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Plywood desktop cheap, easy to modify

Tim Carter

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. I have limited skills and tools. Can I do this for less than $100? If you can offer a solution, I’d be most grateful. – Travis S., Morgan Hill, Calif.

DEAR TRAVIS: I’ve got great news for you. You can build these desktops in no time at all, and I can bring them in under budget as long as you need no more than 16 feet of total length for both desktops. Believe me, 16 feet of desktop is quite a bit.

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.

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 blocking under the supports as your young children grow. Just keep that in mind.

I’ve had huge success in the past by using 4-by-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.

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, once you make a trip to the lumberyard, it may become your favorite place to get products!

The A surface of the plywood will look almost like a gorgeous piece of furniture, with no knots or major defects. The C surface, which will form the underside of your desktop, will have some shallow knotholes and other defects.

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 for a craft or hobby workspace, in my opinion, because you can put 8-inch-wide shelves along the back edge of the desktop for supplies and still have abundant workspace for most projects.

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.

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.

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 1/4-inch finish nails to attach this strip of wood to the plywood edge.

Once you have the desktop built and the wood strip on the edges, then you just need to sand it with medium-grit sandpaper and finish it. 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, you should 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.

When you 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 be.

You’ll be stunned 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; 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.

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 15 years and it looks like the day I built it. You can get other finish-grade plywood that has hardwood veneer if you desire a very upscale look. 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.

Carter’s columns are archived at www.AsktheBuilder.com. You can also watch hundreds of videos, download Quick Start Guides and more, all for free.
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