Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Swankie Desk


I lived in Prescott, AZ the winter of 2004-2005.  This was my apartment.  I marvel, looking at this now, at all the stuff in this picture that I no longer have (chair, TV, monitor, PC, books, that printer, the file cabinet, and most of the papers… gone).  But the desk, not getting rid of it… it’s a work of art.  Made by an octogenarian (well he was probably younger than that when he made it), he gave it to me in 2004 and I love it.


The desk then lived in a storage unit for some time. Then I went to stay at a friend’s home in Monterey, CA…  to get some surgery and recover.  The desk  moved into my room in her home.  Barely room for a twin bed, a desk and chair and a few other small things. But the recovery time for the surgery, had me going from the bed to the desk, a few steps to the bathroom, and I got used to having everything within arms reach… good training for becoming a vandweller.  Note here, the carving work on the end of the desk.


Finally, in 2008, I got the van I had been dreaming about for years and was at a stage where I could transition from sticks and bricks to mobile living.  The process had begun… the desk now had to move into this space one way or another.

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Others had suggested building a cardboard model of the things you need to place in the van, so you can work out how they will fit, so I did that.  Note the rounded thingy cutout.  I don’t know what it is, (probably the gasoline intake) but I know I had to cut a hole in the desk to get it to go against the wall.

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Taking the cardboard back into the house, I laid it up against the back of the desk… and just sawed the wood off… holding my breath.

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Here the desk is standing on one end… and I have determined that the top of the desk will need to be sawed off, and shortened in order for the desk to fit in the van.  Now, how to do that?  Looking back, I’m not sure how I did it, but it worked.

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I then took the top outside where I had a nice picnic table to work on… and cut the legs off about two inches.  Oh, this was scary.  Was I destroying this lovely desk?  Would I ever get it all back together again, inside the van???

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I was trying to walk this bottom part out the back door, down off the porch, and across the concrete patio and realizing I bit off more than I could chew, I flagged down a couple guys and asked them it they would carry and lift it into the van, and they were happy to help.  So there it is, in place.  Note the bottom shelf on the left, also had to have a notch cut out of it to get it to fit.  But, it’s in the van.


Notice the very artistic drawer pulls, made of gnarly old desert wood, which are fastened on with copper wire.  Love it.

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Here you can see why the top of the desk had to be cut off to fit under that carpeted piece at the top, and come forward to fit the curve of the van wall.  I can’t tell you how hard this was to do, but after adding a few angle brackets to reattach it to the bottom of the desk, all is securely in place and NOTHING has moved in four years. (not saying it would all stay in place if I wrecked and rolled over like another vandweller did, but I have no plans to do so)

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The desk top was then secured to the walls of the van with angle bracket and washers.  That is a little frightening too, and you have to know where the ribs or studs are in the wall… wasn’t hard to find as you can see where the screws are for the paneling (covered with tan plastic caps) about 10” directly above the washers.  Also larger L-brackets attached the desk itself to the floor of the van.

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Finally, with everything secure, I could begin tweaking it all and finding a place for everything, and putting everything in it’s place.  The scalloped board was found in the trash, and fit nicely there (thinking I could mount a led light behind it something).  I built a box for the solar controller in the corner so I could monitor it while working at my desk.  Oh notice too, this was an old computer desk, and it had a keyboard tray with a power strip.  The power strip has since died and been removed, but the tray is still in place and most handy.  It’s my dinner table, work space, etc.  My laptop usually sits on the desk itself, but as I type this, it is sitting on the keyboard tray.

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Still tweaking.  Loose stuff on top of the shelf would not stay in place.  I added a strip of yoga mat material to the top shelf and to all the shelf and desk surfaces.  This is really a great thing, as nothing slides around.  It was glued in place with the sticky glue stick and easily peals off, and some pieces just stapled on with a paper stapler.  Nothing fancy and it works like a charm. 

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To the top shelf of the desk, I added quarter-round molding to keep things from sliding off to the front or side.  This is the space that now houses my negative and slide flatbed scanner.

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The spacing didn’t suit me, so I raised the shelf, so the slide scanner just fit there, I take it out when I am scanning, and that left just enough space under the shelf for my All-In-One Printer/Scanner.  (Yes, I’m in the scanning stage of my life and didn’t want to waste another year remaining in sticks and bricks and paying rent to scan all the things I need to scan (40 years of genealogy research and hundreds of historic family photos and documents).  I’ve said for years, once I could afford the technology to hit the road and have a mobile computer lab, I would hit the road (this is the prime reason this desk was so important to me… it would house it all).

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Boy does it fit well in the van… and I love it.  Notice on the left end of the desk, a space between the desk and the bed… that’s where my sanitation area is now located.

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Evolution is a fickle thing.  The PC did not hold up well to all the vibrations of the road, and the hard drive finally died.  So, bye bye PC, speakers, and keyboard.  The large LCD monitor was almost new, so it is well padded and remains in that space, fits right in that curve of the van wall and takes up no extra space.  It was great to have it on hand this past winter when my laptop screen finally died… and I just plugged it in to the monitor and could still work, save files, and function until my sister and her marvelous hubby gifted me with a new laptop.  Warning… electronics are not made to jiggle and bounce around on the back roads of the wilderness.  They will fail.  Ron McDowell (RIP Ron) told me to replace the hard drive in the PC with a laptop hard drive (which would fit in one of the open slots like where the DVD and CD drives are).  He said that Laptop hard drives are made more sturdy and will take more abuse.

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I loved the set-up but things just keep evolving.


I added some scrapes of wood to the front of the top shelf, to hold things in place and finally came up with those freezer container which fit perfectly and hold things like sewing supplies.  My address book and misc. other things are always handy. The little top shelf could not be more handy if I had planned it that way… just a happy accident.


I had decided I wanted to have a slide out board in the desk for my stove, but it actually took me about three years to work the design out in my head.  I found these grooved pieces of wood, and knew they would work. As you can see about four photos back, it was just one open shelf so I needed to find a way to put a divider in to attach the right runner to, which was the hardest part.  I bought a finished laminated white shelf board from Home Depot, added a door handle to it, cut the extra length off the back end of the board, and just slid it into place.  Again, a piece of Yoga mat material, keeps the stove from sliding around and a bungee cord goes across the space when the shelf is pushed in, but the shelf is tight and doesn’t jiggle out.  By the way, the vent fan is right above the stove, I couldn’t have planned it that way, it was just another happy accident.


My feet were always cold so I insulated the space under the desk.  Speaking of space, it was really all wasted space, since I had the keyboard tray, I never scooted all the way under the desk. The keyboard tray pulls right out into the isle. This too took me about three years to realize, but why not build shelves under there for food and canned goods.  So this past winter, I took on that little project (thank you for dying PC).


You can’t even begin to know how much food fits on those shelves.  It is amazing.

In conclusion,  you don’t need to have things all planned out perfectly before you hit the road.  Just get the basics done and hit the road.  For me the basics were 1) to be able to afford the technology to have a mobile computer lab, 2) to ensure fresh air by installing the Fantastic Vent fan, 3) to have a comfortable bed and 4) to get the solar and last but not least… to have a desk to work at.  The desk is now my computer lab and my kitchen all wrapped in the same space.  I have almost as much space as I had when staying with my friend in Monterey, but there are wheels under my floor.  It just doesn’t get any better than that, until tomorrow.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, again.


  1. WOW! An amazing tale for sure and so full of practical problem solving. Thanks for the great "tutorial" and I can't wait for more of them!

    1. I haven't many left to tell... Refrigerator, Solar, Power/Batteries, Solar hot water heating... then I guess I'll have to re-model something, or kayak more???

  2. Thanks for another set of practical insights into how you've arranged your van. And a desk is, for me, non-negotiable.

    Your generous sharing of knowledge, along with that of other experienced vandwellers, helps make my planning, and that of others, a good deal easier.

  3. I've been following some other blogs for a few months as I work to begin my own vandwelling adventure in the coming months. Your blog is so unique in so many ways -- and totally inspiring as well as practical. I can hardly wait until tomorrow evening when I have a chance to catch up on more of your posts. Thank you for putting time into sharing so much information.


Who is Swankie?

My photo
Anywhere, USA, Full-Time USA traveler, United States
In 2006, I was shopping for a wheelchair. By 2007, I had new knees, better health and by 2008 a kayak. In Aug 2013, I kayaked my 49th state, Alaska, at the Holgate Glacier and in May 2014, I kayaked Hawaii, my 50th state, to celebrate my 70th Birthday and the finale to the wonderful adventure of Kayaking America? Next up... Solo Hiking the Arizona Trail, 820 miles? Maybe. Still healing from shoulder and trying to decide.