How to Build an Inexpensive Mid-Century Desk in a Weekend
I wanted a simple desk for my home office, something in keeping with the mid-century style of my house. However, as I started looking around at various options, it struck me that the desks I was seeing were either incredibly overpriced or really cheap and flimsy. I wanted something that was inexpensive and looked cool, so I decided to build one myself. In this article, I'll describe my desk building process and hopefully inspire you to build your own variation of this simple mid-century style desk.
Before I get into the nitty gritty, let me outline how I arrived at my plans and what basic tools and materials you will need to do this project yourself.
I designed this desk based on a dining room table project from the book PlyDesign: 73 Distinctive DIY Projects in Plywood. As I am a woodworking novice, I wanted a very simple, straightforward design, and the dining room table project fit the bill. With a couple of modifications, the plans for the dining table became plans for a desk. I would highly recommend checking out this book if you are interested in building furniture with plywood at home--there are tons of great plans and ideas packed into it.
You will need some basic woodworking tools and a couple of power tools to complete this project:
- Speed Square
- Carpenter's Pencils
- Wood clamps
- Measuring tape
- Box cutting knife
- Circular saw
- Mitre saw
- 1 sheet of 4 ply 4 by 8-foot 3/4" plywood(I got mine at Home Depot)
- 3 8-foot reinforcing 1x2s
- 4 Pre-cast table legs (I bought mine from hairpinlegs.com)
- 24 wood screws
- 12 #10 pan head screws (for attaching the legs. Ideally, you should choose as long a screw as possible without puncturing the top wood)
- Fine grit sandpaper squares
- Wood glue
- Wood pre-conditioner, stain and poly
A little about cutting and working with plywood
If you've never worked with plywood before, there are a few differences between working with plywood and working with traditional solid wood to be aware of. (If you've worked with plywood, skip on down to the next section to dive into the project)
First of all, plywood is an awesome building material. It is stronger and harder to break than comparable solid wood and aesthetically can look very good. If all you know of plywood is what you've seen nailed to a subfloor, you will be surprised by the beautiful furniture that has been created with this versatile material. However, this strength and beauty comes at a price: thin veneer. Veneer is a very thin layer of solid wood that forms the exterior of your plywood sheet. This gives it a beautiful solid wood look on the outside and a rigid powerful inside, but because it is so thin it is easily damaged. When handling plywood you must take special care to not drop or scratch the veneer, as it is very easy to chip and knock loose. This would ruin large sections of your plywood if you are using it as an exterior surface such as a desktop.
Also, there are special considerations you must take whenever you are cutting into plywood in order to not splinter the veneer. I'll talk about that more later, but basically it is a simple matter of marking and carefully scoring your cuts before you make them.
Cutting wood with power tools is very serious and can be dangerous business. Use breathing, hearing, eye protection and most of all, use extreme caution and concentration when you are making cuts. Follow all manufacturer instructions and use your own common sense to ensure your safety. Always think about one thing and one thing only while you are working with power tools: the cut you are making at that moment.
Step 1: Cut your reinforcers
This design utilizes the factory edges of the plywood sheet itself to form a frame underneath the desk for extra stiffness and support. The first thing you need to do is mark your cuts. The width of the reinforcers will be 4 inches, so you are basically cutting a 4" strip out of each side of the board.
In order to know how to mark the underside of the board, you'll need to find out the exact blade width of your circular saw. One way to do this is to cut a small bit into a piece of scrap wood and measure the gap afterward. For illustration purposes, I'm going to say that we're working with a blade that cuts 1/8" width.
Using a speed square, find the 4" notch and run a pencil line down the length of each side of the plywood sheet. When cutting, we always cut to the inside or outside of the measurement, never down the middle. Mark a second line that is exactly the width of your circular saw blade on the inside of the lines you just marked (probably 1/8"). This gives you two lines that will border the width of your blade as you cut.
Once you have the two lines at the correct width all around the board, we must score the innermost line. This is necessary because of the fragile nature of the veneer. If you run a circular saw straight into plywood, you will likely get nasty chipped, rough edges on the top of your cut or fray your veneer. We are only scoring the innermost line because the other cut line will be under the desk once completed, thus hidden from view. We don't need to be as concerned about the underside of the cut because the blade of the circular saw cuts in an upward direction. Thus, splintering should only be an issue on the top side of the cut.
Using a straight edge or a scrap piece of 2x4 and your trusty wood clamps, match the wood (or straight edge) with the innermost line and clamp it down so that you can easily run a box cutter down the length of the line. Carefully make your cut and repeat this process around the sheet until you've scored all the lines you just marked.
Now, you will want to clamp and set your straight edge to work as a fence that you can push against as you make your circular saw cuts. Using a similar process, find the perfect distance that lines up your blade right in between your cut lines, and clamp the piece of scrap (or straight edge) so that you can run your saw against it and make a straight cut.
Roll through and cut all of your reinforcers. Do the long sides first, then do the short cuts last, as we do not want the joint of the four reinforcers to be visible from the front.
Set your plywood reinforcers aside.
Step 2: Cut the top of your desk down to size
The next step is to trim the top of the desk down to the correct size. I wanted a desk that was sized 26" x 56", so we're going to need to trim the desk down to the correct size. You can make the desk any dimension you want, it's totally up to your preference.
We will only be trimming off two sides of the desktop, so if your previous cuts for the reinforcers weren't perfect, this is a good opportunity redo the cut on two of the four sides.
Once you have chosen which two sides you want to cut, follow the previous instructions for marking, scoring and fencing the cuts to make the top the exact size you want.
Now that your top is good to go, set it to the side being careful not to damage the veneer.
Step 3: Cut and affix your edge reinforcers to the bottom of the desk
Using your desktop measurements, we are going to have to cut all four of the plywood reinforcers down to size (unless you just want to use the full remaining sheet of plywood). Using a mitre saw, mark and score the cut you will make to your reinforcers to match the front, back and sides of your desktop. It is important to realize that because a mitre saw's blade actually cuts in the opposite direction to a circular saw, we are actually going to want to score the underside of the cut you are about to make on the mitre saw. The top side should cut with little to no issues. Also, the reinforcers won't be visible for the most part so there is less of a worry about damaging the veneer.
Take your trimmed plywood reinforcers and dry fit them to the desktop so that you can make sure they fit how you expected.
Once you have the correct sizes cut and are sure they will fit properly, we are going to want to use wood glue to affix them to the underside of the desk. Line up your first reinforcement and make sure the factory edge is on the outside of the desk. Apply a generous amount of wood glue to the reinforcer and affix it to the exterior of your desktop with the factory edge lining up with the outside edge of the underside of the desktop. Use your clamps to secure the reinforcer so it lines up perfectly with the outside edge of the desktop. Using 4 of your wood screws and a drill, screw the two pieces of wood together to ensure a good bond between the glue and the wood. The screws should be about 1 foot apart and at least 1" from the edge. You will need to have a damp cloth handy to wipe off excess glue as it escapes from the pressure of the clamps and screws. Wait about 30 minutes for the glue to set well before removing your clamps.
Continue this process for the other long reinforcer and then both of your shorter edge reinforcers. Follow the same instructions, making sure to wipe off any excess glue and wait about 30 minutes in between adding each piece.
Step 4: Cut and affix your interior reinforcers to the bottom of the desk
Now that we have an exterior frame built out, we have to measure and install the interior reinforcements. We basically just need to place two 1x2" reinforcers next to the steel legs and then two long reinforcers perpendicular to that (illustrated below). So, take your steel leg and set it in the corner where it will be installed. Mark on the outside edge of the steel leg so that you know approximately where your reinforcer will need to be. Measure the width of the inside of the reinforcers. Make a note of that number, then do the same on the opposite side. Depending on the accuracy of your cuts, there could be some variation.
Using a mitre saw, cut your first two (shorter) reinforcers to size and following a similar glue and screw routine, affix them to the bottom of the desk. You may want to set your legs in place while you are doing this to make sure there is enough room for the legs to be installed after you get your reinforcers in. Mine fit like a glove. See the illustration in step 5.
For the long reinforcers in the middle, we want to follow a similar process of measuring the distance between the two reinforcers you just installed, cutting to size and then affixing them to the underside of the desktop.
Step 4: Stain and finish the wood
After giving your framed out desk several hours to dry, it is time to add some color and finish to your plywood.
Make sure that you take a piece of fine grit sandpaper and spend some time sanding down the exposed outside edges of the top and and reinforcers. They will likely be very rough and will take a little bit of work to smooth out. Do not ever use a powered sander on plywood. There is simply too much that can go wrong with using a powered sander on something with a very thin veneer. Stick to a little elbow grease and a square of fine grit and you'll be money.
A couple of side notes here: always use a wood "pre-conditioner" when you stain (especially with birch veneer). I found this to be very beneficial when trying to get a consistently aesthetically pleasing stain. Also, always find a scrap of the wood you are about to stain and test the stain on the wood. Different stain reacts to different types of wood very distinctly. That dark stain you are pretty excited about may look absolutely dreadful on the wood you are using for this project. Birch veneer (which is a common plywood veneer) reacts very badly to dark stains in general. If you are wanting a darker shade of stain, be wary, it may not turn out how you are hoping.
For this project, I actually ended up purchasing 4-5 different stains and trying them all out before I decided on the one I ended up using. It's easier to shell out $20 extra dollars to try different stains than try to live with a desk you don't like.
For my project I used Minwax preconditioner, stain and poly to finish. I'm not going to go over much about staining specifics here because there are plenty of tutorials that cover how to properly stain wood out there.
Step 5: Drill in legs
Once your desk has been stained, sealed and has been given plenty of time to dry, it is time to screw your legs in. I used #10 pan head screws and a cordless drill. Place the legs in the corner, set your first screw and then drill them right in until they are solid. Make absolutely sure that your screws are not long enough to puncture the top of the desk.
Step 6: Enjoy your new desk
And there you have it. All told, the desk took me a weekend to complete and cost me about $160 for all my materials. You can make it for much less if you use alternative legs or can salvage legs from an old desk at a garage sale or used remodeling store.
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