How To Create A Modern Workspace for Artists, Programmers, and Tinkerers
My guide to turning a classic drafting table into a multi-purpose place for all things creative
What I needed
Growing up, I was training to be a fine artist. Then, during the dot-com boom, I switched to Web development. I also do photography and work with electronics. It’s been hard to figure out the exact space I needed to do all of these things. Now that my boys are getting older, and our dining room table is their art studio, I figured it was time to come up with a solution. Plus, I’m stuck and home and won’t be traveling for the foreseeable future, which motivated me to take this project on.
I know that I am a bit of an outlier. On any given day, I might be switching between several different activities. So, to create a work area that supports all of my interests, I made a list of priorities. These are the things I needed the workspace to allow me to do:
- Draw — traditional and digital
- Research — online research for ideas, tutorials, reading, and note-taking
- Electronics — soldering, rewiring, and modifying hardware
- Photography — taking and cleaning up digital photography
There was one thing I didn’t want this space to be, my full-time desk. I work long hours in front of a computer for my day job. My main desk is my “office,” and this place is for all non-work related creative activities. It’s been a hard line to draw in the sand, but even with the two areas being in the same room, they mentally feel different.
With my list of priorities, I began spec’ing out everything I needed and made an inventory of stuff that I already had. From there, I was able to build the following list of things I needed to complete this project. Let’s go through each of the major items and how much they ended up costing me.
Oh, I should also mention that I bought all of these items myself and was not sponsored in any way to promote them. I also don’t link to any affiliate links. I just wanted to save others a few days of research and share what I learned.
Picking the right desk
I have always wanted a drafting table. Going into this, I knew I was going to build my workspace around one. The problem with drafting tables is that they haven’t changed much since their invention. I took a few days to research options online and kept coming across the same basic designs. They broke down into:
- Basic drafting tables
- A professional workstation for CAD
- A student desk for classrooms
Trying to find the balance and one that looks nice was a real challenge. At first, I ignored the price and made a list of the ones I felt did what I needed. Then I widdled down a few options based on price, delivery time, and overall look. In the end, I bought the ZENY Height Adjustable Draft Desk off of Amazon.
While this table wasn’t my first choice, it met most requirements and was ironically the least expensive of the bunch. At only $130, not including tax, I figured it would allow me to use the money I saved on other things.
The best part about this table is the little shelf on the side. While it doesn’t fully retract, it’s a great place to put a laptop or iPad while you work. The drawers are ok, but I find they get in my way most of the time. I was able to put the entire thing together by myself, and the build quality is surprisingly good. The only negative I have is that to make the surface flat, you need to pull the desk up, which inadvertently makes almost everything you put on the sides spill out. It’s not a deal-breaker; you just learn to work around it.
Here are some of my other options if you want to find something better:
- Drafting table option 2–30" x 42" Computer Drafting Table
- Drafting table option 3 — Two-Station Student Drafting/Drawing Table
I liked the idea of the two station table. It would allow both of my boys to use it at the same time, but it wasn’t practical given the small room I needed to put it in. The professional drafting table had a great place to put the monitor and keyboard, but I had other plans which I’ll get into later.
The last thing I’ll mention is that the desk isn’t complete without a lamp. Since I work on tiny electronics, I figured I should get something with a magnifying glass built-in. Luckily, I was able to find what I was looking for on Amazon and ordered a LED Magnifying Lamp with Clamp for $57.
In addition to the magnifying glass, the lamp has a clamp on the base. This is critical for attaching to the surface of the drafting table when tilting it up and down. Most of the time, I keep it off to the side, but when I need to move it, I don’t want to worry about it falling over.
Getting a Chair
Finding the right chair was hard. Drafting table chairs could quickly get expensive. Since it’s not possible to try them out in person right now, I had to do additional research, and hope that I made the right choice. While the drafting table wasn’t my first pick based on aesthetics, I figured I could make up for it with a more modern looking chair. In the end, I picked the SOHO Soft Pad Drafting Chair from Laura.
They had them on Amazon, but it was cheaper to get it directly from their website. Plus, they offered a 10% discount for signing up for their mailing list. In the end, I paid around $324 with shipping.
I won’t bore you with my other options, but I primarily picked this chair because of how it looks. Luckily it’s also comfortable, but I am not a fan of the metal armrests. Since you usually rest your arms on the drafting table itself, it’s not a deal-breaker.
Finding a monitor
I would usually start a process like this based on the type of computer I planned on used, but I knew from the beginning that I wanted a large drawing monitor. I’ve always loved Wacom’s Cintiqs, but they are ridiculously expensive. Over the past few years, a lot of Chinese companies have released comparable drawing monitors at a fraction of the price. After a few days of watching all the YouTube videos I could find, I ended up ordering an XP-Pen Artist 24 Pro.
There were cheaper ones on Amazon, but since this one is brand new, I ended up pre-ordering it directly from them for $765. This was about $300 more than the other 22" monitors I was looking at, but one feature stood out from the rest. This was the only 24" drawing monitor I could find with a resolution of 2560 x 1440 pixels. All of the other monitors were 1080p. While that is fine for anything under 16", in the 22–24" range, the picture will look blurry. The only alternative is the 4k Wacom Cintiq Pro, which starts at $1,600 and doesn’t even come with a stand. Also, the Artist 24 Pro has USB-C, which works better with my computer setup.
All in all, I think the Artist 24 Pro is a great deal. The included stand is excellent, you get everything you need in the box, and it arrived a week after I order it. The higher resolution makes a big difference, and the fact that the pen doesn’t need batteries makes it feature for feature identical to the overpriced Wacoms.
The only downside to this tablet is that it uses a screen film on the surface of the monitor instead of glass or something better. While it has a nice texture for drawing on, I’m concerned it will not hold up after a few years; especially with two boys using it.
Picking a computer
This choice is probably the hardest and most expensive of the entire workspace. You need to get a computer powerful enough to run the monitor and do photo editing but also versatile enough to work with the different activities. In the end, I decided to use my Razer 13" Stealth gaming laptop.
At almost $1,600, it’s not cheap; that was after a Microsoft student discount. I ended up picking one up at the end of last year for travel. So, with the pandemic grounding me, it was just collecting dust in the corner. I also had Razer’s eGPU (Razer Core X Chroma — $399) and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 Super Founders Edition, which I bought used on eBay for $350.
I love this setup even though it causes me a lot of headaches. When I was traveling, it was the perfect mobile workhorse. The reason I got this laptop was because of the dedicated Nvidia GTX 1650 GPU in a small laptop. That made it powerful enough to game and code on the go. Then, with the eGPU as a dock, it had all the power of a desktop.
This was a happy accident because I was getting ready to sell it then figured I’d give it a try with the drafting table. Using a laptop is great because I can rest it on the side shelf when I need to be online while I draw or work on electronics. When I need more power, I just dock it underneath and run the drawing monitor from the eGPU. Plus, I can always upgrade the graphics card or laptop down the line and keep my workflow intact.
Be warned, this setup break 1 out of 5 times I need to turn on the computer. Razer and it’s eGPU still don’t play nicely, especially when trying to wake it up or undock and redocking it. Even more frustrating, the eGPU has USB ports, which are unusable. Plugging the drawing monitor into it directly bogs down the system. There just isn’t enough bandwidth to realistically use the USB ports on the back of the eGPU, which is my biggest gripe.
As an alternative, I’d suggest going with a Surface Pro or a 12" iPad Pro. Not only could it be your digital drawing device, but I’ve also been using iPad Pro for photo touch up with Affinity Photo while on the couch and note-taking when doing research. I send all of the digital photos I capture to a NAS, and I can load them up directly from it on the iPad. For most people, it could handle the majority of tasks you would need it to do — especially the new one with the magic keyboard. Since I wanted a larger drawing display, I ended up going with a dedicated computer.
Setting everything up
So this is what the workspace looks like in the end. You can see the monitor is a nice size and fits perfectly on the table.
On the floor is the eGPU, and next to that is a verticle stand. In the back is a small wire box with a mini-surge protector for extra outlets. I bundled the wires as neatly as possible, so unplugging and plugging things doesn’t make a mess.
One thing I’d suggest is to give yourself more slack on the wires. I need to redo this so I can connect and disconnect the laptop easier.
Most of the time, I put the monitor in the corner, and we use the table to draw on. My oldest has been on a pixel art kick lately, so he’s been practicing on grid paper with Prisma markers.
When I need to work on my hardware projects, I have plenty of room to spread out. I picked up a rubber mat to work on and store my screws, and there is enough room to push the soldering iron away from the rest of the project.
On projects that require a bit more precision, I can use the magnifying glass to see what I’m doing.
I also picked up some clamps to hold things in place for me while I work. There is a great soldering iron set on Amazon that is affordable and comes with enough stuff to handle the types of projects I generally take on.
Finally, for photography, I have a lightbox I can use to stage things and a tall tripod with a long articulating arm to set the camera up exactly how I need.
There’s a flap on the front of the lightbox so I place it on top of my desk and put the camera in the opening. If I need to do a top-down photo I’ll just do it on the floor.
Finally, which wasn’t in the picture above, I tether my camera to the laptop with a long USB-C cable so I can preview everything before I take a shot. I work with a macro lens primarily and it’s difficult to get everything in focus on the camera itself so I suggest using the compute to dial everything in.
The final budget
I’m not going to lie, this is an expensive setup. I had a $1,500 budget, plus most of the hardware already. So technically, I came in under budget at around $1,300. If you need a new computer, camera, art supplies, or anything else I haven’t covered, it’s going to add up quickly. My suggestion is to figure out what you need and prioritize that, then add more over time.
The last thing I want to mention is that now is a great time to invest in this, depending on what you can actually afford to purchase. Being stuck in my house for the past three months was the motivation I needed to finally make this space. Being stuck at home also has allowed me to take some free time to focus on some of my more creative hobbies. Not only are these activities a great way to reduce stress and express yourself, you can build valuable skills that can also advance your career. But it shouldn’t take a pandemic and stay at home orders to motivate you to carve out a little place to be creative.
There’s a lot I didn’t cover so leave a comment if you have questions or want to share your own setup?