How Do Standing Desks Work? The Mechanisms Explained

Standing desks have been getting super popular and affordable these days. You either press a button and they move, or you crank a handle and they move. 

But how do they actually work? What is the mechanism used to make these desks go up and down? That’s exactly what we cover in this article. 

There are multiple types of standing desks out there, so we’re going to talk about all three. Use the table of contents and skip to the type of desk you’re interested in. I’ll also briefly touch on what each desk type is particularly good at. 

Types Of Standing Desks & How They Work

Manual Standing Desks

First up are the tried and true manual standing desks. These are the desks that typically have a crank that you turn to raise and lower the desk. 

SDADI Crank Adjustable Height Standing Desk - Sit to Stand up Desk, Home Office Desk Computer Workstation, Black Frame/Antique Top

So how do they actually work? What is the actual mechanism inside of the manual standing desk? There are a few mechanisms involved with these desks. 

Here’s an oversimplified graphic that shows the mechanism used by manual standing desks. Essentially, rotating the handle rotates a series of links that eventually transfers the rotation to the the top of the desk leg. 

How does a manual standing desk work

The rotation is transferred to a screw hidden within each of the standing desk legs, which then results in a change in height. Here is a gif of how a screw changes the position of an object. 

Not too complicated right? 

Who Are Manual Standing Desks For?

The main benefit of manual standing desks is that they are more affordable than electronic desks. You don’t have to worry about the longevity of any electronic components, and it doesn’t require a power source. 

The downside is that you have to put in some physical effort to adjust your desk. This could mean that on a lazy day, you might not be willing to change your standing desk height. 

Electric Standing Desks

Electric standing desks replace the need for you to do anything manual. You use the power of electricity to move your desk up and down. 

They typically have a control pad which is the only item you interface with. An example of a control pad is the one seen below. 

Furmax Electric Height Adjustable Standing Desk Large 55 x 24 Inches Sit Stand Up Desk Home Office Computer Desk Memory Preset with T-Shaped Metal Bracket, White&Wood

As you may have guessed, the mechanism in electric standing desks is very similar to the manual standing desk. Except, instead of a handle, you have a motor. And along with that motor, you have a couple of electronics that are needed to make that motor run and control the desk height. 

The other electronics can include a power supply to provide your electronics with DC voltage instead of AC, as well as a motor controller and the main control pad. 

The control pad tells the brains of your desk to go up or down. Fancy models with programmable memory can remember height settings and display what height your desk is at. Flagship models from Uplift and Fully standing desks even have crash detection! 

As you can tell, there are a lot of electronics working together to make these work. 

how does an electric standing desk work

Single Motor vs. Dual Motor Versions

There are two main categories of electric height adjustable desks: single motor and dual motor versions. 

Single motor versions literally swap a manual desk’s handle for a motor. Everything else pretty much stays the same. This makes them the affordable choice compared against a dual motor version. 

Dual motor versions have a motor for each leg, making them much more robust. They also have a higher weight capacity and can move a tiny bit faster as well. 

Many people recommend staying away from single motor electric standing desks if your budget allows. Having a stronger and more robust dual motor system makes your desk more stable and you don’t have to worry as much about what you load onto the desk. 

Who Are Electric Standing Desks For?

The electric standing desk is the easiest type of standing desk to use. You simply touch a button, and your desk electronics do the rest. 

I typically recommend electric standing desks to most people. You are much more likely to use your standing desk if it’s easy to change heights. 

The downside with electric standing desks is that there are a ton of electronics. With that comes more potential issues compared to the other manual versions. Keep your warranty period in mind if something does go wrong with your electric standing desk. 

Pneumatic Standing Desks

The last standing desk type on this list is pneumatic standing desks. These are very different to the previous two versions. There are no gears, and no electronics. 

Pneumatic standing desks use air cylinders, similar to your office chair’s height adjustment air cylinder. 

When you set up your desk, you have to tune the desk to the amount of weight you plan to place on the desk. This way the air cylinder knows at what weight to collapse or raise up. This can be a pretty tedious process. 

Once you get the weight dialed in, pneumatic desks go up and down very quickly. They don’t have to rotate a height adjustment screw a bunch of times like the previous desks. Instead, they simply want the internal pressure to push the gas cylinder upwards and then allow the weight of your desk to carry it down. 

Check out this video from Deskhaus illustrating the strange nature of pneumatic desks. 

I don’t recommend pneumatic standing desks to anyone. Especially if you are like me and are always changing your desk setup. When you add different weight to your pneumatic desk, it can actually start slowly falling if beyond your tuned weight amount. 

This makes your desk pretty inflexible. Standing desk converters use a gas spring, and are much more appropriate for this type of mechanism.

Converters don’t take up your entire desk space, just a fraction of it. That way it’s less likely to load above it’s weight capacity. Most can hold a lot. We have a dedicated article on dual monitor standing desk converters that covers some higher quality versions that can support a productive two monitor setup.

Who is a Pneumatic Standing Desk For?

Pneumatic desks are for a very specific subset of people. If you don’t want to connect your desk to any power source, this could be a good solution. However, in today’s very electronic heavy world, it’s hard to imagine a desk that doesn’t need power for computers, phone chargers, etc. 

Another reason to use a pneumatic standing desk is if you have a pretty static desk setup that doesn’t change at all. This way you don’t have to keep adjusting the pneumatic weight balance of the desk. 

This will let you take advantage of the height adjustment speed, which pneumatic desks rein champion. 

Before You Go

If you are still not sure if a standing desk is for you, check out our dedicated article on if standing desks are worth it in the first place. If you’re taller than most people, we have a dedicated article on exactly what to look for in a standing desk

Already have a standing desk? We still have good stuff for you like storage ideas and cable management solutions.

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I'm a big time workspace enthusiast who is constantly experimenting with my setup. Sharing along the way to help people make their own desk setups more functional and inviting, whether it be for productivity or play!