Building the Perfect Writing Desk

Well, perfect was the goal, and while I didn’t reach it, the result is more than good enough. I’m very happy with the results. It looks awesome and works great.

How did I get here? It took a bit of work.

First, I did a lot of research on sit/stand desks. I’ve been reading reviews for over a year, looking up articles and websites. Finally, I decided what I really wanted couldn’t be found online, at least not entirely. I’d buy a frame and make my own desktop. A live edge slab desktop; something that wasn’t just functional, but beautiful, fit into our house and the environment around us. Something that enhanced our cool new office.

I finally decided on the Apex adjustable frame. It had enough height adjustment to work for me—I’m fairly tall at 5’10½”—and a desktop length adjustment too. It was around $350, which is pretty reasonable. When Amazon Prime Day came along, I ordered one. Yeah for free shipping, because this sucker is heavy. It was pretty easy to put together, although needing three different hex head sizes seems a bit much. Apex supplied all three wrenches, but…

It works well. It’s fairly quiet and runs smoothly. I do wish it went down just a bit further. One other note: if you’re planning on using a keyboard tray, most of these desks have a big center bar that interferes with a lot of the better keyboard tray mounting systems. So, plan ahead. Also, order a standing mat at the same time. Mine’s a Terra Mat by Cube Fit and I like it a lot. But I’m a fidgeter—if you’re a stationary kind of person, a flat mat might work better.

Finding the right live edge slab was a challenge too. I found a local supplier and one in nearby Missoula. The guy near me (3Z Hardwoods) was available to meet with me, so off I went. He had a warehouse full of beautiful slabs. The problem was, I needed one that was at least two feet wide by six feet long. That kind of width means a really big tree. We found a few potential slabs, then he remembered some more in his drying shed. It was already in the 90s and smoky, but the drying shed? Oof. 110⁰F. That’s hot.

Anyway, he pulled out a couple of huge slabs of Bubinga, sometimes known as white walnut. It’s pretty, lighter colored than walnut, and much softer, so it’s easier to work with. Also, the red tones in the wood blend better with our slate floor and red mahogany-stained trim. It cost $300. I bought it and brought it home that day. 

By the way, I could have ordered something off the internet, but it would have cost at least half again as much plus shipping, the color might not be true to the photo, and I wouldn’t get all the great advice Jack gave me. Always buy local if you can.

Jack suggested coating it with a two-part epoxy. I’d read several articles about finishing live edge slabs and many of them suggested the same thing for anything that might get wet or abused. Oil finishes are beautiful, but not as durable, and the wood shifts more with changes in humidity and temperature. Jack gave me some good tips too, most of which are in this awesome post: http://lumberjocks.com/topics/58398  Check out the great videos and articles by Charles Neil (CN)—truly an expert.

Jack suggested leaving the bark on the slab, but everything I’d read said it would just be a matter of time before it came off and more importantly, I’d be moving around my desk a lot. I needed a smooth edge. It is a shame, though, because the bark is really beautiful. If I do a companion piece, maybe I’ll leave the bark on.

I brought it home and started removing bark and sanding. That’s when I found a whole lot of beetle-chewed wood. I pulled as much of it out as I could, using a wire wheel on an electric drill and cheap wood chisels, but it left big gouges to fill. I probably should have checked the slab for soft areas and beetle holes before I bought it. I put a long screw perpendicular to a crack to hold it closed. I also pulled out the branch stubs. I could have left those in, but they were difficult to sand. Hindsight being 20/20, I’d leave them in next time. Sanding wasn’t too bad, I used a belt sander from Harbor Freight and a wedge sander then did some final sanding by hand with a drywall sanding block and 220 grit sandpaper. Make sure you wear an N95 mask while sanding—sawdust is bad for the lungs. I checked to make sure the piece was level—or mostly level—with a metal bar. That’s the other good part about epoxy—use enough of it and it will level out any low spots. 

Jack had another great suggestion: fill holes and gouges with something decorative. He likes turquoise or coral flakes, but I was looking for something less flashy, more native to the area. I ended up using polished rocks, the kind used in vases for flower arrangements. I bought a huge jar at Target for $5. I also used ebony stain to consistently color the knot holes. If you do this, make sure the stain dries completely before using epoxy.

Right after I finished sanding and staining, I went to West Texas for a Team Rubicon class, then to Dallas and Houston to kick off Operation Hard Hustle, for Hurricane Harvey cleanup. When I got back 17 days later, the piece had warped a bit. I found that out when I tried to level it for the bottom coat of epoxy. After I checked the top few times, I decided it wasn’t warped enough to really bother me. That turned out to be true—it doesn’t affect my use as a desk at all. It was hot, dry and smoky in Montana, but still, the slab changed in those two weeks. If your piece warps, you can plane or sand it flat again, or level it during installation with washers; there are other methods too, but they’re beyond my woodworking ability.

Since I hadn’t worked with two-part epoxy before, I did a test piece. I took a scrap of the slab, mixed a small amount of epoxy, coated the scrap and put some rocks on. It worked great and really brought out the color in the wood. Also at Jack’s suggestion, I created a “paint booth” in my garage—I stapled up cheap plastic drop cloths to keep some of the dust and bugs out. Unfortunately, I did this before my trip to Texas, and I did end up with some dust in the area. But it did keep out the flies. One other note—for the epoxy to work well, it has to be above 70⁰F in your curing area. Since it was mid-September when I got back, I had a limited window to work with; our garage is unfinished and unheated.

With the size of the knot holes in my slab, I knew I had to fill them in stages, or the epoxy would heat too much, potentially cracking the wood. On my slab, the first hole-filling pour went great. Mixed it according to the directions, poured it in, put some rocks in, and it dried solid.

The second pour? Not so great. I got my proportions wrong and added too much hardener. Back in the day, with old-style resin, too much hardener meant it set faster and hotter. Not true for epoxy. It was a sticky, nasty mess. And worse, everything I read said you had to get it all off/out, or it would seep through the good stuff you poured over it—which is true. Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t dig all of it out without removing a lot of wood. I seriously considered drilling a smaller knot all the way out, but I managed to get enough of the crap out. I used a bunch of metal dental tools, a brass gun cleaning brush, a brass bore cleaning brush and lots of acetone. It took forever and I never did get all of it. In most cases, I got enough.

Moral of the story? Be very precise with your measurements. Follow the instructions exactly.

The next pour went fine. Filled the holes, put rocks in, got most of the bubbles out with a propane torch, no problem. It was really smoky in Montana, so I did end up with some dust in the biggest hole—it looks a bit cloudy. Got up the next morning and boom. Problem. Some of the remaining soft sticky stuff did seep through. I ended up drilling a big chunk of wood and sticky out of one knothole, and shattering a piece of the big ‘river’ on the edge, then scrubbing and sanding away more sticky stuff.

At this point, I was tired of working on it, I was running out of hot days, and I wanted to use it. So, rather than staining the newly exposed wood, I decided to get it done. If you look closely, you can see the difference, but at a glance, it’s not obvious. The edge in the river where I broke the epoxy is pretty obvious and causes some odd reflections when the light hits it.

I very carefully mixed the rest of the epoxy in the correct proportions.

Next, I poured a very thin seal coat over the whole top. As suggested, I used a propane torch to pop the bubbles that come up. They’re caused by air escaping the wood as the epoxy penetrates and the CO2 from the torch pops them, not the heat. Unfortunately for me, I kept getting bubbles in a few places as the epoxy hardened, and I ended up with a bunch of them, too hard to pop. I let the seal coat cure for a couple of days, then wet-sanded it with soapy water and 220 grit paper and wiped it with acetone before pouring the next coat.

That went pretty well. I used a cheap foam brush to evenly coat the sides and get rid of most of the drips. But, once again, I ended up with bubbles in the same places as the epoxy hardened and the torch couldn’t take out the bubbles anymore. I also ended up with an odd hollow in one spot—right where I’d dug out some soft stuff previously. I think something gave way just as the epoxy was starting to harden and sucked it down.

I considered doing another coat but decided I wanted to start using the desk more than I wanted perfect. Besides, the same bubbles might happen again. If I’d thinned the seal coat with acetone as CN suggested, would that prevent the late bubbles? Or soaked the slab with alcohol before I finished it, as a post I read later suggested? I don’t know. Something to research if you’re considering a project like this.

I also considered doing the sanding/polishing CN talks about to bring the finish down to a satin rather than a high gloss, but again, I wanted to use the thing. I have stories to write, darn it!

The slab turned out to be a bit too narrow on one end for the desk frame. But, I made use of the extra mounting point to mount the desk controller there instead. It works great. I was careful to drill my mounting holes a little large – even though I sealed both sides, wood shifts and moves with temperature and humidity, so if you fasten it down too tightly, you can crack your slab. I used a few washers and longer screws on the end that warped up. It’s a heavy slab and I don’t have kids so I’m not worried about it coming off the frame.

So, in the end, I think it looks great and works even better. I need a monitor I can mount on a pole to make it an ergonomically perfect desk, but I really like it just using my laptop. I put my Dilbert calendar over the worst bubbles and I ignore the others. Could it be better? Sure. But I live my life according to the principal of “Perfect is the Enemy of Good Enough” and it’s definitely true for a desk. I don’t need perfect, I need something comfortable that holds my coffee, my computer and looks good.

I think I succeeded. What do you think?

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