Building an Adjustable Height Sewing Workstation
As the dust settles from my latest project, I want to share with you the process of designing and building my new sewing studio workstation. I had never built anything this ambitious before, and I am very pleased with how it turned out.
Animation: So many height possibilities! From sit to stand and then some. (Tighe Flanagan, 2019)
Keep reading to learn about the process and see a breakdown of materials, costs and tools I used!
The finished workstation is 40” deep and 74” wide with a recess for my sewing machine. The desktop is oak plywood that has been stained and finished with matte polyurethane for a smooth but not-shiny finish.
With my machine in place I still can fit my 36” x 48” cutting mat on the free end of the desktop. I also ordered two massive pieces of ½” thick felt to give me a large pressing area. I’m really excited with the possibilities this will unlock, especially for cutting and interfacing large pieces for garments. Hence “workstation” and not simply “desk.”
Photo: My sewing studio (Tighe Flanagan, 2019)
I started with some wishlist criteria for this project:
- Large. I wanted this thing to be large enough for my giant cutting mat and my sewing machine at the same time.
- Power outlets. I liked the idea of having power outlets and usb charging integrated in the desktop for tools like my iron and light box.
- Adjustable base. I wanted to be able to use this thing at different heights — standing while sewing, a little lower for cutting and pressing, and table height for quilting large quilts.
- Recess for sewing machine. I wanted the whole desktop to be like a giant extension table, figuring it would be handy for things like large quilts.
I scoured the web for sewing tables that people had made and didn’t see anything that would work for an adjustable base setup with a recessed machine. Because of the brackets and hardware underneath the desktop, I needed a large flat underside. I could not simply cut a hole in an existing desk to recess my machine because that would interfere with the base. I ended up settling on the idea of creating a modified torsion box with a cutout for the machine — something to provide a strong worktop with minimal bulk. And given my novice carpentry skills, I nixed any dreams I had around drawers or other storage. You can see some early sketches of the idea in my previous blog post.
I researched various adjustable bases on the market for sit-stand desks. I knew my desktop alone would probably be 150 lbs (the approximate weight of two sheets of plywood), and my machine weighs 30 lbs. I also wanted something sturdy that wouldn’t wobble. The more affordable options weren’t strong enough to support the weight (the IKEA BEKANT Desk max weight load is 154 lbs, for example), or looked too unstable in YouTube reviews (search for “wobble tests”). I also wanted a large work surface, and many desk frames did not support my intended dimensions.
My shortlist for frames ended up being the 4-Leg Height-Adjustable Frame by UPLIFT Desk and the Jarvis Adjustable Height Conference Table Frame. Given my space limitations, I decided the Jarvis frame would be too much for my space, but I learned you can order just the frame by giving them a call (not listed on the website). I also thought I might bump into the foot rest bar as I walked around the workstation, since I intended to have access to at least 3 of the sides — I could foresee stubbed toes and swearing in my cozy sewing studio.
Illustration: Uplift 4 leg desk specs (Human Solution, PDF link)
I ended up going with the Uplift frame because it was a little cheaper ($1000 vs $1200), although at this point cost wasn’t my only rubric. I knew I was taking on a big project and wanted this thing to work, so I was able to “justify” a lot of costs along the way.
Because I wanted access to 3-4 sides of the work area, I decided my max desktop width would be around 74”. I wanted the depth to be at least 36” for my large cutting mat, and I decided the thickness based on my material thickness and my machine base height in relation to the plywood thickness.
Illustration: The inside of the desktop, AutoDesk Fusion 360 model (Tighe Flanagan, 2019)
I created a digital mockup of the design in Autodesk 360 since it’s a bit more familiar to me than SketchUp (there are great walkthroughs on both on YouTube!). I was able to figure out a design that would be sturdy and something I figured I could pull off with limited tools (I don’t have a table saw and have more of a theoretical understanding of woodworking and limited hands on experience).
Illustration: The finished desktop, AutoDesk Fusion 360 model (Tighe Flanagan 2019)
I built the workstation out of two sheets of plywood, which I cut into various component pieces and assembled into what basically amounts to a large, shallow box with some facings on it to make it look nice. This took several days and was hugely messy.
Photo: Work in progress. So. Much. Sawdust! (Tighe Flanagan, 2019)
I decided on adding power inserts on each short side — a place to plug in an iron, a light box, a lamp or recharge a phone. I initially ordered one from Amazon, but it arrived with a scratch and seemed a little flimsy. I also read a few reviews talking about USB charging failing after weeks of use. So I went in search of something better. I ultimately found these radiant Furniture Power Centers by Legrand. They were about 5x more expensive, but I was more confident they would last.
Another cost justified!
Photos: Desk outlets and USB ports, powering an iron and a lightbox. (Tighe Flanagan, 2019)
I finished the desk with a water based stain and a water based matte polyurethane. I didn’t want to deal with the cleanup of oil based products, but not sure if this will impact durability. I don’t know anything about staining wood. We’ll see. It took a lot of coats (11) of finish with sanding and buffing to get to the smooth finish I wanted.
Photo: 3 coats of finish vs 11 coats of finish, with sanding and buffing. (Tighe Flanagan, 2019)
I now have an awesome workstation where I can sew, quilt, cut and iron at any height! I’m hoping this helps with some of the soreness I would experience cutting out garments on desk height spaces, and give me more support quilting larger projects.
Material and cost* rundown
- ¾” x 4’ x 8’ red oak veneer plywood x 2 ($110)
- Iron on red oak edge banding x 2 ($14)
- Wood glue ($4)
- 2” screws ($9)
- Sandpaper ($8)
- Wood putty ($6)
- Power inserts x 2 ($122)
- Uplift base ($933)
- 10’ extension cord ($13)
- 2” desk grommets x 2 ($4)
- Wood stain ($11)
- Matte Polyurethane finish x 2 ($32)
Total cost* = $1,262
Desktop minus base and power = $194
* Costs are rounded to nearest $ and do not include tax or shipping.
Photo: Clamping pressure after gluing the desktop to the frame. (Tighe Flanagan, 2019)
Tools I used (or acquired)
- Circular saw and edge guide for mostly straight cuts**
- Router and bits
- Orbital sander
- Screw driver
- Miter saw
- Uhaul van to transport plywood sheets
** You would probably have more accurate final cuts using a table saw, but I don’t have one (nor do I have the space for one).