How to Build a Cheap Desktop
"The first thing to realize when you're building a desk to work at is the height above the finished floor."
How To Build A Cheap Desk Checklist
- Use Fir Plywood
- 24-inch width is ideal
- WATCH video below for tips
- Coat with water-based urethane
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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, affordability, 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.
How Long Does it Take to Build a Cheap Desk?
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 a desktop is quite a bit.
How High Above the Floor Should the Desk Be?
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.
How High Should A Child's Desk Be?
A child's desk, depending on their age, can be anywhere from 18 to 25 inches high. As the child grows, so must the height of the desk.
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 blocks under the supports as your young children grow. Just keep that in mind.
What is the Cheapest Desk Material?
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.
What is the Best Desk Plywood?
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!
What Does the "A" Mean in the Plywood Name?
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.
How Deep Should the Desk Be?
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 an 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.
What Tools are Required to Make the Cheap Desk?
You only need a circular saw to make the needed cuts in the plywood.
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.
How Do You Plan Cuts for Minimal Waste?
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.
How Do You Trim the 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.
Do You Need to Sand the Plywood?
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.
What Stain & Urethane Should You Use?
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.
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.
How Long Do I Wait After the Urethane is Applied?
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.
Should I Buy Flat Sheets of Plywood?
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.
How Strong is the Plywood?
You'll be stunned by 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.
How Long Will the Plywood Desk Last?
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.
Should I Get Birch Plywood?
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!
Brandi asked a similar question. Read her email in my Fast Desktop column.