As part of our Cameras Project, we’ll be getting some new bits of equipment which we need somewhere to put. As well as the equipment itself, the person who is looking after the technology during a service needs somewhere to sit and stand as well, plus somewhere to keep orders of service and hymn books.

During the first period of streaming services, this began with a temporary arrangement balanced in a pew. The downside was that this took an entire pew out of action and meant that there was always a tech team member who sat wearing headphones at the front of the church. At best, this looked far from the professional image we try to project, and at worst, it would actively distract other worshippers.

We’re great believers in making small improvements when we can, rather than putting them off in the hopes that we will eventually come up with something that solves all our problems at once. The next iteration of our setup moved the operator to the back of the church (underneath the organ loft), extending the video signal so that they no longer had to be physically close to the camera. This also meant they had more room to comfortably operate equipment and could also reach the audio mixer, allowing us finer control over the sounds which made it into a stream. It also meant that the operator was physically separate from the congregation, reducing transmission risk.

At this point, though, the equipment was balanced on the top of a cupboard which wasn’t really designed to handle it. Along with this the operator was forced to stand for the whole service, and they had to keep moving between two different spots to switch between adjusting audio and switching video. There was also no space left for any of the new equipment which would be arriving, and the whole collection of cables and boxes was not only unsightly but also took up a good chunk of a choir stall.

So we decided to fix a whole bunch of problems in one go, and build a purpose-designed ‘tech desk’ which would let us centralise everything we already did, and give us space to put our new video equipment when it turned up.

Before we started

Words are great, but sometimes pictures do the job better, so we grabbed some quick measurements of our pews and built a 3D model of the north-west ‘back corner’ of the church building. From there, we quickly mocked up what a solution might look like – a single plank of wood straddling the back of two of the pews, with battens front and back to stop it sliding, and a backboard to both hide cables and stop things falling into the pew in front. There was also a hole cut in the desk to route cables through, plus offer a space to clamp a monitor stand. This was the visualisation which we aimed towards as we put together our parts list.

A single sheet of 18mm thick, 2,440mm tall and 1,220mm wide MDF would form the surface of the desk, with a careful order of cuts letting us get not just the top, but also the back, two extra sides, and a spare sheet of wood to organise our power distribution later on. Three long pieces of spruce would give us two long battens, plus the option of extra front-to-back battens to add stiffness if we needed it.

MDF itself is a very pale wood that would stick out in the building, and although its lack of grain means we can’t get it looking as ‘natural’ as our pews, a few coats of dark oak wood stain helped bring the colour to something more visually acceptable. We might add some coats of varnish later if we think it’s needed, but for the time being we’re waiting to see how it looks when equipment is in place.

Fitting it all together

The first thing we did was to balance the visible parts of wood on top of some offcuts and apply our stain. To make sure we didn’t damage the building in any way, this was all done atop a large tarpaulin sheet. Staining MDF isn’t the easiest task since it soaks up the stain like a sponge, so this was a tedious process involving several coats and lots of standing around, literally waiting for paint to dry.

Once stained, the top of the desk had the long battens attached and the cable hole jigsawed out before it was manoeuvred into place – the dimensions and choice of MDF as material meant that this was doable by one person, so we didn’t have to worry about COVID distancing rules. Whilst on the subject of distancing, we relied heavily on the adage “measure twice, cut once”, which meant everything fit neatly on the first try.

Once in place, we could quickly screw in the backboard, followed by the two sides (with their curves again jigsawed out before fitting). Pre-drilling holes for the screws helped us keep things in line and make screwing directly through one piece of wood into another nice and straightforward.

To help prevent damage to our pews, we repurposed some of our yellow foam ‘pew barriers’ and sliced them to sit between the desk and the pew backs.

A finished wooden desk with raised back and sides, straddling the backs of two pews
The finished desk in its final location
A view from behind the new desk, looking towards the rest of the church.
The view from behind the new desk, looking towards the rest of the church.

The desk gives us a great surface on which to place all our equipment in a way which looks intentional, rather than just balanced on whatever furniture was convenient. It also gives us a space underneath where we can hide the ‘business end’ of cables, adapters, power supplies and more which forms the connective tissue of the technology in the building.

The next step is to migrate our current technology to the new desk, which will involve not just moving equipment but also re-routing some of our temporary cables for power, data, video and audio.

So there you have it – one new tech desk, ready to help St Mary’s make video streaming part of our everyday work and invite anybody in the world to join us remotely to worship, celebrate or remember.