Work Smarter with a Standing Desk

Comments (0)

This article is from Issue 70 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Traditional details, modern functionality. This desk makes an excellent computer work station, and features dovetail and mortise-and-tenon joinery.

Create a compact work station that’s higher & healthier

Sitting all day is one of the worst things we can do to our bodies. Unfortunately, many of us have jobs that force us to do just that. The penalties for extended periods of sitting are familiar to many: unnecessary weight gain, neck and back pain, and poor cardiovascular health, just for starters. Standing desks can significantly lessen these ill effects. In fact, research has shown that switching to a standing desk not only improves health; it can also improve mood and work performance.

My standing desk incorporates traditional joinery details and pleasing proportions in a design that can easily accommodate a laptop or desktop computer. The desk’s small footprint should make it easier to fit into a home office or other setting. Although the desk shown here is made from ash and cherry, other cabinet-grade woods can also be used. When building your own version, just make sure to adjust the length of the legs so that the desk’s top is at the proper height (see sidebar, facing page).

Legs, rails, and aprons

In style and construction, this desk resembles a bedside table–but with longer legs. It’s important to adjust leg length so that the desk’s work surface is at a comfortable height for the user (see sidebar, below).

Think About Elbows When Sizing a Standing Desk

Like a conventional desk, a standing desk can have a work surface that’s small, large or anything in between. But there is one critical dimension: work surface height. Ideally, this should be at or just slightly below elbow height when you’re standing at the desk (see drawing). For prolonged stints at a standing desk, ergonomic experts recommend a fairly level sightline to a computer monitor, and a typing posture that puts arms at a right angle. While some commercial desks offer adjustable-height tops, many users simply use blocking or platforms to achieve the most comfortable working height. In this case, you can build your desk to fit by adjusting the length of the legs.

Mortise the legs, then make taper cuts on the tablesaw

The legs come first on a project like this, and for good reason. They need to be cut from clear, straight-grained stock and oriented to display the most pleasing grain lines in the finished desk. After cutting all four legs, I identify the best “show” face on each leg and establish the final orientation of the legs. Witness marks on the ends of the legs ensure that I’ll maintain the correct orientation as mortises and tapers are cut. Lay out and cut all mortises before tapering the legs.

Mortise & tenon details

The stepped mortises are designed to accommodate the movement of a wide tenon by dividing it in two. Rather than squaring the ends of apron mortises to fit the tenons, I simply rout them slightly longer, as shown in the drawing.

End grain information. Mark leg ends to keep track of leg position in the finished desk.
Clamp up, then lay out. For speed and accuracy, I start marking mortise locations with legs clamped together.
Bushing-guided mortises. Separate mortising jigs are required for rail and apron mortises. Each is sized for a 3⁄4" O.D. bushing. I use a 1⁄4" spiral upcut bit in my plunge router.
Taper with a sled jig. The base of my tapering jig is guided by the rip fence, and the working edge is flush with the blade. Attach guide blocks and toggle clamps to hold each leg securely. Set up cuts carefully so that only leg sides with mortises are tapered.

Glue up 4 pieces. Sawing and reassembling the front apron maintains grain continuity. Pin the strips to the ends with a finish nailer to prevent parts from shifting during clamp-up.

Create a drawer opening by cutting the front apron apart, then gluing it back together

In the finished desk, the drawer opening appears to have been cut into a single board, but that’s an illusion. To achieve it, I cut the front apron board apart with two ripcuts, remove the center section (where the drawer opening will be), and glue the four remaining parts back together again. Once I’ve cut the front apron to finished length (including tenons) and width, I can cut the three remaining aprons to their finished sizes. Make sure to allow for saw kerfs and tenons when selecting your front apron workpiece.

Front apron cutting diagram

Start with a blank at least 51⁄2" wide and 25" long. Make 2 ripcuts first, then cut out the waste and glue up the apron. 

Cut tenons & grooves to complete the aprons

Size your apron tenons for a snug fit in the leg mortises (drawing, facing page), I make the cheek and shoulder cuts using my dado cutter on the tablesaw (photo below), then remove the small center portion on the scrollsaw. Grooves are also required in each apron, as shown in the photo below. The grooves near apron top edges will hold the wood buttons I use to attach the desktop (see page 37). The grooves near the bottom edges of front and back aprons will hold the tenoned drawer guides I’ll install when assembling the desk.

Dry-fit the desk to lay out the lower rail assembly

The joinery for the desk’s upper structure is complete. Now it’s time to work on the lower rail assembly, which consists of a pair of rails joined by a stretcher. The stretcher tenons extend all the way through the rails. The rail tenons need to be scribe-fit so their shoulders will match the tapered legs. To do this, I dry-fit the leg-and-apron assembly, making sure that the desk structure sits flat and square. A pair of sled-type jigs enables me to cut the angled tenon shoulders on the tablesaw, using my stack dado.

Scribe the bottom rails. Working on a flat platform with the desk’s legs and aprons clamped together, I cut a piece of plywood to the proper width so it can hold each rail in place at mortise height. The legs guide my marking knife as I scribe the shoulder lines for rail tenons. By setting a bevel gauge against the plywood and the leg, I capture the angles required to make the jigs shown below.
Glue & pin. After routing through-mortises in the rails and chiseling them square, glue the stretcher to the rails and pin each joint with a pair of 1⁄8"-dia. pegs.

Sled jigs do the trick. Designed to run in the miter gauge groove, these matching jigs are marked “R” and “L” to identify the angled cuts that need to be made in the lower rails. I transfer the leg tapers to each jig with a bevel gauge, then screw alignment cleats to each jig. After cutting tenon cheeks on the tablesaw, I hand-cut rail tenons to finished width. 

Prepare drawer runners, assemble the desk, then attach the top

I need to make a pair of drawer runners before I can assemble the desk. Each runner is a two-part assembly. Using a dado joint to connect the side and bottom pieces (see drawing) ensures that they’ll always provide true alignment in guiding the drawer. For similar reasons, I don’t want to rely on fasteners to hold the drawer runners in place. Instead, they’re tenoned to fit in grooves I made earlier in the front and back aprons. When making the runners, take your measurements when the desk is dry-fit together, and cut your runner parts to fit. When the runners are complete, you can assemble the desk.

Desk Assembly Details

Make sure the tenons in the drawer runner assembly fit snugly in the front and rear apron grooves. It’s also important for the bottom and side of each runner assembly to be flush with the bottom and sides of the drawer opening.

Two-stage assembly. First, join the front legs to the front apron and the rear legs to the rear apron. Then join these subassemblies together with the drawer runners, side aprons, and lower rail assembly. I tighten clamps lightly when the desk is lying flat as shown in the photo. Then I position the desk upright to make sure it stands flat and square before applying more clamping pressure.
Button the top. Side and back aprons each get a pair of wood buttons that are rabbetted to fit in apron slots.

Tails first. I lay out the half-blind dovetails in the sides first. Then I locate the groove for the bottom just inside the side’s bottom tail. The back doesn’t require a groove.

A traditional drawer with two kinds of dovetails

I wanted this desk to have traditional details from top to bottom. That’s why I built the drawer using solid wood and dovetail joinery. As shown in the drawing, the drawer sides join the front with half-blind dovetails, and the back with through dovetails. I like to cut my drawer parts to the same size as the drawer opening. This eliminates any chance of undersizing, and allows me to trim the drawer box for a perfect fit. The technique I use for making half-blind dovetails is explained in the Joinery Class that begins on p. 62. The through dovetail joints are less demanding (and less visible, too–since they’re at the back of the drawer). To make these joints, I use a combination of hand and power tool techniques. If you don’t have a scrollsaw, remove waste between tails with a coping saw.

Match blade & bit angle. The blade is tilted to 14°, matching the angle of the half-blind dovetails on the front corners of the drawer.

Tails On the Tablesaw, Then Cut the Pins by Hand

My dovetailing sled slides in the tablesaw’s miter grooves. The blade is angled at 14°. A sliding, adjustable stop on the rear fence makes repeat cuts foolproof.

Clear the pin space on the scrollsaw. Staying inside layout lines, I cut away the waste between tails. Follow up this work by paring to the line.

Cut pins by hand. I use my dovetail saw to cut along the waste side of my layout lines. Then I remove the waste between pins using a coping saw. Paring the joints to fit completes the back corners.

Tap together. After test-fitting and fine-tuning all the joints in the dovetailed drawer frame, it’s time to apply glue and assemble.
Trimming for fit. If necessary, the drawer frame can get shaved down in size. Before taking this step, make sure that top edges of sides and drawer front are planed flush.
Shave for fit. Screwed to the top of a workbench, a pair of cleats provides perfect support for the drawer sides as I plane corner joints flush.
Bottom details. The solid poplar bottom requires raised front and side edges to slip into grooves in the drawer front and sides. To hold the bottom in place, I drive a single cut nail in a slot along the bottom’s back edge; the nail extends into the bottom edge of the drawer back.


Go to for more details on the techniques featured in this article, including a video of Chris Hedges demonstrating his tablesaw dovetailing jig.


Write Comment

Write Comment

You must be logged in to write a comment. Log In

Top of Page