Monday, January 16, 2012

Customizing your desk

For every new desk I've built, I've customized half a dozen.  The underlying structure of an existing desk may be just right, but some part of it needs to change to make the desk more comfortable to use, work better or fit in new equipment.
Over the last 30 years the equipment on a desk has changed more often than at any time since the introduction of the typewriter.  Some desks, such as the roll top or fall front, don't generally function well with a computer monitor, though they may be more flexible to use with a laptop computer.  If you start with a flat desktop however, you can keep your desk and customize it to suit your equipment and way of working.

Remember to make any customization reversible.  If you drill holes through your desktop to hold a support in place, next year or even next month some other change will mean you have to fill those holes and they may not look good.

1.  List the things you want at your desk.
Think of your desk as a workbench.  If you're like me you'll have had times when you've been doing project after project without taking the time to put tools back where they ought to be and your desk may be in a mess.  Look at the things you already have on it and decide what needs to be there and what doesn't.  Get a box and pile in all the stuff that is just sitting there for no good reason.  You can go through it all later - for now you want to list just what you want to be on your desk.

Of the items on your list are there any that could live elsewhere?  One common problem is a printer.  It can have a big footprint on the desktop, but may not be in constant use.  A solution for this can be to move it into a closet.  A simple tea tray stand on casters gives you a place for a printer on top and a shelf below for paper and can be rolled out of the closet or left in there for most printing jobs.

2.  Work out comfortable places to put things on, in or under your desk.
I recommend the use of a swivel chair with a desk for comfort.  If you will be spending long periods of time at your desk, taking regular breaks to stretch and using a swivel chair will help prevent you locking into position.  If you sit on the floor, stand at your desk, use a stool or wheelchair, still take those breaks.

The most prominent thing on a desktop these days is a laptop computer or a computer monitor with its keyboard and mouse.  Where is the most comfortable place for you to use it?  For many people the center of the desktop, with keyboard in the middle and mouse to the left or right, is the obvious choice.  The disadvantage with this is that your desktop is now divided with a space to the right and left of the monitor and keyboard.  If you do a lot of drawing or handwriting, work with reference books or like to spread out paperwork, it can be better to make a separate stand for your computer to the right or left of your desk.  This leaves the rest of your desktop comparatively clear.

With the computer issue resolved, work out where you want other necessities like your phone, lamps, coffee mug, pencils, sharpener, project files, iPad, in tray and so on.  Take into account the possibility of using different levels, how far you want to reach for things and how often you use them.  Use anything you have to hand to help you test and shim to get the positioning just right - stacks of books, cardboard boxes, blocks of wood (making sure they are stable), even spare bookcases (clamped securely so they don't fall over of course).  Test over a number of days as your perception of what is comfortable one day may not be true the next.

3.  Design the extra storage and supports and how they will be fitted.
Measure the temporary supports you've used to test your comfort and work from those measurements to design your supports.  By all means be creative and use a style that fits in with your taste, but the function of the parts and their strength in use are the most important design factors.

Remember the need to make customizations reversible and avoid drilling holes in your desktop.  Small supports that can stand alone are less likely to skid around if they stand on non-slip material like shelf liner.  Tall supports like the shelving on my project desk design can have felt pads under their uprights to protect the desktop and extended backs that can be screwed out of sight behind your desk.

If you add a separate stand for your computer to keep your desktop clear, keep it simple, leave room for your legs and make it mobile - particularly if it would otherwise block desk drawers or other storage that you need to access.

4.  Build the custom parts.
If the first three stages have been carried out correctly, the final one, building the custom parts, will be the fun bit.  In later posts I'll be looking in detail at custom parts for particular situations.

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