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Tl;dr - durable, affordable desk surface.
I want to build a large (9ft x 2.5ft) workbench/desk. I'm planning on doing a lot of soldering and building on it, but I also want to be able to do homework and writing as well. If the surface has dings in it, it'll be a pain to write on.

I would prefer some kind of laminate but I'm afraid it will be melted if I have a soldering accident. What is a good, durable surface for a desktop that won't melt or ding easily?

I'd prefer something that I could get for under 50 USD or so for the area specified.

Is there some kind of wood that would be OK for this application?

I have some basic woodworking tools (miter, table saw) and determination so I don't think available tools will be an issue. Thanks for your help.

Edit: Eventually I've decided on an easily removable and tile-able system of tempered hardboard held in place by gravity and a small edge of the desk. This way I can easily swap out sections by lifting it off and replacing.

  • Industry standard surface for desks these days is plastic laminate, which will hold up well against most abuse. Note that a huge desk is not always an advantage. – keshlam Jun 28 '15 at 18:46
  • The way the question is framed is not ideal, answers are likely to be opinion as much as anything. A better question would be something like "Looking for suggestions on suitable workbench materials". Budget, looks, available tools (and experience using them) are all necessary details for supplying good answers to that sort of question. – Graphus Jun 28 '15 at 18:51
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    Could you not use ESD mats and other temporary placements for the potential damaging work and just have whatever surface you want after that. I think there are too many options here. – Matt Jun 28 '15 at 20:55
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    I have a large, oversized cutting board that I bought myself years ago to do soldering on. I turned it into a project board; any time I needed to do something that was potentially damaging to my table or desk, I'd pull out the project board and do the work on that. So one thing to consider is maybe you don't need just one surface. Maybe having something that can be put on your desk only when needed will greatly expand your options. – Charlie Kilian Jun 29 '15 at 21:54
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    Thanks for your help in refining the question as I'm fairly new to Stack Exchange. :) – Jacob Jun 29 '15 at 22:44
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You mentioned a few requirements:

  • suitable for soldering
  • suitable for writing
  • less than $50

You have several options for a soldering table. The anti-static laminate ones I used in college looked just as good when I worked in the computer repair shop on campus as they must have when they were brand new. As long as you don't touch the tip of your soldering iron directly to the surface, you're not going to burn the table. In my experience, dripping solder cools and solidifies immediately upon contact with laminate, and brushes off easily.

I've also seen soldering tables with MDF tops that took a lot of abuse from hundreds of students over the decades, but they were still in reasonably good shape despite some "character." I'm pretty sure the tops were intended to be replaceable.

If you plan to do a lot of soldering, you may want to consider a surface that can be refinished, or design your table with a sturdy flat subsurface and an easily-replaceable top surface.

Of course, if soldering isn't going to be your main activity on this table, you can also lay a board or mat on top of the table anytime you pull out your soldering iron.

Pretty much any surface can be made into a writing surface if you're writing in a notepad, but if you're talking about laying a piece of paper directly on the surface, that can sometimes be an iffy proposition. Personally, I wouldn't give this requirement much weight unless you're talking about building a drafting table. Pencils work great on smooth surfaces, but a surface with a little texture works better for ballpoint pens than a perfectly smooth surface. If you've ever tried signing your name on a piece of paper on a very smooth surface, you know it can be an exercise in futility. Of course, if your material or surface is too soft, you can end up etching the surface when you write on top of it.

Your budget gives you a lot of options on both the new and secondhand markets: MDF, hardwood-veneer plywood, laminate, or even solid, reasonably hard hardwood if you can find a local lumber mill. In terms of selecting an appropriate species of solid wood, see What minimum level of hardness (on the Janka scale) is appropriate for a desk top?. You may even be able to find some appropriate material at garage sales, on craigslist, etc. If you have a university nearby, you may be able to find a lab table from a chemistry lab. If you have a Habitat for Humanity ReStore nearby, you may be able to find granite or laminate countertop material pretty cheap.

A previous version of your question also mentioned sheet metal, but regular steel rusts if not sealed, and stainless steel and aluminum are very expensive. Also, thin metal will dent easily. Thicker, more dent-resistant metal is even more expensive.

You didn't mention what plans you have, if any, for finishing, but a durable varnish such as polyurethane will also help protect your table from abuse from soldering and writing, as well as any spills. It will also help protect against minor dents.

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    I hadn't considered an interchangeable surface, I'll look into it. I may just use acrylic or laminate and find some kind of 'soldering board' to protect the surface. Thanks. – Jacob Jun 29 '15 at 22:46
  • Note that the old concept of the desk pad was originally to provide a comfortable and replaceable surface, back when working with pens meant long hours at the desk and occasional ink spills/blotches were inevitable. They only evolved into desk calendars in the 20th century. – keshlam Jun 29 '15 at 23:45
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I would prefer some kind of laminate but I'm afraid it will be melted if I have a soldering accident.

That is a valid concern, even high-temperature laminates intended for kitchen use will only withstand very hot pans for a moment before scorching or bubbling, and the tip of a soldering iron will often be considerably hotter than this (although this does depend on the type of iron and solder being used).

I think if you want to go with laminate for your top, for looks and costs reasons, that you have two main routes you could consider:

  • make your desk large enough that soldering takes place off to one side where you'll never be writing;
  • make a lift-on/lift-off temporary work surface that you put into place when soldering and rest against the wall or slip under the bed when not soldering.

For the second option here, in order for this temporary surface not to move around I recommend you make a type of bench hook. Conventionally the stop on the underside of one of these is quite stout, but I would recommend you make one with the stop slim and narrow so that the edge doesn't project too far and dig into your stomach when you're leaning over to work. Here's a photo of the stop on a bench hook for desk use that I completed recently made with this in mind:

Desk bench hook, underside

As to what material to make this from, you could just use an offcut of the same laminate of course, but I would recommend instead that you use a piece of unfinished plywood (sanded smooth but without any varnish or other coating on it).

Bare wood is slightly 'grippy' and this makes a good work surface for small, light parts so that they don't slip around as easily as on a plastic laminate or coating of varnish.

And while the bare wood surface of plywood will scorch if the tip of the iron touches it, all this will release is wood smoke. With laminate or varnish/lacquer the smoke can be quite noxious and could be slightly toxic as well.

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I'd prefer something that I could get for under 50 USD or so for the area specified.

The best surface I can think of that fits in your budget is tempered hardboard, a.k.a. masonite. It offers a smooth, durable surface that's cheap enough to replace if necessary. In my area, you can buy a 4'x8' sheet of 3/4" MDF for around $35, and a sheet of 3/16" tempered hardboard for around $15.

  • +1 for the solution, but it probably won't meet the "stylish" need that OP mentioned in his first version of the question;-) – Ast Pace Jun 30 '15 at 4:46
  • this is what I have on my work bench for these reasons, its hard, its durable, it's replaceable – Bob The Janitor Dec 16 '15 at 21:18

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