You can stain the plywood if you want a rich color, or you can just urethane it with a clear finish if you want a light look. You can also paint the plywood if that's the style you want. If you do paint it, I'd then add two coats of clear water-based urethane to protect the softer painted film.

SECRET TIP is to coat the drywall BEFORE finishing with this amazing urethane product. It WILL STOP water from penetrating into the paper of the drywall. CLICK IMAGE TO ORDER IT NOW. Always be sure to order the exact sheen you want. There's a big difference between satin and high-gloss!

If you just decide to urethane the bare plywood and you use a water-based urethane that dries within 90 minutes, then realize it's important to sand the desktop again before you add the second coat of urethane. The water in the urethane will raise the grain of the wood and it will feel rough. This roughness sands down easily and your second coat of urethane will be quite smooth.

Wait 72 Hours

Once you have the final coat of urethane on, don't put anything on the desktop for at least 72 hours. The urethane, while it's dry, it's not cured.

If you set things on the finish, there's a good chance they'll stick. The curing time will take longer if it's cool where the top is. Hot dry conditions accelerate curing time.

Get Flat

When you do shop for the plywood, be sure to get pieces that are nice and flat. Don't transport the plywood in the rain or allow it to get wet as it can develop a warp to it so your desktop may not be as flat as it could.

Super Strength

You'll be stunned how strong this plywood desktop will be. It can stand abuse and it can be modified or moved in seconds. That's one of the things I like best about these modular desktops as you can change what you have in just minutes.

You can't do that with a traditional desk that has the top and base as one complete unit.

Long Lasting

If you're wondering how long a desktop like this can last, let me share with you that I've had one in heavy daily use for over fifteen years and it looks like the day I built it.

Realize you can get other finish-grade plywood that has hardwood veneer if you desire a very upscale look.

Birch Plywood For A+ Look

You can also get wood species like birch that has very little grain to it and is very smooth. Spend some time at the lumberyard and see what they stock!

CLICK HERE to get FREE & FAST BIDS from local finish carpenters who can build this desktop in minutes.

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5 Responses to How to Build a Cheap Desktop

  1. My husband and I read your post and followed your advice, only substituting birch for fir. The result looks so much better than what I would have come up with if left to my own devices! Thanks for sharing your methods.

  2. I did mine with a door. It's 78" wide by 28" deep and mounted in my basement office. It actually rests on 2x4s fastened to the walls, since the room is exactly 78" wide by 10' deep. It also has the pre-drilled hole for the knob, which I use to route all of my wires underneath. The edges are already finished and being a door, it's plenty rigid. I've also attached baskets to the bottom to store all of the wires so that I can use the floor space underneath for the PC tower and a file cabinet. A coat of stain and a coat of poly and I have a great desk!

  3. This is beautiful and looks simple enough. What if you don't have cabinets to rest the desk top on? What would be the best way to support this and also what is the best way to do this for a corner? If I did a miter cut for the corner how would I best support that from the bottom?
    Thanks!

  4. Sometimes you can even remove (salvage) the top off an older desk that no longer looks good except for the desktop. It will often have rounded mitred finished edges and will be 1 1/4" - thicker than 3/4" plywood.

    Simply sand it down and refinish; find a new base for it and you still have a legacy piece of sorts.

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