Thursday, August 11, 2011

How to Build Your Own Lapdesk (with grade 8 woodworking skills)

In my last post, I talked about how while I was away, I became a little obsessed with a lapdesk design, but I couldn't find one that met all my needs (especially cost).  Well, I'm home now and my obsession continues.  Based on the wine box, I had a rough idea of a design that met my needs, but the question was: Could I build it with my meager woodworking skills?

Evolution of my Woodworking Skills
Sure, I built my risers, but that was a matter of building 3 rectangles and attaching some plywood to the top of it, (though I did attach some laminate flooring to it which turned out to be the most difficult part).  The only woodworking training I've had was back in grade 8 where for two months, I built a wobbly bookrack.  I didn't enjoy the class at all.  Not because of the instruction or because I dislike woodwork, but because I didn't see myself as a woodworker and my grades reflected it.  I think I got a C.  Flash forward a few decades, and I have a house.  I buy my first ever power tool: a cordless drill.  I bought it to screw in some shelves and to drill holes for pictures.  It was so much fun, and I begin to think to myself, "Man, I should have been a dentist!" 

Slowly, I begin building things around the house, and each project seems to warrant a new tool.  I buy a weird saw to cut myself some shoe shelves for the garage.  I buy a router to give a nicer edge to a storage box I keep beside my bed for my wallet and keys (though the profile gives the box a mini-casket look).  One year, someone gave me a gift card to a hardware store and I bought a table saw, so I could build a desk for my computer.  With each project, I learned a little bit, but to be honest, I am still a C student in terms of woodworking.  My stuff wobbles, I don't like to put any finish on my projects, things are not straight,and they look a bit haphazard.  But here's the thing: I don't care!  I do woodworking for a definite purpose and for my own enjoyment.  (It makes me really rethink the whole letter grade concept because it can suck the joy right out of things).

So given my woodworking history, can I build a small, sturdy box with (gasp) a sliding lid?
I go to the lumber stores and look at possible materials.  I look at size, weight, and of course, cost.  I have some scrap pieces of 1/8 inch plywood from a previous project, so I buy one piece of 1x3 and one piece of 2x2.  I really only need one piece of either for the frame, but I can't decide which, so I buy both.

I go home and I make a plan.  I know, most people start with a plan and then they go buy their materials, but they are probably not C woodworkers.  I want my lapdesk to be able to have a letter size piece of paper on it, and have enough storage underneath for a notebook and a pencil.  I want the lid to extend beyond the box so it is easier to pull out and a bulldog clip can be attached without interfering with the closing of the box.  I make a diagram with some measurements, and head out to the garage. 

I start with the 1x3 pieces and I cut the four sides of the frame to length.  Then I do the dangerous part.  Using the tablesaw, without the guard in place, I cut 1/8 inch grooves on the pieces so that the top and bottom can slide into the frame.  I cut the plywood for the long top and the shorter bottom.  I dry-fit the pieces into place and assemble with screws (so I can take the frame apart to use these pieces as my template for future lapdesk offspring).

I admit to myself, it looks pretty good.  Sure, though it looks very straightforward listed here, this process takes me at least three hours (not including looking like a zombie at the lumber store).  Each time I do something, I check my plan, scribble a revision, recut my piece, count my fingers to make sure they are all there, etc.  Based on this prototype, I decide to go back to the lumber store and buy enough material to make a few more.

Before I do, I dust off my prototype and proudly march into the house to show it to my wife.  She looks at it unmoved.  My smile does not waver.  With a crooked eyebrow, with a flourish I show her how the top slides in and out.  She's still looking at it.  She hesitates saying anything because she knows about my grade 8 woodworking scars (emotional, not physical).  "What?" I finally ask to break the silence.  She says, carefully, "I don't know.  It's a little ... big."  I show her how a piece of paper fits on the top.  She says, more carefully, "Yes, but ... are seven year-olds going to be able to carry this around, you know, wherever they go?"  (Man, she throws my own slogan right into my face.)  I am about to argue, and part of the frustration is the hours of toil and thought that went into this, but I can't argue, because as I am standing there, my arm is getting sore, just from holding up my lapdesk while we are talking.  I admit to her she is right, and defeated, slump back to the garage.

The 1x3 sides, though providing lots of storage, are just too weighty.  I look at the 2x2 I bought, but realize that it is even heavier.  More thinking.  I finally think that I can get away with the exact same design, but using 1x2 instead.  I go back to the lumber yard, and buy 4 1x2s and one big piece of hardboard (cut into two so it will fit in my little Mazda).  I knock out 5 more lapdesks (using the big prototype as guides for length) in a couple of hours, and at a cost of about $11 for the wood for all five.
    Here's the original 1x3 big guy.  There is a deck of cards for reference.
    A couple of different prototypes. 
    The one on the left I backed with a leftover piece of formica
    (leftover from the hutch resurfacing project the lapdesks are standing on).
    Sliding storage.  Even the shallower 1x2 on the right can carry a notebook, planner, and a pencil.
    The one on the right has a plywood cover.  I'll probably cut down the overhang. 
    The bulldog clip doesn't need that much space.
    Width comparison.  1x3 on the left and 1x2 on the right.
    Bottom backed in less pretty, but more cost effective hardboard.
My lapdesks might fit all of my needs:
  • Light (in weight, not luminosity)?  Even the smaller lapdesk is the weight of a math textbook.  The wood is heavier than the plastic Daiso lapdesks, but hopefully more durable and ecofriendly. 
  • Flat surface on which to write, at least as big as a notebook?  Check.
  • Clip or a clamp?  Check.  I 'll get some bulldogs from school.
  • Storage?  Enough for the planner and a pencil or two.
  • Cheap?  Same cost as Daiso.  Plus the (priceless) labour.
  • Durable?  We'll see when I let students use them in September.  I can always glue on replacement parts which I couldn't with the previous lapdesks.
  • Can stand on its end for storing?  Check.
  • Preferably wood?  Definitely.  Even if these fall apart during the year, I won't have extruded plastic on my conscience. 
  • Comfortable?  Not really, but the wood feels good.
  • Looks good?  Hmm.  That's in the eye of the beholder.  Plywood looks much better than the hardboard, but I can't afford it.  The formica is nice too but too flimsy for a bottom.
Hopefully, this will work.  I don't know.  If you got rid of your desks, what would you use?

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