Hardwood Lumber

Best wood for a desktop – 7 DIY friendly desk woods

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The best wood for a desktop is usually a decision on aesthetics, your budget and available tools. Not sure what tools you’ll need? Or maybe cost or skill is an issue? In this article we’ll take a look at desk woods by ease of use, budget and of course, what produces the best look.

With a simple search for wood, some planning and a commitment to avoid dimensional lumber from a big box store you can build a one-of-a-kind desktop.

And without needing a few thousand dollars in tools.

Or skills of a intermediate or professional woodworker.

In this article we’ll show you tips for:

Don’t own all the tools needed? After 25+ years of woodworking I’ll share what I prefer and are affordable for DIY woodworkers.

Best wood for a desktop

Getting started, here’s what I consider the best wood for a desktop:

1. Maple or Birch Plywood is the EASIEST Wood for a Desktop

Maple Plywood for Wood Desks

If your tools and time are limited then opting for a plywood top is ABSOLUTELY fine.

Overview

If you are debating how to tackle gluing up boards, sanding them flat and then staining then there’s an easy way out: plywood.

And it’s not an unprofessional approach. In fact, about 10 years ago I made an office desk and surround cabinets from plywood and it has held up well.  I choose plywood for the top so the stain would match.

Tools Needed

With a ready made top from plywood you can get by with a lot fewer tools than a solid top:

  • Circular saw with track guide  or table saw
  • Random orbit or pad sander

Supplies to Consider

What I really like about a plywood top is you have options for the edge. 

For example, if a thin edge is appealing then you can simply apply an edge banding .

Or, if you are looking for a thicker look then using pocket holes (a perfect use!), biscuit joiner or if you have an advanced woodworking shop even a Festool DOMINO to attach a real wood strip.

2. 6/4 Solid Maple is arguably the Best Wood for a Desk Top

Maple Wood for Desk Top

6/4 lumber is jargon for wood that is 1-1/2" thick "rough" or usually just over 1-3/8" planed. And it is a top choice for a desk top for looks and durability.

Overview

I’ve made desks from many types of hardwoods and my favorite wood for a desk is hard maple. Due to it’s beautiful yet simple grain, hardness and machining ease it’s a great wood for beginners to professionals.

Tools Needed

But beauty comes at a bit more cost, as a solid wood top brings a need for a few more tools:
  • Table saw to rip boards to width
  • Jointer to make a straight glue line
  • Pipe clamps to glue the top
  • Drum sander or router sled to smooth the top
  • Various hand sanders to produce a final fit
  • Router to edge the desk
  • Circular saw with track guide  or table saw
  • Random orbit or pad sander

Supplies to Consider

When compared to a plywood top, for a solid top you’ll have a few extra challenges in assembly and need for supplies:

3. Live Edge Wood Desktop With Epoxy Finish

Wood Desktop with Epoxy Finish

Using epoxy to connect wood, or cover rougher wood for a smoother, more durable working surface

Overview

If you’ve done any amount of searching or are interested in woodworking you’ll know that both live edge wood and epoxy finishes are a craze.

From table tops, coffee tables, dining room tables and desks there is a surprising variety of epoxied live edge tables.

Tools Needed

Surprisingly, the tools for a live edge desk top can be less than for a traditional top. Since you’ll be skipping the step of gluing the boards together directly, and instead connecting them with epoxy fill you can make do with:
  • Router sled to smooth the top
  • Circular saw with track guide or table saw to trim the front and/or rear edges
  • Various hand sanders to produce a final fit

Supplies to Consider

Similar to other wood tops you’ll need the following:

4. Reclaimed Wood Desktop

Barn Wood for Desk Top

For a rustic desk top a barn wood with either a glass overlay or epoxy finish is a great look (without using NEW wood)

Overview

Perhaps not your first thought, but for a truly unique desk that continues the theme of using weathered barn wood you can easily make a desk top.

Since barn wood will vary in thickness, isn’t always flat, and is a surface you cannot write on you’ll need to consider investing in either a glass top or use an epoxy finish to seal the wood.

Tools Needed

Looking to balance tools vs. cost of the project? 

If a barn wood desktop is a preference, you’ll be able to skip a large tool investment and instead invest in the wood:
  • Miter or circular saw to cut the wood to length
  • Basic sanders to remove rough edges (palm sander best)
  • Pocket hole joinery for keeping screws hidden

Supplies to Consider

With a barn wood desk top the supplies will be as basic as the tools needed:

  • Wood glue
  • Sandpaper
  • Epoxy
  • Pocket hole screws

5. Softwood Desk Top

Lumber Crayon to Mark Panels

For a desktop that will have character but not be as rustic as a barn wood top look a softwood like pine is a great choice

Overview

A desktop built from a softwood like pine will have beautiful character – especially if you leave the knots. 

But, like all choices, there are trade-offs in terms of visual appeal versus function. 

Tools Needed

The tools for a softwood desk top are much the same as for a hardwood desktop. Because you’ll want a durable desktop that doesn’t split or warp care will be needed to ensure a proper panel is built.

Tip: Always rip boards to less than 3-1/2″ to reduce chances of wood movement forming a crack. And be sure to finishes both sides of the top for even drying and wood movement.

Supplies to Consider

For this style desk be sure to consider:

  • Wood glue
  • Sandpaper
  • Epoxy to produce a tougher final finish

6. Ikea Wood Desktop

Plywood Sheet

There's no shame in buying a pre-made wood desktop. And surprisingly, IKEA has a huge selection at great prices

Overview

Even as a cabinetmaker I’ve found it’s not always possible to make a top.

And, when it’s come to some of my children’s desk I’ve went easy and bought an IKEA wood desk top.

And, they’ve surprisingly held up quite well.

Tools Needed

If you purchase a leg kit from IKEA this type of desktop can be installed with just a screwdriver.

Supplies to Consider

None.

7. Reclaimed Wood Desktop

Lumber Storage Rack Where to Store Wood

For a "green" desk try searching for reclaimed wood: from pallets to tear downs this is not only economical but environmentally friendly to re-use.

Overview

Within a few miles of most of us sit stacks of pallets. And sometimes the wood within these pallets is top grade lumber that simply needs to be recovered and re-used.

And, for a rustic look this reclaimed wood provides a fantastic option to buying high priced lumber.

Tools Needed

All the same tools as for a hardwood desk, plus:

  • Clat’s claw or nail puller
  • Planer or jointer to remove rough wood

Supplies to Consider

For a reclaimed desk the supplies will be much the same as for a hardwood desk.

Wood Desktop Finishing Considerations

How to apply polycrylic

Like most woodworking projects you’ll find that a desk top will require a high quality finish. 

But the finish can be tricky even for a simple clear wood finish.

So, to help your project with the best possible finish, here’s a few pointers:

  • Never stain maple or pine. Period. I’ve done it before and it is a tricky process that can lead to hours of frustration.
  • Sander pressure: when sanding be sure to let the weight of the machine do the work. Why? Because there are thousands of folks just like you who found later that a high pressure sanding will leave swirls in the finish from pressing the sanding disk into the wood.
  • Water resistance: consider investing in  the proper protective gear and use a urethane finish or epoxy. The long-term advantages of a water resistant clear finish is well worth it.

Wood Desk Top Assembly Tips & Tricks

Managing Wood Moisture

Wood Moisture Meter

The #1 issue with making a wood desktop is moisture.

If you haven’t worked with wood before, or glued wood panels, you might not know how important a dry piece of wood is:

  • Wood acts like a straw and will suck water from the air (or any surface it touches)
  • High quality wood is kiln dried to a moisture content of 6-8% – which is considered stable in most homes
  • Wood that has NOT been kiln dried will shrink and expand based on the environment it is placed in

So what does that mean for my desk project?

If you use wet wood it will shrink. And then later expand. Both of which can cause splits in the wood.

So, here’s a few tips for selecting your wood:

  • Regardless of hardwood, softwood, barn wood or even live edge wood you NEED to use a wood that has been kiln dried.
  • Use a moisture meter to check for the woods relative moisture content
  • Look for hardwood suppliers that 

Gluing a Perfect Joint

Excess Wood Glue to be scraped

Almost all wood projects will survive the initial sanding and finishing before they FAIL.

While that’s a tough reality, the agony of spending days or weeks on a high quality desktop only to have it fail when the wood splits or cracks is a real threat.

So, other than ensure the right moisture content, how do you glue a wood panel correctly? I’d advise considering:

  • Use straight lumber to start
  • DO NOT force twisted and warped wood into shape with clamps. It WILL fail later
  • Never use boards wider than 3-1/2″ (I’ve only broken that rule with Cherry, which has fantastic dimensional stability)
  • Use a jointer or table saw sled to straighten the wood edges so they are perfectly parallel

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best wood for a desktop?

The best wood for a desktop is a combination of aesthetics, durability, water resistance, budget and the skills you have to make the top. While some desktop woods, like maple, produce a high quality top they can be challenging for DIY’ers that lack the right tools. On the other hand, a plywood top is easy to make but will not provide the durability or visual appeal of other wood types

Is MDF good for a desktop?

Unless MDF will be sealed with a waterproof finish it is generally not a high quality choice for a desktop. Though inexpensive, a better option than MDF is to use a melamine finished with an edge band to achieve a similar effect.

How thick should a desktop be?

A desktop should be at minimum 3/4″ thick to ensure rigidity of the top and to span open areas below. However, for visual appeal, it is common that higher quality desks will use a 1-1/2″ thick top to achieve a sturdier look.

Summary

Hopefully this article was useful and helps you find the best wood for a desktop (or desk!). While the top and desk frame do not need to be the same, it’s often the wood top will drive the overall desk materials and design.

Good luck with your project!

Interesting Finds

Last update on 2020-09-24 at 01:55 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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