A Stand-up Desk (Ikea hack)

With help from metalsmith-extraordinaire Dustin John and better-half Daniel Dunnam, I got to build my dream desk. Specifically, it is a minimalist convertible standing-sitting desk/storage unit made from Ikea cabinets, a top from Lowe’s and a linear actuator. It isn’t perfect*, but it has been awesome to use… and has practically banished the spiritually-degrading work clutter, which was in abundance (scroll down.)

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

—Marshall McLuhan (or, at least, popularly mis-attributed to him)

If you’ve ever tried to use Illustrator with the intent of avoiding something that wow, looks just like Illustrator!, then you’re familiar with the sentiment behind this quote. Unless actively willed otherwise, the tool defaults to the aesthetic style of Illustrator, as if by a laws of nature. Evidenced by this on-going background struggle: digital tools shape what we make. The same seems to be true of physical workspaces, although in my case, it took me quite a few years to accept that I… had a workspace problem.

Exhibit A. “A workspace problem”:

That desk—the place where I spent most of my life—was shamefully at odds with my habits. And my habits failed to adapt. And the piles of [important] junk and drawings piled up to the sky. After a few quick google searches, I realized the magnitude of this undertaking—that the only workspace likely to sustainably ward off entropy would be one that I made in the image of my own work habits themselves, a custom-built desk. Fearing the $-implications of this (and eager to build something BIG), I decided to go the DIY route, use as many pre-fabricated modular parts as possible, and rely on the kindness of favors from friends. My requirements were as follows: I needed a desk long enough to accommodate a variety of physical work, where I could stand or sit comfortably for 10+ hrs/day, that had tons storage for tools, that offered a way to visually assess work-in-progress/inspiration, and had a white surface for photographing finished work. And all of this needed to somehow materialize without first building a woodshop.

I began the quest with this super-helpful Ikea-hack “fauxdenza” project from the Brick House. Drawer pulls proved unnecessary in this floated state (the cabinets can easily be opened from the bottom):

After some strenuous sitting-down tests, I determined that the ideal seated desk surface height for my short self was 28″ and that I should use the 24″x 36″ Ikea Akurum wall cabinets as the desk’s basic building blocks. With that, I started building it out in Google sketchup (.skg file). My original schematic is on the left: flanking the to-be-levitated computering space are Ikea cabinets, which are floated off the floor and topped with white acrylic. How the computering-space would levitate, I did not know. After many a night of failed research into cranks, pulleys and motors, my buddy, Dustin hopped into the project. He determined that the levitating computering space (right), could be made in two parts. On the top: a cradle attached to the acrylic desktop surface. On the bottom: a routed desk-drawer-esque holster which the cradle would slide into. A linear actuator attached to a rocker switch would control the movement.

After double-checking the models and measurements, Daniel and I dove headlong into the land of meatballs and wooden pegs.

We assembled the white Akurum cabinets with dark brown doors, aligning the backs of each cabinet with Ikea’s standard cabinet rail-mounting system.

Because the desk only needed to float 2.5″ above the floor (and because of a pesky radiator situation), we decided to forgo mounting the cabinets to the wall as intended and instead supported them with stacked boards, which they overhang and disguise from view.

Meanwhile, Dustin built the cradle for the raising/lowering computering space, which works like a giant desk drawer turned on end, with rails made from a 1″x0.5″ length of yellow plastic. Here is a view from the side with the desk completely raised:

In the front, he routed a groove in the upper cradle and lower holster to keeps everything on track. (These grooves also serve the purpose of preventing the levitated desktop from tilting laterally.)

Behind this piece is the real magic: a linear actuator—a gadget [almost NSFW] which extends to raise and lower the cradle from its holster. Dustin sliced open a pipe to secure the actuator into the bottom holster (there is also a piece that centers it to the top cradle, which you can see off to the side):

Figuring out which actuator to order was tough… I ended up purchasing three for testing purposes and kept this one and this power supply:

*However, this model ended up being too slow and too loud (imagine a wheel-chair lift)—if I had it to do over again, I would find a 2x more powerful model.

Here is a diagram and a video showing how to attach the actuator to the rocker switch and power adaptor:

With everything attached and wired, Daniel slid the levitation-cradle against the wall, flush with the Ikea cabinets and then we bolted it together.

The rocker switch is tucked away, just out of view, in the seating area of the desk.

Then, we ordered the desktop material, which was the crazy indulgent splurge of this project (16 feet of LG Hi-Macs white acrylic) from Lowe’s countertop department (installation is included in the cost per sq. foot at least.) A nice grade of wood and/or doors and/or laminated particle-board would likely work just as well, but I’m a sucker for white acrylic surfaces. It took a loooooong while for it to get delivered (in retrospect, this should have been step #1.) In the meantime, I precariously balanced my computer on a board (first-world problems.)

The center piece of desktop surface is 2 inches wider than the cradle piece on each side—that way, when it is lowered, it rests upon the same surface as the rest of the desktop (creating the illusion of one continuous piece when in the seated configuration.)

A fancy thing that they can do with solid-state acrylic countertop material (like Corian or Hi-Macs) is that they can bond the corners to look completely seamless. (Although you must request this when ordering.)

My modest construction victory was creating these clear plexiglass drawers to house current project ephemera in-sight/in-mind, without being spread out all over the place. (Fair warning: Unless you really like minutia and/or are really attached to your millimeter ruler, I wouldn’t recommend building your own drawers. They can be mathematically perfect and still stick.)

The drawer slide hardware came from Chinatown and the pre-routed drawer sides came from the internet. I drew the drawers fronts/pulls in illustrator (file) and ordered them from Ponoko (convenient, but pricey… avoid it by talking a friend into using their laser cutter.)

Adhesives used: Clear gorilla glue (dries white… boo!) and Weld-On Plexiglass glue, which can only be used to bond plexi to plexi, but *incredibly* chemically reconfigures the polymers in the plexiglass to form a very solid bond, as if it were one piece.

After tearing the top and bottom off of it, this Alex drawer fit seamlessly into the cabinet and houses all of our hardware and tools.

Ta-da, the final thing… and me (and the cat) being rather pleased with it. If you have any ideas to approve upon this design (especially if you find the Goldilocks actuator), let me know and I’ll update the post. And if you’re embarking on a similar project and need construction help, hire Dustin—he has built everything, even an indoor tree.

Yeah! Done.

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