Sunday, June 28, 2009

Frugal and Flexible

One of my favorite mantras is “When in doubt, cheat.”

Not cheating in the sense of being dishonest or crooked. I’m talking about looking for other ways to do things when the usual, common, regular or “normal” methods don’t work.

Or, to put it in different words: “There’s always a way.”

If you need something and don’t have the necessary money, don’t give up. Look for another way to get what you want. See if you can find cheaper methods or materials to use. If you really look, it’s surprising how what seems unattainable is actually in reach.

Case in point? My new desk.

My office is in what was originally a 10 x 10 bedroom. I spend a lot of time there and was getting increasingly frustrated by what I had in the way of workspace, an old 3 ½’ x 5’ army surplus desk, a large desk, but still too small for my needs.

My printer was on a rickety little table off to one side and I had to slide between the desk and the wall to get at it. My binders sat stacked on another table in another corner, my file cabinet was off to one side and the desk itself was always covered with piles of paper and stacks of files. Since the desk’s height was made for pen-and-paper writing, it was too high to me to comfortably type on my laptop. To handle my monthly bills and check my bank statements, I had to go to a different desk in another room.

It. Drove. Me. Nuts.

I wanted one of those sleek, wrap-around corner desks. I actually wanted two, one in each corner, with a section in the middle to connect them, a lower section, for my laptop.

I checked a few office supply stores and some catalogs. Just one of those desks would cost at least $250. To get what I really wanted, I’d need two, and even then, they wouldn’t reach the full length of the room.

I can't afford $500. So...."find a way.” Was there a way to get at least get 80% of what I wanted at 50% of the cost?

Of course.

The first thing I noticed about those desks was the basic shape…a square with one corner cut away in a curve. I sat down with some graph paper and started calculating what I could fit in my 10 x 10 room. (Tip: You’ll save a lot of money if you graph first and cut wood later.) A 4’ x 4’ piece would fit in each corner, leaving me with space for a two-foot wide central connecting section for my laptop. I could make those two corner sections out of a 4’ x 8’ piece of wood, yes?

Yes! A call down to Lowes, followed by a trip, and I’d bought and had Lowes saw in half (for free) a 4’ x 8’ length of that handy material, medium density fiberboard, or MDF. Cost? $26.

But before I turned my living room into a workshop, I had to solve a much tricker question. What the heck was I going to do for legs? There'd be lot of stuff sitting on this desk. Laptop, printer, TV, VCR, binders, a bill-paying station….I needed sturdy legs. I also wanted legs that I could easily remove, so I could disassemble the desk to store or ship if I needed to.

You can buy wooden legs that attach to plates screwed to the underside of the table surface. I looked at ‘em and wasn’t impressed. They seemed flimsy, unreliable and were nearly $12 apiece. I needed eight legs. I didn’t want to pay $96 for them.

Here’s where the flexibility comes in.

I started wandering the aisles at Lowes. Was there anything I could adapt to use for legs?

Thick-walled 1” PVC pipe? Difficult to solidly attach, too hard to disassemble later. 2” dowels? Same problem. Pieces of wood? Too clunky and too expensive. I found myself in the plumbing aisle, and suddenly pulled up short in front of the rows of 10’ lengths of galvanized pipe. Now those looked strong!

120” each. I needed eight 28” legs. I could get four legs cut from each pipe, at a price of $45 for eight legs.
But how to fasten them to the tabletop?

$2.65 each for round, four-screw flanges. One to attach each “leg” to the MDF, one on the other end to serve as a foot. Very solid. And Lowe's would cut the pipes and thread the ends for me, free.

I now had all the pieces. I got to work. Saw, drill, attach the flanges to the MDF,  screw the pipes into the flanges, then four coats of enamel paint on the MDF. Add a piece of scrap wood in the center, bolted beneath the other pieces to give me a lower area for my laptop, and I have a new desk.

With more than 10 extra square feet of surface area, with my laptop sitting two inches lower, a lot more open space in the center of the room, it’s much more efficient and comfortable. The only thing I would change would be to cut the curves a little shallower, for even more surface area.

Cost? Less than $160.

I like it better than the desks I saw at the stores. (None of them is my favorite shade of green.) It’s bigger than those desks. And it cost almost two-thirds less. Win-win-win.

When you want something--and can't really afford it--look around. See if you can adapt something to your needs.

Keep your eyes and your mind open. You’d be surprised at the money problems a little flexibility can solve.

Do you have any stories of ways you've handled a problem like this by "repurposing" something? Leave a comment and share your ingenuity with others!

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