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Art Deco Low-stress computer desk, three views
copyright 2010

The Art Deco Style Low-Stress Computer Desk

This desk is in the Art Deco style which was popular in the 1920's and 1930's. It has clean angular lines and is based on a desk that was used in the Poirot Mystery series on PBS. The introduction for this series is pure Art Deco and most of the episodes feature Art Deco buildings and furnishings. This style is noted for representations of speeding machines like steam engines and for slinky lady's dresses cut on the basis.

This desk features a flat top with a sunken clear shelf that can be used for either a keyboard or a laptop computer. The interior of the desk has a small amount of storage space and specifically designed to hide cables.

The design features a wooden box for the top with three triangular forms that function as legs. The top and outside of the legs is made from an light colored American hardwood like ash. The grain on the top runs the length of the desk, but the grain of on the legs runs at 45 degrees to the top, that is on the basis. The underside of the desk and the inside of the legs are made from 0.75 inch fir plywood and painted a dark color so they do not catch the eye. The legs are attached to the top box with a number of steel brackets that are also painted dark.

This is a moderate level woodworking project but is probably not suited as a first woodworking project. It requires the use of a small shop for such tasks as edge gluing hardwood boards and the routing of internal cable passages. Most of the materials can be bought at your local home improvement store, the hardwood will have to come from a real lumber yard, and a few speciality bits of hardware can be ordered over the internet. The cost of the materials will be about $650.00 in American hardwood.

Rockler order link to first page
  1. Ordering the Sketches

    This design includes twelve detailed sketches that are critical to your successfully building this desk. Here is where to get all the ordering information.

    The plans for our major projects are brought to you on the Honor Plan. We will send you any of the plans for review, but when you start to build please pay for the plans you use. These small payments are critical to keeping this Web Site open.

  2. Desk Construction

    You can make this desk by:

    1. Downloading this text.
    2. Ordering the sketches.
    3. Studying the information and locating materials.
    4. Determining if the size suits your equipment and floor space.
    5. Purchasing materials, most local, some mail order.
    6. Cutting wooden pieces.
    7. Painting the internal spaces
    8. Building the top.
    9. Building the three leg assemblies.
    10. Finishing all pieces.
    11. Assembling the entire desk.
    12. Installing the computer.

  3. Discussion of Sketches

    After you order the sketches, these notes will help you understand them.

    1. Art Deco Computer Desk

      The Art Deco Desk is shown in three views with major dimensions. As shown, it consists of four units -- the top box assembly, the front leg assembly, and two side leg assemblies. The front and tops are hardwood and the underside is fir plywood. These units are held together with pegs and "L" brackets so it can be taken apart which allows the desk to be moved into often smaller home office rooms. There is a well shelf with a transparent bottom that will hold a keyboard or laptop computer. There is a small amount of storage on two sides of the well. There is also a matching stand for a desk top computer beside one leg.

    2. Art Deco Computer Desk, Top with hardwood layer removed, Sketch #2

      This sketch shows the top box with the hardwood surface and sides removed. This assembly is make largely from 0.75 inch fir plywood and secondary wood. There is one hardwood board at the back of the well. All the plywood and secondary wood will be painted a dark color, inside and out.

    3. Art Deco Computer Desk, Legs with hardwood top layer removed, Sketch #3

      The top view shows the front leg and one side leg with the hardwood outside skin and edges removed. The assemblies consisted of a 0.75 inch plywood base with cutouts for cables. This is reinforces with internal strips. The top edge has a series of angle brackets and 0.75" wooden pegs where it fits the top box. There are wide groves routed 0.25 inch into the plywood to make the internal cable channels wide enough for power plugs. The finished channels will be 1.25 inches deep. All the plywood and secondary wood will be painted a dark color, inside and out.

    4. Art Deco Computer Desk, Hardwood surfaces for he top and legs, Sketch #4

      This sketch shows the hardwood portions of the desk. The top is a modified rectangle with side boards attached. The legs are triangles also with side boards. All are routed out for cable paths and grommets. Note that the grain runs diagonally on the legs. This produces a stunning Art Deco effect. The hardwood surfaces are made from .75 inch thick hardwood in boards 2 to 4 inches wide and edge joined with biscuits.

    5. Art Deco Computer Desk, Hardwood boards for Top, Sketch #5

      This sketch shows the hardwood boards that make up the sides and internal stiffener for the top box. The middle board shows at the back of the keyboard well so it must be hardwood. The clear plastic or glass shelf is also framed in hardwood.

    6. Art Deco Computer Desk, Boards for Center Leg, Sketch #6

      This sketch shows the side and internal boards for the center leg. Note that the to hardwood sides need to be dadoed to cover the edge of the plywood.

    7. Art Deco Computer Desk, Filler strips in the top, Sketch #7

      This sketch shows the individual boards that are inside the top box. These can all be secondary wood such as pine or popular. Some of the pieces have through holes for cables.

    8. Art Deco Computer Desk, Internal strips for legs, Sketch #8

      This sketch shows the individual boards to make the sides and internal strips for the two end legs. Here "Pair Req." means that two are required that are mirror images of each other. Only the sides need to be of hardwood.

    9. Art Deco Computer Desk, Plywood layout #1, Sketch #9

      This sketch shows the layout of the bottom of the top box and the inside of the side legs on a piece of 0.75" fir plywood. Check at the store to be sure that the plywood is very flat. Do not buy warped plywood. Note that the first cut can be made at the store to make the material easier to get home and later to work with.

    10. Art Deco Computer Desk, Plywood Layout #2, Sketch #10

      This sketch shows the center leg and other components laid out on a sheet of 0.75" fir plywood. Again note the first cut that should be done at the store. Here the plywood is shown used for the secondary wood. Using clear pine or popular will make the project much easier to build.

    11. Art Deco Computer Desk, Matching Computer Stand, Sketch #11

      This sketch shows the details of shelf for a desktop computer so you can put it under the desk near the leg. This may require you to obtain extensions cables for the keyboard, mouse, and monitor cables but looks much better. The shelf is shown made from plywood and edged with hardwood trim. The legs are simply hardwood that could also be cut on a basis.

    12. Art Deco Computer Desk, Routed Holes, Sketch #12

      This sketch shows suggested sizes for routing the cable holes which are best done with patterns made from scrap plywood. You should buy the cable grommets for the top before routing the holes. The required hole size varies with different grommets. The large cutouts are shown edged with a combs of 0.25 inch scrap plywood. This helps keeps the cables stuffed back inside. You can cut a piece of plywood and glue on a power strip with serge protection to it. This you can either mount on the back comb so that it is half exposed or up inside the cutout. If mounted half exposed, you will be able to see the light and reach the switch but it might be seen from some angles.

    Rockler order link to first page
  4. Materials

    The Art Deco Desk is shown made from hardwood and this cost reflects that approach. The large panels may either be hardwood panels joined with biscuits or hardwood plywood and trimmed with hardwood boards.

    1. Wood
      • American Hardwood, .75 inch finished ---- 40 board feet

      Example: Ash @ 7.50 /bf ------- $300.00

      • Secondary Wood, .75 inch finished ----- 10 board feet
      • Dowel, 0.75 inch diameter ------------- 1

      Example: Good Pine 16.5 bf @ 4.00 /bf ------- $40.00

      • Plywood, .75 inch fir, 4' x 8' A-C ----- 2 ------ $80.00

      ------- Wood Subtotal: $422.00

      Hardware and Fasteners:

      • Biscuits, #10 ---------------------------- box of 100 ----- $ 8.00
      • Screw, flat-head, #8 x 1.25 inch --------- box of 100 ----- $ 4.00
      • #4 finishing nails ----------------------- 1 lb ------------ $ 3.00
      • Glue ------------------------------------- 1 pint ---------- $ 6.00
      • Angle Brackets, 5 inch ------------------- 8 --------------- $ 21.00
      • Feet ------------------------------------- 3 --------------- $ 4.00

      ------- Subtotal: $40.00

      Rockler order link to first page

      The grommets can be obtained from Rockler Woodworking and Hardware.

    2. Special Hardware
      • Metal cable grommets ---- 3 ----- $ 24.00
      • Glass shelf -- 0.25" float glass 27.25 x 13.35 inch -- $25.00

      Finish Subtotal: $74.00

    3. Finish:
      • Stain -------------------- 1 Quart ----- $ 8.00
      • Shellac ------------------ 1 pint ------ $ 6.00
      • Shellac thinner ---------- 1 pint ------ $ 4.00
      • Metal primer ------------- 1 spray can - $ 4.00
      • Enamel paint ------------- 1 quart ----- $ 10.00
      • Polyurethane ------------- 1 quart ----- $ 12.00

      Finish Subtotal: $48.00

    4. Omissions and Contingencies (~11%)( Tax, sand paper, etc.) $41.00
    5. Estimate Total Cost $650.00

    This is only an estimate (made in the spring of 2010). The price may vary in your area. Getting a good price on the hardwood is critical to keeping the price down. Using scrap or recycled wood for the secondary wood will also help.

  5. Tools

    This desk was designed so that it could be build by an amateur woodworker with a modest home shop. To build the desk as shown requires the use of a radial-arm or table saw, biscuit cutter, router, and common hand tools.

    Rockler order link to first page
  6. Fabrication Notes

    This section is not intended to be a detailed step-by-step construction guide but rather a number of points to consider. It is your desk and you can build it to suit your likes.

    1. Options

      Look over the desk drawing as decide what you are going to do:

      1. Equipment Supported -- Go over all the computer equipment you wish to support with this desk and determine the size for each piece. An exercise, Air Typing is given on our Web Site to help you determine the height you need for the keyboard shelf, the monitor, and the angle for the monitor. The keyboard shelf is intended to handle either a large keyboard and mouse or a laptop computer. If you have a very large laptop computer you may need more depth than the 14 inches shown.
      2. Cable Grommets -- Be sure to order quality cable grommets and get them in hand before cutting the holes for them in the top. A rectangle shape in metal would better match the Art Deco style.
      3. Direction of grain in the legs -- The grain in the hardwood for the legs is normally either run cross-wise or up and down. This design runs the grain for the legs at a 45 degree diagonal for a Art Deco effect. This choice strongly effects the look of the finished look of the desk but could make them more likely to warp in the long run. Give the run of the grain thoughtful consideration.
      4. Color of underside -- The plywood underside of the desk needs to be painted a dark color to visually take it out of consideration. The color you choose could be flat black, dark red, dark green, or dark blue. The operative word here is dark. The same color is needed inside the top and legs where wood could be seen through the many cable holes.
      5. Plywood versus all hardwood -- The drawings and estimate are for American hardwood edge glued into wide panels. It would be easier and probably cheaper to build it from hardwood plywood with 0.50 inch hardwood molding over the exposed edges. Email me if you want plans for this option.
    2. Major Design Considerations

      Hardwood is a living medium. It expands and contracts with temperature and humidity. If a design does not take this into account the piece will later crack. Good hardwood furniture should last 75 years so consideration must be given.

      Large hardwood panels expand much more across grain than diagonally with it. For the width of a desk the expansion can be 1/6 inch, which is not much but forces large enough to warp and crack the wood can easily build up. Plywood expands much less and is not too different from the along grain expansion.

      The plan here is to build a plywood base desk which could stand up on its one and then attach a hardwood surface to it. The hardwood surface is strongly attached and glued on only edge where the grain runs parallel to the plywood edge. On the three other sides the two assemblies are only light attached with a few fasteners and a little glue.

      This arrangement should force any shifts between the two assemblies to occur on the weak seams where they will not be easily seen. This approach does require more work, precise fitting, and might now work as well as hoped.

    3. Making Flat Panels from Boards

      Wood is a dynamic material produced by living processes. It has great strength, beauty, and utility but it does have properties that you must deal with. Wooden boards expand and contract with temperature and humidity. Farther more they expand across the grain far more than along the grain and the side away from the center of the tree expands more than the side closest to the center of the tree.

      The result is that, if you are not very careful, forces will build up and warp and crack your finished piece of furniture. You can reduce this problem but being very careful when gluing up wooden panels.

      To glue up the top and leg fronts, use the following steps:

      1. Limit board width -- Do you use boards that are too wide. Look at wide boards and see if you can determine the point nearest the center of the original log and rip the board in two thought that point.
      2. Alternate lay up -- Carefully look at the end of each board and draw on an arrow pointing to the center of the original log. Lay the boards out in the order you plan to glue them up. Rearrange the boards to alternate the arrows, one up the next down. If the panel warps it will then warp into gentle S curves instead of one large hump.
      3. Biscuits versus Tung and Grove -- Biscuits have generally replaced tung and grove. You do have to have an expensive tool but they save huge amounts of expensive hardwood, speed the process, and the finished product is better. Use biscuits if you can get your hands on the tool.
    4. Nails in Hardwood

      This desk is built four hardwood assemblies that are attached to for plywood assemblies. There is less likelihood that the hardwood will crack or warp if the assemblies are attached in such a way that some joints will give a little. This can be done by using finishing nails with either no glue or only a few spots of glue.

      You cannot simply take a hammer and drive in these nails. The nails will bend and the wood will split. The following is a solution for this problem.

      You can drill pilot holes for the nails with conventional drill bits. It is very hard to find a bit just the right size bit and it very easy to break them.

      The following procedure is shown in the sketch above and works well:

      1. Clip off the head of a nail.
      2. Cup up small squares of light cardboard or plastic lids.
      3. Stick the squares with an awl.
      4. Chuck the cut nail just in the drill.
      5. Place two squares on the nail.
      6. Drill pilot holes.

      The squares prevent the drill chuck from leaving circular marks on the wood. These are extremely difficult to sand out. Yogurt cup lids work well for these squares, but cardboard or double layers of masking tape will work. Be careful not to press down too hard with the drill even using the squares. The holes in the squares get sloppy quickly and the squares fall off. Make up a couple dozen for a job.

      The pilot hole will cover about three-quarters the length of the nail. Finish driving the nail with a hammer and the set it.

    5. Making the Hardwood Top

      It is best to make the hardwood top first and then fit the plywood bottom to it.

      The top is made by edging large panels using the steps above. Make three glue-ups for the top, the long back section, the longer front section, and the short front section. All the rough panels should be a little bigger than needed to give you some trim to work with.

      After the glue has set, trim the well ends of the two short panels square and glue them in place to form the well space. This requires some care.

      Trim the completed top to size.

      Cut the edge pieces and dado them for the end joints and the plywood bottom. The internal slots in glue and screw them in place. You can either depend on the modern glue without using fasteners or counter sink screws and plug the holes.

    6. Making the Front Leg Hardwood

      To achieve the basis run of the grain, the glue-up of the front leg panel needs to be done by staggering boards of different lengths. This takes some planning and will waste some wood.

      Choose the best side for the front. Route out the 0.25 inch deep channels for the cables. The channel does not go as far as any edge. Route out the cable holes.

      The panel is then trimmed and the edge strips glued on just like the top. The legs are not nearly so thick as the top.

    7. Making the Side Legs Hardwood

      The two side legs can be glued up as a single panel as shown in Sketch #11.

      They are then cut apart. the cable channels routed, and the two edge strips applied. Remember the two side legs are a pair and are not identical but are a mirror imaged pair.

    8. Making the Plywood Top Assembly

      The plywood bottom should be a loose fit into the now finished hardwood top. Cut it to fit and cut out the shelf area as well. Making each part in two sections will simply require that the plywood assembly be hand fitted to the already ruffed out hardwood assembly. Finish up by cutting out the smaller cable holes.

      The well cutout needs to be framed with hardwood that has a dado grove for the glass shelf. This feature takes some hand fitting. The front piece of the frame is extended two inches to each side to make it easier to attach to the plywood base. This needs to fit nicely into the hardwood front. It is probably best to have the glass or plastic shelf cut for a loose fit after you frame out the opening. Biscuits can be used to secure the frame to the plywood edge.

      Cut the hardwood center piece with its dadoes and cable cut-outs. Use the hardwood top to position the center piece and glue it to the plywood base.

      Grain use the hardwood top to locate the rest of the internal blocks and partitions. Much of this can be done by reaching up through the cutouts.

      In the end the hardwood assembly should be a loose fit on the plywood assembly. Do not attach the two assemblies at this time as the plywood must be painted first.

    9. Making the Plywood Leg Assemblies

      The plywood for the legs is made in the same way as the plywood for the top. Again fit them to the assembled hardwood sections.

      The plywood parts do need to have cable channels routed into them and the cable cut-out made. These cable channels do go all the way to the edge of the piece.

    10. Painting the Plywood

      The interior of the plywood must be painted before assembled with the hardwood sections so that the light wood does not show through.

      Wherever the edges of the plywood will be exposed, like in the cutouts, they will require considerable work. They need to be sanded to remove tool marks and to round off any edges that a cable may pass over. This can be done with small sanding drubs in a hand drill. Large edge voids need to be filled with splinters of scrap wood and glue. Do not force the splinters into the holes very tight. A loose fit is best. Sand again and then work plastic wood into the edge of the plywood. You will need to sand and repeat this process several times to stop the plies from showing through the paint.

      An application of shellac for a primer will help keep the wood grain from showing through the paint. You can mask off the areas you will be gluing if you like, or you can just rough up the area later with sandpaper. At least two coats of dark enamel will be needed.

    11. Attaching the Hardwood and Plywood Assemblies

      When the paint is dry, you can assemble the plywood and hardwood assemblies. The two sections should be attached hard enough so that the finished desk acts as a single unit, but not so strongly that the joints will not give a little before the hardwood panels crack.

      This can be done with patches of glue not more that six inches long at least six inches from any corner and drilled in nails. Use only a few patches of glue on the internal partitions. Clamp of the sections until the glue sets.

    12. Install Pegs and Brackets

      Square up the tops of the legs carefully. Clean up the top box after gluing and turn it upside down.

      Mark out the positions of the pegs on the let tops and drill pilot holes. Small dowel centering points to carefully locate the peg hole centers on the underside of the top box. Drill the holes for the pegs in the top and legs. Trial fit the legs with the pegs and check for square.

      Drill and cut out the three holes designed to let small cable pass through the joints.

      Mark the locations for the metal brackets on the bottom of the top box. Use square blocks to clamp one leg on square on the upside down top for fitting the angle brackets.

      Check that the metal brackets are square.

      Place a metal bracket in place and temporarily locate it with two short screws in the outer holes. Carefully scour the wood along the outside of the bracket with a utility knife. Work for the corners to the middle so that when you slip the marks do not run outside the lines. Repeat this for all the brackets for a leg on both plywood surfaces.

      Remove the temporary screws and sperate the leg and top box. Carefully cut out the plywood from between the marked lines with a sharp chisel to let the metal bracket into the wood. You can make the cutout a little shorter than the bracket as the bracket will move in each way by its width. Fill the temporary screw holes with wood splinters and glue as the final screw holes will have moved slightly.

      Replace the leg and the clamping blocks that hold it square. Install the brackets with long screws that go into the internal glue blocks. Remove the clamps and check that the leg is square and the crack on the outside is as small as possible.

    13. First Assembly of the desk

      Assemble the unfinished desk. Check the fit of the legs and the keyboard shelf material. Check that the legs are square with the top and have only the thinnest of joint lines. Plan how your cables will run and check to see if the holes are big enough for your cables. This is your last chance for little fixes.

      Disassemble the desk for finishing.

    Rockler order link to first page
  7. Finish

    You may finish your desk any way you like. I recommend: dark enamel on the plywood, oil stain, a spit coat of shellac, and two coats of satin finish polyurethane on the hardwood.

    1. Metal Brackets and screws

      The metal brackets must be first primed and then painted with the dark enamel. A spray can of white metal primer will do. You can take a piece of cardboard and poke holes in it to accept the screws to make it easy to paint them too.

    2. Plywood Edges

      Wherever the edges of the plywood are exposed they will require considerable work. They need to be sanded to remove tool marks and to round off any edges that a cable may pass over. This can be done with small sanding drubs in a hand drill. Large edge voids need to be filled with splinters of scrap wood and glue. Do not force the splinters into the holes very tight. A loose fit is best. Sand again and then work plastic wood into the edge of the plywood. You will need to sand and repeat this process several times to stop the plies from showing through the paint.

    3. Plywood underside

      Where ever the plywood can be seen it must be painted dark. This includes the bottom side of the top and the inside of the legs, but also includes the inside area of both that can be seen through the cable holes. This work is best done before the hardwood assemblies are installed and will need to be touched up in final finishing.

    4. Staining Hardwood

      Even a light colored wood may need a stain to insure that all the boards that make up the desk are exactly the same color. A light stain may also bring out the grain.

      Work with the stain color that you have chosen. Practice on a piece of scrap wood (flat side and edges). Do not start on the panels until you are satisfied. Do not hesitate to write off an $8 can of stain and go purchase another of a different color.

    5. Spit Coat

      A spit coat made of one part 3-pound shellac to five parts shellac thinner makes a good wood sealer.

      If your test shows that side and end grain are staining differently, you can apply a spit coat to only the one that stains darkest (usually the edge). This will limit the stain penetration to more closely match the finishes. Test this on scrap first.

      A spit coat can also be used between applications of stain and as a general sealer after staining.

    6. Finish

      For the hardwood portions of this desk, I like satin finish polyurethane or a modern tung oil finish such as:

      Formby Tung Oil Finish

      These are applied with a cloth pad rather than a brush. This desk will take at least one 16 oz. bottle; two will be better. Follow the instructions on the bottle carefully and apply a liberal number of applications on all work areas. The toughest finish is needed on the keyboard shelf directly in front of the user. I would apply the finish over the painted surfaces also to produce a glazed effect but try this on scrap first.

    Polyurethane produces a tough but thin plastic coating that can crack with use. Tung oil produces a thicker more rubbery finish. One clear coat over the painted underside will help produce a unified look to the finish.

  8. Completion

    All that is left is to reassemble the desk, and install the computer.

    1. Reassembly

      Reassembly the desk and turn it right side up.

    2. Cabling

      Detailed cabling instructions and plans for a remote power switch are given in our Web page under Freebies. The remote power switch is optional but is really helps the desk user.

      Determine which side will be closest to the wall outlet. Glue a plug strip with serge protection to a scrap of 0.25 inch plywood and screw it inside one of the large cutouts. Route the power cable up to the your outlet location.

      Feed the cables through the cable channels inside the desk and hide the excess cable. You may be able to pass cables with small connects completely inside the leg to top joint. Large connectors and power plugs will have to come out of the top and loop around the joint.


Thanks again for using a Woodware Designs computer furniture plans. We very much want to know how you are getting along with your project and would be happy to answer any questions by email.

If you send us a picture of your finished desk, we would be happy to put it on our web page. We need pictures of desk with real people standing beside them.

Don't forget to order the sketches.

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