I needed a desk. So I built one.

I needed a desk.

During my college years I had been using fold-up rectangular tables, which were very practical for someone needing a whole lot of work space, but not the most attractive things in the world. When I moved to NYC and needed a temporary desk solution, I did what any uninspired 20-something would do: I went to IKEA. But after a couple years of a tiny computer hutch it came time to build a desk that would serve as a work space for all my mad science experiments.

I had some criteria:

-- It needed to be strong. I have a lot of stuff to put on this thing and one of the problems I used to have with the fold-up tables was that I had to balance my particularly heavy equipment over the legs so that it wouldn't bow in the middle. I also wanted to be conservative about the structural strength of the thing.... just in case. So, 200 pounds per surface.

-- It needed to be big. I wanted lots of space to put things. I was really looking for something like a desk/shelf hybrid. Also, I needed to accommodate a 19" CRT plus keyboard depth-wise. So I settled on general dimensions of 2'x6'.

-- It needed to be flexible. I didn't want to build some giant, monolithic piece of furniture like an old-fashioned banker's desk. Part of the reality of city life is that your living space is not always predictable and I wanted the ability to alter the structure of this desk if I needed to accommodate smaller or (hopefully) larger spaces by adding or subtracting to it. It didn't need to be fully modular per se, just easily reconfigurable. A little elbow-grease to reconstruct it is ok, but prying up nails, stripping paint/varnish, and sanding are all out of the question.

--It needed to look nice. Maybe it's a symptom of getting older, but part of the reason the long table solution is no longer ok is because it looked hackish.

I was also inspired.

Between Oct, 2000 and Feb, 2003 I worked for Fuel North America, the interactive arm of the advertising agency MVBMS. Fuel had a lot of potential that went untapped, and one thing it had going for it was a very distinctive and striking office decor. There was a little bit of a cube-farm feel to it, but it definitely had some cool furniture. I never found out who made the furniture, but I poked around enough to realize that it probably wouldn't be too hard to build myself. Here's some pics of the conference room furniture that inspired my design:

It's pretty straightforward stuff, from a construction point of view. Some pipes, some pipe fittings, and a couple finished boards and you're pretty much done. So I decided that this was definitely within the realm of DIY, but I needed to get some information. First step was to find out who made the fancy pipe fittings that were used. They were stamped with the brand name 'Speed-Rail®'.


Some googling turned up that Speed-Rail® fittings were made by Hollaender Manufacturing of Cincinnati, OH. The fittings are intended for industrial environments and are specially formulated to be corrosive resistant and incredibly strong. They have a PDF of their catalog on their website which was very illuminating with regard to the engineering considerations in addition to showcasing their product line.

I gave them a call. They DO sell to individuals, but you must order more than $100 in fittings at a time. I was probably going to buy about $200-$300 worth, but I wasn't about to commit to the whole order without doing some more prototyping. One of the issues was that the pipe that they spec for the fittings was very expensive. I'm not an expert on piping so I had no frame of reference to make an educated guess as to whether this was going to work or not. I knew I could get aluminum electrical conduit from Home Depot in Brooklyn for about $1 a foot (an order of magnitude less than I found from specialized plumbing supply outlets), but would the fittings match the conduit? Worst case scenario is that I would have 2-3mm of play in the fittings to the pipes and I'd never be able to trust the strength of the thing. Worse, it just might not look nice!

I had envisioned the pipe and fitting to be like hand and glove and was really worried about having it not fit. I printed out the page from the PDF that had pipe silhouettes to compare with Home Depot's offering. It looked ok, but I was still not convinced (I can assure you that page from the PDF is truly accurate, if you undertake a similar project with these components, you can trust it as long as your printer doesn't do any resizing behind your back).

One fortunate day I noticed our mail room throwing out an old bent up piece of pipe and a fitting from what must have been long-forgotten leftover construction scraps. I grabbed it and stopped by Home Depot that evening. It fit! In fact, it fit perfectly. But not to the electrical conduit. It fit the galvanized steel fence poles. Good enough! I started really drawing up my design and figuring out which pieces I would need.

Getting the pieces

I called Hollaender and asked them about pricing. After a fax back and forth and talking to them I asked offhandedly if they knew of a distributor in NYC so that I wouldn't have to order from them: "Oh yeah, Manhattan Lumber on Spring St. carries our stuff." ... this was about 5 blocks from my office at the time. I'm an idiot. I could have saved myself a couple months of delay and concern over if it would all come together if I had just dropped a few bucks on a sample to check against my potential cheap source of pipe. Oh well, it gave me a chance to really think out the design.

That afternoon I bought a big bag of jingling aluminum chunks, plus some extra bits to use as 'ribs' for the surfaces.

At this point I had visited Home Depot enough that I had also checked out the wood that I wanted to use. 3/4" Beech plywood would do the trick. My plan was to give the surface a quick sanding and then a couple coats of tung oil. The next night I made two very exhausting trips to buy the plywood and the piping. I also needed to get an extra large pipe cutter, as the one I used on my projection screen was too small.

Part of the problem with buying things like 12' of aluminum piping and not having a car is that getting it home becomes a real adventure. The Home Depot is Brooklyn is less than helpful in this regard as well as they refuse to cut the pipe for you. I ended up buying 3 12' lengths plus a pipe cutter and sitting in the Home Depot parking lot cutting the pipe into halves, all while the other customers were staring at me like I was nuts.

It wasn't the first or last time I've been stared at for doing something inexplicable in the parking lot of that store.

So with six 6' lengths of 1 1/4" aluminum pipe bundled together I headed home.... on the subway. I'll make it short and say I got a lot of nervous stares. The birch plywood was a similar adventure except that this time I had a 8'x4' board to maneuver through the MTA's labyrinth.


The list of acquired pieces for the desk from Home Depot:
  • 6 6' lengths of 1 1/4" aluminum electrical conduit
  • 1 pipe cutter
  • 1 8' x 4' board of birch plywood
  • ( these next bits were later swapped out)
  • 4 1 1/4" cheap pipe clamps
  • 4 8" long monster screws that fit the cheap pipe clamps

The next day I cut 2' off the end of the plywood, pleaving me with a 6'x4' board, then cut that in half lengthwise leaving me with 2 6'x2' planks and a 4'x2' plank of extra wood in case I wanted to add to the desk (which I did, see mouse shelf below).

And here's where I made my big mistake. Thinking I could save a few bucks by not buying the 12 fittings for the ribs I opted for a cheaper solution. I got these really heavy steel pipe clamps with a matching sinking screw. The design was to cut some scrap 2x4's to size, sink the giant screws into them, screw the clamps to the screws and voila... supports. The screws were about 8" long, but once I had drilled holes in the 2x4's and put the screws in I didn't feel all that comfortable with the strength.

I put in two of these for each shelf, and lived with it like this for a month until I did the right thing and purchased more fittings and pipe. Here it is in the final stages, and completed and ready for anything!

I estimate that I have at least 100 pounds of gear on the top shelf and another 100 on the bottom shelf. I've climbed all over the structure in setting up wires, etc. and have never felt anything but complete confidence in it's sturdiness.

Extending the design

You may see the mouse pad in the final construction picture above. It was a cheap plastic thing that had served me for several years, but eventually it broke. This was a good time to follow through on my intentions in designing the desk be alterable and have it evolve to my needs over time. I took the old clamps and 2x4s from the aborted 'economy' support mechanisms and combined it with some leftover birch plywood to make a nice little mouse shelf.

[This write-up was originally published in late December, 2003. I had built the desk in the summer of 2002. As of this writing in February 2011 the desk is still going strong, having survived married life and a move into Manhattan. It's still rock solid, despite having been dismantled and reassembled a few times.]