Outdoor standing desk

I've been working from home for a few years now, and my happiest work environment is the front porch. It's in the breeze and (optionally) in the sun, but protected from light rain; I can hear birds and say hello to neighbors. The problem is that I have nothing even remotely resembling an ergonomic workstation: There's a chair, and the steps, and the floor. No desk. So I can't do it for very long before I start risking a return to the physical therapist.

I've been wanting to build a standing desk for the porch for a while now, and recently a design finally crystallized. In just a few days I had slapped something together from scrap wood and stray hardware.

It turned out to be just fantastic, and I'd like to share it with you. Maybe you'll be inspired to make your own design and share it too.


Here are the constraints I was working with:

  • Desk has to be able to stay on the porch at all times, in all seasons. (Maybe not winter.) I'm not hauling it in and out of the house each day.
  • Can't be anything permanent, as we rent.
  • Screen and keyboard have to be vertically separated for basic ergonomic safety.
  • Should face the street, because it would feel super weird to be facing the wall of the house.
  • Should be inexpensive, since there's no guarantee I'll even be happy with it.
  • Nice-to-have: Adjustable sit/stand desk.

This resulted in some difficult limitations around materials and designs. Maybe a metal or wooden frame, secured to the railing? Could I actually weatherproof that? If so, is there a way I could also store electronics on it in-place (monitor, dock), maybe with a tarp? Or is that a theft risk?

The project stagnated for a while, until I finally hit on this design: A collapsible hanging desk.

Behold: The prototype!

Standing desk unfolded and hung on porch column, with tree and
 street as backdrop. A laptop sits on the upper shelf, and a
 wireless keyboard and mouse on the lower shelf.

Deployed in all its janky glory.

Standing desk with shelves folded up and leaning against wall of house.
 It folds up to about 5 inches thick and the bottom edge is about 1.5 feet
 from the wall.

Folds up nicely when not in use.

The hook on which the standing desk hangs. A board is held
 vertical and flat to a porch column. This main board has a
 block of wood screwed to it near the upper end, on the opposite
 face from the one held against the column. Rope tightly encircles
 the board and the column. The rope passes under the block, holding
 up the board. The rope also passes along some decorative horizontal
 grooves in the column, ensuring the whole thing does not slide
 down. Another board is screwed to the block, rising to the same
 height as the main board; this creates a large notch that the
 entire desk can be hung from.

The hook stays cinched to a column.

The desk is a rectangular wooden frame, built from scrap wood. Two shelves of the same width as the frame are connected to it via hinges. The upper shelf is for my laptop, serving as the screen; the lower shelf is for a wireless mouse and keyboard.

The near edge of the shelves is suspended by some sisal twine from the top of the frame. This allows them to be folded up while also only requiring the hinges to bear a vertical load, not torque in addition. The twine passes through large holes drilled in the near corners of the shelves.

The whole frame is hung on a sort of large wooden hook. This is very particular to my setup: I lucked out that the porch column has these decorative horizontal grooves in it, allowing me to cinch a board to the column. The square block of wood near the top of the column has multiple functions: It provides something for the rope to anchor against; it's what the frame rests on; and it supports a second piece of wood that keeps the frame from sliding off. The hook is left there more or less permanently.

I keep the desk folded up against the wall of the house, which keeps it out of the rain in all but the most intense winds. To set up, I hang it on the hook, and then gently unfold the shelves. Then I can set up my electronics. Setting up or putting away only takes a minute.

Oddities of the design

Obviously, this is a very hacked-together design. I intended it as a prototype, something to try out to see if I even liked it. But it works almost perfectly, so I'm unlikely to change it dramatically. That said, there are definitely some weird parts, and the current design is not something to copy directly. Some assorted notes:

  • I'm using sisal twine here instead of strong, UV-resistant plastic rope. Sisal twine breaks down in about one season, so it's definitely not a long-term solution. It was perfect for prototyping, but now that I know I like the height of everything, I'll look for some appropriate rope.
  • The horizontal members of the frame extend to the left and right far beyond what is necessary. This is because I didn't want to cut the wood to size until I was sure this was the design I wanted.
  • The vertical parts of the frame extend much farther down than strictly necessary. There's no reason they shouldn't stop at the lower shelf. Again, I didn't want to cut the wood shorter than necessary, since I might not like the result. I might shorten it eventually.
  • The tiny blocks of wood at the corners of the frame? Ignore them. The decking screws I was using were too long for the thickness of the frame, and I didn't want sharp ends sticking out. In your design, maybe you will use more convenient screws.
  • The near board of the hook extends below the load-bearing block for no reason other than, you guessed it, I didn't want to cut it short too early. I might trim it later, as I haven't found any use for the lower portion.
  • Why are the lower "hinges" actually each 4 eye-bolts and a deck screw? Because I didn't have the right kind of hinge on hand, and the screws would have been too close to the edge of the (somewhat weak) wood, and might have torn out. The eye-bolts thing allowed for something farther from the edge, and seemed like an amusing thing to try.

Important parts of the design

OK, with all the goofy bits out of the way, here's what I really like about this desk. Not all of this may be obvious.

  • This could have been much taller and simply stood on the porch, and then just been tied to the column for stability. And that would be simpler, yes, but when folded up and leaning against the house it would have taken up more room and been more of a falling hazard as well. A hanging design is more compact. And compact is important because this is taking up precious porch real estate.
  • While the frame doesn't need to extend as far down as it does, it is important that it reaches down to the railing or below, for stability.
  • The lower shelf is plenty large for the mouse and keyboard, but it also needs to be wide enough that my wrists don't bonk against the twine at the corners.
  • The hinges allow folding, but can't support significant forces. In this configuration there is a shear force on the vertical part of the hinge and a tensile force on the horizontal. It's not great, but they can take it. Without the twine, though, the shelves would act as huge levers and would rip the screws straight out. The alternative would be a block of wood or a swing arm below the shelves, acting as a stop. This would make the desk less foldable, though. Tensile elements are an ideal alternative.
  • Having the top horizontal of the frame stick out to the sides a bit allows a place for the twine to attach to that doesn't interfere with the shelves or even rub against them.
  • I decided not to bother with an external monitor. If I'd used one, I would have had to strengthen the upper shelf, find additional room for the laptop, figure out a way to store the monitor (or just carry it in and out each day), and also find a webcam to stick on it. I might also have to figure out a microphone. Far easier to just use the laptop itself for everything except the keyboard and mouse controls. (But if I really wanted an external monitor? Maybe I could install a mounting bracket on that near part of the hook.)
  • It was really satisfying to use scrap wood and spare parts!

Future improvements

As much as I like it, there are still some improvements to make.

  • The roll and yaw need to be stabilized. Currently if I place a small amount of weight on the corners of the lower shelf, the desk will rotate on the hook along two different planes. Fixing this will likely involve attaching two to four small blocks of wood to the lower part of the frame. If I'm thoughtful about it, those pieces will each be held on by a single screw or nail and will be able to pivot to be in line with the frame, allowing it to be collapsed fully for long-term storage.
  • The arms that hold the lower shelf out from the frame attach to the underside of the shelf, which means that the lower shelf hits the upper shelf too soon when collapsing the desk. If I reattach the arms on the top of the shelf, there will be a slight improvement in compactness. (I had been concerned that putting the arms on top would conflict with the keyboard and mouse, but in practice I don't actually use the full depth of the shelf.)
  • When moving the desk around, the shelves can flop open, hitting me or damaging the hinges or surrounding wood. At some point I'll want to add a safety strap. This would be attached to the underside of the lower shelf, and when the desk is folded the other end of the strap could tie to the top of the frame.
  • The horizontal members of the frame are on the far side of the vertical members from me. If I switched those, the collapsed desk would be more compact, and I'd get yaw stabilization as well. However, this would introduce a problem during setup or takedown, since when the upper shelf is still folded it would collide with the hook. It might be possible to address this by changing the design of the hook so that the frame sits largely on top of the main board of the hook, with just relatively thin sheets of material forming the front and back of the hook.
  • I'd like to see if there's a sturdier hinge design. I'm currently using salvaged particle board for the shelves, so the hinges might not be the weakest link at the moment, but in either case I currently have to be very mindful not to lean on the desk.
  • It would be great if the whole thing were adjustable so that people other than me could use it. This would likely require much more significant design changes, though.

I would also like to figure out a better system for power and peripherals. I currently have to carry mouse, keyboard, charger, and headphones out with me each morning, and it would be a small luxury to instead keep them in a box on the porch. Some kind of opaque, weatherproof plastic tub?

Do you want to make one?

I've had several people stop and say they're intrigued enough to want to make one for themselves. That would be great, and I would love to see what people come up with, especially if they improve upon the design.

However, I can't meaningfully provide a blueprint. This thing was made very specifically for my situation—the scrap I had lying around, the shape of the porch, the way I like to work. Anyone who wants to make something like it is going to have to come up with their own design!

That said, I'm happy to provide some measurements to give some sense of the required materials.

  • The frame and shelves are 27" wide. I wouldn't change this.
  • The frame is 42" tall. I could have made it shorter and still had it reach below the railing, though.
  • Both shelves are 12" deep.
  • The arms that support the lower shelf are 12" long, but due to overlap they only extend the shelf towards me by 8.5".
  • The top surface of the upper shelf is 55" off the ground, placing the center of the laptop screen around eye level for me.
  • The top surface of the lower shelf is 43.5" off the ground, allowing my elbows to be at a 90° angle when using the keyboard.
  • The bottom of the frame is 29" off the ground.

I don't have any good advice for how to position the shelves. It was extremely trial-and-error, with lots of standing with my arms hovering over an imaginary keyboard and staring at an imaginary screen while simulataneously tring to measure against a vertical tape measure. (I probably should have asked for help with this part.)

If you make an outdoor standing desk for yourself, I'd love to see what you come up with!

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