Second Floor – Hardware, Children’s wear, Ladies’ lingerie… A Universal Desk

Lately I’ve been experimenting with Free Motion Quilting (FMQ).

Yes, I see that surprised look on your faces!  I do, in fact, sew sometimes!  When I’m not buried elbow deep in the innards of a sewing machine, sometimes I even use them.  🙂

My latest “thing” is FMQ.  It’s really fun, but if your sewing surface isn’t set up correctly, it can be a real pain in the neck, shoulders, wrists, arms, back, and head.   With a lot of damage already in my back and wrists from computer work, (and dirtbikes, and old car wrecks, and skiing,… well you get the picture.)  I had to think this one through pretty carefully.

I wanted a new desk, but had to do it on a budget.  I’m willing to contribute some sweat equity, so I figured I’d give it a go at building something.

I have several cabinets that can recess a machine, but I’d really like to be able to use whichever machine I want to FMQ without constantly tearing the sewing room apart if I want to sew in the living room in front of the fire and TV.  Sometimes it’s a Pfaff I want to use, sometimes the Singer 15-90, on a brave day it might be the Featherweight 222, and this weekend I acquired a Singer 301.   4 machines, 4 different sized beds, and 4 different heights.  That’s not even including the “regular” machines that I use for piecing or sewing clothes.  At last count, I had 20 of the darn things!  Sure I have a cabinet that I can use for the 301, if I modify it some, the 15-90 came in a lovely table, and I have a lovely Featherweight table that Ryan bought me for my birthday.   Sometimes though, it’s nice to just set a desk and get used to it and not worry about what sort of machine you’re going to use.

So, the requirements were:

  1. Must accommodate several machine bed sizes
  2. Must be able to manage a full size cast iron machine
  3. Must not vibrate itself or the house apart
  4. Must be relatively “portable”
  5. Must be able to tolerate the weight of up to 20 lbs of cat at the same time as a sewing machine
  6. Must be “Easy” on the budget.

Now the first point is the multi-point problem.

The machines all vary not just in width and depth measurements, but also in the height measurement.  Sure, I can stack books / blocks of wood, etc, but that’s inaccurate, and prone to slippage.  It also feels so “temporary”.

Knowing that eventually, I would come up with something, I started with the horizontal bed dimensions of the machines, and went looking for a table or some other solution that would work to hold them securely.

I checked most of the Second hand stores, figuring if I was going to cut it up, I didn’t want to be paying for a new table.  Besides that, I’m more likely to get something sturdy at a second hand store for the same or less than what I would pay for something new at a regular shop.  I found a great desk at The Habitat For Humanity Restore, but that’s going to be for the computers in my server room.  I did tell you previously that I’m a geek, right?   Then I hit the government surplus building, and found the “Desk” to use for this.  $10.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo of it before I started hacking it to pieces. It’s 48″ by 24″ by about 31″ tall, with a shelf to which there were 2 keyboard trays attached side by side, and cutouts for cords or printer paper or something.  It also has a shelf towards the bottom.    It will have no trouble handling the weight of any machine I choose to put on it.  It should also manage a cat or both, even during landing and take off, whether there’s a machine in attendance or not.  It should also be wide enough to allow the cats to wander it, while inspecting my work.   It is worth noting that Shadow had an objection to the lack of depth on the 15’s table , which she voiced by falling off it the other day with no help from fabric or human. 😀

Hm,… The quilt inspector brought backup. This can’t be good.

This is, however, not the portable I envisioned doing double duty in the living room and for taking to our Sewing Circle.  I will have to come up with another plan for that. I found a great card table for that, and I’m just formulating the plan now.  I will post that project once I finish it.  This desk is on wheels, and weighs probably 80lbs.

To accommodate the various machines, I had to make a hole at least as big as the biggest machine, but I also needed to keep in mind the distance of the needle to the edge of the desk.  I didn’t want to be stretching across the desk to sew, and I didn’t want to feel like I had to fold my wings in tight against me to sew either.  I’ve read 8 1/2″ from needle to human as a good guideline.  The other thing to take into account is the distance side to side.  You don’t want the machine too far to one side because you should be situated in front of the needle, and you shouldn’t be straddling a table leg to do it. I realized quite quickly that I had to be willing to move my chair somewhat if this was going to work.  Putting a featherweight’s needle directly in front of me at the same spot as for a 411 for instance was not practical.  If the featherweight was moved backwards, so that the needle was more to the right side of the desk, and I moved the chair, I could have a much smaller hole to fill around the machines.  Additionally, that gave me even more desk space to the left of the featherweight.  Win-Win, right?


The plan was to deal with the “gap” between machines with a Lexan insert.  At first I was going to do it via custom inserts that fit each machine (or machine type:  For instance, a 15, 201, 66, etc will all fit the same sized insert.)  Then I saw the Sewing Mates table which adjusts to all machines, and made something similar to that.


You can see the temporary blocking that I used to raise the machines to the correct height.

In the end though, I wanted the inserts inset into the table, so there was no “seam” between the insert and the table.  I reverted to my original plan of making an insert. The time used making the adjustable insert wasn’t wasted though.  I used it to size each of the openings perfectly for each machine.  The Lexan, I got from a friend who makes signs.  It was all off cuts, so it cost me nothing.  During this whole process, the shape of the inserts changed too.

Vibration and traction are addressed with the shelf liner that you can buy almost anywhere.  I picked this stuff up from the dollar store.  I recommend a spray adhesive or something else to hold it in place.  It may be less robust than I want though.  A 115 did a bit of a number on it.  If it gets too bad, I will look at putting some of the good thick “rubber” we cut off some mudflaps in place instead.  Update 20130322:  I changed the shelf liner out for an adhesive cork.  Seems more robust.

With not enough ideas in mind for the raising and lowering of the machines, I went to Lee Valley to see if they had any hardware or ideas for the task.  Boy did they.

I left with a 24″ piece of 1/4″ threaded rod, 4 pentagon knobs, and a baggie of propell nuts.  All I needed to pick up were some 1/4″ x20 nuts to go with all of this.  Cost $12.

I went to the Home Depot, and bought an off-cut of 20″ deep MDF shelf.  Cost $1.

Quilt inspector inspecting the shelving test fit. Inspection passed.

All that was left was to assemble everything and test.

Drilling the holes for the height mechanism
The pentagon knobs and the nuts to hold them tight – assembled. Note the “nuts” on the table to the left and lower,… these are what’s actually touching the bottom of the platform that the sewing machine sits on. Ignore the 8 x 1 1/4″ screws. They were there for something else.
Install the propell nuts on the top of the shelf you just drilled the holes in.  This way, gravity helps them stay in place.  Installed from the bottom, they -could- pull out, but it's unlikely as long as they're installed right.
Install the propell nuts on the top of the shelf you just drilled the holes in. This way, gravity helps them stay in place. Installed from the bottom, they -could- pull out, but it’s unlikely as long as they’re installed right. Update 20130322 – I’ve since added some wood glue to the holes.  I squeezed it in with a  syringe.  Perhaps the holes we drilled were too big, but I noticed some movement.   If doing this from scratch, you should be able to paint some on like Loc-tite.
Mark and drill shallow holes the width of the nuts that will hold the shelf up. This helps the shelf not slide, and stay centered while moving the machines on and off of it.
Assemble – We loc-tited all parts together to encourage the parts that we wanted to move, not the others.
Install the platform
Install the platform
Test – I initially started out trying to level with the level you see in the photo. In practice, it’s not necessary. Just raise each corner until the machine is level with the insert. I used the “parts” 201 for this test.
Testing with the "Adjustable" insert.  This is the new 301 I picked up this weekend, prior to its cleaning.
Testing with the “Adjustable” insert. This is the new 301 I picked up this weekend, prior to its cleaning.
Final test with insert in place. The 201 is sitting on top of it at the moment (the insert is basically just under the lip of the bed) because I need to adjust the insert. That will be this weekend.

Oh! And get the Quality Control Inspectors’ approval.

I think we have final approval.

The table also doubles as a light table with this insert:

Let there be light!

A look at the storage I have available to me in the desk:

Lots of space to store crap.
Lots of space to store crap.  We’ve since added wing nuts on the height adjusters.  This adds a little stability.  The original keyboard tray on the left slides out, so I can use the space for a quilt, or lunch, or anything that I need closer surfaces for.  Otherwise, it’s a shelf.  The bottom shelf holds 2 sewing machines comfortably, as well as various other sundry items.

Left to do:

  1. Shorten the height adjusters.  I can currently bang my knees, and it gets in the way of storing things on the lower shelf. Completed 2013/03/20
  2. Shorten the desk itself.  It needs to be about 3″ lower for me to be completely comfortable on the couch or an 18″ bench.  I may also look for a chair that sits higher too, but the original goal was to be able to sit on the couch and do this.  The Living room isn’t big enough for a workstation plus the existing furniture.  We did this tonight.  It was more of a challenge than I’d initially thought it would be,  the plate that holds the wheels was in the way once the desk was shorter.  It was a small modification though and the problem was solved.  Of course, this step isn’t necessary if you’re not a Hobbit, like me.

    Hobbit desk modification. Once we’d lowered the desk by 3.5″, this plate got in the way of assembling the backer board.
  3. Final fitting of the inserts.  Some of them seemed to change shape a little after the Lexan was flattened in the oven.Completed 2013/03/22 – The desk is complete.  On to the next project. 🙂

Total investment – about $30 and untold hours trying to dream it up then build what I saw in my head. 🙂  Truthfully, if you went into this with a plan, it could easily be accomplished in a weekend, or even an afternoon if you’re good with tools.  This was our first time working with Lexan, and my second time with a router.  It turns out it can boss you around if you’re not careful.

I’d love to see any custom tables you’ve created!  Also any improvements you can suggest are always welcome.  Let me hear about it below.  I reply to all comments and love hearing from you!

Additionally, there are some followup questions that I answered about the table here:


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