As much as I love the coffee-shop mobility enabled by my laptop, smartphone and tablet, I ultimately retreat to the solitude of my home-based office when deadlines loom and I need to crank out meaningful editorial and creative work. And while those mobile, mostly-wireless devices can typically hum along happily for hours feeding off their lithium-ion batteries, my workhorse desktop and its big screen are forever shackled and hard-wired with myriad cables, cords, and power adapters.
Most desktop computers, even the so-called all-in-ones, may have only a handful of cables and wires to wrangle with as they come out of their box, but over time as external hard drives, speakers, USB hubs, and charging cables for mobile devices are plugged in, your desk and surrounding real estate can become a prime target for a tangled-cable intervention.
That’s what nearly happened here, where our tucked-against-the-wall desktop setup had mushroomed to include a bevy of external hard drives, a solid state disk (SSD), speakers, a USB hub, laptop and tablet power bricks, and other hardwired pieces—resulting in a tangled maze of interconnected cables and boxes. And to further complicate things, in a feng shui moment we had relocated the hosting Ikea desk itself to the center of the room—where the accumulated wiring mess was all but impossible to conceal.
As a preliminary get-well step to organization in the desk’s new location, we disconnected everything then carefully rerouted all of the cables and wires, followed by enclosing them in lengths of flexible silver conduit and wrapping the exposed wire bundles with cable ties where it made sense. The result was what you see in the photo above, and this initial stage of cable well-being could be all you need in your situation.
But we envisioned a state of extreme cabling minimalism, where the visible digital cable clutter would be reduced to absolute minimum lengths of must-have wires, and all power bricks, surge protectors, hard drive cases, and other accessory hardware would be entirely out of sight as one entered the room. The only permissible cables exiting the far side of the desk would be two wires: one CAT6 network cable and one power cord. Out-of-box thinking was clearly called for.
After much head scratching, the metal and wood Ikea hack solution we engineered to achieve this new standard of cable avoidance was not entirely out-of-box after all. Using the 3D modeling tool SketchUp, we rendered the basic Ikea Malm contemporary desk and layered on a flip-top containment box of sorts, designed to attach in piggyback fashion to the back of the desk—then also envisioned a metal skin to cover the front of the box. We wrapped up the software stage of the project by strategically boring virtual grommet holes in the SketchUp model to minimize cable exposure and maximize concealed routing—then it was off to the garage to begin building our prototype. Our Ikea desk, the original version of the Malm, was not equipped with the under-desk shelf that the latest version of this product has.
Here are the ten high-level steps you can follow to replicate this hack or to serve as inspiration for another solution you can dream up that’s more tailored to your specific needs. Be aware that this hack will require intermediate-level handyperson skills and prowess with a number of power tools.
1) Locate materials for the box frame.
We used solid bamboo tongue-and-groove flooring planks for the box frame and access panel, pieces that were leftovers from the ZNE Living Lab house construction. These pre-finished, 5/8-in. thick boards were a very close match in tone to the desk, and their 3.75-in. width was just about right to give the box enough depth such that power strips and power bricks could easily sit on its bottom. You could also substitute 1×4 lumber in whitewood, pine or other wood, and then paint or stain to suit.
In the case of our bamboo plank stock, we had to trim off the extended 1/8-in. tongue portion on a portable table saw to yield a square edge. This task could also be accomplished by using a circular saw equipped with an adjustable edge guide. If you are using 1×4 lumber, you can skip the trimming step as your edges are already square.
2) Locate materials for the front panel.
In keeping with our upcycling theme, for the box’s front panel we used a piece of surplus Galvalume metal roofing material left from the construction of our storage shed.
We liked the fact this corrugated metal surface gives the desk a contemporary, industrial design appearance, but you may want a softer or more stylish look. For example, the panel could be crafted from a piece of plywood wrapped in fabric, a piece of drywall board painted to match your walls, or a sheet of opaque acrylic.
3) Locate materials for the under-desk shelf.
As we desired the top of the finished desk to be as clean as possible, it was mandatory for those hard drives to be out of sight. To pull that off, we installed a shelf on the back side of the privacy panel for housing the drives. We used a basic wall shelf kit for this purpose purchased from a local home improvement store, which measured 8-in. x 24-in. x 1.5-in. While you could place the hard drives inside the finished box frame setup, the lack of air circulation and cooling may lead to premature drive failure.
4) Cut, assemble, and attach the stationary box frame.
The Ikea desk already had a privacy panel on its back, so we sized the box frame to precisely cover the panel. We began by measuring the panel, then cutting the right and left uprights to a size of 13.375-in. using a miter saw to ensure a clean, square edge. As we wanted the finished access panel to be flush with the desk surface, the uprights were attached 5/8-in. from the top.
For fastening the box frame components to the desk we used 1.25-in. pocket screws. These fasteners, installed after drilling special diagonal pocket holes in the workpiece, are favorites of furniture craftsmen as they are invisible from the outside yet yield an extremely strong and perfectly square joint. The catch here is that you will need a pocket hole drilling jig in order to use them.
It would be possible, of course, to attach the box frame with conventional wood screws, by first drilling perpendicular pilot holes through the privacy panel and into the box frame components—but the pocket screw approach will make the project go together more smoothly.
With the right and left uprights secured, we cut the box’s bottom shelf to size with a miter saw and secured it with pocket screws. In our case, this bottom piece had a length of 54.25-in.
For the center of the box, we cut to size and installed another upright to provide a solid third attachment point for the somewhat flexible corrugated metal front panel. This component had a length of 12.75-in. and was also attached with pocket screws.
5) Cut and attach the flip-top access panel.
The top access panel was cut to a length of 55.625-in. on the miter saw, and then secured to the desk with European 35-mm recessed and cantilevered hinges, in a face-frame configuration. Another mainstay of furniture and cabinet builders due to their rigidity, ease of installation, and adjustability, these hinges add a fine furniture-like trait to the finished project. As in the case of the pocket screws, you will need to purchase some special hardware in order to use them—a 35-mm Forstner drill bit is needed to bore the cup mounting holes for these hinges.
As an alternative, one could forego hinges altogether, and simply secure the access panel with self-adhesive hook-and-loop strips attached to the tops of the three uprights. If you plan to go this route, be sure to allow for the extra thickness of the strips when cutting the uprights to size.
6) Install the under-desk shelf.
Following the instructions provided with the shelf kit, we installed it on the back of the privacy panel. We placed ours so that the bottom of the shelf was about 2-in. from the lowest point of the panel, to yield adequate legroom for the seated desk user yet enabling enough headroom for our tallest hard drive when placed in a stand-up position.
7) Bore holes for the grommets and pass-throughs.
We purchased the seven 2.25-in. grommets from a home improvement store, then used a hole saw to bore the needed holes in the desk surface and privacy panel. The locations of these holes were carefully selected to facilitate our final cable routing needs for the all-in-one desktop, speakers, hard drives, and other attached components.
To enable routing of the cables along the entire length of the box frame, we bored a 2.75-in. pass-though hole in the center upright, then also a bored a single 2.75-in. hole on the right side of the bottom shelf to provide a route to the outside world for the CAT6 and power cord cables.
8) Cut and attach the metal front panel and backing plate.
To provide more rigidity and a cleaner transition between the top panel and the metal front panel, we fabricated a backing plate from 1-in. x 1/8-in. aluminum strip, cut to size for fitment flush with the top of the uprights.
We measured the face of the finished box frame, allowing for a 3/8-in. reveal on the aluminum backing plate—then, wearing thick gloves, measured and cut the Galvalume panel to final size using metal shears. It’s a good idea to round off the four corners of the metal panel with the shears, as the edges can be quite sharp.
Finally, we pre-drilled the bamboo uprights, aluminum backing plate and metal panel, then fastened the panel into place using 2-in. wood screws and stainless steel grommets for a finished look.
9) Label all cables and power bricks.
Why label cables and power bricks? The easy answer is that cables and bricks are not universal, and it just makes good sense to properly label them when their manufacturers—almost without exception—refuse to do so. But the school of hard knocks has also taught us that once we get past more than a few external hard drives and accessories, the inevitable troubleshooting gets tougher with each added component. And tucking things into a box frame contraption as we are advocating here makes tracing the path of cables a bit more challenging.
For labeling of this nature, we prefer to use a label maker equipped with flexible ID tape, a product that is specially crafted to be wrapped around cables of all sizes and stay there without unraveling. If you are averse to making your own labels, an alternative would be to purchase pre-printed cable flags or color-coded cable wraps.
To wrap up this step, we labeled both ends of all cables and power bricks, then went a step beyond and also labeled each hard drive enclosure to simplify the final cable connection process.
10) Install surge protector, route cables, and enjoy the view.
After placing our surge protector on the bottom of the box frame cavity, we routed all of the internal cables to their final destinations and then made final connections to the desktop. We wrapped up our work inside the box by plugging the power bricks and power cables into the surge protector, routing the CAT6 network cable and surge protector cord through the external access port, and closing the top cover.
And in ever so satisfying final steps we plugged the two permitted external cables into their respective wall ports, then clicked all of the grommet hole covers into place. Extreme organization and cabling minimalism achieved.
Tom Kolnowski is the Chief Content Officer & Founder of Digitized House Media, LLC, the publisher of Digitized House | Guide to the Connected Home. When he isn’t writing about smart home technology, sustainability, and high-performance architecture, you’ll find him exploring faraway destinations with his family.