How to Build a Simple $50 Standing Desk

Detail of standing desk surface

I'm no stranger to experimenting with my workspace; since I work from a computer for at least 8 hours a day, I try to find ways to prevent RSI and joint pain. I've tried most everything—from über-expensive fancy mesh desk chairs to ergonomic keyboards and vertical mice. But nothing has made as large (and quick) a difference as working from a standing desk.

I originally scrapped together and used a simple mobile standing desk from a Manfrotto 190XDB Tripod and a Manfrotto 183 Projector Table Attachment (pictured below). This combination was very convenient, but barely holds a 13" laptop, and requires me to tilt my head down about 30°, which causes neck pain after a while.

Tripod Standing Desk

After moving into a more permanent residence, I decided it was time to attempt building a more comfortable and permanent standing desk. I had looked into purchasing a desk that was adjustable (from sitting to standing), or purchasing a separate purpose-built standing desk, but didn't want to pay $300+ for a simple, sturdy desk.

Jeff Geerling - Standing Desk

Instead, I took to my local hardware store and found parts to build my own (admittedly un-adjustable) desk. Here's what I used to build the standing desk pictured above:

For the desk

For mounting a monitor on the wall

For power

Tools required for assembly

(Some of these tools are optional, but make the assembly of the standing desk much easier.)

Preparing the desktop

I could've found a pre-finished piece of wood, or a piece of particle board with a laminated finish, but I wanted to keep the price of my desk low, and have something that will last a lot longer than a cheap desk (and stand up to more abuse). Therefore I bought an unfinished piece of wood, and stained the wood, finishing it with a satin polyurethane finish. This ensures the wood will look great and last a long time, even with a hot computer and cold drinks resting on it much of the time.

NOTE: You should wear protective gloves and a mask, and work in a well-ventilated area, when applying oil-based stains and finishes!

To stain the wood, I pulled out a couple sawhorses and laid the wood on top. I stirred the can of stain, and used a cotton cloth to apply the stain to the board, making sure to go over everything twice (for an even finish). Five minutes later, I wiped off excess stain, waited three hours, then applied another coat. I did this three times, then waited overnight to apply some polyurethane.

Staining wood for standing desk

The polyurethane required a little more time to dry, and between coats I lightly sanded the surface with 220-grit sandpaper. (I was following the directions on the label of the can—you should read through those directions and follow them if they differ from what you see here.)

Mounting the Desktop to the wall

Since I was more worried about heavy things being placed on the desktop than on the monitor I mounted to the wall, I decided to mount two shelf brackets underneath, both directly into wood studs on my wall.

  1. Measure two equal points above the floor (I measured about 42" above the floor—where my arms were comfortable typing while standing, and lightly mark the center of the stud in both places with a pencil.
  2. Hold the desktop to the wall with a level on top to make sure it is perfectly level, with the bottom edge of the board touching one of the marks you just made. Mark the bottom edge of the board on the other mark. Then remove the board and erase the original mark that was not perfectly level.
  3. Hold the shelf brackets (one at a time) under the two marks, and use your pencil to make a small mark in the center of each of the screw holes (these marks should be directly over the vertical stud in your wall, likely 16" apart). You can use the level on the side edges of the shelf brackets to ensure they are perfectly level too.
  4. Drill a pilot hole though each of the marks you just made for the shelf bracket screw holes, using a bit one size smaller than the screws that came with the brackets. Then drill the screws into the wall through the bracket. The brackets should be firmly attached to the wall now.
  5. Lay the desk top board on the shelf brackets, with a tiny bit (maybe 1-3mm) of space between the board and the wall (it should rest on them without falling—otherwise you may have too large a board for the brackets you bought!). Use a pencil to mark the screw hole locations through the shelf bracket onto the underside of the board.
  6. Remove the board, drill pilot holes in each of the screw hole locations (careful not to drill through the entire board!), and then put the board back on the brackets. Screw some small wood screws (no longer than the thickness of your board) into the board to secure it to the shelves.

At this point, the desktop surface should be firmly mounted, and you could put your keyboard or laptop on the desktop to make sure it's at a comfortable height, allowing about a 90° bend of your elbows while standing and typing.

Mounting a monitor to the wall

You could stop here, and use something like the Griffin Elevator laptop stand to lift your laptop to a comfortable viewing height, but I wanted a larger display than my little 11" MacBook Air, and picked up a nice 24" LED display for a steal on Black Friday, so I elected to mount this display on the wall. Paired up with this VESA-compatible wall mount, it was a sturdy and effective solution!

  1. Hold your monitor against the wall so the top of the display is roughly eye-level (you want the display to be slightly below your line of vision to help your neck). Mark the center of the mount (usually the middle back of your display) on the wall with a pencil.
  2. Hold your wall mount hardware on the wall centered on that location, and use your level to make sure the mount is perfectly level. Mark the screw holes on the display mount.
  3. In my case, the display mount had to be screwed into drywall with an empty cavity (no studs behind it), so I used some heavy-duty drywall anchors (rated at 50+ lbs.) along with the long screws included with the display mount, and the mount stayed put.
  4. Attach the mounting plate to the back of your monitor, and then plug in the cables (power and video) to the back of your display before mounting it (so you don't have to try to stick your arm behind the display after the fact). Mount and attach the display/mount to the wall mount, and you should be good to go!

If you're like me, and don't like having cables loosely hanging behind the monitor and around your desk, you can buy some wiremold to hide the cables.

Further Enhancements

Here are a few more things you can do to your standing desk to improve it:

  • For power, I mounted a simple six-outlet surge protector just below the desktop on the wall (just using drywall screws), and ran that cable over to a wall outlet. That way cables hanging down all around your desk.
  • You could cut a small channel in the back of your standing desk, in the middle, using a jigsaw or reciprocating saw, through which cables (or a wiremold) can be routed.
  • You could use a router to give the desk's edge a nicer edge finish; in my case, I just sanded the edge by hand so it was slighly rounded.

Any other ideas for improvement? Please post them in the comments.

(A note on pricing: Since most people probably already own and/or can borrow many of the supplies used in the making of the desk, I estimated $50 as a good ballpark. Some people may need to buy more parts and tools, increasing the cost, and other people may already own a spare board or shelving brackets, bringing down the cost.)