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May 5, 2011

DIY Standing Desk

This is quite a long post. Perhaps you want to

Standing Desk

DIY Standing Desk

Standing up at work seems to be all the rage these days. Some studies suggest that sitting all day long puts you at a significantly higher risk for heart disease.

As a home office dweller I sit for appx. 10-12 hours a day at my desk. I also walk my dog for 2-2.5 hours a day (which adds up to about 10-12 km), but the studies say that that doesn’t offset the negative impact sitting has on your health. These studies and the fact that I’ve developed back issues in the past couple of years prompted me to reduce my sitting time by at least two hours a day. The best way to do this while still being able to work is to use a standing desk.

From the get-go I knew that I didn’t want to switch to standing completely. Standing all day is probably as bad an idea as sitting all day, so the goal for me was to create a work environment that allowed me to switch between sitting and standing. So my Mac Pro was going to remain the computer for the sitting desk and I was going to use the MacBook Pro and/or the MacBook Air for the standing desk.

I did some research on ready-made standing desks and learned that they’re generally fairly expensive (~600+ Euros) while not offering much more than an elevated, but very limited work space. I also looked into height-adjustable desks, but since I have an L-shaped main desk I would need to make do with less desk space in favor of being able to elevate it when needed. After some back and forth I abandoned the idea.

The DIY route

My research into DIY options led me to a post on IKEA Hackers. The standing desk in that post was surely inspiring, but since I want my standing desk to be an alternative to my primary sitting desk rather than a replacement, it’s simply too big. But the whole idea of hacking some of my existing IKEA furniture or buying something new and hacking that intrigued me. So I researched some more.

The first thing I needed to determine was the ideal height for my standing desk. At 6’9″ I’m fairly tall and it turns out that my ideal height for a standing desk is 126 cm. I determined this figure by standing up straight, measuring from the floor to my elbow and subtracting about 5 cm (roughly 2 inches). That gives me a comfortable angle for my arms while typing on a keyboard.


The next thing to determine was the ideal height for a monitor. I quickly discarded the idea of simply working on my MacBook’s built-in screen. Notebook screens are almost always too low for an ergonomic posture, usually giving you a sore neck or making you sit hunchbacked. What’s more is that most monitors, including Apple’s Cinema Display (and iMacs, for that matter) are also way too low for comfortable work. So I had to prop the monitor up to a comfortable working height, while leaving some room for minor adjustments.

I determined the ideal height for the monitor by simple trial and error. I have an antique filing cabinet that’s almost the ideal height for a standing desk (just about 6cm short), so I propped up an old Philips 23″ monitor on some fat computer books and found out that the top of the monitor should be around 60cm above the main desk surface, putting it just below eye-level.

16:10 vs. 16:9

Then I did some research on good monitors. I’m generally a fan of high resolutions (who isn’t?) and quickly realized that it was going to be hard to find a decent monitor at 23″ or 24″ with a 16:10 resolution. The general trend seems to be towards 16:9 screens, which I think is a huge mistake. Vertical screen space is limited enough as it is, reducing it even more makes no sense at all. I’m OK with 16:10, which I think is the perfect aspect ratio for a computer screen (my two main monitors are both Dell 3008WFPs at 2560×1600), but while 16:9 may be fine for a TV, for a computer that’s used to do actual work on, it’s not a very good choice.

So I apparently wasn’t going to be able to find a decent 16:10 monitor at 23″ or “24″ (1920×1200), so I looked at the 27″ options. Apple’s own Cinema Display was a no-go right out the gate since it’s glossy. I can not and will not live with a glossy screen if I have a choice. Yes, it might make images look brilliant, but for the work I do a glossy screen is simply an annoyance. That’s why I paid extra (thanks, Apple) to get my 17″ MacBook Pro with a non-glossy screen.

In the end I settled on a Dell U2711. Yes, this is a 16:9 screen. But at a vertical resolution of 1440 pixels that’s something I can live with. The only other option at this size would have been a 30″ at 2560×1600. But screens in this category start at roughly 1,000 Euros while the U2711 is about 630,- (street price). For a savings of 400,- I’ll gladly do without the additional 160 pixels (and the added weight and power consumption).

IKEA hacking

Now that I had the measurements figured out I took a look at my existing office furniture to see if I could build my standing desk on top of anything I already owned. My initial choice were a pair of Billy book shelves which I could have screwed together, back to back. But I found something better: an EFFEKTIV filing cabinet with castors. Using 30cm table legs on top of the cabinet I’d get the perfect height and some 10cm table legs would support a board that would hold the monitor. I also added a basket for cable management, some Bluelounge CableDrops for keeping the power and DisplayPort cables from the MacBook from falling off the desk when detached and two IKEA Jansjö LED lights to illuminate the keyboard and any book I might have propped up in front of me on a Bookchair.

All in all it took me maybe two hours to do the actual assembly of the desk. What took the most time was planning, getting stuff from the DIY store, waiting for the stuff I ordered online to arrive and waiting for the wax/oil finish on the ash boards to dry (the wood needed two treatments with 8-10 hours in between). Considering I had the idea for a standing desk just last Saturday, the project was completed pretty quickly.

Time to stand up

Now that the desk is finished, I’m definitely eager to give this whole standing up thing a try. I wonder if my feet or back will hurt, I also wonder if I’ll be more focussed and concentrated. Some people have been reporting experiences to that effect, so it’ll be interesting to see how it works out for me.

I’m actually still waiting for a cable for the monitor (the Dell U2711 included every cable except a DisplayPort cable), which should arrive tomorrow. Once that’s here, it’s time to get my butt off the chair.

Stay tuned.

Update: I pimped the desk with a book holder.

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  • http://www.undr.com Andrew

    As a recent convert to a standing desk, I can tell you this:
    Yes, your feet will hurt. Your back? Maybe, maybe not. The first few days were torture on my underused feet and legs. Now it’s been a few months, I’m more aware of when I sit and stand, and I can go 8 hours without want to sit. Still, the first few days were hard. Going to bed was a real break, and quite welcome.

    Any back issues I had went away, and I noted less muscle problems in my back and neck due to the standing. Good luck with your new life choice!

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  • Tom Mandel

    If I’m right, the depth of an Effektiv cabinet is 430mm. Your “desktop” is 600mm deep. How did you decide on this depth? The desktop is also slightly wider than the cabinet, I believe. How are these proportions working out?

  • Tom

    you’re right about the depth of the Effektiv cabinet. I went with 600mm for the desktop because less would have made it too cramped and I figured that making it deeper would have made the whole desk less stable since it’s on castors.

    So far the depth is pretty much perfect. Normal desks are 800mm deep, but they once needed to fit CRT monitors. With flat monitors 600mm offers enough room.

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  • http://sawanddust.blogspot.com/ Radha Krishnan

    What an awesome post to highlight a genius idea! I am an amateur woodworker and have promised my wife a computer desk she could stand up and work at, but the dimensions have flummoxed me.

    What is the height of your keyboard from the ground, then that of the screen to the ground? I know, both these heights would depend on the person, so what have you found best for you? Keyboard at the height of your elbow, or above it? And maybe the height of the monitor measured from the keyboard might be a better metric? And should that be the center of the screen or the top of the screen?

    You have already inspired me to complete that desk – hopefully it turns out to be ergonomic!

    • Tom

      I’ve read elsewhere that the ideal height of a desk (standing or sitting, doesn’t really make much of a difference) is about 2-3 inches lower than your elbows. That gives your arms a good angle for typing.

      The height of the monitor is best when the top edge is at about eye’s height. You can do minor adjustments if the monitor is height-adjustable.

  • http://sawanddust.blogspot.com/ Radha Krishnan

    Thanks Tom – that makes a lot of sense against my personal experience too. And I re-read your post, and you’ve a full para on measuring these heights. Very useful. Thanks!

    I’ll update you when ( if ) I complete my desk!

  • El Nino

    Where did you find the 30cm legs?

    • Tom

      I got them at the hardware store, they had at least 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50cm legs, probably more.

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  • http://twitter.com/jessereynolds Jesse Reynolds

    How are you enjoying it? How many hours a day do you do standing up now? How much do you switch between your sitting and your standing desks?

    Where did you source the boards from?

    Do your feet go under the filing cabinet OK? … Does the board stick out further than than the front of the filing cabinet? Or is it the same dimensions?

    I’m 6’7″ and looking to do something similar. Thanks for posting!


    • Anonymous

      I’m actually not using the desk regularly, just for certain tasks where I have to get up all the time anyway, like, say, to walk to the printer or package something. Otherwise it’s just too comfy sitting at the desk with a nice cup of coffee ;)

      The boards were cut to spec at a woodworking store. IIRC they’re solid ash. I then sandpapered the surface, beveled the edges and applied finish. The larger board is sized so it extends beyond the front and back of the cabinet by about 10 cm (4 in) so I don’t hit my knees or my feet.

  • Carol

    Brilliant. I think I’ll do this.

  • Gilad

    I think I’m going to try this; I’m a bit shy about abandoning my sit down station, so the way I’ve thought of is very low investment (in case I don’t like it). I’ll simply get a second monitor connected to my desktop and toggle between the two monitors (the mouse and keyboard are wireless) so are easy to transfer quickly between the sit down and standup station.

  • Frank

    How much did your steel legs and board cost? Where can I buy these materials?

    • tomborowski

      You can buy the legs and the board at any hardware or home improvement store.

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