After the completion of the first two steps of our DIY office desk, completion of the base cabinets as well as our mistake-ridden creation of our office desk's solid cherry surface, we were both relieved to have a desk one could call functional. 

However, functional and complete are two very different things. We still had the whole second piece of the drawing to go. The upper cabinets, down lighting, and transparent shelves were all very necessary elements to achieve a truly completed project.

To this point we had built the desk in sections and installed, assembled, and stained them in place. This had worked well for the lower portion, but the construction of the upper portion meant it all had to be pieced together in place and without fasteners, taken apart, sanded and stained outside of the small office and then pieced back together in place. The final step would then be to construct the face frame as one element and install that as the final piece to the unit. In theory, this would all be a pretty straight forward process, but I knew it would end up far more difficult than it should have been.

I started by using several sheets of the cherry plywood to construct the box of the structure. Each piece had to be scribed to the irregular profile of the exposed brick wall using the jigsaw. This is actually the very reason I purchased the really good jigsaw we have. I knew my old jigsaw would have completely splintered the plywood, and there was no way I was going to let that happen if I could prevent it. (Note the lack of the desktop, I decided to remove it during this phase so I wouldn't damage it.)

I used the same basic approach to construction of this upper section as I did the lower cabinets. The pieces were all joined using dados, glue, and wood screws to create a good and solidly constructed unit. As with every other piece in this project, I think I test fit the whole thing about 4,000 times.

There were two oddities I had to accommodate with this build. The first is the flexible ductwork that brings heat and AC to the guest bedroom. It actually comes out of the ceiling in the office, then turns toward the guest room vent. I absolutely hate when ductwork in old houses is poorly installed and obviously boxed in, so this gave us a unique opportunity to overcome this unsightly aspect of HVAC by integrating the ductwork in the construction of the desk. So I cut a hole in the top and rear of the upper left cabinet compartment to allow the duct work to exist in a completely concealed environment. With the way we configured the desk, it barely even impacted our storage.

The second consideration was for the air gap necessary to accommodate a pair of halogen puck lights. The lights I found were ultra low profile lights that are designed to be recessed. But being halogen lights, they do have a tendency to run hot, so there needed to be a minimum 1.5" space to be mounted in. These lights are also low voltage lights that come with a transformer. I decided to use this gap to conceal the transformer. You can see the gap I'm talking about between the upper storage area and the lower open area.

Since we are concealing electronics in this opening I didn't want to build it as a permanently enclosed space in the event we needed to service the lights or wanted to later replace the lights with an LED model. As a result the bottoms of the upper cabinets have thumb holes and are removable. They're sort of like trap doors.

I left the backs of the storage area open to the brick wall. I figured there was no sense in losing a few inches of storage room to give a back to something you'd never see once the doors are installed.

The cabinet box had worked out great thus far so I turned my attention to the cherry face frame. I built the face frame as a single piece that I could attach as one element to the upper section once it was fully in place. I figured this would allow me to secure all of the joints and sand them smooth prior to install. It would also allow me to get a true sense of the walls (not perfectly smooth), and where I had to make a few small accommodations for a tight fit.

Once everything was exactly where I needed it, I marked biscuit locations on the face frame and cabinet box that would make for an "easy" assembly.

Everything was looking great, so I turned my attention to the upper doors and crown molding of the upper section. The doors were actually pretty easy. I used the same approach I had used for the lower section and also mimicked the size of the lower storage areas to ensure symmetry between all of the doors.

For the crown detail, we looked to our original inspiration piece, our antique book cabinet, which sits on the wall opposite the new desk.

I took the profile of the cabinet's crown element and determined the necessary cover and round over router bits I would need to replicate it. I was able to accomplish it with two pieces of wood. I have to pat myself on the back a bit here. The crown detail I created is almost a perfect match to the one on our inspiration piece. It's details like this that really make the difference in these completely custom projects, so I'm quite glad I took the time to work on this detail that will probably go unnoticed by 99.9% of the people who would ever see our desk.

After the doors and crown were all wrapped up we disassembled the whole thing and started the long and messy process of staining. We figured it was far easier to stain everything in our makeshift workspace, aka the guest bedroom, than to try to stain in place and undoubtedly get it all over the walls, floor, and probably ceiling of the space we had just finished. We were able to knock the whole thing out in a couple of days.

After staining was complete we did a little test fit and installed all of the wiring necessary for the recessed lights. We were truly on a roll. The project's finish line was in sight and there was nothing standing in our way...right?

While everything had gone smoothly through the build and stain process, we came to the point in the project where we hit our obligatory road bump. Whenever I've used the biscuit joiner to marry two items, I've been able to use clamps to securely squeeze the pieces together and allow any glue to set. Unfortunately we couldn't do this with the face of the upper section of the desk because the whole thing fit so tightly between the walls that we couldn't fit the clamp behind it. In retrospect I should have used a crankable strap type thing to cinch it all together, but I didn't properly think through the process before I started. 

Instead I glued up the biscuits and applied the face frame and was shocked when it wouldn't totally close all of the gaps. The left and right sides looked good, but the middle support and upper section was horrible. There was at least a 1/2" gap between the face frame and the cabinet, and I started to panic. I didn't know what to do! I had glued it up, and I needed to get the thing together before the glue set but I was at a loss. Then I took a total shot in the dark. I grabbed a long piece of oak from the basement, padded either end, propped it up between the wall (on a stud) and the desk, and I hung (like I was doing a pull up) on the piece of wood to more or less jam the two pieces together.

Quite honestly, I had thoughts of Han Solo, Chewie, Leia, and Luke in the trash compactor of the Death Star (Star Wars reference for all my fellow nerds out there). It was a moment of panic.

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox

I was sweating, swearing, fuming, and stomping around the house, but amazingly, my trick worked out. I was able to force it together enough that it looked good. It may not have been absolutely perfect, but it was close enough for me. What a relief. Wendy still makes fun of me for my freak out on this one. 

After letting our Death Star trash compactor support sit for a few hours, the glue had dried enough on the biscuits to remove it. The stain needed a small bit of touch up, but it looked pretty decent. I was able to pop the lights into the holes I had pre drilled, then I laid the base of the cabinets into place and we were in business.

I still had to build the shelves for the right part of the desk, but the desk as a whole was largely complete. The final step was the complete and utter geekification of the desk, but I'll cover that in a future post.

What do you think of the end result thus far in my tale of desk building? To say I was happy with how it was turning out is a complete understatement. I had so much anxiety going into the construction of this project, and so little experience, but it had all fallen into place with only minor speed bumps along the way.

Comments 15


1/11/2012 at 11:48 AM
Wow! Your desk looks amazing! I love it and the exposed brick. You guys did a great job.
Thanks so much Diana! Exposing the brick was a filthy project, but I'm so glad we did it.
1/11/2012 at 11:53 AM
This is such an amazing piece, I can't get over it!

I just discovered strap clamps for the first this past weekend. I saw it hanging in a hardware store and exclaimed how cool it was, haha.
Thanks Ashley!

Ahh, the sign of a true DIY nerd. Dorking out publicly over tools. Love it!
1/11/2012 at 11:57 AM
Looks great! Is there any chance you could do a post on how you set up the wiring for the desk lights?
Thanks! It won't be right away but I'll plan on doing one soon. Just need to look up what we used and where we got it.
1/11/2012 at 1:22 PM
That is an excellent desk. It's really top notch. You guys are out of sight..
1/11/2012 at 1:29 PM
looks amazing!!
1/11/2012 at 3:24 PM
I second everyone's comment. You guys have done an amazing job. It looks custom from some expensive furniture company.
Wow! Thanks Tonya.
1/11/2012 at 8:19 PM
Hey, with all the fuss about the custom crown, no picture? Awwww.....

Honestly, though, this is definitely something I'd notice (since I'm a cabinetmaker). I actually would love to see better (or larger) shots of that antique bookcase. I've been drooling all over it ever since you posted a photo of it.

I eventually want to build something like it (but more of a Gothic design) for my home office. Maybe in Mahogany? (I have a TON of mahogany crotch veneer that would look amazing on some doors).
I wanted to put a photo in but realized I didn't take any of that process. I'll have to take a few now that it is done. It's pretty simple actually, just a bead and a cove that makes a very small crown, but it does finish the top nicely.

We'll do a little post on that bookcase at some point here and I'll get the crown involved too. The bookcase has a bit of a funny story attached to it.

Having a stockpile of fine wood is something I wish I had room for. That and a planer and jointer. I see curly maple, cherry, and other great wood on craigslist that I'd love to pick up for just the right project.
1/11/2012 at 9:10 PM
Fantastic work man. Truly something to be proud of!
1/12/2012 at 8:07 AM
Awesome!!! :-)
1/12/2012 at 6:47 PM
Curly maple is probably my second favourite wood after crotch mahogany. I have a bunch of SMALL bits of it, and a whole bunch of veneer (very cheap on eBay if you ever need veneers. I think I got something like 100 sq/ft for 20$).

If you want a planer/joiner, get the planer first. The joiner is nice, but you can usually do w/o it. I was lucky to find a King 12" planer at a yard sale for 100$. It even came on a rolling cart. Keep an eye on Craiglist or similar local sites. I'm still after a proper cabinetmaker's saw (the kind that weighs 100's of lbs and is nearly impossible to move w/o taking it apart or using a forklift.
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