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I work in a tiny apartment, and use two 24” monitors. I needed a workstation that fits into a tiny niche, but can still accommodate me for many hours every day and let me work productively. This called for a custom solution, and I rose to the challenge, designing my one-of-a-kind workstation. While it’s fun to show and tell, I think I’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way.
If you’re not absolutely happy about your current workstation, read on – maybe one of these tips can help you transform your office into something awesome.
Iterate, Iterate, Iterate
This is not my workstation. I mean, this was my workstation, circa April of 2005. Compare this with the current iteration:
Can you see the resemblance? Two monitors, a recliner. Sure, the top image uses CRTs and a cheap IKEA desk (2005) and the lower image uses LCDs, an Ergotron dual monitor arm and a custom-built chassis, but the principle is the same. There have been about three or four similar setups in the interim, each getting more refined. This is important, because building a workstation from scratch can cost a pretty penny.
Before you spend all that money on monitors, a recliner and what not, I propose you cobble together a cheaper version of what you have in mind. For example, I had a triple-monitor setup for a while, but after using it for several months I realized that the third monitor wasn’t really improving my productivity all that much.
Experimenting over time will let you gradually refine your setup and see what really works for you. If you look carefully, you will see that in 2005 I was still using a mouse (you can see it near the center of the frame), while today I have a trackball strapped to the arm of the chair.
Design From The Bottom Up
I mean this advice in its most literal sense. For most people, working at a computer means sitting down. Unless you go for a total “standing workstation” solution, your chair is the anchor of your setup. It’s the center and everything is built around it. If you use an office desk chair, you will probably want to craft your workstation around a desk. For years now, I have shunned office chairs in favor of big, heavy recliners. You can’t really use a desk when you’re sitting on one of these babies, but they are oh-so comfortable, even when you sit for hours.
This is very related to the previous tip: You will probably know if you like a chair only after months of use. Get a chair, cobble something around it, and give it some time. If it works, see how you can take it to the next level. If it doesn’t, junk the chair and try something else.
Sketch It Up
Once you have a good idea of what you’d like your new setup to look like, you should probably take the time to set it down on paper (or screen). I used Google SketchUp to draw the basic layout of the new rig I wanted. I didn’t make that recliner – I used SketchUp’s 3D Warehouse feature to hunt for a chair that looks somewhat like the one I use, and then built my setup around it.
This is an important step, because it lets you iron out key details. For instance, the way the pipes fit into each other so the monitor arm can rotate:
This may be obvious to you as you think about the design, but will it be clear to someone else when you try to explain it with some hand-waving and a napkin? A clear 3D design makes it that much easier to explain what you’re trying to have made.
Find The Right Tradesmen
While some people know how to weld, I don’t. That’s why the SketchUp drawings were so important. Once I had a clear view of what I wanted the rig to look like, I called around until I found a metalworker that sounded suitable for the job. I then sent him my SketchUp drawings. Once he had a clear idea of the job, he came over to see the actual gear (chair, monitors, monitor arm – I already had all of these). He took measurements, we ironed out payment details, and off he went to make the rig.
Above you can see the rig as it came from him. It was exactly what I had in mind. It sat on five wheels; the “external” pipe is a cable lead, used for snaking the monitor data and power cables down from the monitor arm onto the base (or under the base, actually).
This whole project would have flopped had the metalworker messed up. But I was fortunate enough to pick a skilled, intelligent contractor who really got what I’m trying to do and needed a minimum of direction. I can’t overstress how important this point is. Unless you’re making the whole thing on your own, take the time to shop around and find someone you can really trust.
No matter how hard you try to think of everything, there will probably be last-minute changes. Above you see me drilling a new hole for cables near the back-end of the unit. At first, I thought I will place my computer so that all the ports face forwards. I actually built the rig that way, and it looked very cluttered. I then decided to turn it around, but needed a way to snake the cables. Since I used wood, this was not a problem – just grab a drill and make the hole I need.
So, wherever you can, use wood. And if you can, use standard-size planks that you can easily swap out in the future. I intentionally did not varnish or treat the wood I am using: If I ever regret making this hole or want to change things, it would be easy and cheap to just swap out this plank for a new one.
Zip Ties Are Your Friends
Cable management is a pain. For this setup, I went with really long data cables for the LCDs (way too long, really, as I found out in the end). Thanks to the wonder of zip ties, I was able to manage a crazy excess of cable without too much clutter. It would have been better to get exactly the right length in the first place, but this almost never happens in real life (at least not for me…).
I’m very happy about how this iteration of my workstation came out, and I’m certain it will faithfully serve me for the next year or two. The front is clean and uncluttered, and all the cables run under the unit (above is what it looks like when connected and working).
If you have an awesome workstation, do share it in the comments! How did you make it and has it helped your productivity?