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I want to build a chair mat for the desk in my home office which has high pile carpet. It gets heavy use and I'm tired of buying a new plastic one every year or so. The last one I got was from Costco and supposedly super heavy-duty. Cost was around $100 US, but it hasn't quite lasted a full two years.

The dimensions needed are approximately 50"x60", no more than ¾" think.

What would be good to use to construct it? I'm assuming wood will last much longer, but suspect using solid lumber might be too heavy, although I've read good things about bamboo and it's fairly light (even if not actually wood). That leaves plywood, possibly hardwood-veneered if it would make it last longer (or be advantageous in some other way beside looking nice).

Since appearance isn't high priority, perhaps putting some type of commercial flooring on top be worth the extra trouble? If not, what would be the pros and cons of various finishes? Being able to refinish it easily would be a plus.

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    The Costco plastic mat might not have been at fault here, I think it might be that it's not intended for use on thicker carpet where it can flex excessively. It would have lasted much better if laid on hard flooring or dense, office-type carpeting which are more the 'natural habitat' of plastic mats like this. – Graphus Sep 3 '16 at 7:24
  • The carpeting is what I'd call normal house-, not thin office-type, with a pile of ¾–1", so it definitely may not be in a normal chair mat habitat (however when I bought it, it was one supposedly rated for pile in that height range). – martineau Sep 6 '16 at 15:23
  • "...it was one supposedly rated for pile in that height range" Well that's not good.... maybe less than two full years is the expected lifespan then :-? – Graphus Sep 7 '16 at 7:29
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Plywood seems like a good solution here until you look at the material in detail. With modern plywood in particular, in addition to generally not being as well-made as plywood used to be (more voids, junkier wood in the core layers) over the years the surface ply has gotten incrementally thinner, to the point where on some plywood it's now like a sheet of paper.... and about as durable!

Even very good quality cabinet plywood (note: not all "cabinet grade" plywood is good) has a fairly thin surface ply of the 'show wood' and wouldn't be made to have the necessary durability. What is made to be durable enough is flooring, where regardless of what's used underneath the wood or bamboo laminate surface is significantly thicker than that on plywood.

So for a high-wear surface if the choice were between plywood and flooring I know which one I'd go with. Since you can't just use the flooring by itself it would need to be mounted on a board material (plywood or OSB) which will make for a very thick 'mat'! I don't know how high the ply is on your carpet but it would need to be in the range of 70s shag carpet for the resulting thickness not to be some issue :-)

Whatever wood/bamboo solution you go with the ideal finish is the same thing you'd use on a floor. A quality floor-grade varnish should give you the same durability you'd have if the carpet weren't there and you were rolling the chair directly on a wood floor.

What about the chair?
There are two things interacting here and you shouldn't look at just one of them. I think you should also examine the castors/casters on your chair.

Castor wheels are made in various materials and harder ones are very wearing of floor surfaces. Modern laminate flooring (which has a very thin resin-reinforced paper surface) wears quickly when hard castors are used, but much better if softer ones are fitted. Regardless of what mat you come up with if the chair's castors are hard it would be worth changing them to a softer type.

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  • Flooring seems like the most logical choice since that's what a chair mat is after all. Just found an Instructable for building a Wooden Chair Mat which looks very helpful since I've never installed flooring before. Your point about the wheels is also well taken. There's 5 of them, each about 5/8" wide x 2¼" diameter, which means there's close to 40lbs on each one when it's occupied. May have to replace the whole thing, since they look very firmly attached—Steel Case model—so replacing them isn't a pratical option. – martineau Sep 6 '16 at 15:01
  • @martineau Never ceases to amaze me what's available to find on Instructables! – Graphus Sep 7 '16 at 7:30
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A sheet of hardboard is another traditional solution, though it may wear as quickly as the plastic does.

You could try applying flooring to a sheet of plywood to create a portable floor, akin to the dance-floor modules some hotels drop over their carpet when an event needs that.

You could ask a hotel where they buy those modules and see if you can place a small order at an affordable price.

You could just finish a piece of furniture-quality hardwood plywood. Possibility apply threshold edging too, to make it a bit less of a tripping hazard.

... Or you could consider looking in a real office supply company and see if they have a chair mat that will hold up to the way you are using it.

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  • Several of your suggestions sound promising, thanks. The one about hardboard got me think that perhaps I could make one with an easily replaceable top made out of the material. Will, of course, have to figure-out how cost-effective that would be as compared to getting a plastic one every year. Do you happen to know if hardboard is biodegradable (so it would be more eco-friendly than plastic)? – martineau Sep 6 '16 at 15:12

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