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Choosing The Best Wood For a Desk Top

Updated: August 18, 2023
From plywood to live edge slabs of wood, a desktop can be built from a wide variety of woods. Learn what the best wood for a desk is in this woodworking guide.
Best Wood For Desk Top Red Oak
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Choosing The Best Wood For a Desk Top

General Finishes Arm-R-Seal

High Quality Urethane Top Coat








Deciding on wood for a desk is often the most challenging part of the project.

While woodworkers have most of the tools needed, most DIY’ers may not have the standard tools for the job. For example, consider the following:

  • For a live edge desktop, you’ll need a wood slab jig and a high-quality random orbit sander.
  • Meanwhile, a plywood desk top can be built with just about any saw (table, track, or circular saw) and minimal sanding.
  • On the other hand, the most popular wood for a desk is to glue up hardwood strips. But that requires saws, jointers, sanders, and woodworking clamps.
  • But a common alternative that avoids much of the complexity and tools is a rustic 2×6 top that skips the heavy cutting and sanding. But a flat surface usually requires a glass top or other surface.

Types Of Wood For Desks

There are a variety of wood types that are great for desktops. Some popular options include oak, maple, cherry, and walnut. Each of these woods has unique characteristics, such as grain patterns and colors, which can add to a desk’s overall look and feel. 

When choosing wood for your desktop, it’s essential to consider factors such as durability, hardness, and resistance to scratches and stains. With the proper care and maintenance, a wooden desk top can last many years and add warmth and beauty to any workspace.

Choosing Wood That Is easy to Work With

A few types of wood are straightforward to work with when it comes to building projects. Pine is a popular choice, as it is affordable and easy to find. It is also relatively soft, making it easy to cut and shape as needed. 

Cedar is another good option, as it is naturally resistant to rot and decay. This makes it a good choice for outdoor projects exposed to the elements. However, both cedar and pine are soft and will dent or scratch easily.

And other good options include spruce, fir, and hemlock. Ultimately, the best type of wood for your project will depend on a variety of factors, including your budget, the tools you have available, and the specific requirements of your project.

Woods that are hard to use? As a wood’s density increases, the sanding difficulty rises with it. 

Maple or Birch Plywood is the EASIEST Wood for a Desktop

Plywood Desk Top


One of the best wood for a desktop is a simple sheet of adequately edged plywood. 

Because gluing and sanding boards is an intermediate skill project, a plywood top desk is the best alternative. And, when a high grade of plywood (look for “A” surface grades) is used, you’ll have all the advantages of solid wood without the work.

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
  • Iron (seriously) if you want to install edge banding. This heats up and adheres to a household iron.

Supplies to Consider

Durable Maple Wood for a Desk Top

Hard Maple Desk Top

Maple is both a strong, hard to dent wood but also stable and provides a great grain variation.


I’ve made desks from many types of hardwoods, and my favorite wood for a desk is hard maple. Its beautiful yet straightforward grain, hardness, and machining ease make it an excellent wood for beginners and 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 a track saw 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 a need for supplies:

  • Wood glue
  • Sandpaper
  • Clear wood finish
TIP: I’ve had more luck with dyes on hard maple than stains. Before you decide, check out a local Rockler store for advice if you are staining maple.

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


If you’ve searched or are interested in woodworking, you’ll know that live edge wood and epoxy finishes are a craze.

There is a surprising variety of epoxied live-edge tables, from table tops, coffee tables, dining room tables, and desks.

Tools Needed

Surprisingly, a live edge desktop’s tools can be less than 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 the following:
  • Router sled to smooth the top
  • Circular saw with track guide or table saw to trim the front and rear edges
  • Various hand sanders to produce a final fit

Supplies to Consider

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

  • Wood glue
  • Sandpaper
  • Epoxy

Reclaimed Wood Desktop

Reclaimed Wood Desk Top

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


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

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 a glass top or using an epoxy finish to seal the wood.

Tools Needed

Would you be able to balance tools vs. the cost of the project? 

If a barn wood desktop is a preference, you’ll be able to skip a significant 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 essential as the tools needed:

  • Wood glue
  • Sandpaper
  • Pocket hole screws

Softwood Desk Top

Soft Pine White Washed Desk Top

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


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 regarding visual appeal versus function. 

Tools Needed

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

Tip: Always rip boards to less than 3-1/2″ to reduce the chances of wood movement forming a crack. And be sure to finish 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

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


Even as a cabinetmaker, I’ve found making a top is not always possible.

And, when it’s come to some of my children’s desks, I’ve gone easy and bought an IKEA wood desktop.

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


Dimensional Lumber from Big Box Stores

Lumber Storage Rack Where to Store Wood

With MOST desks made from standard 2x4's and 2x6's it is a viable desk top IF made correctly


Thousands of desk plans use dimensional 2x4s or 2x6s from a big box store.

And while this is an acceptable wood, it has its limitations in being soft, typically coming wet and needing to be dried, and does not accept dark stains well.

Tools Needed

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

  • If you are making a high volume of wood projects from dimensional lumber, a moisture meter is a must to know if the wood is dry
  • Planer or a jointer to edge

Deciding On A Wood Desk Top Material

Choosing Wood For Desk Top

If you are looking for suitable desktop wood and aren’t building the top, skip to the next section.

But if you’re building a wooden desktop, you’ll want to decide on three critical decisions first:

  1. Your tool inventory
  2. Hardwood vs. plywood desk tops
  3. Desk design

While finding hardwoods isn’t an issue, transporting, cutting, sanding, and finishing desktops can be challenging.

Most Common Desk Woods

The most common wood choices are:

  • Red oak due to its ready availability
  • Maple as it is smooth, closed grain and doesn’t require staining
  • Cherry for its rich red color
  • Pine for in-expensive tops
  • Plywood for simple, glue-less desktops

Other woods, including reclaimed wood, white oak, walnut, and others, make great wood desks as well.

Tools Needed to Make a Desk Top

Random Orbit vs. Palm Sander

While the wood chosen for your desktop will decide most things, the minimum tools for any DIY desktop are:

Since plywood desks come ready to cut, these three essential tools and edge banding are all you’ll need.

However, for a solid desktop, you’ll also need:

  • A table saw to cut the wood to the proper width
  • Jointer to straighten the wood edges
  • Woodworking clamps to glue the panel
  • Belt sander to flatten the panel
  • Benchtop planer

Where to Buy Wood For a Desk Top

Where to Buy Wood - Local, Online, Retailers

Since the best choice for a wood desk is to pick hardwood lumber, use our guide to buying hardwood from local suppliers near you.

But before you buy wood, be sure to:

  • Determine the desired thickness of your desktop. For example, a 3/4″ thick top will require buying “4/4 wood” that was 1-inch thick before planing
  • Remember that a 1-1/2 inch top is from “6/4 wood” and will cost 50% more than a thinner top
  • Select grades of wood have fewer voids and knots

Tip: always buy “S3S wood” that is planed and straight-line ripped on one edge. It will prevent many headaches later, including worrying about accidentally pulling a chip out of an expensive board with your compact benchtop planer.

Wood Desktop Finishing Considerations

How to apply polycrylic

Like most woodworking projects, you’ll find that a desktop 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 are 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, let the machine’s weight do the work. Why? Because there are thousands of folks just like you who found later that 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 are 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 are a few tips for selecting your wood:

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

Gluing a Perfect Joint for a Wood Desktop

Excess Wood Glue to be scraped

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

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

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

  • 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 combines 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 need the right tools. On the other hand, a plywood top is easy to make but will not provide the durability or visual appeal of different wood types.

Is MDF good for a desktop?

Unless MDF is 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 expected that higher quality desks will use a 1-1/2″ thick top to achieve a sturdier look.


While gluing a wood top can take some skill and sanding, it is often the best way to create a durable desktop that will withstand decades of use and abuse.

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Eric has been a professional woodworker for over thirty years and has worked in small cabinet shops making everything from kitchen cabinets to hand-made furniture. Now working from a home woodworking shop Eric is sharing his passion for woodworking, tool advice and how-to knowledge from his Minnesota-based woodshop.

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