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Pipe + Lumber = a DIY One-of-a-Kind Desk

The other day, we wrote about the beautiful headboard we built for our daughter’s new apartment in Nashville which, by the way, is an amazing place to visit. Best known for the rowdy downtown area (also a blast!), the real Nashville is filled with parks and green spaces, great shops and incredible food. It is also the home of Frothy Monkey, a neighborhood coffee shop with a neighborhood vibe. The fresh, local ingredients are the foundation of simple, but unique, dishes. There are several locations throughout Nashville, but 12th South is our favorite. And as coffee lovers, we confess an addiction.

12th South Frothy Monkey

But we digress.

In our headboard post, we mentioned that Kassidy was having difficulty finding a desk that met her needs and would not break her carefully crafted budget.

She needed one that was L-shaped, able to hold two monitors, and sturdy enough to hold the resources necessary to do her job.

So we decided to build that, too. Jeff thought we were a little nuts. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what we were thinking when Kassidy and I claimed we could do this. It’s not as if we had ever tried something this detailed before. We are definitely amateurs!

But I thought back to the curtain rod we made out of industrial pipe, and I thought about the headboard, and I asked, “How hard could this be?

It wasn’t as easy as the headboard, but building our own desk was not Mission Impossible, either. There are a lot of steps, but once you see what we did, I think many of you will see how it’s done.

The beautiful part of this is that, even if you screw the wrong pipes together the first time, you can just unscrew them and re-do it. The wood is the only part where you have to be careful, and that’s the truly easy part. 

Be fearless! You’ve got this!

Disclaimer for the experienced DIY-er

If you are familiar and comfortable with projects such as these, many of the steps will be unnecessary for you. You’ve been there. You get it. Next.

But many of our readers are attempting these types of projects for the very first time. So we are going to be very specific in order to help them achieve success. Feel free to jump to the steps you need!

How to freak out the Home Depot staff

Much like when we gathered the materials for the headboard, the Home Depot staff in the lumber and pipe fitting sections had no idea what to make of us. We were towing this flatbed already filled with the wood for the headboard, adding wood for the desk to the pile as we moved back and forth between the lumber aisles, armed with our carefully drawn out plan of construction. 

I think they were used to carpenter or contractor-type people who keep everything in their heads or marked on floor plans or something. We were two women with graph paper. And when we asked them to cut all of that wood for us? Well, let’s just say none of those guys should play poker.

Choose your wood

Once again, choosing the wood you want to use is a key decision, both in how much work you will need to do and how much you want to spend. We had seen a number of plans that used butcher block. A 60”x24” slab of butcher block is approximately 2” thick, and will run you around $150. If you have that to spend, go for it. Our budget did not allow for that, especially as we needed one side at 60” and another at 48”. That would have put us over $200, just for the top of the desk.

Pressure-treated 2×8

We elected to use basic 2”x8” pressure treated lumber. Nothing fancy. With four boards on the longest side, cut to five-foot lengths, that section ended up 60Lx32Wx2H. The shorter side of the desk was three boards wide, and somewhat shorter at four feet – 48Lx24Wx2H. 

Cost of our desk top materials:

  • (2) 2x8x12’ = $30.00
  • (1) 2x8x8’ = $10.00

$40 is way cheaper than $200, even when you add in the cost of the 1x4s to hold it together.


Lesson Learned

In the next section, we’ll tell you what you need for this project. But we had a serious learning moment after we had all of our materials. A 2×8 is not actually 8” wide. It is 1½”Hx7¼”W. That’s right. The board is nearly a full inch shorter than advertised.

Why does this matter? Because you are cutting 1×4’s as cross pieces to hold the wood together. If you cut them based on an 8” wide piece of wood, you end up with several extra inches – a potential disaster if you do not have a circular or other type of electric saw at home. We were lucky enough to have one on hand, but not everyone does.


Based on a 4’x5’ L-shaped desk, here is what you need:

Wood:

  • 4 2×8” boards, cut to 60” each (grab 2 2x8x12’ boards & 2 2x8x8′ boards to keep costs down)
  • 3 2×8” boards, cut to 48” each
  • 3 1×4” boards, cut to 29” each (This will vary depending on the widths you choose)
  • 3 1×4” boards, cut to 21.5” each

Pipe and fixtures:

  • 7 – ¾” flanges
  • 7 – ¾” metal pipe caps for the ‘feet’ of the desk (you could use flanges here, too, but they add up to more $$)
  • 8 – ¾” tee (T-shaped) connectors
  • 1 – ¾” pipe union
  • 1 – ¾” pipe, 48” long
  • 1 – ¾” pipe, 36” long
  • 4 – ¾” pipes, 10” long
  • 7 – ¾” pipes, 4” long
  • 7 – ¾” pipes, 18-21” long (Length depends on the height you want the desk to be. Add this length + 4” pipe + 3-4” for connectors and ‘feet’ = 27”-31” height of desk. Figure out what you want in advance. The standard difference between the top of the seat of your chair and the desk is 9-13”. For optimal ergonomics, your legs should be at 90 degrees when seated. Sit in a chair and measure up. That will tell you how much total height you need.)
  • 2 8”-10” mending plates (Optional, as these will hold the two pieces of the desk together if you want that to be the case. If you do not want to connect them, add 1 flange, 1 cap, 1 tee connector, 1 6” pipe & 1 18” pipe to create another leg.)

Miscellaneous:

  • 50-60 1×1¾ ” wood screws (buy extra, in case you accidentally strip the screws – which we did on a few) the length of the screws depends on the thickness of your wood – they need to be long enough to secure two pieces together without going through the top of the desk
  • Sandpaper or a small, hand sander with medium weight sandpaper
  • Wood stain of your choice
  • Latex or vinyl gloves to protect your hands
  • Small pieces of cotton cloth to use for staining (Never use a paint brush to stain! It will not go on smoothly.)
  • Varnish (we chose a water-based varnish because it cleans up easier and dries more quickly)
  • A clean average-sized paint brush
  • 1 can spray paint for the pipes and fittings (we chose Rust-Oleum Universal All Surface Hammered Dark Bronze Spray Paint & Primer in One)

Tools:

  • A drill with both wood and screwdriver drill bits
  • A Phillips head screwdriver
  • Vice grips (for when you accidentally strip the screws and have to get them back out of the hole you made)
  • A Flat head screwdriver (for various uses – opening paint cans, removing stripped screws)
  • A measuring tape
  • A pencil
  • Something to secure your wood while drilling – another person, a clamp, or something heavy

Total Cost: $343.00

  • (2) 2x8x12’ = $30.00
  • (1) 2x8x8’ = $10.00
  • (1) 1x4x12’ = $7.00
  • (1) 1x4x8’ = $5.00
  • (7) flanges = $42.00
  • (7) pipe caps = $14.00
  • (8) tee connectors = $24.00
  • (1) galvanized pipe union = $7.00
  • (1) 48” pipe (pre-cut) = $11.00
  • (1) 36” pipe (pre-cut) = $16.00 (no idea why that cost more than the longer one!)
  • (4) 10” pipe (pre-cut) = $64.00
  • (7) 4” pipe (pack of 10) = $22.00
  • (7) 18” pipe (pre-cut) = $42.00
  • (2) mending plates = $8.00
  • Wood screws = $8.00
  • Wood stain = $9.00 (we had enough left from the headboard that we did not need to buy it twice)
  • Varnish = $17.00
  • Spray paint = $7.00

The basic steps for preparing the wood are the same as with the headboard, so I’m just copying them here for you.

Sand the wood

Step 1:  Lightly sand all sides of the wood pieces to remove any stray scratches or marks, and to smooth out rough edges. Pay special attention to ALL of the edges – sides and ends – sanding them to a slight curve in order to prevent them from snagging on your clothes. 

Step 2: Wipe down the wood with a damp cloth to remove any excess sawdust or dirt. Either will make your stain less smooth, and wreak havoc with your varnish.

**Optional Step** – Once you have sanded the wood, you have the option of distressing it for a more professional touch. We did not do this with the shiplap for the headboard, as it is less sturdy and we didn’t want to crack it. Lumber is just fine for this technique, though.

You can use the claw end of a hammer and a firm touch to hammer grooves into the wood. You could lay a large screw sideways, with the threads against the wood, and give a quick whack with a hammer. You could use the edge of the hammer itself to mark your wood, angling the hammer to the side a bit as you hit the wood. 

Play around with a scrap piece of lumber to find different looks. Home Depot has a great video tutorial on this.

If you do elect this step, we recommend that you stick to the ends of the wood rather than the middle, keeping the center of each desk as a smooth work surface.

Stain

Step 3: Lay the boards flat, on a clean sheet of newspaper. Shake the stain to ensure it is mixed thoroughly, then open it using a flathead screwdriver. Put on the gloves and wrap a piece of cotton cloth around your index and middle fingers. Dip them into the stain, and carefully smooth the stain on the wood, working with the grain. This should go on pretty quickly, but keep the coat even, with no drops or splotches. Be sure to wiggle the cloth into any knots in the wood, so the neutral color of the wood does not show through.

Completely coat one side and ONE end, moving each piece to the side to dry, and setting in on the NON-stained end. 

Let the wood dry completely, around 2 hours. Then, repeat, adding a second coat.

Step 4: After the second coat is dry, flip the wood over and repeat the process on the other side and the remaining unstained end.

Varnish

Step 5: Now is when you varnish. Why varnish the wood? Because varnish protects the wood from scratches & stains, and gives you a smooth finish. Do you have to complete this step? No, but why build something and not protect it from the coffee or drinks or whatever you set on it? You also want a smooth finish to the top of your desk, as you’ll be resting your arms and work materials on the surface.

Open the lid of the varnish and gently STIR. As we said in the previous post, do not SHAKE a can of varnish – ever. Shaking produces bubbles, which transfers to your wood, which you then need to sand out. You then have to re-stain and, well, you get the idea. Please, please stir!

Using the paintbrush, apply the varnish smoothly, in long strokes, again working with the grain of the wood. As with the stain, varnish only one end so you can stand the wood upright to dry. 

Drying will take at least 2 hours. We gave it 3, just to be sure.

Follow the same process as with the stain – let dry & repeat – but this time, apply 3 coats instead of 2. You want a nice layer of protection on that wood. Then flip the wood over and varnish the other side.

NOTE:  Don’t forget to stain and varnish the 1×4 boards, too. You want everything to be uniform in color, even though those boards are going on the back. These boards will be visible below the desk, and you want them to look as finished as everything else.

Placing the brace pieces on the back of the desk

Step 6: Once all the wood is stained and varnished, and the final coat is completely dry (I’d wait overnight for that, just because I was highly paranoid about messing it up.), lay the 2x8x60” pieces out on a large blanket or other soft covering and line them up. Given that there will be knots in the wood, you may want to play with the layout to ensure you don’t end up with a knot right where you would rest your arms or notebook. You can take a picture of the lineup, or make small marks with a screwdriver in the middle of each piece to indicate the order you like best.

Locate the center of the top board by measuring 30” from the outer edge. Mark that spot at the bottom. Measure and mark the 30” spot at the bottom, too. Lay one of the 1×4” pieces down the middle, with the center of the board over the two marks you made. Does this have to be absolutely perfect? Not absolutely. But the board will be visible, so for aesthetic purposes, do the best you can.

Once the board is in place, mark the board where it centers over each 2×8”. This is where you are going to pre-drill the holes for the screws, and you need one mark for each board in order to secure the center board to it.

You will repeat the process with the remaining brace pieces, but you will not be able to place them with 100% accuracy, as you need to wait to place these until after you have assembled the pipe frame and set it in place.

This is one of the great things about this set-up. If you have slight errors in the length of your pipes, it doesn’t matter. You will set the frame in place and then work the wood around it! Sooo easy!

But mark your spots, and pre-drill the holes using a drill bit that is one size smaller than your wood screws. As I said previously, Kassidy and I had no idea what sizes the bits were, so we eyeballed it and were fine. We used a tailgate table to keep the wood off the floor, and clamped down one end at a time to drill, then flipped it to drill the final holes. You could lay the boards across a garbage can if you had to – anything that doesn’t have a surface underneath.

Moving

There was no way we were going to be able to transport a fully assembled desk in the back of the Suburban we rented for Kassidy’s move. As with the headboard, we rolled up the wood in blankets and stuck it in the car. Just make sure you bring your drill, screws, etc. with you!

Spray painting

Step 7: Wipe down all pipes with a degreaser. Simple Green makes one that is super effective and easy to use – no rinsing required.

Step 8: Lay your pipes and fittings out on a sheet of plastic. If you have a yard, that is the best place, but a parking lot would also work. Keep in mind that you will need to leave the pipes to dry, so just make sure they will not be disturbed wherever you put them.

We used this Hammered Bronze spray paint, with a primer included to save a step. Priming the pipes helps the paint bond more thoroughly, making it last longer. We did not want to buy two products and then complete two steps, but you do have that option.

Shake the can of spray paint for a few seconds. Then, standing UPWIND, hold the nozzle approximately 6” from the pipes and spray, coating each pipe and fixture thoroughly. Let dry, approximately one hour. 

Turn the pieces over and repeat.

Once all sides are dry, double check to make sure you did not miss any spots, and touch up as necessary. Let dry.

Wipe down the pipes again just prior to assembly, to remove any residual dirt, dust, etc.

Pack up your pipes carefully if transporting, as the paint can scratch if scraped by another hard surface. We used a long tube-shaped packing box.

Assembling the desk

Step 9:  We began with the longer section, and lay the boards with the distressed side down; refer to your picture or markings for the order. Beginning with the center, we lined the boards up with the marks we made earlier. We set the center board in place, then, using a screwdriver bit on the drill, we screwed in the wood screws, working from the top down in order to ensure that the boards did not separate. They want to pull apart, so you need to constantly check that they are fitted tightly together.

Stop when the heads of the screws are flush with the top of the board. And DO NOT screw in the outside boards yet!

Repeat with the shorter desk boards, screwing in the center board only.

Assemble the pipe frame

Step 10: Screw one flange onto the end of each 18” pipe, Hold a T-shaped fitting so the top of the T is vertical and screw onto the other end. Screw in a 4” pipe to the bottom of the T, and add a cap to the end. That gives you one leg, with a flange on one end and a cap on the other. You will end up with 6 legs.

For the remaining leg, everything is exactly the same, but you connect the 18” pipe to the ¾” union fitting, making a standalone leg.

Step 11: Take two of the 10” long pipes and connect them with a T. Screw each end into the T-connectors on two of the legs. This makes one short side of the frame.

Repeat, using the two other 10” long pipes, another T and two additional legs to make the opposite end of the short frame.

Step 12: Take the 48” long pipe and screw one end into each of the T’s, connecting the two short sides together with what looks like a foot rest.

Step 13: Flip the frame over, flanges now facing DOWN, and set it on top of the larger desk section (which should still be upside down). Adjust the frame so the flanges are flat against the underside of the desk’s top, and the frame is square.

Step 14: To complete the frame for the short desk, simply screw the 36” long pipe into the T’s on the two remaining legs.

Step 15: Flip the frame for the shorter desk over, flanges now facing DOWN, and set it on the underside of the short desk’s top. Once again, adjust the frame so the flanges are flat.

Place the remaining 1x4s along the outer edges of the underside of the desk, outside the flanges, but do not screw them in yet. You’re just looking to figure out where they will go. 

Step 16: If you are joining the two desks together, move them into place, with the shorter desk forming the upside-down L. Be sure the two sections are fitted together tightly.

Now, you’re going to attach ONE side of each of the two mending plates.

In the corner where the two desks form a right angle, lift the 1×4 and slide the two mending plates underneath. You’ll note from the picture that we have the plates centered across both desk sections, with each one pushed to the outer edge of a single board in the desk.

Using one of your 1×1¾” wood screws and the screwdriver bit on your drill, screw the plate to the small desk only. If you screw them together, you need to be able to flip the entire, joined desk simultaneously, pretty hard if you’re working alone or with only one other person. 

Step 17:

Once the mending plates are in place, you can add the 1×4’s to finish holding the desk itself together. Using a Phillips head screwdriver, hand turn the screws through each hole in each piece of wood, working them into the wood until each is far enough in to stand up straight on its own. If you regularly work with electric drills, you may not need to do this, but we stripped several screws before we tried this, and the result was far less frustration.

Lay the board back over the mending plate.

Switch from the drill bit to a screwdriver bit (be sure to match up sizes with the screw you are using). Drill the screws in until the head of the screw is level with the top of the 1×4. Remember, this will happen fast, so pay attention. It’s a lot easier to drill in bursts and get the screw where you want it, than it is to try and reverse the screw out!

This will cement not only that side of the desk together, but will 

Repeat with all four of the 1x4s, completing the brace pieces on both desks.

Step 18: Hold the flanges in place and, using the same drill bit you used to pre-drill the holes for the 1×4 boards, pre-drill a hole through each screw hole in each flange and into the bottom of the desk. Just drill deeply enough to get the screw started, as you don’t want to risk drilling through the entire desk.

As with the 1×4’s, hand turn the screws until they are standing on their own, then, after you switch to the screwdriver bit on your drill, finish the screws until the tops are level with the top of the holes in the flanges.

Repeat with all 7 legs. 

When you have finished, your desk should look like this picture. The only difference is that we messed up and put the back pipe for the shorter desk at the top of the frame rather than the bottom. You can do what we did, but the aesthetics are a little off. Honestly? We were too tired at that point to make the switch!

Flip it over

Step 19: You will need two people to flip the desk over. Do that, positioning each section where you want it. Carefully move the smaller desk into place, with the mending plate UNDER the top of the bigger desk.

Attach the mending plate

Step 20: You need to move under the desk for this step, and you should really wear safety goggles. Using the drill, with the drill bit attached, carefully pre-drill through the holes in the mending plate, into the desk top.

Insert a screw and use your Phillip’s head screwdriver hand tighten just until the screw can stand on its own. Switch to the screwdriver bit, and use the drill to finish.

You can see that we had a lot of help!

You can raise or lower the height of the desk a ½ inch or so by tightening or loosening the ‘feet’ or the 4” pipes but, unbelievably, that’s it! 

The result is a beautiful desk, made to your specifications. Similar desks run upwards of $500 on Etsy, and the craftsmanship is excellent. What makes this special, though, is not the price. It’s the fact that Kassidy and I worked through this project together. She is 22. I am 52. We made mistakes, worked through differences of opinion, and both of us grew in confidence. As tricky as this was at times, we have a better relationship for having done it. And our best selves grew to be a little bit better.

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