Building a Desk – Working from my RV

3
Custom RV Desk Mod

Because I work from home, I’m able to translate that to working from the camper as we travel. Often times, I’ll spend 8-10 hours a day at a desk. In the summer of 2014, we spent just about 8 weeks on the road over a variety of stops. I found that my biggest issue was that I didn’t have a consistent and quality work setup.

Quality Work Environment

Evil touchpad
Touchpads are evil

My needs for a work environment generally are:

  • Quiet/private.
  • A dual monitor setup.
  • An ergonomic keyboard.
  • A real mouse – touchpads are evil.
  • A proper height.

Because I’m in an RV, I had a couple of more:

  • Easy to stow at the end of the day.
  • Easy to stow for travel.

What I Had Before

TV tray, good for eating; bad for working
TV tray, good for eating; bad for working

As I mentioned above, I was nomadic within my nomadic lifestyle. It was terrible. But worse than that, I worked off of a TV tray. It was likely made in the 60s or 70s. Let me count the ways that it sucked:

  1. It was too low.
  2. It had room for my laptop and a squeezed in space for a mouse.
  3. It had a ridge around the edges that dug into your wrists.
  4. It had no support for your arms for typing.
  5. I had to break it down each day and put my laptop on a dresser to stow it for the day or for travel.

And, not the fault of the TV tray- but I always sat facing the door. That meant, to get out of the bedroom- I had to take the stuff off of the TV tray, move it out of the way, and leave the room.

Designing

After we decided on our crazy adventure, my wife and I talked through a handful of ideas on paper one night. We drew up a plethora of ideas from wall-mounting something, to a flip-down desk, to building a free-standing desk in the bunkhouse, to some ideas pretty close to what were executed. We did decide that we definitely wanted to install the desk into the master bedroom and not the bunkhouse due to not invading the kids space (and thusly, them invading mine while I need quiet time). Drawing inspiration from this, I liked the idea of building upon the dresser.

The big design limitations that we had to contend with were:

  • The window is also an emergency fire escape.
  • There is a closet on one side and the door swing open beside of a dresser.
  • The desk is fairly shallow from front to back.

Mockups

We made a few rough sketches and armed with the ideas there, I came out to the camper armed with a couple of cardboard boxes, some scrapwood, some clamps, a straightedge, a ruler, and a utility knife. I also brought my laptop, monitor, and measured my keyboard and mouse.

The idea was that my laptop, keyboard, and mouse all would be on a pullout drawer and the monitor would sit above it. When I was done at night, I’d close the drawer and that would be that. So, that’s what I mocked up.

RV Desk Mockup with plywood
The plywood represented the top of the desk; the 1×4 was for mimicking a pull-out shelf
Starting to get a feel for size and for slide our drawer needs
Starting to get a feel for size and for slide our drawer needs
Look close, yes I did DRAW a keyboard and mouse
Look close, yes I did DRAW a keyboard and mouse
I even sat down to "work" to make sure it would be OK (note, it wasn't)
I even sat down to “work” to make sure it would be OK (note, it wasn’t)
Getting closer, but still not sure how to make it work. Notice, though- the box at the bottom right is cut back- this is to allow me to sit and not be squeezed.
Getting closer, but still not sure how to make it work. Notice, though- the box at the bottom right is cut back- this is to allow me to sit and not be squeezed.
I had a helper, but she pooped out
I had a helper, but she pooped out

At the end of mockups, I was happy with the desk layout but I wasn’t sure how to make it work. Having a raised platform the whole way meant that I would either be blocking the closet door or the emergency window. Both of which were no good.

And then my wife mentioned splitting them up- the laptop under the monitor and the keyboard on its own- supported/suspended in some way. I envisioned some kind of piano hinge and fold out piece. It’s a little more work than just a drawer slide, but my keyboard and mouse together are close to 30″ wide- more than a drawer could be.

Paper and Measurements

I now had to commit the project to an actual drawing. In doing that, I was then able to slap some measurements on the pieces that I needed for the build. Here’s the first set of drawings:

RV Desk Drawings/Plans

  • The dresser top as it was originally from above – bottom right
  • The dresser + wall as it was originally facing it – bottom left
  • The desk idea from above – top right
  • The desk idea facing it – top left

The first thing that I did was make sure that with the added length, the closet door would still be usable. Cardboard to the rescue:

A perfect fit
A perfect fit

And finally, some last checks to make sure that the emergency window would still be usable:

Checking to make sure I can get the handle released.
Checking to make sure I can get the handle released.
Checking that I can open it and open the window.
Checking that I can open it and open the window.

Satisfied, it was time to really commit the project to a drawing with measurements:

My "final" drawing showing dimensions and identifying the cuts of wood that I needed.
My “final” drawing showing dimensions and identifying the cuts of wood that I needed.

Not pictures, I put together a list of individual pieces that I would need and their dimensions. This proved useful in determining the size of plywood that I needed as well as the cuts that would be required (which was good because Home Depot came through BIG TIME!).

Buying Supplies And Cutting Wood

As luck would have it, I was hosting a sleep over with my daughter and two of her friends. They’re all great kids. I warned them going into Home Depot that I literally had no idea what I was after and needed their patience.

My much injured motley crew.
My much injured motley crew.

The staff members at Home Depot were amazingly helpful. One guy in hardware talked through the idea with me, verified the hinge and drawer slides that I had picked and brainstormed ideas for supporting the flip over portion for the keyboard. The worker back in the wood area confirmed my wood selection and then cut almost all of the pieces to the dimensions that I needed (well beyond their usual minimum widths of cuts). The only problem is that the cuts were rough and tore up the top ply on the backside of the cut. I had to be very selective of which face was showing.

Armed with a pile of wood, I was ready to assemble my desk.

Starting the assembly of the shelf and drawer
Starting the assembly of the shelf and drawer

As the night wore on, my motley crew invaded the garage and demanded ice cream. Note, that I do feel some trickery was afoot… the Home Depot picture shows a much injured crew, but for ice cream- everyone is miraculously healthy.

Ice Cream Break

4 Pints of Ben and Jerrys

Tools are awesome, but tools and ice cream are awesome-er.

Man Dream: Ice Cream and a Bandsaw

With any project, I like to keep myself humble. The first stunt was trying to cut the corner of my workbench off:

All clamped up...
All clamped up…
.. and nowhere to go!
.. and nowhere to go!

Once I got past that, I misread the instructions for the drawer slides and cut my drawer 1/2″ too long.

RIF. I guess I didn't really let that first lesson sink in.
RIF. I guess I didn’t really let that first lesson sink in.

But, overall- I was making good progress:

Drawer Re-cut and Shelf Assembled
Drawer Re-cut and Shelf Assembled
Piano hinge installed
Piano hinge installed

I drew and cut my curve for the seating area. The narrow part was supposed to match up with the existing desk. Feeling confident in my (crappy) memory, I happily cut it back to 13″… which was 1/4″ shy of the actual dresser top. Humbled; again.

The curves are part duct tape and part cutting board.
The curves are part duct tape and part cutting board.
Ahh, yes - proof of my incompetence.
Ahh, yes – proof of my incompetence.
Fixed by cutting a 4' long 1/4" strip of wood.
Fixed by cutting a 4′ long 1/4″ strip of wood.

Fortunately, a fortuitous mistake later wrecked that piece and it was rebuilt to the proper size. A second bit of luck is that I never accounted for the ability to get into the drawers when the desk was in the “stowed” position. In fact, I worried quite a bit if it would work out as it was something that completely slipped my mind during design. It would have been the undoing of the project if we lost access to one or two of those drawers. Fortunately, it all worked out.

To dress the desk up and for comfort of my arms, I wanted to round over the edges of the desk top. I contacted a newfound friend and asked for a favor. I swung by his house with my posse in tow.

School Project and Loud Noises
School Project and Loud Noises
But, look at that basement workshop
But, look at that basement workshop
My buddy, Wayne
My buddy, Wayne
More Workshop
More Workshop

As I mentioned, Wayne did end up remaking the base for the desk but it was a good thing- it let us cut the narrow part to the proper size. It’s getting close:

Looks pretty good. The keyboard drawer is being held up by my daughter.
Looks pretty good. The keyboard drawer is being held up by my daughter.
More mock working. I like it!
More mock working. I like it!
Stowed position.
Stowed position.

The final two things remaining were:

  1. To ensure the laptop drawer doesn’t come out during travel.
  2. To build a leg for the keyboard flipover.

The first was “easy”- I took Velcro One-Wrap and stapled 1/2 to the underside of the shelf and 1/2 to the underside of the base of the desk. For travel, I just connect the two pieces. (And, humble pie.. after my first trip- the staple pulled out of the top. I’m going to try 2 or 3 staples next.) For actual desk use, I just roll them upon themselves and you barely notice them.

For the leg, I decided that I wanted a broad support for the flipover shelf and floor. I bought two 10″ pieces of 1×4 oak (the friendly folks at Home Depot cut them to size) and two 3/4″ oak dowels to make sort of an “I” shape. I assembled them together and then stapled Velcro One-Wrap to the top of the leg and the bottom of the flipover shelf. This broadly supports the keyboard shelf (which I lean on often), lets me easily remove it, and most importantly – lets me reposition it until I get some time in using the desk to know where my legs will want to be.

Oak 1x4
Oak 1×4
The concept.
The concept.

The last task was to secure the desk to the dresser top. I tried to come up with ways so as to not damage the dresser top, but ultimately what I went with was running screws in up from the bottom. Yet another dose of humble came in this step when I broke 2 different screws. Fortunately my father-in-law was there and told me that I was likely not drilling my pilot hole deep enough AND to try and use some dish soap on the screw itself. That did the trick.

Breaking a screw wasn't anything I had done before
Breaking a screw wasn’t anything I had done before
Final Desk Installation showing space for the chair
Final Desk Installation showing space for the chair

I did find that my window isn’t square to the desk. One side dips down a bit. I attacked it with a wood rasp and wailed the wood back where it was contacting the window. I sanded it smooth and you can’t see any of it.

And, for all of my measuring- my final dose of humble pie came when I found that my laptop drawer hit the guide for the curtains. I had to remove the drawer slide and notch the back corner out. No pics.

Parts & Materials

Tools

  • Home Depot literally did almost all of the cuts
  • Sanding by hand- sand paper
    • I used 120 grit, 100 grit, and 60 grit.
  • Jig/Saber Saw, something for a guide, and clean cut wood saw blade
    • I had a nice chunk of metal guide for a drill press that I bought and have never used- it makes a great cutting guide for jig saws.
  • Yard stick and good 12″ ruler
    • Do yourself a favor and buy a real nice 12″ ruler and protect it. I did this back when I built some kayaks and it is wonderful.
  • Wood rasp
    • This may not be needed by everyone, but it’s great to remove large amounts of wood- it won’t be pretty, but it is effective.
  • Router or a friend with a router

Closing Comments

I’ve now used this desk for 3-4 working days. Overall, it’s a TON better than my old desk but not without its own faults:

  • The distance from me to the monitors is pretty far. I run fairly high screen resolutions (so things are smaller, but you get more screen real estate). My eyes clearly used to be better.
  • The shelf is taller than I needed and my measurements were, but I was using pieces that were cut-off left overs from the desk base. I think I might want to make that shorter.
  • The desk is still a little tall for my liking- but it keeps me from lounging in my chair.
  • And finally, as before- MY CHAIR SUCKS.
    • I’m using a hard plastic fold-up chair. I need something that we can put away at the end of the day so that the aisle in the bedroom are clear. But this thing WHOMPS.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Just came across your project now (1 Apr 2017–no joke!). I am a grad student who faces similar issues with regard to working at our FW’s kitchen table, tv tray, even standing up at the kitchen island. Your design is ingenious! Thanks for sharing. Although our bedroom can’t handle this kind of addition, I’m definitely looking for some space somewhere (I also get tired of hunching over the picnic table outside when the weather’s nice, trying to see beyond the glare of the laptop screen!).
    RE: your chair–you might find that one of those gel-cushions with the cut out for the tailbone to be helpful–a good quality one runs between $30-40 online (splurge for the gel). It works great on our flimsy camper dining chairs and really helps with the fatigue of sitting all day. You may have to find a shorter chair, though, as the cushion will add about 1.5 – 2 inches to your seat height.
    Anyway–hope you see this and your work has continued to profgress.

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