I like to use the timber panels that you get from Bunnings. They are easy to work with and the quality is very good for the price. For my last tables, I used the rubber wood worktop that Bunnings was selling for $69 and also the Oiled Karri Laminated Panel for $129. At the moment, I am using the spotted gum which is just beautiful, full of colour and amazing patterns. As you are moving to a apartment, I would go for the light colours as a desktop. Personally, I like the water base coatings, such as clear coats, stains and paints. Just easier to work with and clean up. Good luck with your tables @abarrow .
I used Bondall Monocel Clear Wood varnish to create a nice glossy finish for my desktop. It turned out really well but in future I would highly recommend using a water-based coating. I'd start with a water-based varnish, then top it off with a two-pack acrylic clear-coat, and then use cutting compound (such as Meguiar's Ultimate) on a medium cutting pad with my Dual-action polisher, followed by a light buff with a polish pad on the same tool.
Automotive clearcoats deliver a nice, hard surface which responds well to cutting, polishing and buffing. You'll get that french-polished look without the need for all that business with Shellac, and in some cases it'll last longer. I would highly recommend using a desk mat as well though. Mostly to give your mouse a nice gliding surface.