How To Build A Simple Floating Desktop + Shelves!

shelvesdesk1

If you saw the big post about my office a couple of weeks ago (indeed, I am still talking about that…), you may remember that I promised a little tutorial for how I built the super simple floating desktop and shelves! I’m really proud of how these elements of the room turned out—they were very easy to construct, pretty inexpensive, and look and function exactly how I wanted them to. There isn’t anything particularly fancy about them, but I sort of like that—they’re clean and modern but still look a little homespun and handmade, which I think is kind of nice and appropriate for this modest room.

The basic construction of the shelves and the desktop is exactly the same: cleats underneath, a 3/4″ thick board on top, and a 1″x2″ piece of lumber glued and nailed to the front edge to give it the extra bulk, which serves both to hide the cleats and make them look a little more substantial and finished. See? Simple! Now I’ll make it complicated for you.

steps1

The most difficult part of the project is probably creating and securing the cleats onto the walls. Because I wanted the 1″x2″ board in the front to conceal the cleats, I had to make my own skinny little 3/4″ thick cleats to support the desktop and shelves. If that’s confusing, it’s probably because wood dimensions at the hardware store are a bit misleading—a 1″ thick x 2″ wide board is actually 3/4″ thick x 1.5″ wide. So, because only 1.5″ of wood would cover both the edge of the 3/4″ thick desktop and the cleat, the cleat could only be an additional 3/4″ without peeking out the bottom.

I probably just made that more confusing. Lesson: wood is smaller than the label says it is. Measure it if you’re unsure.

STEPS:

1. I used some scrap 3/4″ thick pine lumber and cut it into 3/4″ wide strips with a circular saw for the cleats. A table saw would have made things a little more precise, but I don’t have one! Then I used a miter saw to cut them to the right lengths. For the desktop I only made two cleats—one for either side, since I didn’t want to drill into the wallpaper. For the shelves I made 3 cleats for each shelf—both sides and the back. I made three equally-spaced pilot holes with an 1/8″ drill bit in each cleat, and then went back with a 1/4″ drill bit just to enlarge the top of each hole so that the screw heads would sink below the face of the wood (allowing me to fill and paint the holes later).

2. I used a level and a pencil to mark where I wanted the top of each cleat, and aligned the cleat with this line. I inserted a smaller drill bit through my pre-drilled holes and into the wall a bit, just to give myself the most accurate guide for where to drill my pilot holes for my anchors.

3. After drilling my three guide holes in the wall and setting the cleat aside, I went back to the guide holes and enlarged them with a 1/4″ drill bit, which was the size required by my plastic anchors. This will obviously vary based upon what type of anchor you use, but normally the package will specify what size drill bit is required.

4. There are lots and lots of different anchors on the market for different weights/applications/wall materials, but for plaster I generally find that regular plastic anchors work very well.  You should be able to insert the anchor into the hole nearly all the way with your hands, and then you’ll want to tap it flush with the wall with a rubber mallet or hammer.

screws

The anchors come with their own screws, but because the screw had to go through 3/4″ of wood, I needed longer screws to make up for it. Plastic anchors like these will interface fine with other types of screws, but you do want to make sure that the screws are the same (or a bit bigger, even) thickness. These #10 wood screws were as thick as the screws that came with the anchors, but the 2″ length gave me the length I needed to go through the wood and the anchor.

Note: obviously screwing directly into studs would give your project the most strength, but that isn’t always an option for applications this small. It can also be difficult to find studs in plaster walls because spacing may be non-standard and stud-sensors generally do not perform well with plaster & lath. Anchors such as these are typically rated to bear a certain amount of weight, so read the package and use your best judgment. These cleats are more than secure enough for shelves this small, even if they were loaded with books.

steps2

5. Insert the screws partway into the cleat with your screwdriver, then hold the cleat up to the anchors, align it, and drive the screws all the way in. Once all three screws are in, the cleat should be very securely attached to the wall.

6. This wasn’t really necessary, but I chose to patch over the screw holes with Ready Patch, sand, and paint the cleats with the same paint as the walls. It didn’t take very long, but I do think it looks a bit more finished to have the screw heads concealed and the cleats a bit more camouflaged.

7. Then it’s time to cut the shelves! I used 3/4″ thick x 12″ wide boards for the shelves and 3/4″ x 18″ wide for the desk. These boards were the big revelation of this project:

aspenpanel

I did not know that these existed, but at a magical land called Lowe’s, you can buy these fancy pants panels in all these different dimensions for cheap. The largest pine boards available are usually only 12″ wide (which is really 11.5″, remember…), and I really wanted the desktop to be a continuous surface rather than multiple boards butted up against each other with seams. These panels are really just a few pine boards joined together to make a bigger pine board, which isn’t necessarily all that fancy, but they do feel and function as a single piece, which is exactly what I wanted. I know that it’s obviously possible to join wood on your own, but I’ll leave that kind of woodworking time/effort/expense for someone else. For this, these panels were an absolutely perfect solution.

Because the walls are old and wonky, each shelf required its own special dimensions and finagling. I could have really gone all-out and made templates of each shelf and scribed everything and cut them to the exact crazy irregularities in the wall, but that just seemed like way too much effort to put into these little corner shelves that would be covered with stuff anyway. Once the 1×2 is nailed to the front, the fit really does look perfect and precise. After the shelves were in place, I nailed them into the cleats from above just to give them a little extra security.

supplies

8. To finish off the build, I just had to affix 1″x2″ select pine boards (I tried to buy the prettiest/straightest ones I could find at the store) to the front edge of the shelves/desktop. After cutting them to the proper lengths, I applied a line of wood glue to the 1×2, and held it up the the edge of the shelf with one hand and nailed it into place with the other.

I’d highly recommend a pneumatic nail gun for this part. It may not be totally necessary, but it does make it much easier to keep everything flush and positioned correctly. I have a Craftsman Evolv Air Compressor with 2 inch Brad Nailer, which is OK for stuff like this. I really liked this thing when I first got it about 6 months ago, and in all fairness it’s seen quite a bit of use in that time, but for some reason recently the PSI won’t go above 60 (which is the minimum working PSI)! I can’t seem to figure it out, other than to say that it just probably isn’t a very well-made piece of equipment. If all you’re ever doing with it is installing a little crown molding and base shoe it’s probably great, but I’m sure I’ll end up investing in something heavier-duty down the line—both because I’ll probably need bigger guns for bigger nails (and higher PSI) and because this one already seems to be failing, unfortunately. It is cheap, though. I’ll say that much!

ANYWAY. Once the 1×2 wood is attached, all you need to do is fill the nail holes with a little wood filler, wait for it to dry, and give it a little sanding, paying special attention to the wood filler! The panels and select pine should already be pretty smooth, but it doesn’t hurt to give them a few passes. I also drilled a 1.5″ hole in the back corner of the desktop for lamp/computer cords and sanded that smooth as well.

Then I just wiped everything down with a damp lint-free cloth and sealed with a satin water-based polyurethane! I have to say, I ALWAYS seem to get lazy and skimp on poly (or any finishing coat, really…), but I am publicly pledging to not do that anymore. I did 3 coats of water-based poly (sanding lightly with 220 grit sandpaper in between coats), and the finish feels so nice and smooth and durable and has a very pleasant sheen. I used water-based both because it dries fast and cleans up easily and because it won’t yellow over time. I really wanted to preserve the pale tone of the pine rather than risk yellowing it with an oil-based product.

deskafter

That’s it! The desktop and shelves probably cost all of about $85 in materials, which is just fine with me.

Cheap! Easy! Fun! Functional! Stylish! Huzzah!


39 Comments

  1. Dang, those shelves look beautiful! And they seem really simple, which makes me want to put similar shelves up all over my house right now.

  2. Thanks for breaking down this process! We’ve got a big office re-do project on the horizon, and I like the built-in floating desk idea. This is a really nice small space. Lovely!

  3. Gorgeous! and I’ve got the same brad nailer and mine would also not go above 60 psi until I turned the green knob (the round one visible in the picture above–sticking out the back). That worked for me….maybe it will for you too? hope so! Thanks for the tutorial and bravo on the office.

    • Yeah, unfortunately mine is turned all the way up and it still won’t go above 60! It worked great for a while (and yes, that knob does adjust the pressure—I remember having to turn it DOWN before to stay within the 60-100 range!), but now it hates me.

      • Check to see if your hose or connections are leaking, mine do a little so I expect to upgrade to a better (more durable) hose soon. Or maybe it just hates you.

      • I will, Pat! That could very well be the problem.

  4. The price point may be a little higher up there, but we’ve had this one for a few years and it hasn’t failed yet: http://www.lowes.com/pd_349204-70-C2002_0__?productId=4764588&Ntt=compressors&pl=1&currentURL=%3FNtt%3Dcompressors&facetInfo=

    • Thanks, Sterling! I think I’ve checked that one out in the store…I don’t have any real reason to upgrade right now, but if/when I do, I’m glad to have the recommendation!

  5. Looks great! How long is that desK? Any worry it will start bowing without a cleat to support the middle?

    • The desk is about 60″ long, so I know I’m pushing the limit! I guess I’ll wait and see…it’s not really supporting any weight, so I was hoping I could get away with leaving it as-is. If it does start to bow over time, I think I’ll devise a leg situation that can support it from the floor so that I don’t have to drill into the wallpaper! Anna did something similar in her old apartment and used pieces from some IKEA trestle legs to support the middle, so I have a plan if I need it!

  6. We’ve had a single display shelf like that planned for a spot at the end of a hallway; this post might get us moving. Motivation is good. But that wallpaper is still the best! (The Anthology issue I ordered arrived and I read it straight through, after starting with your essay. Very entertaining piece. So glad you mentioned it here!)

  7. oh, don’t get me wrong – your diy skills are amazing + envious. but i can’t stop staring at the beautiful wallpaper.

  8. Easy does it, well done. I’d be afraid for the desk to bow in time, especially if only supported at both edges. Have you taken that into account? I’ve seen shelves of 1/2″ thick bow in a cupboard over a width of around 4′, 5′ max, after which I added two cleats underneath, I believe each 3/4″ as well. Just a thought…

    • Koen, see my response to Laura C, above! Long and short is, I didn’t want to damage the wallpaper by adding another cleat, but I think I have a plan if I need it!

      • That’s an option indeed, what I meant in my comment (but clearly failed to mention) was that I added my cleats parallel to the wall, so in your case that would be two cleats of 60″ long underneath your desk.

        That way you don’t have to drill through your wallpaper (you can fix them to both cleats against the wall already) but you do have reinforcement against bowing that isn’t visible at all. If you don’t plan on having much weight on your desk, it might be an option as well, just give it a thought.

  9. Ooh I’ve been thinking about outfitting some corner shelves! Just might have to give that a try!

  10. this might be obvious but… how did you get the lamp cord in to place?

    • I mentioned it in the post, but there’s a 1.5″ hole in the back corner of the desktop (behind the lamp) for cords to go through! :)

  11. My boyfriend swears by Craftsman tools simply because they are all covered by a lengthy warranties and will replace your defective tools in the store without any hassle. I believe the nail gun you have is covered for one year (check here: http://www.craftsman.com/shc/s/nb_10155_12602_NB_CSwarranty). So if you bought it 6 months ago, you should be golden– just take it back to the store and trade it for a working one. Easy-peasy.

    • That’s good to know, thank you! I always kind of forget that stuff like that is an option, but you’re absolutely right!

      • You’re welcome! I had no idea about the awesomeness of Craftsman warranties until I met my boyfriend. I went with him to return a 12 year-old wrench once and it was so easy that I got confused as to what was happening: He wordlessly handed the broken wrench to the clerk, along with a new wrench that he’d grabbed from the shelf, and the clerk just nodded and said something like, “you’re good to go” and tossed the wrench in a bucket on the floor. That was the entire transaction. It was really odd.

  12. What I love most about your desk is how the right side is cut around the wall a bit. It is such a nice looking touch!

  13. Re: the possibility of the desk bowing: one thing you could do is add a stiffening piece along the back edge on the underside of the desk (without doing anything to the wallpaper). Basically, what I’m imagining is something like a 1×2 or 1×3 piece of wood, where a narrow edge is butted up against the bottom of the desk along the back edge, and screwed in from below. The wide flat side would be against the wall. It would stiffen the desk surface, like how an I-beam is made rigid by the middle part of the beam.

    Like the difference between how much flex a 5′ flat piece of aluminum stock would have versus an L-shaped piece that’s the same length.

    Maybe/hopefully it won’t be an issue, but you do have some options that don’t involve marring the beeyootiful wallpaper : )

  14. (and doesn’t that last sentence look like I’m talking about marrying your wallpaper??)

  15. Okay, the shelves and desk look great – but my biggest take away from this post are those wood panels you bought! And in the lengths they come in! And their price point! Just imagine if I had known about these when I was building my fauxdenza all those years ago.

    • I know, they’re PERFECT for fauxdenza-topping! I used cheap plywood on mine and it looks fine, but I think this stuff would probably be nicer. Now if they came in 8′ lengths, that’d really be something…

  16. What sheen of poly did you use? Semi-gloss?

  17. Love the look! cant wait till you start finishing more rooms (no pressure). I just wondered if you find the desk a bit narrow? or maybe that’s just me loving to spread out all over the place, and keep my imac an arms length away from me.

    • Thanks, Megan! I don’t personally find the desk narrow, no, but I guess I’d probably want it to be deeper if I worked on a big iMac! I just have a little MacBook though, so it’s great for that. In general I don’t really love really deep desks, just because I find that the outer reaches tend to collect stuff! I’m the type of person who’s always battling piles of paperwork all over the place, so it’s helpful for me to have a space that doesn’t really allow me to clutter it. I really just want this room to be a small peaceful place where I can focus and get stuff done, so keeping clutter away was important to me. No distractions!

  18. I’m so happy to read this post! We have a funny addition created by the previous owners that is screaming for these shelves. Thanks for the instruction.

  19. Looks brilliant, Daniel. Nice work. The satin finish is the perfect choice too.

  20. Love the office and wish I had a small room like that in my house! Question for you- What do you use to repair small holes in plaster walls (like for nail holes)? I bought some plaster patch from the store but it is total junk!

  21. I hope you don’t mind the unsolicited advice … when sanding wood filler on nail holes and the like, use an emery board. This makes quick and easy work of sanding and feathering the filler flush with the wood surface for small repairs like nail holes.

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