Friday, June 21, 2013

Versatile Desk

June, 2013

Here's another of those "I'm really glad I did it once, but I wouldn't want to do it again" projects. Our trailer came to us with an old desk with two cupboards underneath. One side didn't even have a door. It didn't work as storage; it didn't work as a desk. One side was too narrow for two knees. How could we keep the aluminum frame feel of the original trailer while making the desk useful for travel storage or as a work-from-home desk?

BEOFRE: Original desk was missing a door.

AFTER:Storage and a pull-out keyboard tray.

For a closer look and for construction details, keep on reading.

New Features

A birch tambour door pulls down for travel. Underneath, a shelf can fold out to hold a basket for clothing. When knee space is needed, the shelf folds in half and serves as half deep storage. Permanent storage on either side makes a sturdy and secure place to store bottles.

Tambour door slides down for travel

Desk with chair

Shelf has a lip when folded.

The shelf flips out to support a basket

The Design:
The main bones of the desk consist of two upside-down U's made of 2x2 lumber. These go up at the front of the desk, spaced just wider than the knee opening, across under the desk top and as far down the back as the top of the wheel well will allow. These are very busy pieces of wood with a lot of jobs to do.

The desk frame attaches to the front edge of the 2x2s. The tambour tracks attach to the inside edges all the way up, over and down. Small boards supporting the keyboard sliders attach along the inside top, just below the tambour track. The desk top (butcher block) sits on the very top. The kickwall attaches to the front edge of the back 2x2s, but it doesn't go all way up. The tambour track travels over it to the backside of the kickwall.

The secondary bones of the desk are made mostly of 1/4" plywood. They consist of the kickwall, the desk sides and the front and inside walls of the bottle bins. The kickwall spans the full width of the desk, between the closet and kitchen stove bulkheads. The desk sides sit flush against those bulkheads. The sides of the bottle bins attach to the kickwall, then come forward, curve toward the outside of the desk and attach inside the back of the front 2x2s.  A final small piece connects those front 2x2s to the desk sides.

Hmmmm. Maybe pictures would help...

Construction and Assembly:

I started with the most intriguing part of the puzzle - How do I make a curved front corner for the bottle bins? It needed to be smooth, consistent and sturdy.

A strip of aluminum  is riveted and Gorilla glued over the seam

I used 4" ABS plastic drain pipe. Cutting the cylinder in half gave me an edge almost the same thickness as the plywood bin side it would butt against. Gorilla glue and rivets held the two pieces flush together.

Rivet heads are sanded down

After the glue set, I sanded the outer rivet heads down so they wouldn't make bumps under the veneer, which came next.

Making the front of the curved corner perpendicular to the side.

Making the bin side perpendicular to the desk front involved clamping the bin side at right angles to the front 2x2 piece. The initial clamping for this step had  the ABS in its half-cylinder shape. This made it easy to see where the bottom of the curve sat on the 2x2.

I marked the contact point and trimmed the ABS enough to give me room to screw the ABS to the 2x2, slightly off of  the vertical center. This left space on the 2x2 for the plywood front of the bottle bin that connected the 2x2 to the desk side.
Riveted aluminum angle connects the plywood elements

Here all of the plywood elements on the left side of  the desk are attached to the front 2x2. Most pieces were riveted together using angle aluminum. This mimics fairly closely the original construction used in the trailer. It also allows for clamping for test fittingI didn't have access to custom aluminum extrusions, but it's amazing what can be done with aluminum available at Home Depot.

Trim aluminum on the inner edge of the knee opening and along the top edge of the bottle bin came from Brunner Enterprises.

Tambour track continues behind kickwall

The tambour track continues across the top and behind the kickwall. Heavier aluminum angle supports for the desk top were bolted to the bulkheads on either side.

Vertical pieces on either side of the knee opening were riveted to the original aluminum desk frame.

Basket in position with tambour up, before desk top installation

A wire basket provides easily accessible storage when we are on vacation and no one needs to work at a computer all day.

If necessary, the shelf can be tipped all the way up against the kickwall and the basket can be held on edge in front of it for out of the way storage. But usually, when the desk is used as a desk, the basket serves as a stuff bin on the floor of the closet.

I've put this up in the hopes that it might be useful to someone who wants to modify a similar sort of space. For those who might actually try this, I'd recommend reading through the following list and then making one of your own of all the details that need to be juggled. Order of assembly became an issue. Circular dependencies are, in part, responsible for the fact that the keyboard sliders are not quite exactly parallel and bind somewhat when the tray is pushed all the way in. Other than that, I'm quite pleased with the result. It works and it looks like it belongs.

The Constraints:

How does one build a desk to meet barely compatible requirements?
  • The only available points for support are the back of the desk top,the sides, and the bottom front edge. 
  • The back edge of the desk top might not be quite parallel to the front edge, since the trailer side begins a slight curve inward toward the back end at that point. One hopes that the bulkheads on either side of the desk are approximately parallel.
  • The knee opening needs to be wide enough for, well, knees. 
  • The tambour needs to be wider than the knee opening. 
  • The tambour track needs to have a clear run up the front of the desk, under the desk top (but above the keyboard tray), and down the back of the desk until it nearly reaches the wheel well. 
  • There needs to be a kickwall in front of tambour at the back of the desk to protect the tambour when it is open. 
  • The full extension sliders for the keyboard tray need to clear the inside of the knee space opening and the tambour track as well as fitting under the bottom edge of the open tambour. 
  • The keyboard tray must be high enough off the floor for comfortable use. 
  • Reusing the original aluminum extrusions of the desk front fixes the height of the underside of the desk top. 
  • The basket shelf has to be narrower than the knee opening so that the basket will not hit the desk front when it slides out.
  • The basket shelf has to be deep enough to fully support a basket full of clothes, but also must be able to fold out of the way for legroom for the desk.
  • The space on either side of the basket shelf needs to be accessible storage suitable for bottles.
  • The bottle bins can't have sharp corners that could hurt if bumped by a shin under the desk.
  • Wasted storage space and weight must be kept to a minimum.
  • The whole thing needs to look like it belongs in a vintage Airstream.

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