How I Made a Very Simple Desk


I was very close to calling this post “If I can build a custom, simple, functional desk, then anyone can.” This is hardly a how-to article but if you don’t have much woodworking experience like me, maybe you will learn a few tips before you start on your own project.

The only experience I had with woodworking was sanding, staining and varnishing two shelves, adding brackets and mounting them on the wall. That’s it. I really like how they turned out, even though some of the basement floor paint got stuck to the varnish. Shrug.


Anyway. I had a space between a book shelf and the doorway in my lovely studio/office. I also had a sewing machine sitting on the floor in a box, next to my sewing supplies. I decided a little sewing desk needed to go there.

The space was kind of an odd shape—long (about 45 inches) and shallow (13 inches). Finding a desk to fit that space was proving to be almost impossible, so I started sketching out what I could do and what size of wood I’d need.

Since I knew I’d be using it for sewing, I wanted a desk a little lower than my writing/computer/corner desk I used to use for sewing. I decided on a height that would be comfortable for me to sew at, keeping in mind that the thickness of the wood would affect the height. I used the width of the space minus two inches so it would fit comfortably in the space. This is basically what I came up with:

Obviously not to scale.

  1. The top piece. 45 inches long, 12 inches wide and 3/4 thick. This piece sits on top of the two side/leg pieces as well as one of the braces.
  2. The left side. To keep things simple, I went with a wide side piece instead of using legs. This piece ended up being 12 inches wide (as wide as the top piece) and 25 inches high. I’m short so I wanted a short-ish desk.
  3. The right side. Same measurements as #3.
  4. Top brace. Since I knew I’d be using the desk for sewing, I wanted the desk to be as stable as possible.This stops the desk from bowing down in the middle over time. This brace is up underneath the top piece and wedged in between the two side pieces. This piece ended up being 43 inches wide (this measurement is important) and 3.5 inches high (this measurement is less important).
  5. Bottom brace. To keep the side pieces from separating over time at an angle, I added a second brace near the bottom of the desk, the same size as #4.

Having a solid plan in place beforehand was essential.

The tools I used for this project:

  • sand paper with a hand sander tool
  • a drill
  • a screwdriver
  • 2-inch wood screws
  • wee metal brackets
  • wee screws for the wee metal brackets
  • 5 pieces of wood cut to your needs
  • stain of your choice
  • varnish of your choice
  • handsaw
  • safety goggles
  • a couple rags
  • rubber gloves
  • paint brush for varnish

For the love of pete, get your wood pre-cut at the store you buy it from. I didn’t trust my math enough for the two braces and ended up buying a handsaw and cutting those pieces to size myself. I REGRET THIS.

I went with pre-sanded wood to save myself some time. It is a bit more expensive than raw wood but still reasonable. I did buy sandpaper for the raw ends were the wood was cut. The two pieces I got for braces weren’t pre-sanded so I had to put some time in with those.

I also went into Home Depot and ended up walking out with 4-inch framing nails. DO NOT BUY FRAMING NAILS UNLESS YOU ARE FRAMING A HOUSE. My little hammer got quite the shaming when I asked Facebook for help.

This is where I learned the beauty and majesty that is the wood screw. (Thanks Danielle!)

Before this project, I was kind of scared to use the drill. Now I freaking love that thing.

I started drilling holes: one hole in each corner of the top piece and one hole in each corner of the narrow end of the side piece where that screw would connect the two items. Then I screwed in the wood screws.

I flipped the whole unit over and added two brackets on each side where the wood intersected. This added a bit more stability.

Then I added the two braces, starting with the one at the top. Holes were drilled, wood screws were put in. Then I added the second one further down between the legs. I’m told 2/3 the way down is the best location for the second brace but I had an outlet I needed to keep free so I moved it down a bit further.

Drill, drill, drill. Screw, screw, screw. The building was done!

In a well-ventilated area or—better yet—outside, put some newspapers down and then your desk on top of it. Wear gloves and open that can of stain, stir as directed, and dip your rag into the can. I bundled my rag into a ball before dipping. Then rub the stain-drenched rag onto all parts of the wood. Add more to darken. Let that dry and add a second coat if you want to.

Next is the varnish. Lay it down with a paint brush or a brush made for varnish. Wear gloves for this part too. Careful not to put on so much varnish underneath that it drips down while it’s drying. Let this dry for at least a day, as it stays stacky and sticky for some time. Apply another coat and then another if you want.

I’m a super amateur when it comes to woodworking so my methods are probably FAR from perfect. But this is how I managed to build a custom desk I’m very happy with.

Woodworking can be really intimidating for people who have never done it before. But now that I know the basics, I’m excited to build something else.

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Jillianne Hamilton is the author of Molly Miranda: Thief for Hire, its two action/comedy sequels, and The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII. She is also a graphic designer, a history enthusiast, and a dog mom. Learn more.

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