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I want to build a children's desk for my wife's two nieces. I have some very nice oak but I don't feel like using something like that would be smart because it will be beaten up, painted over, and let's face it, not appreciated.

What would be a suitable material, in terms of durability and cost, for a children's desk? The desk would most likely be painted over with a "children's" color. I was thinking about using MDF but I don't know how it will hold up or how it compares in cost to, say, maple or oak.

Also, what tips/advice do you have for using the chosen material that would be different from using normal hardwood?

EDIT: I live in the Midwest so I will be limited to materials within the region.

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    I changed "best" to "suitable" to remove some of the opinion-based issues that are against this SE's guidelines. Also, it might help if you state the area you live in since it will help narrow down specific types of wood that will be available. – grfrazee Oct 19 '15 at 19:17
  • @grfrazee Edit was probably the best course of action. This was brought up in Meta a while back FYI meta.woodworking.stackexchange.com/questions/248/…. I let use of the word Best slide.... not everyone does – Matt Oct 19 '15 at 19:41
  • @Matt, I couldn't find that Meta post for some reason, but that's what I had in mind with the edit. – grfrazee Oct 19 '15 at 19:42
  • Also, I see what you did there :-) – grfrazee Oct 19 '15 at 19:43
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What would be a suitable material, in terms of durability and cost, for a children's desk?

For a piece of furniture that's destined for the lifetime of abuses that children can inflict upon it, I view it from two different schools of thought.


The first school says that since you expect the piece to be beaten up, painted, and generally neglected, you will want to make it out of a material that maximizes durability while minimizing cost.

For my money, this wood is usually southern pine or douglas fir. I built my workbench out of southern pine for this reason. Spruce is also a very strong material for it's cost and weight, though it dents very easily.


The second school says that because of the abuse you expect, you should go ahead and spend your money on a hardwood that will take the abuse in stride. Something that will not chip easily, something that holds a nice edge without denting, and something that doesn't show scratches just by looking at it.

For example, the bed frames my father built for my brother and I as kids were made of red oak, and they experienced their fair share of abuse from two energetic boys. Both are now relegated to our hunting cabin and have been transformed into bunk beds that my brother and I use to this day, over a quarter of a century later. They remain sturdy because they were built well out of a stout material.

In this case, a good hard maple or red oak would be perfect. Both are fairly inexpensive (in my area, at least - your mileage may vary), and using them for something that the Queen won't use is perfectly acceptable.

For painting, poplar is a good choice since it takes paint well. If I recall correctly, alkyd-based paint is best for poplar. It's a fairly soft wood, so expect some denting.


There is a tendency to want to cheapen the things we give to children because of the though that the kids won't appreciate them and that they'll abuse them. I find that this depends on how the kid(s) is (are) raised. Giving them something nice and instilling in them the idea that they are responsible for keeping it nice, I think, is one of the best things you can do as an adult.

Too often these days we/make buy crappy furniture out of cheap materials under the expectation that it will get used until it falls apart. I say, "no!" The truly environmentally-friendly way to make furniture is to make so well that it will outlast you and your children.

  • That was a very great explanation and will help with deciding what I should be using. I was tempted to leave the "best" out of the title but wasn't sure on wording. Thanks – Programmer Oct 19 '15 at 19:04
  • @Hooplehead24, you're very welcome. However, I would avoid checking the "Answered" button until other people have time to weigh in. They might have good information for your but ignore the Question because it's already "Answered." – grfrazee Oct 19 '15 at 19:14
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To me it depends more on how long do you want these to last? If this is just a child's play toy that you expect will be tossed out in a couple years, then Cheaper is better, say some pine or even high quality plywood. However, if you think this might make it to a family 'heirloom' go for the good stuff. Oak can take a pretty good beating and still look pretty. Likely it will be painted on and stripped and finished and painted again etc. Oak (or maple) will take it all in stride. I still run across wooden desks made in the 50's for class rooms that are doing well.

The big one is if you can find a decent location for hardwoods other than Home depot, you can get Oak pretty cheap. Look for small mills in the area, in MN they aren't more than a couple hours away from almost any point. It can save you a lot of money on your projects.

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Just to toss out a contrarian point of view: melamine or other plastic-laminate-over-cheap-core-material isn't elegant, but it's waterproof, stain-resistant, and fairly cheap. There are good reasons many office desktops use this sort of material. It would be far from heirloom quality, and unless you spend more or apply laminate yourself you have somewhat toddler-unfriendly edges, but there's something to be said for "here; you won't destroy thus one before you're old enough to properly care for an heirloom."

  • Second melamine. I used it for my college desk and it help up quite well. – grfrazee Oct 20 '15 at 12:18

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