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Writing Desk in a Weekend

 

As we geared up for the new school year, my wife and I realized that we really needed another writing desk for one of children to use. Given that the school year had already started, I saw this a challenge to build a project very quickly!!

I went down to my shop and started poking around and found this partial sheet of oak veneered plywood. This was a leftover from building the Office Side Table project from late last year. This plywood had a simply gorgeous piece of clear straight-grained oak veneer on it, and so I had put it aside to save for a deserving project.

Given that this was going to be a quick project, I decided that I was going to keep all the construction techniques simple: A plywood top, some hardwood trim, and quick and easy pocket-hole joinery.

(But read on and you'll see that things change...)

I started with some online searches for inspiration. I was thinking that this would be a fairly minimalist project, given that I wanted it to be built quickly, so I browsed for Mid Century Modern desks as well as Shaker desks, and other similar furniture. Very quickly I came across a few designs that I really quite liked, and I started doodling some rough sketches on paper, putting together the features that I liked, adding my own touches, and adjusting it to be the size that we needed.

My next stop was the computer, where I drew up this design in sketchup. Here are a few features that I want to highlight.

First, this desk was "just" going to have a plywood top. But I didn't want it to look like that. So I got the idea to add some "fake" breadboard ends to the top of the desk, to give it the look of a solid-wood farmhouse tabletop.

Next, I plan to taper the legs, so they don't just look square and blocky. Note that the taper will begin below the lower stretchers. Also, a sort of arched cutout in the front will both add some clearance as well as a nice decorative touch.

Finally, I would like to add one or two drawers. However, that would complicate things, and more importantly, slow me down a fair bit. So instead, I resolved to not use any glue when attaching that front rail. It would only be held in place by hidden pocket-hole screws. In that way, I would have the option of returning to this project in the future to remove the front rail and modify it to add one or two drawers.

 

Here below are two images with all of the measurements included, in case you would like to know those details

I cross-cut the panel to size -- leaving room for the faux breadboard ends that I would be adding later...

Then I used glue and pins to attach some thin oak trim to the sides. I later filled the pin holes with sawdust and glue, which worked pretty well. Some of the pins are still visible (fortunately, on the back side of the desk) but most of the holes basically disappeared.

Here is a test fit of one of the breadboard ends. It is of course impossible to hide this joint, given that the wood grain meets at a perpendicular angle. Instead I used a block plane to lightly chamfer the two edges where they meet, creating a shadow line.

(Next two photos) I used dowels for attaching the fake breadboard ends to the plywood top. I used six, but in hindsight I wish I'd used a few more, just in case someone leans heavily on the end of the desk.

I wanted 2" wide legs, so I glued up some boards to make them thicker. I show this at this step of the process, but this was actually the first thing I did. Once I had a rough idea of what I was building, I glued these blanks up and set them aside to dry. The hope was that they would be dry by the time I was ready to use them, and I wouldn't have to wait.

This screen shot is also a bit of a joke pose, showing how I have basically used every one of my larger parallel clamps, and all I have to show for it, are the blanks for four desk legs. NO ONE has enough clamps in their shop!!!

The legs blanks were then jointed, and ripped into four pieces, and planed to final 2" thickness. I then selected how I wanted the legs to be oriented for the best visual impact. I did not really highlight this in the video, but laying out your stock is always one of the most important steps in a project.

Here I am next marking the bottom of the legs for the taper. I want the lower part of the legs to taper (on the two inside faces only) down to an inch and a quarter. You could then use a tapering jig, but I typicaly freehand those cuts on my large bandsaw, and then sand and plane them to finish them off.

Here is my first dry-fit of the desk. It is of course upside-down, as it is hard to dryfit a desk or table right-side up when you are using pocket-hole joinery like I am. The front rail is fitted into place, but has not yet had the curve made.

Sanding the curve on the front rail

 

I started this build on a Saturday evening, and continued it the following Sunday afternoon. Partway through the afternoon I realized that I did not have enough pocket hole screws to build this project. In fact, I had maybe half of what I needed. Note that the legs were 2" thick and the rails were 1" thick, so I needed the longer 1-1/2" pocket hole screws. So I had to switch to using dowel joiner on the end assemblies. This slowed me down a little bit, but I was actually happy with this, since I like the strength of dowels and that the joinery is all hidden.

Attaching the rear crosspieces with pocket hole screws. I also used pocket hole screws up through the top rails to attach the top to the legs. (Visible in the next photo) With five screws holding the rail to the leg, this is really quite a solid joint.

Also, remember that I did not use any glue on these joints at all. This allows me to potentially come back and modify the desk to add drawers. It also allows the desk to be disassembled to pack flat, though I can't really forsee that happening.

Using the acetone-toner-transfer method to label the piece. I have lousy handwriting, so I really like being able to neatly date and label my pieces.

 

The next two photos show the application of finish. I used water-based polyurethane on this project. I brushed on 3-4 coats. After the first coat the grain was raised a lot, so I lightly sanded with some worn 150 grit sandpaper. After the subsequent coats I used a quick and light pass with 400 grit.

I ended up using six coats of polyurethane on the top. I wanted a solid finish there, as a desk has to endure some hard use. The last two coats were wiped on with a rag, which gave a smoother finish than with the foam brush.

With polyurethane projects, I usually will then dribble some water on the top (as I am doing here) and then buff it with a 3M pad. This pad is equivalent to #0000 steel wool, but of course you should never use steel wool on a project with waterbased finish on it. The water helps lubricate the pad and it gives just a nice final buff/polish to the polyurethane.

After that you need to be patient. This was a quick project, yes, but I still left it in the shop for a full 3 days after the final coat, to allow the finish to cure and harden fully.

And here it is, installed upstairs and ready for use.

To sum up... I started designing this at about 4pm on a Saturday evening. I continued until about 10pm that night, and then worked another 4-5hrs the following afternoon. By that point the project was fully built. So in total it took about 8-10 hrs to build this desk. So in a sense, it is a one day project. However, the finishing process potentially adds another 2-3 days, depending on the finish you use and the time you have available. I would typically apply a coat of finish in the morning before going off to my day job. Then in the evening I could sand, clean of the dust, and then apply another coat. And after all of that, came the 3 days of curing. So it was the following Saturday that I brought the piece out of my shop ready to be used.

Here are some more photos...

(Here the left you can maybe see the pocket holes in the rear crosspiece. All the other ones are up in the top rails, completely hidden from view.)

 

Some of the Tools/Supplies Used In This Project: (Affiliate Links)

 

Thanks for reading!

See Also:


Shaker-style Stepstool


Craft Tabletop Build


Office Side Table


Harvest Table (Part 1)