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DIY: Making a Custom Desk

A couple of weeks ago, I detailed how I selected a new paint color for my home office. Well, that was not the end of the story. 

No, once we had taken the room apart to repaint, we decided it was a good time to do something we’d been wanting to do for years—refurnish the office. It was finally time to get rid of our hodgepodge “office” furniture.

Out went the drop-leaf table and record player cabinet that had been doubling as our computer desk; gone too the lovely, but used only as a collecting place for papers and odds-n-ends, roll-top desk; and goodbye to the stack of hanging folder tubs that made it a right pain in the back to get to the one you need (because it was always at the bottom, don’t ‘cha know!).

But replacing all of that college-dorm-room-style furniture was harder than we thought. And trying to do it sent me falling down a rabbit hole filled with desks. And it was not a happy fall—there was only disappointment to be found at every furniture website I could find (I live in a relatively small and isolated community, so there were not many options to shop locally, and honestly, I didn’t feel like driving an hour or two to stores that only might have something I’d like).

I went to Wayfair, Overstock, Grandin Road, Home Decorators Collection, Pottery Barn, and so many others I can’t even recall them all anymore. Everything on offer was either not the right size for our room or was too expensive. So we finally realized we’d need a custom desk.

But if some pre-made desks were too expensive, there was no way we could afford a custom desk—unless we did it ourselves. So my search for desks shifted to a search for file cabinets. My idea was to get a 2-drawer stacked file cabinet, and then a more console-like table—something with drawers at the top and a shelf underneath where we could put the printer without giving up desktop space, and of course, they had to match! I’d put one under one window and the other on the adjacent wall next to the other window, and then we could make a top to connect them in an L-shape.

Because we live in a Victorian home, we wanted wood cabinets to match the style of the house.That narrowed the search quite a bit. The office has wide trim around the windows and doors painted a soft white, but it also has a built in bookcase in a rich mahogany finish. We debated about whether the new desk should be in white or wood finish—I leaned more toward white, liking the idea of how the white would brighten the room; my husband leaned more toward the wood, liking the idea of it matching the bookcase. I won the argument.

So I headed back to the websites I had prowled earlier. It is truly amazing how much time you can spend looking at, well, anything really. You would think having something fairly specific in mind would make the search easier, but it was not so.

This was in part because we wanted to find a matching a console we could put our printer on. It’s true that the selection of things that matched my criteria were small, but once we found some matching pieces, we had to look at what sizes they were—how deep were the drawers? How tall was each piece? Was the console the same depth as the file cabinet? And how much did they cost?

We finally settled on some pieces from the Home Decorators Collection—a 2-drawer stacked file cabinet and a 2-drawer side-by-side file cabinet with a shelf underneath, in white. I placed the order. The stacked file cabinet arrived in short order. An email also arrived, explaining that the side-by-side file cabinet had been discontinued.  Humph! 

After a little checking, I discovered that the same piece that had been discontinued in white was still available in a chestnut finish. So, we went with my husband’s choice after all, and sent the white cabinet back and ordered the chestnut. And I’m not sorry. It does look good against that purple paint we chose.

Next we needed a top for it. This was a much easier task—we went to our local lumber store and bought a nice piece of maple plywood, then cut it to fit. 

What ended up being harder was finding a stain to match the walnut cabinets. And what kind of topcoat should we use? So research began again. 

I looked at oil based topcoats and water based topcoats. The most surprising thing I learned is that oil based polyurethanes actually give a warm tint to the wood and can darken with age, whereas water based polyurethane tend to allow the color of the wood to remain unchanged. Other differences are that the oil based topcoats last longer and require fewer coats than water based ones, but they smell worse and take longer to dry.

So I wasn’t sure which to pick—probably the water based because I was working on a desktop and not a floor, so it wouldn’t get as much wear and tear, so the part about lasting longer wasn’t an issue. But then when I got to the hardware store, and started looking for stain colors that might match the cabinets, I discovered a stain plus polyurethane in one.

One thing I love about DIY in today’s world—sample sizes. Just as with the paints, there were 4 oz cans of stain for a lot less money than buying quarts. So we bout about four different colors of stain and one of the stain and polyurethane combo and applied a few patches to the plywood we had left over from cutting the desktop.

We chose the darker of the two in the back row.

Surprisingly the one we liked best was the stain and polyurethane combination. And it really turned out nice and easy. The color wasn’t perfect (but then none were and this one was actually the closest), and it was all done in three coats—no separate staining to do first!

And we’re very happy with the results. With the extra stain/poly, I finished some boxes use to on top of the desk for holding extra pens, staples, paper, envelopes and more!

Links to sources that helped me understand topcoats.

Truck-Bed Liner Extension

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