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Walnut Plywood & Steel Desk, Part 2: Building the Desk Top

Walnut Plywood & Steel Desk, Part 2: Building the Desk Top

In this video, I complete the walnut plywood and steel desk that I started in our last project video. This video shows the process of building the desk top from Purebond walnut veneer plywood. The build is relatively involved, with dados and rabbets, edge banding, and finishing with HVLP. I hope you enjoy!

Walnut Plywood & Steel Desk Materials List:

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Tools Used In The Walnut Plywood & Steel Desk Build:

Walnut Plywood & Steel Desk Build Process

The first step in building the desk top is to cut your top and bottom panels to size. In my case, this was done at the plywood warehouse, but it’s a simple process of cutting the panels down from the stock 24” x 96” pieces to 24” x 64” pieces. A circular saw or track saw are probably the best choices for this cut unless you have a very large crosscut sled for your table saw. Make sure to save your off cuts, as they’ll be used in the next step.

The next step is cutting the dividers. These are cut from the off cut of the 2’ x 8’ panel that the desk top is cut from. The dividers are 4” wide by 24” long. These dividers will attach to the top and bottom panels with dado and rabbet joints. You’ll need a total of 5 dividers.

After cutting the dividers, it’s time to cut the dados and rabbets in which the dividers will be housed. I chose to use a dado stack in my table saw for this, but you could also use a router for this task. Most dado stacks have a setting for the exact width of ¾” plywood, which isn’t actually ¾”, but instead 23/32”. You want your dados as snug as possible, as they will provide better holding power the tighter they are. Also, after sanding, the plywood dividers will lose a bit of width, so the joints will be looser.

To cut the rabbet on the ends of the panels, you’ll need a sacrificial fence. In my case, this is just a piece of scrap plywood. This allows you to have the dado stack completely flush with the fence without damaging your table saw’s fence. For the rabbet cuts, it’s a good idea to make some test cuts to make sure the fit is correct. Once your test cuts look good, cut rabbets on each end of both top and bottom panels.

Once the rabbets are cut, it’s time to cut the dados. This is where I made my first error on this project. I somehow read the wrong scale on the table saw fence, as on my fence there is a scale for cuts to the right of the blade and cuts to the left of the blade. In my haste, I somehow mixed the two up and cut my first dado a number of inches from where I had originally intended it to be. My original design had a total of 4 dividers, but that wouldn’t really work with the dado I accidentally cut, so it was back to the drawing board.

I decided to roughly divide the space on each side of the errant cut and cut dados in the center of those spaces, giving me a total of three dados. The measurements I used are in the SketchUp file in the build article, which is linked to in the video description. However, these numbers are not perfect, so you might want to adjust your divider positioning on your build.

One tip when cutting dados: once your fence is set, make sure to make all of the cuts you need for that setting. In this case, I needed to make the same cut on both panels. Had I changed that setting and then tried to go back to it, it would have been very difficult to get that exact measurement again, which could in turn make the final piece out of alignment once assembled.

After the dados and rabbets are cut, it’s time to apply edge banding. I used a product from FastCap called FastEdge, and it was very simple to apply. This was my first time ever applying edge banding and I was extremely satisfied with the results. Another tip here: if you go with FastEdge, make sure to pay attention when ordering. I somehow ended up with PVC edge banding rather than real wood. The name of the PVC color I chose is “Imperial Walnut”, so it’s easy to see how I got mixed up. I decided to just go with it, and I’m happy with the final look. Even though the edge banding is plastic, it has a surprisingly realistic look and should wear extremely well.

To apply this edge banding, you cut a piece to rough length and then peel and stick it to your edge. The edge banding is wider than your plywood, so alignment is easy. Next, you roll the edge banding on the edge of the plywood. This helps to work the adhesive that’s built into the edge banding work in to the plywood. Next, cut the ends flush. I generally rolled the edge banding again after cutting the ends, as it tended to slightly pull at the ends.

Next, cut off the excess from the edges of the edge banding. FastCap makes a product specifically for this task that cuts both edges at once, but I could not get it to work with this PVC edge banding. Instead, I used a chisel and it worked out fine and left an extremely clean edge. Finally, I broke the edge of the edge banding with the FastBreak tool from FastCap. This cleans up the edges and removes the sharp corners.

Since my dados and rabbets were cut prior to edge banding, I also had to cut away the edge banding from those areas manually. I’m not sure whether it would have been better to apply edge banding prior to cutting my dados and cut the edge banding along with the plywood, but I was worried about potential tearout on the edge banding.

Once edge banding is applied to all edges of the top and bottom panels and the outward facing edges of the dividers, it’s time to prep your surfaces for finish. The walnut veneer was already extremely smooth from the factory so I used 180 grit to just smooth out any imperfections. You want to be careful here, as it is easy to sand through the veneer, especially with higher grits.

I decided to go ahead and assemble the bottom portion of the desk before finishing. This served a few purposes. One, it kept me from having to tape off the dados and rabbets on that panel. You really don’t want to apply finish to these joints before gluing, as the finish will negatively affect adhesion. Second, I wanted to finish the entire inside of the desk before assembly, as it would be extremely difficult to finish the inside areas of the desk once assembled.

Assembly of the bottom section was a little nerve-wracking. It’s definitely a good idea to go ahead and figure out your clamping strategy before you start applying glue. The rabbets are particularly awkward to glue up as they are unsupported on one side. I used a right angle clamps on one side of the rabbets, to hold them in place, and this was extremely helpful. I applied glue to both the rabbets and to the divider and spread the glue evenly. You want to avoid unnecessary glue squeeze out if possible, because it is difficult to clean up from the inside corners and, if you don’t clean it up, it will affect your finish.

I did the same thing for the dados, applying glue to the dado slots and to the divider. I used one large clamp on either end of each dado and this seemed to work well. It’s basically impossible to clamp the center of the dados. One option would be to use a bowed caul, which would apply pressure to the center, but I didn’t have any available.

Also, make sure to check for square along the way and adjust your clamps accordingly. If you angle your clamps slightly, it can help to pull the divider back into square.

After letting the glue dry, clean up any dried glue and tape off the top of your dividers. Again, you don’t want finish getting onto these areas. Once the dividers are taped off, wipe down any surface dust and you’re ready for finish.

This project was my first time trying HVLP and it certainly won’t be my last. I sprayed General Finishes Enduro Var using an Earlex HV5500 HVLP system and it was extremely simple. It didn’t really seem to matter how smooth the finish was coming out of the gun, because the Enduro Var leveled out perfectly by the time it dried. I’m not even going to begin to try and tell you the ins and outs of spraying finish with an HVLP system because I’m still a total beginner, but I would definitely recommend checking it out if you’re into building fine furniture. It is much easier than it looks and it makes applying finish a lot easier than brushing.

I sanded with 320 grit sandpaper between coats and applied about three coats on each surface. After finishing both all of the inside surfaces of the desk, I assembled the two halves, using a similar clamping strategy as before. Once the glue dried, I clean everything up and finished it in the same way, applying 4 coats of finish. I wanted a little extra protection for the desk top, as it would see a lot of use.

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