Thursday, September 17, 2015

A Desk for a Modern Campaign

I haven't written here much recently, and I may not for the near future.  I'm in the middle of a couple of projects I can't talk about until January (or at least the end of December), so you'll likely mostly get theoretical discussions for now, and maybe a couple of tool and book reviews.  This will be the first entry I write as a design notebook entry:  when I was writing software, this was the sort of writeup I did before starting.

Background and Purpose

I've been thinking for a while that I need a new desk.  Up until a couple weeks ago I was using my kitchen table, which meant it was usually too cluttered to actually eat at.  A few weeks ago I picked up a desk cheap at the thrift store down the road, but I don't love it.  It's better than using the table, but not by a whole lot.  So while I won't have time to start building, it's time to start thinking and planning.

I decided quickly that I wanted a desk that could be closed.  It's going to be in a "public" part of the house, and I'd like to be able to just close it up and hide my mess.  I also knew that I wanted a writing slope, cubbies for sorting mail and documents into, and space for my laptop and, ideally, an external keyboard.  That means I'm looking for, ideally, something like an old secretary desk.

All of this, combined with having helped friends move furniture recently, got me thinking about campaign furniture.  I've always loved the style, and the ability to just strap it closed and move it as is is a big incentive.  The downside of campaign furniture is, of course, the expense of building it.  Last night, though, I came to an important realization:  furniture designs change over time to fit new requirements.


So:  what are the requirements of a modern piece of campaign furniture?  I'm going to assume moving a couple of times a year;  say, something a college student might need, or someone who moves north in the summer and south in the winter.

1) It's more likely to be moved by minivan than by mule, and up staircases rather than mountains, so while it should still be solid, it doesn't need to be quite as bombproof as an original piece.

2) Humidity may still be an issue, but not to the point of rotting the wood, so teak or mahogany aren't really necessary.  The same goes for insects:  if bugs are eating your desk, they're likely also eating your house, so you've got bigger things to worry about.

3) Weight matters.  Much like a tool chest, we want the majority of the weight to be in the contents, not the box itself.

4) Getting around tight corners and up narrow staircases is an issue.  I know from experience that something 30" wide by about 20" deep can be worked around almost any odd corner, but things that are longer can sometimes be a challenge.  Figure 40" in length and 20" front-to-back is an absolute limitation, with smaller being better.

5) It really sucks to have a chest of drawers start opening itself halfway up a staircase, so each drawer should be able to lock (or at least latch) for transportation.

6) It needs to have space for a laptop,  keyboard, and mouse.  People who are likely to move often are less likely to have a desktop computer, so allowing space for that is probably unnecessary.  If an extra monitor is necessary, it can probably just be treated like a small television and left on top of the desk.

6) More and more people like standing desks, so it should end up reasonably tall.  I use a standing desk, and I find I like a keyboard to be at about 45" from the floor and my monitor to start about 10-15" higher, depending on the size of the monitor.

7) At least one lower drawer should be large enough to store hanging files:  treating it as a lateral file is probably most sensible, which means the inside dimension of the drawer needs to be at least 13" front to back.  Adding space for the drawer face and the cabinet back means a total depth of at least, say, 15".

Design Considerations

Since weight matters, I'd like to split something that tall into three sections, rather than two:  it'll make it much easier to carry, especially if lower drawers are used for storing file folders or something like that.  So:  figure two bottom sections totaling about 40-43",  with the top section a little shorter than either of the other two.  That sounds like two sections of 20" each, and one of maybe 15".  Add some low feet to the bottom section, and the bottom two sections will run up a bit further, bringing that total to around 44", give or take.  That sounds like a top section of 15" (external size) will be about right.  So now we know two sets of external dimensions:  we have a 15" minimum depth, and two of the sections will be 20" high, while the third is 15" high.

For reduced weight, let's go with stained pine for a material.  Getting 15" wide pine should be relatively inexpensive, it's easy to work with, and it's light.  We have a winner!  Walnut or oak would be more historically accurate, and stronger, but also more expensive and heavier.  Depending on my budget when I actually build it, I might go with one of those, but pine is more likely.  While the traditional thickness would be about an inch, 3/4" should be more than strong enough.

File drawers are usually about 12-13" deep, and should go on the bottom.  Given that, I'd say the right configuration is:

  • Bottom Case:  20" high.  12.5" drawer on the bottom, for files, and the remainder of the space taken up with a single shallower drawer.
  • Middle Case:  20" high.  A single full-width drawer below, and two or three narrower drawers above.  Alternatively, a file drawer below and two or three shallower drawers above.
  • Top Case: 15" high.  The full space is used as a secretary, with a slot for a keyboard and mouse at the bottom, space for a laptop just above them, and drawers and cubbies for paperwork and desk supplies scattered through the space.  A pass-through at the back for bringing power in and data cables (like an HDMI cable) out would be necessary.  A slide-out writing slope somewhere in the middle would also be nice.
For feet, I'd probably go with something removable, either turned feet or a bracket foot that clips or screws in easily.  They might or might not be removed for transport, but it would be nice to have the option.

Especially with a weaker wood (like pine), joints are critical.  The traditional half-blind dovetails should work fine, although through dovetails might be stronger.  Alternatively, rebates with brass screws would work just fine.  Brass reinforcement will do its job at the corners, and looks fantastic, so it gets to stay.


At this point, the design is basically done:  it's a three-component unit, with a file drawer at the bottom.  It's made of 3/4" pine, probably stained dark, and reinforced at the corners and some edges with brass.  It has one or two file drawers, along with some other storage, and stands about 58" high overall, and 15" deep front to back.  Pretty much the only variables turn out to be the configuration of the desk section, and how wide it is.  I'd be inclined to go about 36", because I know that will fit in the space I have.  Wider would be fine, narrower would be OK up to a point.  I wouldn't make it less than 30" side to side, because I think it would start looking less like campaign furniture and more like someone went overboard with a chimney cupboard.


  1. I like the way you have thought about this. Can you remove one section and use the other two as a sitting desk?

    1. You could, but it would be awkward. The best height for a sitting desk is around 30", and the lower section would only bring the "desktop" surface to about 25" (20" for the lower case, and 4-5" for the feet). That could be solved by putting taller feet on it, putting in a spacer, or just using all three sections and a tall chair.

      That last is pretty much what I'm planning on for my use. I don't always want to stand, but a stool is a good compromise.