The art of Rob Loukotka
Cart 0 items
How To Make A Pallet Desk Pallet Desk | Reclaimed Wood Furniture | Fringe Focus

Upcycled hipster bullshit pallet desk! Here’s how to make a thing.

I needed a nice big desk (I’m 6’4″) at the workshop so I could illustrate posters in peace, away from all the saws and dust. Buying a gigantic desk is expensive, and I happened to have tons of wooden pallets from all my Fringe Focus poster tube deliveries. Killed two birds with one stone, and chopped the pallets up into a mighty big desk. Plus I own a workshop, so DIY is the way to go.

How to make your pallet desk:

How to make a pallet desk | Fringe Focus | Pallet

1. Get some pallets

Honestly, despite what the internet seems to indicate, pallets are not a magical resource ideal for furniture. They’re warped, chemically treated, full of staples, dirt, nails, and rust. They’re ugly, really. BUT if you’re looking to build a desk or table with a lot of character, something that can take a beating, then pallets are great! And it’s great to recycle! If you want a gorgeous flat piece of wood, look elsewhere. I had a ton of pallets in the basement because I receive all of poster tubes on pallets. You could find some at a grocery store if you don’t have any? Or Craigslist?

Take apart pallets | Fringe Focus

2. Rip apart the pallets

This isn’t the worst step of the process, but it’s up there. Use a claw hammer and wedge it beneath the board. Slowly rock the hammer to peel the board up, but be careful not to snap the board (pallets are brittle). I suggest moving across the entire board, slowly lifting it up by fractions of an inch at different locations. Many nails will be rusted or break, WEAR GLOVES. A crowbar helps for leverage, if you have one. If your pallet is particularly difficult, use a hack saw, jig saw, or whatever saw to detach the end points first! You lose about 1 inch on either end, but then you only have 3 nails to remove, instead of 9-10.

Pallet boards

3. Choose your favorite pallet boards

You’ll want to chuck out severely damaged boards. I found that half of my boards were very dark, and the other half were light (two different pallets). So I chose to lay out the most interesting looking boards in this stripe pattern. Yours could be a lot cleaner, I was aiming for a dirty look.

Pallet desk shape planning

4. Plan your desk size

I’m not gonna give exact dimensions here, because pallet furniture by nature is all going to vary a lot. But I wanted a very deep and wide desk. I have a large drawing tablet, two monitors, and usually lots of mess on my desk. I decided on an angled design, as that allows the edge facing me to be a tad longer. Even though the desk is 69″ wide, the edge facing me is around 76″ because it’s at an angle. The wide end was 3 feet deep, the shallow end about 2 feet deep. This also gives a wild forced perspective look, as I’m using progressively skinnier boards as they approach the shallow side. Plus I won’t have to struggle to reach a shelf on the wall on the 2 foot side (whereas a 3 foot deep desk requires you to stretch when reaching across).

Rip pallet board with table saw

 5. Plane, joint, or rip your pallet boards

If you are lucky, your pallet boards will be exceptionally straight, blemish free, and without warps. I was not lucky. Many of the boards absolutely required jointing or planing so I could lay them flush with each other to form a table top. But I do not own a jointer or a planer. Solution? I ripped these mofos on the table saw. I did a few of them with a custom built table slaw sled. But many other boards I just ripped freehand or with the saw fence. This let an edge that bowed out half an inch or so become square. It was NOT perfect, but it was much better than attempting to build a desk surface with warped boards. You could also use hand planes on the surface, but the risk of damage is high with so many hidden nails / staples in pallet stock.

Staining pallet boards

6. Stain your pallet boards

Because I had half dark boards and half light boards, I wanted to accentuate the contrast. I took all of my dark pallet wood, and applied a custom pickling stain to it. Basically it’s white vinegar with steel wool and tea bags in it! You let the steel wool begin to rust in the vinegar for a few days, then steep the tea bags. What you’re left with is a stain that rapidly ages your wood. It can make brand new wood look gray, and it made my dark boards even darker. You could also paint your boards, use traditional stain, or leave them untouched. I used my steel / vinegar mixture and it looked great.

Clamping pallet boards

 7. Glue up your pallet boards

So it might be good to add joints & biscuits in your boards, but I just laid my pallet boards flush and glued them up. There’s a lot of surface area (and a lot of glue) so it worked. I clamped the wide boards in pairs, and I clamped the smaller boards in threes as seen above. IMPORTANT: My boards had wildly different thicknesses, so I am laying them upside-down to be flush with the work bench. The underside of the desk shows huge thickness differences, but the top is relatively even. You could avoid this by picking better stock, or planing the boards, but I figured I’m only using the top of the desk… so the bottom side can fuck off.

Pallet table top brackets

8. Bracket the hell out of your desk top

As I said, I chose very warped / destroyed / old pallet boards. So without a planer I had to rely on some trickery to ensure a level table top I can actually work on. This was done by clamping (and gluing) several 2x4s on the underside of the desktop. Again, the desk surface is flush with my workbench, but the underside has unevenness. I actually placed shims & wedges between the thin boards and the 2x4s to ensure an even fit. Each 2×4 is secured with steel brackets on ANY board that was too uneven / warping. Make sure you keep your clamps on until the glue is fully dry. Also, I put like 5 million screws through the 2x4s into the pallet boards for extra rigidity. Maybe overkill.

Pallet desk top cut

9. Cut the desk top down to size

Using the 2x4s as a guide, the desk top can be cut down to size. The ragged edges need to be cut flush. If you made a rectangular desk you could maybe skip this step, but since my desk has a 10 degree angle I had a lot to cut! If you have a large table saw, you could cut the entire desk top flush there. My saw and shop are simply too small, so using a handheld power saw (ideally circular saw) like a jig saw can work in a pinch. This desk is ‘rustic’ so cutting the edges even with a jig saw then sanding (with an orbital sander) worked fine! You can see my flush edge to the table top above (and some more dark stain). If you’re going for a clean look, you’ll absolutely need a table saw or jointer. I just said “whatever” and it was close enough.

Pallet desk edges

10. Add an edge / border to the desk top

Since my pallet desk top was raggedly attached to some 2x4s, I had to hide the slop behind a nice edge. I had some 1x4s leftover from another project, and stained them dark brown for this desk. I used a miter saw to cut the 1x4s at the appropriate angles, and wrapped this 1×4 edge around the entire perimeter of the desk top. Basically 4 boards (each a different length). 45 degree miters on the back (straight) edge, with different angles for the front edge. Glue up the 1x4s (or whatever edge you like), and clamp like crazy. You could edge your desk with trim from Home Depot, paneling, or even tiles. But I went with stained 1x4s because that is what I had (I spent $0 on wood for this project).

Sanding pallet desk top

11. Sand the pallet desk top

I used an orbital sander with roughly 200 grit sandpaper on the entire surface of the desk. In same cases I went so deep I took the stain right off (partially intentionally). There are a lot of divots, scratches, slivers, etc. in these boards. I wanted the surface rather smooth since I will be interacting with it daily. If your boards are relatively clean, this will be easy. If not, have patience, and wear a respirator! Pallet wood dust can be dangerous, so wear a mask and vacuum up all the dust.

Pallet desk legs

12. Add legs to the desk!

Unless you like working on the floor, you should add legs to your desk. I forgot my phone/camera the day I added the legs, but here is finished system for my leg brackets. I had some 4x4s laying around, so that informed my leg choices. You could easily use steel rods, or 2x4s, or even traditional lathed legs. But I used a 4×4 in each corner, with steel brackets securing it to both the 2×4 support beams AND the 1×4 edge beams. The 4x4s are placed directly under the 2×4 supports, to ensure the weight is distributed across the whole surface. Don’t just plop your legs under the thin pallet wood. For stability, I cut 45 degree angles with the miter saw on some 4×4 braces. These braces are secured with 2″ screws. You can make braces like this at any length you choose, it’s as much an aesthetic choice as it is a structural one. (The 4x4s were stained and sanded in the same fashion as the desk top)

Pallet Desk Finishing

13. Finish your pallet desk (literally)

For finishing woodworking projects, I stick to a lot of the same procedures. I use my custom pickling stain (vinegar, steel wool, tea) for aging the wood when necessary, and I use Danish oil for most surfaces. I mix the Danish oil myself (in a jar). My Danish oil is 1/3 boiled linseed oil, 1/3 polyurethane, and 1/3 mineral spirits. This should be applied with a rag (or a brush) quickly across the entire surface, you want to ‘flood’ the wood so it absorbs the oil leaving no dry spots whatsoever. Let this soak in for 30 minutes, then remove the excess with a dry rag. Then re-apply in the same fashion and let this dry for 15 minutes or so. You can keep flooding with Danish oil on repeat for a while, but I find 2 or 3 coats to work. For coasters and small projects, I’d stop here.

For my desk, I added a final layer of brush-on (oil based) polyurethane a day after the Danish oil had dried. I applied a glossy polyurethane to the pallet desk top and edges, but NOT the legs, to give some contrast. This draws your eye to the glossy top, and makes it feel as if the bright desk surface is floating since you ignore the matte 4×4 legs. Depending on your desired finish (and quality of your wood) you can sand the desk with 0000 steel wool between coats, or 320 grit sandpaper for the polyurethane. Let the poly cure for at least a day before use. And you’ll want ventilation for these steps, as the fumes from the poly aren’t exactly good for you.

Pallet Desk | Recycled Wood | Fringe Focus

Pallet Desk | Reclaimed Wood Furniture | Fringe Focus

There, now go build a desk! Or check out more of my woodworking and fabrication projects.

Quote: The Life Which Men Praise The Life Which Men Praise And Regard As Successful Is But One Kind | Fringe Focus

“Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind.

— Henry David Thoreau | Walden, 1854

As an artist and entrepreneur, I think I speak for my peers when I say that we have radically different motivations than the general population. My closest friends and colleagues are business owners, graphic designers, and strangely creative whackos. We’re motivated by a creative itch. An urge to solve really complicated problems. It’s pretty rare that we discuss material possessions, and even rarer that we’d measure success based on income. I don’t even know what my personal income was last year (I will surely know soon when I do taxes though, haha).

I am successful and fulfilled in life when these conditions are met:

  • I don’t use an alarm clock in the morning.
  • My bills are paid.
  • I am creating cool looking shit most days.
  • I don’t feel incredibly stressed.
  • I can take one long trip per year (usually a month) to another country.

That’s it.

MEASURE SUCCESS WITH YOUR OWN METRICS

I found this quote from Walden fascinating because even in 1854 Thoreau recognized we can just define success for ourselves. For him it was successfully removing himself from society and chilling in a cabin. For me it’s making art and not having a boss.

Maybe your metric for success is inspiring people. Maybe it’s doing good for those who need it. Maybe your success is just graduating school (for now). Maybe success IS a fat pile of cash. But it’s your choice!

Quote: The Man Who Goes Alone Quote: The Man Who Goes Alone |Thoreau | Fringe Focus

“The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready, and it may be a long time before they get off.”

— Henry David Thoreau | Walden, 1854

Many of us travel with friends or family more often than we travel alone. An unfortunate consequence is that your freedom to explore hangs on the speed, opinions, or preferences of your travel partner. Simple tasks like choosing a restaurant for the evening can feel like being mired in quicksand when you’re with a group of friends. Walking with a lot of people seems to get slower and slower as your group size increases.

I’ve noticed this phenomenon outside of travelling as well. Business decisions can take much much longer with a partner. Any quick task can eat up more time than you’re willing to give if you have to wait on the actions of others.

So if you’re waiting to take that trip to Japan, try going by yourself! If you’re excited about snowboarding this season, pack up and go alone if your friends are too busy. If you can’t find somebody to go the movie theater on a given night, go anyway. Obviously socializing is great, but don’t let everyone else’s schedule dictate your life if you can help it. Head out on your own, and there’s nothing stopping you from starting today.

Take Small Risks Take Small Risks

I spent most of 2012 and 2013 taking big risks with my career. Let’s list them!

  • Founded a design company with actual employees and overhead.
  • Left said design company after 2.5 years with no backup plan other than ‘art’.
  • Spent an entire month drawing ONE poster, and another month promoting it.
  • Got rid of 100% of paying clients. Again to ensure more time for ‘art’.
  • Got a two year lease on the Fringe Focus workshop.
  • Bought tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment for use in future projects.
  • Spent nearly four months on a secret woodworking project.
  • Spent an average of two weeks on each poster I drew in 2013.

Every risk there worked out very well except for one: My biggest risk in terms of time wasted – “Spent nearly four months on a secret woodworking project.

Working independently, I measure risk based on how much time I spend on a risky project (all projects are risks in that sense). There are only 24 hours in a day, so every hour used on a failed project is an hour you do not get back. Ideas that don’t pan out, materials that are wasted, hours spent producing items that won’t sell, all of those take away from your successful projects.

Time invested in starting my workshop was a success. Time invested in my ACME Corporation poster was a success. Time invested in my screen prints were a success. But that forward momentum can be halted by spending too much time on a bad project. I spent four months on a project that didn’t work. I never launched it at all.

The 4 Month Boondoggle

From June 2013 through August 2013 I spent a lot of my time on a secret woodworking (game set) project called Marauders.

The project involved a lot of illustration, materials research, and production. I bought a 20,000lb shop press, I bought a CNC router, I drew some fun things. I invested in some custom leather belts and piles of hickory. Towards my intended launch in September 2013, I realized my method of production was not working. I had inevitable wood warping problems, finishing problems due to how the game set would be handled, and it simply took too much time to produce each set. I had a GREAT idea, but the final product would have been too expensive for me to produce. So I shelved it for now. Marauders WILL launch someday, it’s pretty damn cool looking.

Lesson learned: Cut your losses

It’s good to start projects where you don’t know if it will succeed. If we didn’t take risks, we wouldn’t find success. But after months of trying to make one big idea work, I let it go. I could have spent more time and launched it, but the potential upside was lower than the time invested. Short of a gigantic insane success, there’s no way Marauders would have made enough money to justify 6 or 9 months of work. My screen prints are time well spent. My photo prints are usually time well spent. Making housewares on my laser is time well spent. Kill the big project if it isn’t working.  Eventually I used some of the artwork from this project on Marauders coasters because that’s some small positive from a big loss.

Lesson learned: Small failures are good

A project you wasted 4 months on not making a profit? BAD. A project you wasted 1 week on not making a profit? Annoying but not bad. A project you wasted 1 day on and not making a profit? Who cares! You gave it a shot, and only one day is lost.

Lesson learned: Take small risks

If you can develop an entire idea in one day, do it. You may not know if your drawing / blog post / website edit will be successful at all, but the potential upside is almost always greater than one wasted day. Spend one day updating your contact page, or one day taking photographs, or one day writing a new post. There are people developing mobile apps in one day, people overhauling their company’s homepage in one day, and people making great artwork all in one day. The positive potential is huge, and the downside minimal. Put something new in your store tomorrow, reach out to a bunch of potential clients with goddamn infographic you drew, I dunno! But things made quickly still have value.

My small plans for 2014

I did a lot of BIG posters last year that take a lot of time, this year I’m going to introduce some 8×8″ mini prints that I can get to you sooner.

Fringe Focus Make Days in which I gather your ideas in the morning, design it during the day, and get materials / build the product / launch it in the evening.

My 365 ‘make something’ whatever project for this blog.

Process: Derrick Rose T-Shirt

Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls) T-Shirt | Fringe Focus

MVP

If you’re  familiar with basketball, you’ve probably heard the name Derrick Rose recently. Chicago Bulls’ point guard Derrick Rose was recently named the NBA’s 2011 MVP. He’s like Michael Jordan good.

I met up with a great guy here in Chicago a few weeks ago, who wanted to capture the energy and excitement of Derrick Rose in a t-shirt. These are unofficial shirts, so they’re not available everywhere, nor do they contain any official NBA names/logos. They’re for fans here in Chicago.

Not only does Derrick play for the Bulls, he was born and raised  in Chicago. Now that he’s taken his team to the playoffs, you can see why more than a few people here love him. The shirts say ‘Homegrown’ to recognize his local upbringing (and his floral last name…)

Process Shots

When I started illustrating this t-shirt design, I thought it would be fun to take some process shots. I’ve included everything from sketches, incomplete designs, to the finished shirt.

Derrick Rose T-Shirt (Sketches) - Fringe Focus

These sketches were done on my Wacom tablet, to quickly figure out ways to organize the imagery. We knew the shirts would say ‘Homegrown’, and that there would be a bull’s head in the shadow of the rose. The rose busting out of the concrete is actually my reference to a poem by 2pac. (I’m not cool, I just happen to know one poem by him)

Derrick Rose T-Shirt (Design) - Fringe Focus

Derrick Rose was raised on the south side of Chicago. So not only did the shirt need to show an urban environment, I had to make sure the skyline was accurate, and not showing Chicago from some bizarre angle out in the lake. These pictures are early on in the process, where I usually change colors and arrangements quickly. Ultimately I decided a grey shirt worked much better than a red one.

Derrick Rose T-Shirt (Design) - Fringe Focus

Derrick Rose T-Shirt (Design) - Fringe Focus

These shots show how each part of the illustration was pushed and pulled. The skyline needed some contrast, so I gave it a red sunset to draw focus to the rose. Later I dialed down the sunset a bit so it wasn’t too bright.

Derrick Rose T-Shirt (Design) - Fringe Focus

Here you can the next-to-last phase of the design. The colors are finished and I decided against using a separate color for the rose stem. The arrangement is fine, but the design was still a bit too clean. The rose itself also didn’t scream the fact that is was a rose. ‘Homegrown’ found its proper place in perspective on the ground. The previous sketches had given too much attention to the text. The final design solves this by visually pulling you in towards the rose.

Derrick Rose T-Shirt (Design) - Fringe Focus

Here is the completed design, with tweaks to most of the lines and the rose. The finished illustration uses only 3 colors, each of which would get their own discharge print on an American Apparel t-shirt.

The printing company even captured some great footage of the shirt being printed! Check it out.

Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls) T-Shirt | Fringe Focus

The final shirt looks incredible, and is really soft. Great fit, great colors, and it was fun to work on! All work was done through my design company: Collision Labs

Derrick Rose Printed  T-Shirts - Fringe Focus

Here’s the Adams Barber Shop crew in Chicago wearing the shirts. Pretty exciting to see an idea/illustration take off like this.

One last thing: Derrick Rose himself actually wears my shirt! Although I don’t have any photos of him wearing it yet. Pretty crazy cool though.

I’m not selling these shirts personally, but you can buy them directly from my cool client right here: ThinkingFanDesign.com

Thoughts on the shirt? Drop me a comment, or hit me up on Twitter: @FringeFocus