Desking It Out

2020.02.22 in personal

Somehow it has been 4 years since the last post here... I don't promise to return, but there are a few things I have been meaning to post about, so there might be a few updates over the next few months. We'll see!

The Motivation

Over the years, I've had many unsatisfying desks at home. In moving around the South Bay every few years, I often found myself leaving behind my desk, hoping I'd find something better in my next home. It was never the same things, but always some subset of crappy or leg-space-encroaching built-in storage, impossible cable management, insufficient depth or length, and cheap or fragile construction (generally always including that one). I think my favorite was probably the super-janky plywood half-moon built-in monstrosity at our college apartment in Troy, but that desk... certainly had its own time and place, and 2020 definitely wasn't it (I hope it's still there, though!).

My desk in Troy.
(One more picture that I won't put inline
because there's just way too much to unpack there).

During our last move, I decided to do something about this, though it took a few months for the plan to come together. I had noticed that my desks at work were, while simple, much more satisfying. Solid slabs, separate storage, deep enough for anybody's legs, with plenty of space for hardware, sensible cable-management, reasonably non-ugly, and fairly sturdy. So, I set out to build something at least vaguely inspired by them (and also by a mishmosh of posts from the absurd folks on /r/battlestations).

The Project

Since I live in an apartment, don't have easy access to a lot of tools, and wouldn't necessarily trust myself with them even if I did, I needed something that was feasible to construct with those constraints. I eventually happened upon this Simplified Building article which didn't really cover the details, but introduced me to the idea of building a desk with pipes, and to Kee Klamps, which seemed like a great way to make sturdy structure out of pipe without requiring any heavy machinery.

I cracked open my trusty not-actually-CAD-but-whatever-it'll-be-OK tool, Blender (after emailing the Kee Klamp folks for models!) and threw together a model of my desk sitting in context, allowing me to decide on sizes and colors. This is what I ended up with:

That's a US Letter size piece of paper in the middle of the desk for scale.

After agonizing for ages over where to get the desk top, I settled on a nice rustic walnut butcher block, and ordered it along with all of the pipes and clamps and whatnot.

Since the wood had a long lead time, I had the pipes sitting around during my parents' summer visit. I enlisted my dad to help paint the pipes black, and to cut the ones that needed cutting (with a hacksaw! it was an experience). I don't think the painting would have come out nearly as well as it did if I'd been left to my own devices, so I'm quite thankful for the coincidence and for his help!

A few days after my parents headed home, the butcher block was delivered... to the sidewalk, outside of our apartment building. In a 7'x4', 250+lb splintery crate. It wouldn't budge!

After much panicing and trying to ensure nobody would trip over it, Alicia suggested hiring some help, so I got a "heavy lifting" TaskRabbit to come rescue me. I think he was amused, but certainly made short work of the job. He kept apologizing that the one-hour minimum seemed excessive for the five-minute job, but I was just happy to get it inside and out of the way.

I spent time on and off for the next few weeks slowly building the desk. A few mistakes were made along the way; I also discovered that I had to make a few more pipe cuts by myself; the longest pipes that run the length of the desk needed to be cut in half. This was evident in the Blender model, I just missed it somehow when ordering. I did manage it, though, and eventually, it was taking shape!

It was at this point that I could really test the sturdiness. My father and I had chatted about the potential need for braces or something to keep the front legs from bending to the sides, but it was clear now that I could actually apply pressure to the thing that it wasn't going to be a problem in the slightest. It is absurdly sturdy, and incredibly heavy. I managed to flip it over alone (don't ask me how, I'm not even sure myself), and then started strapping electronics and cables to it.

The Result

The desk is accompanied by standalone pedestal drawers, for storage that doesn't encroach on leg space. My trusty 2013 Mac Pro is mounted to the bottom of the desk, along with a variety of hubs and switches, power strips, and the like. It's been about 8 months now, and I'm quite satisfied! So, I challenge you -- if you're struggling to find the perfect version of something... consider making it yourself! Even if it doesn't come out 100% perfectly, you'll love it all the more because you made it.

The finished product, after 6 months or so (and some upgrades).