DIY Music Production Desk
There are numerous music production desks commercially available, but most only accommodate a 61-note keyboard or smaller. These are more than adequate for a wide variety of applications, and although a little pricey they do offer a quick and easy solution for creating an efficient workspace. However, if you have a 76-note or full-size keyboard your choices are more limited, so your best course of action might be to build your own.
This article details how to design and build a music production desk with only moderate DIY skills and a basic set of tools. The step-by-step instructions are divided into four main parts: design, preparation, construction and finishing.
Part 1 – Design
For the best results and before you go anywhere near your tools or a DIY centre, you need to come up with a design that suits your needs. Writing a design brief is a good starting point.
My personal design brief was to have a desk that my 76-note keyboard could slide under when not in use, in order to create more space in my room. The desk must have a raised section for monitor speakers and some storage space in the supports. Further, the design should be simple, making it relatively inexpensive and easy to construct.
One caveat about purpose-built / made-to-measure furniture – in this case my desk – is that it works well right up to the point where you decided to rearrange things in your room or move house. For this reason it is best not to allow room / space constraints to influence your design too much. For example, my desk could have been a little longer, and the supports a little wider, if I had not limited the dimensions so that it would fit beside a free-standing cupboard – a cupboard that I have since decided to move into another room.
I used Sketch-Up to draw my design. Sketch-Up is a 3D design program that can be downloaded as a trial version free. The trial version is fully functional for one month, after which some parts of the program lose their functionality. However, it still remains highly usable, and being a Google program it doesn’t come with unwanted pop-up advertising or other malware.
The other nice thing about Sketch-Up is that there are four short, easy-to-understand, video tutorials, and the basics are quite easy to learn. Within a very short space of time I was able to draw the desk I wanted, and also add a room environment too. This is important as an object (e.g. a music production desk) often looks different once it appears in the context of its surroundings.
Using a 3D design program allows your design to be viewed at any number of different angles in the vertical or horizontal plane, simply by dragging your mouse. Also, it allows for ongoing modifications to be viewed prior to implementation.
Below is the design I came up with for my music production desk. Underneath the top of the desk is a drawer for a keyboard to rest on. Although the sliding rails are capable of bearing the weight of my keyboard I added two legs to help support the drawer when it is extended. Surprisingly, they don’t look out of place.
As the supports are deep and narrow (60cm deep and only 20cm wide) anything put towards the back would be difficult to access. For this reason I divided the left support and made some adjustable shelves. The support at the right has a port for gaining easy access to wires if a computer is placed inside. All the internal shelves are adjustable.
With the design complete (actually it did undergo a few changes during the course of construction) the next stage is to source the materials.
Part 2: Preparation
Due to its modular design (left support, right support, main desk surface, raised shelf and drawer) the desk can be made in stages. This is useful because if you find your DIY skills just aren't up to par after completing the first stage, you can either take a few carpentry lessons or abandoned the project without having spent too much time or money. In my case, although I have done many DIY projects around the home, I haven't actually made any furniture since I made a coffee table as a school boy, and that is more years ago than I care to remember.
My first big tip for building this music production desk is to get your DIY store to cut the materials to size. This not only saves a lot of time, but also ensures the pieces are cut precisely. Some stores may have a small charge for cutting but it’s well worth paying, even for some of the smaller pieces of wood that you could easily cut yourself.
Make a clear drawing, with dimensions, of how you want the larger pieces of wood cut, giving some thought to the direction of grain. It might look odd if the grain in your desk isn’t consistent, with the grain in one support going from top to bottom while the grain in the other going from left to right for example.
Unless you are already skilled at working with wood, my second tip is to practise any technique you’re not sure of on a piece of scrap. In my case I didn’t know how well I could drill a 6mm hole to a depth of 23mm into the side of a piece of plywood only 11.5mm thick. With less than 3mm at either side of the hole I needed to drill straight to avoid the drill bit breaking through onto the surface. My first attempt was a complete disaster (see the central hole in the photo below), but after only two or three more attempts, I was ready to work on the real thing.
I had a similar experience with planing. Again, just a bit of practice proved extremely useful. I can't emphasise this enough.
Part 3 – Construction
I began with the base of the left support, using screws and glue to make a strong framework on the underside to which the sides and rear panel will be securely fastened.
After this I cut an opening in the left panel to create a space for books or CDs. I used a jigsaw, clamping some wood with a straight edge to act as a guide for the baseplate of the saw to run against so I could cut in a perfectly straight line.
Once I had removed the wood I was left with a section on the main piece that was only 12mm wide. Given that the plywood was only 11.5mm thick, I was concerned that this would be too fragile to work with. However, this proved not to be the case.
There are a number of ways of joining pieces of wood together. I chose to use dowel pegs as this is probably one of the easier methods, but still requires a high degree of precision in marking and drilling.
First I decided on the number and position of dowel pegs. Then, I marked the position of the holes with a bradawl and drilled each hole to the required depth using a drill bit of the same diameter as the dowel. Using a brad bit or an auger bit will ensure a more accurately drilled hole, as both of these drill bits have a guide for accurately starting the hole.
I used dowel 30mm in length, so my hole into the surface of the 11.5mm plywood was only about 7mm deep, whereas the hole drilled into the side was 23mm. An extra millimeter or two in depth was added to each hole to allow space for the glue.
For a good, neat, joint the holes have to match precisely. This is where a special dowel hole marker tool comes in useful (photo left). A piece of metal with a raised point sits in the first hole. The two pieces of wood to be joined are then brought together. The raised point on the piece of metal makes an indent in the wood to show exactly where the corresponding hole must be drilled.
After drilling the holes, I tested the alignment by placing the two joints together using dowel, but no glue, to make sure that two sides mated together perfectly. When they didn’t it was usually because the holes for the dowels were not quite deep enough. In this case I found that twisting a regular drill bit with my fingers to clean a bit of wood out of the hole worked very well. If the dowel needs to go a few millimeters deeper I used a drill.
The next step was to drill holes for the front shelf supports on the inner surface of the two sides. I decided where I wanted the shelf and marked out the place for the holes that would hold the shelf support pins, then I marked out holes 2.5cm higher and 2.5cm lower in order to make the shelf height adjustable. The holes for the shelves in the side I left for later, as there would still be room to operate my drill after everything was assembled.
Once all the parts for the desk support were finished, I put everything together and checked for alignment. Everything seemed ok so I then applied glue to the dowel and along the meeting surfaces (pictured below), and pressed everything together.
In past projects I have used heavy books and tool boxes to apply pressure to the joints that are being glued, but a far better way is to use clamps. After allowing the glue to dry overnight I was left with some good tight joints.
With the left side assembled and glued, I was now ready to tackle the tricky job of making holes for the adjustable shelves in the side of the support. I’m probably not the first, but I came up with the idea of making a grid in Excel, printing it out, and using it as a template for the holes. I carefully put the paper in place and fastened it to the wood with pushpins.
My grid was made of 2.5cm squares, but I realised this would mean drilling a lot of holes, so I missed one square out and marked out holes 5cm apart, using the height of a CD as a guide for the height of the lowest holes.
I drew circles on the grid where I wanted the holes before marking them with a bradawl to help ensure the right number of holes were drilled in the right place. Any mistakes at this stage would be hard to rectify. In hindsight it would have been better to mark and drill the holes before gluing everything together.
With all the holes marked out I removed the template and carefully drilled 5mm holes for the shelf support pins. Again, I used an auger bit for accuracy.
Putting the paper template on the opposite side is where things can go horribly wrong. The template must not be twisted or inverted, which means the reverse side of the paper will be on top with the grid on the underside. However, the holes made in the paper when marking out the previous side now show the positions where the holes need to be made on the current side. See the photo below.
With the holes clearly marked out it was now time to start drilling again, taking care not to drill all the way through the plywood. Only a depth of 5mm was needed for the shelf support pins so I used a stopper on the drill bit. However, some stoppers can drift up the bit, so I periodically check that the depth setting was still at the distance I had set.
Along all the exposed edges of all the plywood I glued 2mm thick strips of wood, using contact adhesive, and planed them to size with a hand plane. I used a small Japanese hand plane made out of wood and costing around £6.00, as the work was too delicate for a big electric plane.
So now, with the holes for the shelf support pins made, the plywood shelves cut to size, which took three attempts to get right, and everything assembled (see the photo below), I was ready to start work on the right support.
The right support is similar to the left, but simpler as it has no shelves in the side. As this support may house a computer I cut some circular holes in the back for cables to pass through, and a rectangular access hole in the left side, which would also help with ventilation. Again, I clamped a piece of wood with a straight edge in place to guide the jigsaw.
To complete the two sides I added a framework to the inside top of the supports using screws and glue, and some clamps to ensure a good tight bond. Eventually long screws will pass through this framework to hold the top of the desk in place.
For the top of the desk I would need a thick piece of wood, as there is no support strut to stop the desk drooping in my design. Having a good strong support strut wasn’t an option as a 3cm strut, for example, would mean that the drawer for my keyboard would have to be 3cm lower to clear it. This would make the keys on the keyboard uncomfortably low to play. Making the whole desk higher would have solved this problem but could have made it uncomfortably high to use as a regular desk.
At first I considered some 28mm thick plywood. However, as the surface wasn’t appealing I would have to add another sheet of 2mm or 3mm plywood as a top veneer, and following this some form of edging to hide the plies and neaten up the edge. This all started to sound like a lot more work and in the long run wouldn’t add up to much of a saving, so I opted for a piece of 25mm thick pine, which was large enough to have cut and use for the desk top and the raised shelf.
The four 15cm high supports for the shelf were cut from a piece of pine 18mm thick. Again, having the DIY store cut the wood meant that I had four pieces exactly 15cm high. I used 8mm dowel pegs and glue to attach the supports to the shelf.
Careful measuring and drilling ensured that the supports lined up well and sat at rightangles to the undeside of the shelf. As the wood was thicker I used 8mm dowel pegs for added strength, as opposed to the 6mm dowel pegs I had used earlier.
Although not necessary, and not in the original design, I used a router to give the edge of the raised shelf and desk a rounded contour. This came about after seeing a router on sale, with a sizable discount, during one of my many visits to my local DIY store. Also I purchased a second folding work bench which, although a bit of a luxury, came in very useful when working on large pieces of wood.
The shelf will be screwed to the desk top. To help ensure the screw holes through the 25mm pine were straight I used an inexpensive drill guide tool. For most holes the tool was more trouble than it was worth, but I found that it was worth the extra effort for these important holes.
The next job was to attach the sliders for the drawer and make the drawer assembly. I took great care to calculate the correct height for the sliders and mark the holes to be drilled into the side of the supports. I used bolts instead of screws to attache the sliders to the wood, as the sliders will have to support about 20kg.
To the sliders I attached some wood for the base of the keyboard drawer to rest on. This makes the drawer stronger than it would have been had I chosen to put screws directly into the sides of the drawer base.
For the drawer I used a large piece of 18mm thick pine that was on sale at my local DIY store and, or course, had the store cut it to size. I allowed 2.5mm of clearance at each side between the drawer and the side of the supports.
Although there are still some strengthening supports to make and attach to the rear underside of the desk and drawer, plus the legs for the front of the drawer, at this stage everything can be assembled to get some idea of what the finished article will look like. However, it won’t be screwed together until the wood has been sanded, stained and varnished.
Part 4: Finishing
It is at the finishing stage where things can go tragically wrong. A beautiful piece of furniture (in this case the desk I had spent hours toiling over) can be completely ruined by a poor finish, be it paint or varnish.
I had decided to stain the pine a dark colour to match other wood in my room, thinking that this would be relatively straight forward. However, I found out that pine is notoriously difficult stain. The problem is that due to the inherent characteristics of the wood it can end up looking very blotchy when stained. A possible solution for this is to apply a sealer before staining. I say a ‘possible’ solution as I have read and watched reports where it hasn’t worked well.
I tested numerous stains and varnish on an off-cut from the actual piece of wood I would be using for the desk surface, some pictured in the photo below (the reverse side has an equal number of tests). This was before I tried using a sealer. Apart from the clear varnish in the centre, all the other finishes are poor - some more blotchy than others.
After finally getting test results that were acceptable, I staining and varnishing the underside of the desk surface. The result, in polite terms: unsatisfactory. I could have tried again on the main surface but didn’t want to risk another disaster, so I set about removing all the varnish and sealer with a sander ready for another attempt.
My second attempt was much better. Having learnt that the varnish I was using starts drying just seconds after application, I knew I had little time to spread it evenly. Also important was to finish with one long uninterrupted brush stroke.
Satisfied with my second attempt at staining the underside, I now turned my attention to the top. The first coat went on quite well. After allowing it to dry, I applied a second coat. I was using a stain and varnish in one, so subsequent coats made the wood darker. Two coats proved satisfactory.
I’m not skilled with a brush, and never have been, so although my end result wasn’t as good as I would have liked, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to make it any better.
The plywood supports were much easier to stain. Using a rag I applied two coats of a gel stain and varnish, which was easy to work with (see photo below). For the edging I used two coats of a clear varnish, as my tests with stains didn’t look good.
With all the varnishing complete, I finally assembled the desk in position, attaching the top to the supports by screws.
The final stage was to attach a support bar to the underside of the desk to add strength, and the two legs that support the keyboard drawer.
Everything in position ready to make music. The project is finished!
The Cost: I estimate this project cost in the region of £250 in total. The most expensive part was the desk top and raised shelf, which came from a large piece of pine costing just a little under £70. The supports for the raised shelf, also pine, cost £6.00. The two legs were £30 for the pair, including metal fastening brackets, and the wood for the keyboard drawer was also £30, although I cut this from a large piece and still have half left over. The plywood used for the desk supports was around £25, so all this comes to £161 so far. With the smaller pieces of wood used, along with screws and glue, the price goes up to £200. Finally, add to this £50 for varnish, brushes and sandpaper and the grand total comes to the aforementioned £250. This is not exactly cheap for a homemade desk, but at the time of writing the cheapest one on Amazon is £280, and isn’t suitable for a 76-note keyboard.
(All prices were converted from Japanese Yen in September 2016, at a time when the exchange rate wasn’t favourable.)
Construction Time: It is difficult to give an accurate time as I worked evenings and weekends when I had chance, over a period of five months (although during this period I was out of the country for three weeks so four months would be a more accurate estimation). However, under the right circumstances, i.e. no interruptions of any kind, I think I could build the desk in a week. A professional, with a workshop, could probably do it in a weekend.
Tools: I wrote at the beginning that this desk can be built with just a basic set of tools. However, having a few clamps is very useful for applying pressure to joints when gluing them together, and a small hand plane saved a lot of time sanding to make the edging flush with the plywood. In addition, a jig saw speeded up some of the cutting and, using a guide, gave a straighter edge than I would have been able to produce with a hand saw.
Originally I didn’t plan to have curved edges on the desk, but a chance encounter with a cheap router at my local DIY store gave me the opportunity to add this feature.
Dimensions: The information here is just an overview of how I built my desk. Anyone wishing to copy the basic design can choose a size that fits their needs. However, the basic measurements are 165.5 cm wide, 60 cm deep, and 75 cm high (up to the desk top, not the raised shelf). I will make more detailed design plans available free on request.
Tips: My number one tip is to practise any techniques you are not confident with, or you haven’t done for a while, on scrap wood before working on the real thing. Other tips include using a pencil eraser to erase pencil marks, which is quicker and more effective than using sand paper, and testing a small area before applying the finish of your choice. One final tip is to use a soft brush to remove sawdust from your work as opposed to blowing the dust away, particularly if you are working indoors.
Final Thoughts: In hindsight perhaps pine wasn’t the best choice for the desk surface, as I experienced a lot of difficulty getting the staining and varnishing done to a satisfactory standard. Instead, I should have used 28mm thick plywood with an additional 2mm of venire. Construction, with applying edging, would have been more time consuming, but the top would match the supports perfectly, the stain and varnishing process would have been much easier, and I could have saved almost £50.
I should add that applying a clear varnish to the pine was trouble free, and the result looked very good. However, since pine wouldn’t match the rest of my room this wasn’t an option. I had to use a stain. And on the subject of staining, separate stain and varnish is preferable to an all-in-one product in that it gives you more control over the colour and finish.
If anyone is inspired to build their own desk after reading this article, it would be great to hear from you and see some photos of your version.