Off-Nominal Studio West – A Renovation Story (Part 5)

January 29, 2019

January ended up being a pretty productive month for the renovation of the Off-Nominal studio. I’m excited to share with you today the centrepiece of the entire process – the studio desk.

As you may have noticed, there is a lot of room for desk space in the new studio. This was the wall it’s going up against.

This is the east-facing wall. The studio desk will go along this wall, and the monitor setup in the right-hand corner. The room has a beautiful deep window working for it here, and a nice baseboard heater to warm my feet in the cold Canadian winter.

Shopping for Desks

My entire adult life I have dreamed of getting a huge desk. I’m the kind of creative that enjoys splaying everything out in front of me and having quick access to everything I need in my process. I’ve imagined a huge space for doing drawings or visual drafts, creating LEGO sets, building model rockets or even just writing with a bunch of reference material around me.

Never have I actually had that chance – this wall is 12 feet wide and the room is dedicated to a workspace. This was it!

I knew I wanted a natural wood look to fit with the modern style I was going for. It would be something warm and living to contrast the monochromatic tech look of the rest of the room. So I started by checking for pre-made desks that I could just buy at Ikea or something. Most of the common stuff for sale is small, like this:

A simple desk.

I had the option of putting two of them next to each other but something didn’t seem right. But, I could never find a leg situation I liked, and I didn’t want a seam in the middle. I wanted something bigger and I wanted it to be one piece.

Ikea also sells some butcher block countertops that could be repurposed as a desk. This one was something I wrestled with for a long time:

A butcher block countertop.

It’s 98 inches long and would require custom built cabinets or legs underneath it. It was definitely better than some of the pre-built stuff I was looking at, but I had another problem. It turns out 98 inches, a little over 8 feet or about 2.5 metres, was too short still. Because of the layout of the electrical outlets, the baseboard heater, and the placement of a future bar fridge, I either had to go shorter (which I didn’t want to compromise on) or longer (which put it out of the range of the countertops available). I was stuck!

Becoming a Carpenter

Finally, I drew up some courage and started researching the process of building my own desk. I live in British Columbia – good lumber is not hard to come by. What would I need to learn in order to build my own? Turns out it wasn’t as daunting as I expected. After a few YouTube videos, some sketches, and some consulting with my wife (who is fearless when it comes to home reno projects), we decided to go for it.

We cleaned the place out. You might say the wood was very poplar.

We started with our wood choices. At our local Home Depot there were a few to choose from. I liked the quality of Maple, but we thought it was a bit too red. And the Pine was cheap, but I’ve worked with it before and never liked the stuff for anything but crafting. With big pieces there is a lot of warping.

We settled on Poplar, which had some pretty straight, good-looking boards, had a nice cool tone to it, and was within our budget.

Starting with the Legs

The desk was going to have two waterfall-style legs, which is to say the same design used on the top it just tilted 90 degrees to form a leg, as if the surface flows over a cliff. The basic idea is to lay the planks side by side and join them with pocket holes. To do this, we used a jig made by Kreg that is pretty popular.

Drilling a hole with the Kreg jig

The little device clamps to the wood, and then you use a supplied drill bit to hollow out an angled pocket hole.

A pocket hole.

Then you just screw it together.

*drill sounds*

And voilà, a few holes down the line you’ve joined two planks together. All in, the desk was going to be six planks deep (around 30 inches).

Here’s a shot of the progress for the leg pieces.

Once the planks were assembled, I got to use a new power tool, my circular saw. This was to cut the long board in half to make the two legs.

Shout-out to the Interplanetary Podcast!

I actually had a little trouble here. The first couple cuts I made were incredibly crooked. I thought at first I was using the tool wrong and did some training on YouTube. But I knew what I was doing – I had a clamped down guide and was standing and holding everything right.

Finally I figured it out – turns out I had made a rookie mistake in just using the blade that came with the tool. It was entry level, and not straight at all. A quick trip to the hardware store and I had a better quality finishing blade that made a nice clean cut.

Once I had the legs separated, I wanted to reinforce them and straighten them with some cross-beams. The pocket hole technique tends to cause “cupping” where the wood curls inward with the angle of the screw. Some perpendicular pieces would cure it.

A fully-constructed waterfall leg.

And just like that, I had two legs done!

Ten feet or Bust

Finally it was on to the desktop itself. The length would end up just shy of 10 feet, which created the logistical challenge of putting it together with boards that were 6 or 8 feet long. There would be seams not only length-wise, but width-wise as well. So I had to plan it out on paper, cut the pieces to their appropriate size, then lay them out to make sure I hadn’t goofed up.

We decided to connect the planks together end to end first before assembling them side by side, which gave us something like this:

We used the same pocket holes to connect the planks end to end.

Then it was back to work creating pocket holes with the jig, and one by one adding on planks to the desk. We had to get some pretty big clamps to accommodate the growing width.

Final assembly shown below. You can really see the warp in the piece because of how long it is and how the pocket holes aren’t entirely strong enough. Some of the seams were not great, but they were workable. Overall we were pretty happy with the result considering this was our first really big carpentry project.

We added a few cross-wise supports on this one too, though some of them had to be temporary and would be replaced by the legs or mounting hardware.

Finally – we added some nice thick trim to the desk, both on the leg fronts and the two edges of the tabletop that will not abut a wall. This creates the illusion that the desk is thicker and heavier than it actually is.

And here’s the finished desktop, without legs, but otherwise fully assembled. It is really starting to look like a real product now!

Finish Him

With the pieces assembled, it was time to work on the finishing. First up, was a tremendous amount of sanding, which was made easier thanks to the fancy new orbital sander we bought. Oh, and we had to take all the UPC stickers off the wood first!

We did three passes of sanding. The first was a heavy grit meant to take down the rough edges of the seams. Then a medium grit to really smooth out the roughness of the wood. Finally, a high grit finishing pass to make it smooth to the touch.

With the sanding done, we needed to treat it. We looked at a lot of different finishes. You can use polyurethane to add a protective coating, but this makes it kind of shiny and makes it difficult to touch up later. The other option was an oil, which would seal it, add some colour (or at least bring out the grain), and protect it. The nice thing about oil is that if there is damage later, you can just spot fix it with the same stuff without tearing apart the whole area.

I did some research on oils and after looking at the options and how poplar reacted, we settled on Tung Oil. One can was all we needed, and it just goes on with a brush. After 15 minutes of soaking in, you wipe it off and wait 24 hours. I think we did about 4 coats (some of the areas were very thirsty).

Here’s a look at the desk with one or two coats done.

You can really see how the oil brings out the grain and gives it some warmth.

Assembly, Test, and Launch Operations

At last, after two months of occupying my garage, it was time to come upstairs and settle in to the new studio. In the meantime we had finished the painting, and new baseboards, so it was ready to receive it’s permanent occupant.

After hauling it up two flights of stairs (exciting), we laid it on the floor to assemble it. The far left side was going to have both legs, forming a sort of box/cage to house a mini-fridge.

This is the desk face down. The cross beams on the floor are just for lining up the connections. They will eventually move to the back for stability.

After some fun finagling it together, we completed the box structure.

Then we lifted it up! There was a fun challenge of keeping it upright while we built in the support brackets. We needed something to hold the weight, but be adjustable so we could level the desk to find out where the supports had to be positioned on the wall. The perfect tool? My camera tripod, seen below.

To support the massive span, I started with an end-brace mounted into the studs on the wall.

The end-brace also serves as a crossbeam support to straight the cupping in the wood (hence the six pocket holes straight up). You can also see my blue tape marking studs.

Then across the main span, two 20 inch wall brackets (the biggest I could find). They don’t cover the entire 30 inches of desk, but they cover most of it.

The desk is pretty stable, but it is definitely operating near the edge of the envelope. When I lean on it with my elbows, I can hear the drywall creak a little. But I don’t care, ’cause the desk is in, the desk is up. I was so excited and impatient that I ended up building my setup way sooner than was practical. Here is the desk just prior to the recording of Off-Nominal 16. It felt really good to get the microphone back up!

Needs fewer dongles.

How’s this for a mousepad?

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