Custom desk required - my first woodworking project?

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Forum topic by Luminareo posted 10-29-2012 06:28 PM 4818 views 0 times favorited 23 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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3 posts in 2213 days

10-29-2012 06:28 PM

Topic tags/keywords: beginner joining biscuit joiner

I don’t have much space in my new room, so I am trying to make sure all of my furniture is multi-functional. Rather than choose between my computer setup and my digital piano, I would like to incorporate them into the same deskspace. I think that having a desktop right above my piano would make maximum use of my space. The keys of the piano would sit just below, and just in front of the front edge of the desktop. I have added an extremely crude visual model of what it would look like, below.

Crude, but it should communicate the basic idea. The piano is suspended across two surfaces at either side, while the desktop is placed right above. The purple arrow represents the height of the structure the piano will rest on, which I estimate to be 25”. The red arrow represents the vertical space that the piano will occupy, which is a 5” gap between the higher and lower surface. The blue arrow represents the final height of the desktop, at around 30”.

This was not represented in the sketch, but I would like the piano to slide in and out from under the desktop. This way, when I am not using the piano, I could slide it into relative safety under the desk, and pull myself closer to my computer. That would seat me somewhat between the two lower surfaces, as opposed to just in front of them. I have not worked out exactly how this “rolling mechanism” will work. Any ideas? The piano is not very heavy, only about 20 pounds. I already decided against a “keyboard drawer” similar to those that you see on ready-to-assemble furniture. While they would hold the weight, they never “lock in place” and are not stable enough for serious piano.

That should describe what I would like the desk to be like. My question to you is this. What methods, tools and materials would best produce this desk for a beginner? My requirement is functionality, not aesthetics. I’m not looking to create a multi-generational heirloom, just something that will put up with me for a few years while I’m in University. I have no tools, limited workspace, and only simple experience (a few days handy work every once in a while, shop class in school). I hope to find some sort of service for the sawing; I think Home Depot offers table saw cuts. I am willing to buy a small assortment of tools and equipment.

Which tools I purchase depends on which joinery method would be best. To save on equipment costs, I would like to limit myself to one joinery method. I’ve heard good things and bad things about biscuit joining, but it’s the main method I’m looking at right now. Claimed to be fast, easy, and reasonably strong. Needs only one power tool. Is it possible to build a reasonably sturdy desk using just this method? I have also looked into dowel joining. It seems to require more time and precision, with results similar to biscuits. On the upside, a drill is a multi-use tool, and I’m sure it would make this project easier in more ways than a biscuit joiner. Any other beginner joining methods I should check out?

I’d like to use plywood and basic stock timber for this project. Would small (2”x 2”)square posts hold up a desk such as this? How thick should the timbers be? Is plywood appropriate for a functional tabletop? An additional concern is the “apron” on the tabletop. I want the desktop to be as close to the top of the piano as possible. That makes it difficult to find room for an apron. Are there other ways to square/support the table? Is an apron necessary?

In the interest of… reality, I would like to compose a list of tools and materials I will need for this project. Please verify that this is realistic.

Biscuit Joiner / Drill & Dowel Jig
Biscuits / Dowels
Wood Glue
Clamps (not sure how many…)
Plywood (tabletops, modesty panels, drawer fronts)
Timber Posts (legs, frames, etc.)
Stain / Paint
Drawer Handles (maybe)
Drawer Slides (maybe)

If I want any sort of shelving, do I need a router for dadoes? Or are biscuits ok for shelves?
Do I need some sort of saw, or is it realistic to get all the cuts done at point of purchase?
Is this too big a project for a beginner?
Do I need a planer?

Any tips before I nail down a more specific design? I will soak up your information and advice like a sponge. If you have read to this point, I’m betting you have some wisdom to impart. Please let me know! Thanks for your time.

23 replies so far

View Gregn's profile


1642 posts in 3161 days

#1 posted 10-29-2012 06:44 PM

From what I see you plan for the computer keyboard to be on top of the desk. So I would make the drawer cabinets far enough apart for the piano to fit between and put a couple of full extension drawer glides to slide in and out. This wouldn’t change your design.

-- I don't make mistakes, I have great learning lessons, Greg

View Mosquito's profile


9500 posts in 2469 days

#2 posted 10-29-2012 06:50 PM

On the upside, a drill is a multi-use tool
I was going to suggest dowels after you first mentioned biscuits, just because a drill is cheaper, and has more uses than a biscuit joiner.

I would suggest dowels over biscuits, if you’re unsure of whether or not you’d continue woodworking, or if you’re going to be using biscuits in the future or not. I’ve got a biscuit joiner, and I haven’t used it a whole lot. I use biscuits for reinforcement when I’m edge gluing boards to make a table top or panel, and that’s about it.

With out a specific design in mind, a materials list would be difficult to do, but if you want the area between piano and desktop to be 5”, a standard construction 2×6 is 5.5” wide, and 1.5” thick. It would be enough to support the weight of the top, as long as you don’t have enough weight on the top to cause the plywood to sag (I would assume you’d want to use 3/4” for that) With the extra 1/2” you could probably make a shelf with drawer slides between the 2×6 sides if you went that route.

Again, depending on size and weight needs, dowels for shelves should be enough. Otherwise, you could mark and drill small holes for shelf pins/supports as well.

Any chance that the University has any shops that you might be able to use/solicit help from? I know the University I went to had a wood shop. I can’t speak to whether or not it would be realistic to have the cuts done at the point of purchase or not, as that’s not a service I’ve ever used before. I wouldn’t think they’d be too keen on making too many measurements/cuts, though, but again I don’t know.

Something else you could do, if you’re looking to save on effort/complexity of project, could be to buy two filing cabinets, or separate set of drawers if you can find the right height, and then just build a top that spans the two

-- Mos - Twin Cities, MN - -

View casual1carpenter's profile


354 posts in 2653 days

#3 posted 10-29-2012 08:51 PM

Luminareo, as a piano player I wonder if you considered that the optimal piano keyboard height is likely the optimal computer keyboard height also. With that thought in mind, you might want the ‘keyboard drawer’ deep enough to allow the active keyboard to be shifted back to front. You would likely want a way to lock the ‘keyboard drawer’ at a usable partial extension, I would think you want it to remain in one place when your banging on your keys.
I realize you are new here. There is a currently active and rather interesting thread where doweling comes up and some good wood workers express their difficulty of execution. Myself, I use a rather expensive dowel jig which gives me good results but is likely cost prohibitive in your case.
I have owned a biscuit joiner for years and consider it a boat anchor. I never got the results I wanted with biscuits, but that’s just my experience.
You might want to do a bit of research on the kreg jig system, or the Kreg Jig® Mini. I have a kreg jig system and do use it where I must because of design issues. requires drill.
What you have in mind is a doable project but will require a tooling expense if you cannot gain the use of tools elsewhere.

View David Craig's profile

David Craig

2137 posts in 3286 days

#4 posted 10-29-2012 10:05 PM

As casualcarpenter already mentioned, do keep in mind ergonomics when you design this project. The increased height of the keyboard will affect the height of items on top. That few inches might not seem like much, but can have a large impact on your physical comfort under heavy use. Before laying out your cutting list, I would definitely spend a little time experimenting with a comfortable working height for all your components to make sure your final design meets your needs. Considering the scope, it would be a real shame to have a handsome piece that you absolutely hate to sit at.

-- There is little that is simple when it comes to making a simple box.

View oldnovice's profile


7274 posts in 3545 days

#5 posted 10-30-2012 12:39 AM

Take from someone who has has CDT, cumulative trauma disorder … also goes by other acronyms, pay close attention to ergonomics. Carpal tunnel syndrome hurts, and neck/shoulder problems are not far behind!

Sitting comfortably when using the keyboard or the computer is extremely important. When I was working I declined any ergo checks but after my issues with CDT, the ergonomics team made sure that everything was set up properly at my work station PC to reduce the possibility of a relapse.

I had carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists! During the day it really didn’t bother me but trying to sleep was next to impossible. After nerve shocks, physical therapy, and cortisone injections it finaly got relief!

-- "I never met a board I didn't like!"

View Woodknack's profile


12402 posts in 2557 days

#6 posted 10-30-2012 02:14 AM

You can build a suitable desk with either a biscuit joiner, dowels or Kreg Jig but you have to match tools and materials. For example, any of them will work with plywood or solid wood; but screws do not hold well in particleboard or mdf. I bring up particleboard because if it were me, I would consider using 1” particleboard for the top instead of 3/4” plywood. Why? Because particleboard is cheaper, lighter, easier to work and more rigid (it’s what preformed kitchen countertops are made from). In fact, I would consider using a preformed countertop as they are inexpensive, rigid, come in a variety of lengths, have a nice finished top and are sometimes used to build cubicle desks.

Biscuit joiners are great tools but I feel they were oversold some years back. Many people bought them who didn’t really need them (me included). A good one will cost ~$200 and a cheap one will aggravate you to death or worse, be useless. You can build shelves with a biscuit joiner and it is a very good tool for working with particleboard but I wouldn’t buy one unless you have other projects on which to use it.

Dowels are supposedly stronger and I can believe it but I’ve never used them. From other discussions I gather they can be difficult to align properly without a somewhat expensive jig.

Kreg Jigs are simple, quick and have a multitude of uses. After buying one I rarely use my biscuit joiner. I don’t know that I would rely on them to hold a desk together though.

I think you need a more specific plan/drawing before recommending one or the other of the above.

Tools you’re sure to need:
Wood Glue
Saw (Not a jig saw. I’ve never built a project yet where I didn’t need a saw)
Drill (if you buy corded, go ahead and buy a hammer drill. They only cost a few dollars more and sometime down the road you’ll need it for something. They can be switched between regular and hammer)
Measuring tape/yardstick/ruler

Maybe or Probably
Clamps (depends on the design, screws can often be used instead)
Sandpaper (probably)
Screws (I like self tapping deck screws. Drywall screws will work but are brittle and they do snap off)

-- Rick M,

View mIps's profile


199 posts in 2232 days

#7 posted 10-30-2012 04:28 AM

I will give my opinions as follows assuming cost is a concern. I second what wormil said. A “previously owned” counter top makes for a fantastic desk surface. Often you can find these free or cheap. Cut to size with a circular saw. For your drawer stacks, have you considered getting a couple of Ikea or similar narrow drawer stacks or small dressers? No major tools required. For your floating shelf, I can readily think of 3 options. Option1: A 2nd hand desk top cut to the size you want with a circular saw. Option 2: A shelf or side from a bargain set of shelves cut to size with circular saw. Option 3: I know Fred Meyer had a “free flaoting: shelf that could mount to a wall with screws.

Possible tools: Circular saw Pencil Square Straightedge Drill Screws

-- Be honest, honorable, kind, work hard, and generally be awesome.

View Luminareo's profile


3 posts in 2213 days

#8 posted 10-30-2012 04:44 AM

Wow, what an incredible response! I am impressed.

It looks like the next step for me would be to come up with a more specific design. With a little work in SketchUp over the next week, I’m sure I can put something together. Before I start the model, I need to confirm the dimensions of the materials I will use. I intend to use 2×2s for the majority of the framing, because I would like square posts. Pine probably. I assume that is strong enough for a desk, given a decent design? The desktops will likely be plywood, 3/4” seems to be the standard. Will that suffice?

”[...]as a piano player I wonder if you considered that the optimal piano keyboard height is likely the optimal computer keyboard height also.”

This is the heart of my project. The standard height of the keys of a grand piano is between 28” and 29”. That’s also right where most computer keyboards like to sit. Space constraints are asking me to interpolate two different types of keyboards. Since I can’t put my computer keyboard right on top of my piano keys, I will do the next best thing, and build a desktop right above my piano. That is what I was hoping to illustrate above.

I do intend to have the piano roll in and out from under the desktop. This is why the lower surfaces are longer than appears necessary. The piano itself is 11” deep from front to back. The “shelf space” I have allotted for it, marked with a green arrow, is 20” deep. 11” of that is behind the desktop, so the piano can be fully under the desk when required. The space that extends in front of the desktop allows me to pull the keyboard out most of the way; enough for me to access all of the settings buttons, and to play the keys comfortably.

”I would make the drawer cabinets far enough apart for the piano to fit between and put a couple of full extension drawer glides to slide in and out.”
I decided against using drawer glides because they are not stable enough. Are there drawer glides that lock into place at specific intervals? I would be very interested in that. I require a steady surface for piano.

”Biscuits vs. Dowels vs. Kreg”
So; biscuits don’t get much love here? That was not what I expected, but it is useful information. Dowels look like the way to go. I trust that proper alignment using dowels is not impossible for a beginner? I’ll do some research on doweling jigs and drills.

”Any chance that the University has any shops that you might be able to use/solicit help from?”
I could likely find somewhere else in the community to get my wood cut, University or otherwise. I thought of Home Depot because I got some hardboard cut there for an art project one time. I don’t know if they were exact cuts, however…
That was my first thought, actually. It’s still an option I am considering. The trouble there is to find a chest of drawers with the right height, and a minimum depth of 20”. That has been more difficult than I thought it would be. It’s also true that filing cabinets and such are not cheap; perhaps even more expensive than buying tools and materials for a custom job.

”Something else you could do, if you’re looking to save on effort/complexity of project, could be to buy two filing cabinets, or separate set of drawers if you can find the right height, and then just build a top that spans the two.”

”[...]do keep in mind ergonomics when you design this project.”
Playing the piano, many people tend to get some experience with ergonomics. Most modern piano courses teach that the position of your desktop relative to your seat is more important than the distance from your desk to the floor. To this end, I plan to use a height-adjustable chair, that will move up and down depending on how high the desktop is, or what I’m doing.
I do plan to do a sort of “dry fit” at every chance I get, just to see how things work out. I see this as a way to compensate for my lack of experience.

Again, thank you for all the advice! Incredible.

View Woodknack's profile


12402 posts in 2557 days

#9 posted 10-30-2012 08:27 AM

I second what wormil said. A “previously owned” counter top makes for a fantastic desk surface.

Well actually I wrote “preformed” but yeah, I’ve pulled several out of dumpsters that looked brand new.

Luminareo, if you use plywood I would recommend a hardwood plywood as the surface will be much nicer to look at and use; unless you plan on covering it with something. I would also recommend a hardwood edging and roundover profile on it.

-- Rick M,

View casual1carpenter's profile


354 posts in 2653 days

#10 posted 10-30-2012 11:43 AM

Luminareo, I gave this a thought as Sandy moved through, a welcome distraction I must say. In south eastern PA I was quite close to the center of the storm path. My thoughts and prayers go out to those affected some of whom may have a long road of recovery ahead. At any rate, I thought perhaps 2 keyboard drawers, somewhat half depth of 24” x 63=>64” desktop. The upper piano area cut similar to drawn to allow leg room with the lower allowing for computer keyboard and mouse / mouse pad height.

I would not rule out drawer glides or other drawer slide options, but I would consider well placed holes vertical through the keyboard drawers where a sliding pin could be set into a matched receptor hole. Hope that makes sense, it has been a long night.

View Swyftfeet's profile


170 posts in 2349 days

#11 posted 10-30-2012 06:39 PM

I’m thinking back to college days, money and ladies, and any method to get them, a surplus of both is ideal. I’m reckon we should get this going with the cheapest most functional solution possible.

Were you given a desk in your room? If not, buying one is gonna be cheaper no matter what than building without what might be a steeper commitment in tools.

to build your shelf:

1 piece of 3/4” Project plywood ripped to length of Piano Keyboard + 3 or 4”, width +1”
3 pieces of clean pine on edge must be taller than keyboard by an inch or so. Cut to length so that they form 3 sides of a box under the Project ply.

When you want to play move your comp keyboard and mouse out of the way, and slide your piano keyboard out.

Boom Bam done.

Some Spray poly, some sand paper, a couple screws all materials about $40-60, no drill, no biscut jointer, no dowel jig.

Spend it on beer and ladies.

If the heights aren’t perfect, that’s why your buying a height adjustable chair.

-- Brian

View Swyftfeet's profile


170 posts in 2349 days

#12 posted 10-30-2012 06:49 PM

On second thought pre-drilling the screw holes will prevent the pine and Ply from splitting. So the cheapest drill you can find, might not be a bad idea.

You could get away with getting the kind of screw driver that takes multiple tips, then buy one of the drill bits that has the hex adapter on the back and just twist it like your trying to start a fire.

Laugh all you want but it would work.

-- Brian

View Mosquito's profile


9500 posts in 2469 days

#13 posted 10-30-2012 06:53 PM

It’s not that biscuits don’t get any love, I like them for what they do, but in your situation, they’re not idea (as it’s a relatively expensive one-use tool)

-- Mos - Twin Cities, MN - -

View GregD's profile


788 posts in 3313 days

#14 posted 10-30-2012 07:15 PM

My vote would be for pocket hole / screw joinery rather than dowels. The expensive Kreg jig is real nice, but I think Home Depot sells a General brand jig for a much lower cost.

I think the dual-purpose desk idea is going to be relatively complicated and will work poorly. It will be very difficult to get everything at the best height, which is essential for long-term comfort. Instead I recommend that you go for a conventional computer desk and a conventional X stand for the keyboard/piano. Set up the piano (in front of the desk, I suppose) when you want to play, and put it away after – it only takes a minute to stash away the keyboard and X stand.

-- Greg D.

View derosa's profile


1577 posts in 3013 days

#15 posted 10-30-2012 07:35 PM

At the end of the day brian has the best solution. You do not want the boards for a full project cut at hd, it just doesn’t work. First no employee will sit there and cut each board, they will do a few boards and if you haven’t found someone who is too distracted they’ll even make a few of them the same length but not enought to do a full bench. Going back multiple times will get what you want but not the accuracy you need.

Building a desk like that will be an exercise in frustration if you lack both the tools and the experience. Build the simple idea and then see if the college has shop or art classes and turn the desk into a project.

-- --Rev. Russ in NY-- A posse ad esse

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