Turning a bookcase into a standing desk — super-perfect for the DIY-challenged

June 23 | Guest post by katie

These days there are all sorts of people — from health professionals to personal trainers to workplace efficiency specialists — touting the benefits of standing desks over sitting. Being a full-time medical student myself — studying to be an osteopathic physician, no less — I was painfully aware (pun!) of my poor body mechanics and how studying for hours on end, sitting hunched over a desk, was hurting my back and contributing to my stress levels. I decided I needed a standing desk.

standing desk photo

I had plans to build a workstation mounted to the wall and use "invisible" floating bookshelves to hold all my med school books and make it look like that massive stack of textbooks was holding up the desk. However, I'm the kind of person who gets an idea and then throws an internal, Verruca-like fit of "But I want it now!" and our tool library was closed for the next few days, inhibiting my ability to build anything. (Yes, Berkeley has a tool library. It's awesome.) So, I decided to work with what we had — and what we had was a bookshelf overflowing with crap.

This is an embarrassingly simple project. To this point, not a single item was purchased (though that'll change, once I get one of those nice gel-y standing mats) nor a single tool used. I'm a hands-on, DIY kind of chick, but for this hack, you don't have to be.

Basically, here's the plan:

  1. Take a bookshelf with removable shelves (they don't have to be adjustable, but they do need to be able to come out) and clear it off. Clean it out, too, if it's getting kind of nasty. The one I used originally came from IKEA.
  • Decide what height you want your workstation to be, and remove all shelves above that. My bookshelf doesn't have the option to adjust shelf heights, though if I really wanted it at a different level I could drill new holes for the pegs. Make sure it's a height you really can work with — I end up with the base of my hands resting on my laptop and my elbows hanging down naturally by my sides.
  1. Tend to your electronics. I've got a power strip specifically for the cords for the laptop charger, the computer speakers, and the desk lamp. This particular bookcase has a half-inch gap between the back of the shelves and its back wall, and this is the perfect place to run the cables through for the speakers and such. I also tried both a clip-on light and a regular desk lamp, and ultimately went with the regular lamp placed on top of the bookcase, but that's a matter of personal preference.
  2. Put your books/trinkets/what-have-you back on the shelves. For me, that's all textbooks and binders, which have the added benefit(?) of being opaque, and thus blocking any view of that cord situation snaking down the back. I also keep my stapler, three-hole-punch, and box of notecards on a lower shelf, since they're occasional-use items and thus don't need the prime desktop real estate. The desk space goes to my laptop and mouse, a couple jars of pens/pencils/highlighters, and a textbook-on-a-bookstand, as well as things that will eventually be mounted on the walls or ceiling of the bookcase, like a whiteboard calendar and the computer speakers.

And there you go! This battleworkstation is fully operational… and a delightfully simple IKEA hack to boot. I'm probably going to mod mine more — mount some stuff on the inside, get a pair of doors at the local salvage yard so I can close it up and hide the mess. I also recommend getting a good thick floor mat to stand on. It will help ease those knees/ankles/heels that aren't used to standing like this.

Enjoy your standing desk! I, for one, have found that the absence of the confinement of a chair results in a significantly increased incidence of spontaneous dance parties while catching up on email or browsing ye old internets.

  1. This is great! Something I would really like to try.. as that damn study has got me worried about how much I sit. There's a bookshelf calling my non-DIY name :)

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  2. This is awesome, it could really solve the space problem we're currently having with where to fit my massive computer desk and office chair!

    How much work time do you do though? I work from home so spend 6+ hours a day at my computer, I think I'd get kinda tired of standing after a while!

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    • hi outlaw —

      it certainly does help with space issues! i was able to condense my study from a 6' by 6' room to a 6' tall bookcase.

      as for how long i use it — i probably average 4 hours of studying at home daily (and *far* more on certain days). like starting anything new, the trick is to acclimate and not go all in at once. the gel mat helps, and i try in general to work in 30-5 increments (work-break), which also mitigates fatigue, both physical and mental.

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      • This could be the solution I've been looking for, thanks!

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  3. Also it would be a lovely camouflage of that squishy mat to cover it with a beautiful area rug!

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  4. Ooooh, I'd like to do this. I'll keep my eyes open for a bookshelf like that.

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  5. i work from home full-time for my company where i used to sit at a desk all day. now, i use my laptop and sit on the couch for about half of my day and i spend the other half standing while i work with my laptop on top of a tall kitchen cart with wheels. it works great! if i had more space, i would love to try the bookshelf idea…we just don't have any more room for anything else though.

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  6. 'Increased incidence of spontaneous dance parties' FTW :)

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  7. In response to "how long can you stand up while working"… my partner is a video editor and created a standing desk at work and has ramped up to standing at his desk for 8 hr plus days. He has a foam mat that really helps. He says it really helps! In the beginning he alternated between standing and sitting on a medicine ball.

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  8. How do you find the standing desk affects your focus and attention? I am ADHD and I'm wondering if standing the whole time be a help or a hindrance for paying attention to schoolwork.

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  9. i know for me personally, i have no problem focusing. i mean, you're standing. you're not dancing or jogging in place or anything, so not much thought goes into it. :)

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  10. I hate standing up, but since I have back problems galore I'm going to try this.

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  11. Great project! I luckily have a kitchen counter that's the perfect height for a standing desk right now, but when we move, I may have to try this!

    I also heard somewhere else that a folded up yoga mat works similarly to a gel mat, but I keep forgetting to try it out!

    (I alternate standing with sitting on the edge of a kitchen chair, and bring my screen down to adjust for the height difference. I'd love to have a bar stool height chair for the computer, tho because right now I can only do that when I'm reading, since typing isn't ergonomically good when I'm sitting on a low chair.)

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  12. Genius! Sheer genius, Katie! I'm totally doing this when I start school this Fall!

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  13. For those who are wondering about fatigue: I am a full-time student who also works in a supermarket, where the set-up is quite similar to a standing desk, now I think of it (which makes me wonder why it never occurred to me to study this way!). At my job, I stand behind a register for eight-hour shifts, and with an anti-fatigue mat, it's no more tiring than any other eight-hour job you might do. I even manage to talk a walk during my lunch break, and cook dinner when I get home :) However, I really do notice the difference when the mat is taken away- they really do help, so get a good one!

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