Modular Plywood Cubicles


Modular Plywood Cubicles

Our office in Brazzaville needed a makeover, so I set out to design and build some cubicle walls that would be modular and even rearrangeable (with a little bit of effort). I decided to make the cubicle walls with a wood frame and thin plywood facing. I made full-width and half-width cubicle walls that attach to each other and to the wall to create the layout we needed.

Step 1:

Cut the Frame Boards to Length

Here are the boards for the cubicle frames, all neatly cut and stacked. Never mind the holes, those are from a later step.

  1. These are the half-width boards (61 cm in length).

  2. These are the full-width boards (122 cm in length).

  3. These are the tall, vertical boards (170 cm in length).

First cut all the boards that make the frames. There are three different lengths to be cut:

  1. Tall boards: 170cm
  2. Full-width framing boards: 122cm
  3. Half-width framing boards: 61cm

Each plywood cubicle panel will require 2 tall boards and either 2 full-width boards or 2 half-width boards, as well as a plywood panel for both sides of the wall (or just one side if you are being frugal).

How you do the cutting depends on the tools you have. I used a skill saw, but as long as you measure carefully and cut accurately, anything from a hand saw to a table saw will work.

Step 2:

Assembling the Frame

Although you could assemble the frame with screws or nails, I preferred to use dowels and wood glue. That meant drilling two holes into both ends of each vertical framing board, and two holes into the face on each end of the horizontal framing boards. Two dowels per joint will ensure that the vertical boards won't turn or shift.

If you don't want to follow this method, go ahead and use screws or nails to hold everything together. If you do want to use dowels and wood glue, read the next few steps to find out how to do it.

Step 3:

Drill the Dowel Holes (Vertical Boards)

  1. Measure both holes from just one side of the board (e.g. 2cm from the left side and then 5cm from the left side.)

    On the other end of the board, measure 2cm from the right side and 5cm from the right side.

    This will ensure that the two holes are always the same distance apart (3cm) and so they should always match up with the holes you will drill in the horizontal boards.

  2. Use a dowel centering jig to help you drill nice holes right in the center of the end of the board.

Carefully measure and mark the position for all the dowel holes. The holes you drill in the bottom and tops of the vertical boards will need to closely match the holes you drill in the end faces of the full-width or half-width horizontal boards.

After you've marked the position of each hole, drill the hole. I used a dowel centering jig to make sure that each hole was properly centered.

Step 4:

Mark the Position of the Dowel Holes (Horizontal Boards)

Next carefully mark the position for the dowel holes in the faces of the horizontal boards. Mark them at 2cm and 5cm from just one side of the board. Each board should get 4 holes, 2 on each end of one (and only one) face.

Step 5:

Drill the Dowel Holes (Horizontal Boards)

You can't really use a dowel centering jig when you drill these holes, so just measure and drill carefully. Use a depth stop on your drill bit so that you don't drill all the way through the wood.

Step 6:

Use Glue and Dowels to Join the Bottom Board and Vertical Boards

Spread wood glue on the face of the bottom board where it will mate with the two vertical boards. Put wood glue on half of the four dowels that will be inserted into the bottom board's dowel holes. Then use a hammer to gently tap the dowels into the dowel holes.

Next spread glue on the top halves of the four dowels. Place one of the vertical boards on top of the dowels so that they go into the holes in the bottom of the vertical board. Use pressure or gentle hammer taps until the dowel is completely embedded in the two boards and until the end of the vertical board is firmly pressed up against the bottom board.

Repeat these steps with the second vertical board.

Step 7:

Use Glue and Dowels to Attach the Top Board

Add glue to half of four more dowels and tap them with a hammer until they are securely seated in the four holes on top of the two vertical boards. Then add glue to the top end of the two vertical boards, and the other half of the four dowels that are sticking out up top.

Match up the four holes of the top board with the four dowels and gently press or tap the top board until its faces are pressed tightly against the end of the two vertical boards.

The frame for one cubicle wall section is now complete. Just wait for the glue to dry before attaching a plywood panel.

Step 8:

Make a Plywood Cutting Jig

The next step is to cut the plywood. The full-width cubicle walls are the width of a regular sized piece of plywood (4ft. or about 122cm.) while the half-width cubicle walls are 61cm wide. The plywood was a normal height too: 8'2" or 249cm. But I didn't want 8ft. high cubicle walls. That meant that every piece of plywood needed to have the top cut off at 176cm. In addition, any half-width cubicle walls would need to have its plywood cut in half vertically.

In order to help me make so many cuts as straight as possible while using only my skill saw, I created a simple jig. It consists of a thin piece of plywood as a base with a piece of wood screwed onto it that acts as a guide for the skill saw. The edge of the plywood furthest from the guide board is exactly where the skill saw blade cuts. So I was able to mark the boards for cutting, line up the edge of the jig's plywood with the cut marks, and then clamp the jig's guide board to the piece of plywood that I wanted to cut.

Then I could simply run the skill saw along the guide board and it would cut a straight line right through the plywood. I made sure to always set skill saw blade so it just barely protruded beyond the bottom of the plywood I was cutting.

Step 9:

Cut the Top off of the Plywood

Next it's time to cut the plywood down to size. Both the full-width and half-width pieces need to have their tops cut off, so do that first.

Since the desired height of the cubicle wall is 176cm, measure and mark the plywood at 176cm. Do this on both edges of the plywood face and a couple of places in the middle. That way if one of your marks is inaccurate, it should be obvious and will be corrected by the other marks.

Next, line up the plywood edge of the cutting jig right up against the cut marks. Make sure the plywood edge lines up with the marks all the way across and then clamp the jig to the plywood. Make sure to place the clamp in such a way that the skill saw can traverse the whole length of the cut.

Make sure you raise your plywood up off the ground on boards, that the boards are parallel to the cut so you won't cut them, and that your skill saw blade has its depth of cut adjusted so it won't hit the ground. The saw blade should barely protrude from the bottom of the plywood when it is cut.

Place the skill saw at the start of the cut, with the edge of the skill saw pressed flush against the guide board of the cutting jig. Make sure to keep the saw flush against the guide board for the whole cut across the board so that the cut will be straight.

Step 10:

Cut Half-Width Plywood in Half

If your project calls for any half-width cubicle walls, then after you've cut the top off the plywood you'll need to cut the plywood in half so you have two tall, narrow sections.

Measure halfway across the plywood at the top and bottom, and several places in between. The marks should be at 61cm or 24 inches.

Next attach the cutting jig along the cut marks, as you did in the previous step.

Then use your skill saw to cut the plywood in half.

Step 11:

Attach the Plywood to the Frame

Now it's time to mount the plywood on the frame.

Start out by checking to make sure the frame is square. If it's not, it should be flexible enough to adjust slightly so all the corners are square.

Then put the plywood on top of the frame. Check the outside edges to make sure the plywood doesn't protrude past the frame at any point. If it does, slide it slightly or tap it gently to get it in the correct position.

Next, mark out the locations for your screws. After marking their location, drill pilot holes for each screw. This will help keep the edges from splitting.

It's important to plan out the location of your side screws and place them in the same location on each cubicle wall. You will need to drill holes in the vertical sides of the frame in order to attach one wall to another with bolts, You don't want your bolts and screws trying to go in the same spot. Also, it can be helpful to make the screws and bolt holes symmetrical vertically. That way you don't have to keep track of which side is the top. So for example, put screw holes at 2cm in, 35cm in, and 70cm in from both top and bottom. Then put bolt holes at 30cm in from top and bottom.

Finally, use your screwdriver to drive the screws into all the pilot holes. Use 3-4 screws across the top and bottom and 4-6 on each side.

If you plan to mount plywood on both sides, flip the wall over now and carefully mount the second piece of plywood like you did with the first side.

Please note that if you want to attach one modular wall to another, you will need to remove one plywood panel from each wall. So it might be a good idea to only screw in the four corner screws on the second side until you have the walls all put together in the configuration you want. That way you can quickly take the plywood panel off, connect the walls together, and then finally remount the plywood panel, this time putting in all the screws.

Step 12:

Drill Holes for the Connector Bolts

Here is one of the center bolt holes.

Drill two holes for bolts in the vertical frame boards. The bolts will allow you to attach the modular walls to each other and to the permanent walls in your building. Drill one hole at the top and one at the bottom. If you put each hole the same distance from its end (e.g. 30cm), it will allow you to bolt any two walls together easily, regardless of which end is up.

For attaching walls at right angles to each other, I ended up drilling holes through the plywood near the edge of the frame. So a bolt would go through the bolt hole in the vertical frame of one wall and then through the plywood face of another wall. I recommend doing this only as needed, not on every plywood face.

Step 13:

Attach Cubicle Walls to the Building

Depending on the type of building you're in, you may be attaching your cubicle walls to sheet rock, framing studs, or in my case masonry.

For masonry, you'll need to drill the holes, insert plastic anchors, and then feed the screw through the cubicle wall frame and into the plastic anchor where you'll screw it in.

I stood the cubicle wall up where I wanted it. Then I pushed a pencil through the three bolt holes to mark the wall for drilling. I used a masonry bit in my drill to drill the holes, inserted the plastic anchors, and then fed the screws through the cubicle wall frame's bolt holes into the plastic anchors. After tightening the screws down, my cubicle wall was firmly affixed.

Step 14:

Bolt the Cubicle Walls Together

Now it's time to bolt the cubicle walls together in the configuration that you want. As mentioned earlier, you'll need to remove one plywood face to do this (or wait to do this before attaching the second plywood face).

Step 15:

Attach the Remaining Plywood Faces

At this point, you can attach the remaining plywood faces to the assembled cubicle walls.

Then move your desk in to your nice new cubicle and get back to work!


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