I made this

Late last summer I almost, but not quite impulsively, because that’s as impulsive as I manage to get, decided to build something. I needed a project, which was the larger point, something I could tangibly touch and shape. I also needed the end product, which was more of a secondary benefit of the thing, really.

So I went to the site of some new condominiums that are being built nearby and I found the construction foreman. He looked at me like I was crazy, but he ultimately let me pick through some of his wood pallets. (There are safety considerations to follow.) I took nine of them home:

DIY Desk

Now, I found my project by looking at the work of others, and I talked to one of the guys who inspired the look. He said his took him about 20 hours of work. So I figured a super productive, hard, long weekend would get me close.

Hah.

I started disassembling the pallets and it took just under an hour per unit. And then I found a faster way, which saved a significant amount of time, but it still wasn’t the best or easiest way. It was tedious, hot and tiring. Eventually, though, I had them all broken down to their many pieces of rugged lumber.

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These pallets had been used to haul in exterior stone and who knows what else at a construction site. Like other pallets there is the possibility that they’d had other jobs before them, too. So they were beaten up pretty good. But I’ve washed them and sawed them and then removed all of the nails from the slats. That step alone took the entirety of my super productive, hard, long weekend.

Now, I’m doing this with nothing more, so far, than a skill saw, a hammer and a pry bar. I just bought a belt sander, which will come into play later. I’d originally considered a hand planer, but I’m ultimately glad I didn’t go that direction. I also needed a table saw and something to clean up the edges. Because look at this stuff:

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This sent me on a fairly interesting search. I found what amounts to a local woodworking and metalworking cooperative. Burl and Ingot is a private club that you can join, but they have an open house on Wednesday nights. The general principle is “Come in, do what you need, then get on with your life.” This was perfect for my needs. I spent three Wednesday nights up there, the first, a six-hour session with a jointer, cleaning up the long sides of the slats, and then two shorter evenings cleaning up the narrow ends and cutting for size on a table saw. They look a bit better now, don’t they?

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Not all of those pieces would make it into the final project, which is a shame in a way, but the whole of the work was just a big exercise in taking things as they come. It really was a “the universe provides” sort of effort, which might be a phrase I’ve probably never uttered before.

This completed the second phase of the project, though. And, as usual, that means you have to move on to the third phase. The third phase was really the first point that had some no-going-back elements to it. So I’d talked with a lot of people and even made some paper models and tried every which way possible to find a flaw in my logic. Because I could not find a flaw, I assumed it must be an important one.

Anyway, I measured everything over and over and then started drilling. Four holes in each slate, at particular distances, both from the ends and from the top. This had to be close to very, accurate, because the lumber was going to line up on half-inch threaded rods, like this:

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You can see a bit of the progress as I built it out from the center:

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Of the nine pallets, all of the slats that survived the removal process made it on to the rods. If anything at this stage I was wishing I’d gotten three or four more pallets for size and selectivity, but its working so far. Here it is with almost all of the pieces on it:

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To add some more size and character, and to just use some of the decent pieces of lumber, I put some two-by-fours on each side. This was the only place I really erred on any of the lumber.

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Late on the last night of phase three I managed to put one of the two-by-fours on backward and didn’t realize it until too late. The piece got wedged in the threaded rods and wouldn’t get all the way home. I forced it on such that I couldn’t get it off after I realized the problem. I had to cut the thing apart to remove it. And that meant putting on a backup piece. But other than that, things are still going well. Here’s all of the lumber assembled:

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Which leads us to no one’s favorite part of a project, the sanding. I bought a belt sander, and it is pretty incredible. I hit the top with an 80-grit belt, and then a 100- and 200-grit belt. You’d hardly know from the tops that this wood had an industrial job in its previous life:

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And then I started exactly no one’s other favorite part of a project, the hand sanding. But this ultimately became meditative. I was working board by board, counting sanding strokes. It became time-intensive.

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I spent more than those mythical 20 hours sanding, over-sanding probably. But I ultimately fell in love with the process here and took it as an opportunity to really come to know each individual piece of wood. There was something intimate and personal about it, probably because there are so many different kinds of wood in here, and there’s a lot of personality to them. Some pieces are warped; some are straight as, well, a board. Some have knots; some are showing other signs of distress. Some pieces were reacting to the sanding differently than others. Some pieces are kind of pulpy, so they’ll always feel a bit fibrous. Some, after all of those passes on the belt sander and then methodical hand sanding from 80-grit all the way to 400-grit, feel like glass.

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I was going to stain some of the pieces, but after all that hands-on time I began to enjoy the natural colors too much. But around this point I found a problem. I decided not to even up the bottom edges. I’d sanded them a bit, but I didn’t make them a uniform size. It was a shortcut and that shortcut created the problem.

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The problem is that there is a stability problem. If I had evened up the bottom, my stepfather told me, I could put in a piece or two of angle iron and reinforce the half-inch threaded rods. You would have thought four rods would have done the trick. But I didn’t, so I can’t. My solution was to get some angle iron and attach it in sections, not pictured.

And that led to the final phase, which was the actual finishing. Now, this went on for far too long, because there are some obvious points of no return. Plus, I’m an agonizer. There must be tests, re-tests. There must be mixtures and multiple coatings of tests and discarding of bad runs and then, finally, just getting sick of it and doing it.

So I stained the two-by-fours on the ends:

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And then I had to find a good solution for the finish. Polyurethane can tint some types of lumber. And I didn’t want to have that huge, thick, liquid finish. Finally, and I do mean finally, I found a clear coat, somewhat expensive, that worked really well. I put on about seven coats of this General Finishes product. It has a protective quality, is reputed to be highly durable, and it left the wood looking natural. Here it is, from overhead.

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The last thing to do, then, was to saw off the ends of the threaded rods and put some caps on them. And then, we carried it upstairs.

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So what started as an almost-impulsive decision to make something, something I could see and control and create. Also, I needed a desk, because I’ve previously been using two old printer stands as a desk. No, you couldn’t write on it, for some of the tiny gaps in the slats. Yes, a few of the pieces are warped like that — this was construction pallet lumber, after all. And yes, the desktop is flat. That’s what all the measuring and sanding was about. It’s a typing desk and a reading desk and, maybe, a place to put my mixing board. It is 32 inches deep and about 48 inches wide and it’ll work just fine for that.

The legs? Oh, I bought the legs. IKEA. That solved the second real problem of the project. Which, hey, I managed to finish the thing with only two problems and all of my fingers.

And now I want to build all of the things. I’ve bought a jigsaw! And I’ve made a wine rack and a miniature bench and some cool business card holders. Up next I’m going to make a funky ambient light for my desk and who knows what else.

Hopefully none of them will take as long as this desk did.

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