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Building a desk. Should be simple?
March 15, 2010 12:16 PM   Subscribe

I want to build a desk into a recessed area along a wall. It seems like a simple procedure, but I have a few questions. DIY-Fites, set me straight!

There is a recessed area along one wall that I would like to turn into a work area. This area measures 24" x 76" and runs all the way up to the ceiling; from the looks of the scarring along the walls, the previous owners used this area for built-in cabinets and tore them out some time in the past.

So I want to use this area as a desk. I had planned to buy a board from Lowes cut to 18" x 76", paint it with a few coats of matte latex paint, and just mount it in the space using a few braces (don't know the name, the metal ones shaped like an L?).

The procedure seems simple, but there are a few issues keeping me from doing it:

1.) What material should I use? Plywood seems like it would warp given how long the piece would be, and it looks like most of the pieces they sell at the hardware store are warped to begin with. I was thinking about MDF, but I've read that it is way too much trouble to work with. Are there other materials I should consider?

2.) I don't think I will have many studs along the walls to anchor the braces into. Should this be a problem? The walls are drywall if that matters. I don't plan on sitting on the desk, but I might build a hutch to rest on it later.

3.) What should I consider when deciding the height of a desk? I'm a taller gentleman at 6' 1" so I was thinking of going a few inches higher than the standard 30" but I'm wondering if that would cause some horrible repetitive strain injury or some such. I mean that has to be the standard desk height for a reason, right?

4.) On close inspection, I noticed that the walls on either side of the recessed area aren't quite square. They are not quite parallel to one another and seem to walk a slightly crooked line. Basically if you put a perfect rectangle into the space, either side would have some small areas that don't touch the crooked wall. I would imagine that this would make sides of this thing look pretty sloppy, so how can I mitigate this?

So what do you think, folks? Am I over-analyzing a simple project, or am I wise to foresee these problems before rushing into it? Has anyone done something similar, or seen a good project site on the web?
posted by Willie0248 to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Number 2 is definitely something you will need to look into more. Drywall is not going to support that much weight.
posted by Think_Long at 12:34 PM on March 15, 2010

I think you're overthinking this particular plate of beans. But, to answer your questions:

1) Neither plywood nor MDF would have much tendency to warp. MDF probably has a slight advantage for your purpose, in that at least one face of it will be smooth, whereas plywood will take sealing and sanding, and finishing to have a smooth finish. Personally, you might look at acrylic or laminate countertop, too, as a possible solution, since that can have, for very little extra expense, a rounded, molded edge (bullnose) included, which will save your thighs and arms from the sharp 90 degree edge of a plain sheet of MDF, every time you bump against it, or rest your arms on the surface. Laminate countertop will generally be deeper than you need, but is is easily ripped to your 18" desired width, usually at little or no extra cost, on the board cutter at the home store where you buy it, as is plywood, or MDF.

2) Forget using shelf brackets, and use common 2 x 4 lumber to make a perimeter attachment cleat for your desktop. Much stronger, and if you miss a stud with an attachment screw for the cleat pieces, you can hit it again, an inch or two to the right or left, until you hit one. You can easily attach your desktop to the cleats from the underside with angled screws of the right length, for an "invisible" finish. Don't just hang the "desk" from dry wall anchors.

3) Making the desk 1" or 2" higher than the norm isn't going to wreck your physique. 30" is a standard desk height, for the same reason size 40 is the "model" men's coat size. Fit yourself, if you aren't a size 40 coat, Bub.

4) Carrying on with the theme of using a molded countertop, rather than a sheet of plywood, or MDF, you'll be able to easily and neatly cover slight cracks along the sides and back edge, from imperfect walls, with color matched molding, or backsplash pieces, common on kitchen countertop installations.
posted by paulsc at 12:48 PM on March 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Unless your building isn't up to code, there are studs every 16". If it's decidedly older (pre-1950 or so), the spacing might be wider. Get a stud finder (they're inexpensive) and find the studs.

I've done exactly what you're talking about. I purchased really large L brackets (more of a triangle) at Home Depot. I think they are 20" deep or so. There are several options. My desk is about 96" long and I have 3 brackets.

If you want to use MDF, go ahead. It's kind of heavy, esp the thicker stuff. You'll need some support along the length of it. A strip of MDF that's about 2-3" wide and the full length, glued and screwed perpendicular to the desk surface, will do the trick. Two are probably better. You'll prob have the same issue, but to a lesser extent, with plywood. I did something similar and put some 'straps' of wood across the width underneath to give me something to screw the brackets to.

When it comes to working with MDF, you need to pre-drill holes for screws. Actually, that advice holds for pretty much any building material.

As for painting, let the people you're getting the paint from know your intended purpose. There's an additive they put in for when you're painting shelves and the like that makes the paint dry out properly and not be sticky.

Usual desk height is about 29-31". Pay attention to clearance under your desk. I don't recall the how much I have but my desk is about 4" thick (I made it lift top) and I have enough clearance. Sit in the chair you're going to use and measure how much space you need above your legs.
posted by jdfan at 12:48 PM on March 15, 2010

You definitely need to anchor this to studs. Instead of angle brackets, run a ledger all the way around the opening, screwing it into every stud, and let the desk surface sit on top of that.

You're right about the odd shape of the opening. Drywall is virtually never flat and square. To get a good fit you'll need to make a template of the area's exact shape, use that template to mark the desktop material, and cut to the line using a jigsaw and/or a router with a flush trimming bit.

I don't think it's warpage you need to be worried about; it's sagging along the front edge under the weight of whatever you put on the desk, or even under the material's own weight. With a span of over six feet, you'll need a vertical strip of solid wood supporting the front edge, i.e. a pine 1 x 2 standing on edge and fastened to the bottom of the desktop material.

If you want a painted surface, then MDF will be the easiest stuff to work with. Don't paint it with latex paint unless you want the stuff you set on your desk to stick.
posted by jon1270 at 12:52 PM on March 15, 2010

your main problem is getting a stiff front lip - that is, the edge of the desk that faces you will span the entire 76 inches. if your braces are strong enough (maybe this?), then the shelf will only cantilever out whatever part is deeper than the 13 inch bracket. these brackets need to be screwed into the studs. another possibility is to run something like a piece of angle iron from side to side in the recess, and use it to support the front lip, and on the other three sides, just a simple board (2x4 or whatever) also screwed into the studs. plywood will be much better than the junk you can find at big box stores, esp if you are going to paint it (I'd rec polyurethane). If you're a renter ad want to do it on the cheap, then use the boards on the back three sides and screw *and* glue a stiffener board (1x2, maybe oak) onto the front edge of the desk top to make it an "L" shape - this will stiffen it considerably, but you are basically building a shelf and according to the "sagulator" ... it will probably droop
good luck
posted by youchirren at 12:52 PM on March 15, 2010

So it will be about 93 x 45 cms long. Warping and bouncing is definitely going to be a problem at that length so you'll need somewhat heavier material, and then keeping it up is going to be an even bigger problem. A few wall braces won't cut it. I know you don't want to sit on it but there's a nonzero chance someone will lean very heavily or climb on it at some point so you really do want it to be solid enough that it won't rip out of the wall.

You'll probably need to look at some kind of cross bracing, for most desks this is a solid piece added across the full width underneath near the back, and possibly legs also. By that time you might as well buy or build an actual desk to slide into the space rather than try to attach a flat surface to the wall, which would also help with the spaces at the sides I think (how will you attach the braces if it's not flush with the wall?). My old desk was about that size, it was a heavy plywood type top (plus bracing on three sides) with four metal legs that screwed one into each corner and was solid as a rock. So you don't need to build much more than you're planning. The addition of a back brace and some vertical support would go a long way to stabilising the whole thing, and possibly give you more choice in building materials.

Desks are a standard height to fit a 'standard' average person. If you're comfortable using one slightly higher then go for it, fine tuning can be done with an adjustable chair anyway.
posted by shelleycat at 12:57 PM on March 15, 2010

Drywall will support a lot of weight if you use the right anchor system. But, check to see how many studs you have generally they'll be 16" to 24" on centre (depending on the age of the building and, local building codes) so there should be a couple along the long length of the wall. If you can use one L bracket for each corner screwed into a stud and, two more for the long length of the back then you could use plywood without it warping because it's being supported. Anything you use is going to need additional support along that long length or it will sag over time once you start using it. Another option is to take strips of wood say 1x2 and mount those to the wall through the studs and, plop the table top on top of that. To hide the sloppy corners I'd get some half round moulding to cover it up.
posted by squeak at 12:59 PM on March 15, 2010

I'd recommend getting a piece of Corian, Formica, or some other countertop surface cut to the shape/size of your desired desk surface. It'll be more expensive, but at the same time will make for a *much* nicer desk surface. Home Depot or Lowes should be able to do this for you. If you want to "do this right," don't use plywood or MDF.

Depending on the depth and strength of your wall, you'll probably need to either add legs or some sort of bracing, especially given that 18"x76" is a fairly long span (and plywood is flexible!). Do not anticipate being able to simply screw the board into the wall!

For a basic level of support, I'd recommend adding a strip of lumber (a 1x4 or a 2x4) around the perimeter of your recess to rest the desk surface on. This way, you will distribute the weight evenly between the few wall studs that you have. Of course, you'll need to be extra-precise with your measurements, as you'll only have an inch of wiggle-room. You'll still probably need one or two cross-braces or legs in the middle as well (consider placing 1 ft from either edge. 6ft can be a long span depending upon the material, but 4ft is manageable even for plywood).

The issue with the slanted walls is a bit more difficult to address. If the gap's small enough, you may be able to just caulk around it, although if it's bigger, you may need to (very carefully) cut your work surface to match the weirdly-shaped space. If that idea scares you, measure from the *narrowest* point when ordering/cutting your work surface, and double-up on the strip of lumber around the perimeter, although you will end up with a gap this way.

A few other pointers:
Paint the wall before you start (it'll be easier), and be prepared to touch it up when you're finished. For extra-credit, consider adding a layer of beadboard to the back wall of the recess for some extra pizzazz.
posted by schmod at 12:59 PM on March 15, 2010

Screws and drywall alone won't be enough to support your new desk, especially if you plan on putting a hutch on top later. Unless you need the full 76" of width underneath, I'd just throw together a couple of 12"- or 18"-wide cabinets or shelving units as your base and anchor your work surface to 'em (plus you won't have even more screw holes in your walls if you ever decide to take out the desk).

As far as surface height goes: I'm 6'4" and, apart from having to stack a whole library of books under a monitor to get it up to eye-level, am comfortable at a standard-height desk.
posted by xbonesgt at 1:00 PM on March 15, 2010

Oh, putting a ledge around to sit the top on is a good idea, that gives the bracing I was taking about and would probably take away the need for legs.

I also meant to mention that my boyfriend made us CD shelves from MDF and he's not at all handy (he did have access to decent tools). So it can't be that difficult to work with. Just find a good hardware store and talk to the guys there about what kind of filler and paint and sandpaper and whatever to use and you should be sweet (actually, talk to them about what material to use for the top full stop).
posted by shelleycat at 1:03 PM on March 15, 2010

I've got a desk built into a wall.

The surface is made of ipe 2x12s that were jointed together. This was done by my GC, and he didn't really have the right tools for the job, so it didn't come out exactly right. If I was doing this again, I'd either have a carpenter with a joiner do it or use a prefab work surface.

The surface is held up on three sides by 2x4 cleats that are screwed into the studs, plus a single leg in the middle made out of a length of 2" pipe with wall-flanges top and bottom. Here's a picture.

The height is totally non-standard--it's very low, but it's a comfortable type-height for my wife and me.
posted by adamrice at 1:09 PM on March 15, 2010

I agree with recommendations above for a continuous ledger. That approach will also make it easier to eliminate gaps and scribe your counter to the non-orthogonal walls. Once you have installed the ledger, I suggest making a simple template like you would use for a kitchen countertop -- basically strips of some scrap plywood or even heavy cardboard that allow you to transfer a full-scale profile of the walls to the desk stock -- trace and cut to the line. (google)
posted by misterbrandt at 1:12 PM on March 15, 2010

I've done this quite a few times.

A really good and inexpensive thing to use for the desk is a flush (flat on both sides), hollow-core interior door blank. They are typically 80" long by various widths, and consist of a wooden frame onto which a wood veneer or hardboard sheet has been attached on both sides.

Just rip the door to the correct length. This will leave the cut end of the door open because the door is hollow in the middle. Pull the veneer off the cut piece to retrieve the frame that you cut off and glue it back into the void. Voila, custom desk.

Attach a cleat along the wall, fasten the door to that, and make front legs out of anything you want.

(A hardboard door will work fine, but if you can swing the price difference, a birch- or lauan-veneer door blank will be more durable and attractive.)
posted by Benny Andajetz at 1:26 PM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with most of this. But I'd use real wood/ real wood that his been engineered together / a chunk of solid wood kitchen countertop. Plywood isn't really chunky enough and MDF is nasty, cheap and slightly toxic. Wood is just...nice.
posted by rhymer at 2:54 PM on March 15, 2010

Yep, I'd nail a 2x4 crossways against the back wall as a ledge for the back of the desk. Then I'd make a square frame from 2x4's that fit into the gap. Then I'd shore up the front corners with 2x4 legs that went flush against the sides of your space so your foot wouldn't hit them. The wooden door as the top is a pretty good idea.

For the gap in back where the wall isn't a flat plane, it might look ok to put in a thin backsplash-like thing of foam padding thicker than the gap that shows when you put the tabletop in. Put it in on the wall above the 2x4 ledge, then squish the table top in. The foam will mold to the varying gap behind there, and shouldn't look puckered up if you don't squish it TOO much.
posted by ctmf at 4:58 PM on March 15, 2010

My method requires one of a rabbeting plane/dado head in either radial arm or table saw/router. I'd use 3/4" A/B or B/B plywood good side down. I'd run a strip of 1X3 around the three walls an 7/8" below the height you want you finished desk top at using just two screws per piece at this time. Then I'd take a good 2X4 (you can use a fancy wood here if you'd like, I'd probably settle on a clearish SPF 2X4) and put a 3/4 X 3/4 inch rabbet in the back top corner. Laying the 2X4 with the 3.5" side vertical I'd flush the bottom of the rabbet with the 1X4s on either side and screw the 2X4 to the 1X3s. A corner glue block would add more strength I'd then cut the plywood to fit on top of the 1X4s and glue&screw it to the 1X4s. once the glue dried I'd remove the desk top from the walls and using contact cement lay down a smooth arbrite/formica in my choice of colour. Once the glue has set I'd use flush bit in my router to trim the arbrite to the desk top. I'd then use either a 1/2" round over or ogee bit to detail the top front edge. You may need to sand paper the edges as the router can leave the top edge especially very sharp. I'd then remount the desk top to the walls.

Viola: Custom desk fit to your hole in exactly the colour you want. A 2X4 on edge over 76" will easily support several hundred pounds with minimal deflection. If you find you are loading it more than that than a single centre leg brace will quadruple it's capacity. If you have trouble fitting the plywood to your wall because the wall is wavy cut it a touch undersize and hide the gap with 3" or taller base board.

PS: you want to use B/B plywood so the bottom doesn't give your knees splinters.

jdfan writes "Unless your building isn't up to code, there are studs every 16'."

Canadian code allows/encourages 24" centres to increase r-values and reduce lumber usage.
posted by Mitheral at 6:08 PM on March 15, 2010

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