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.
A lot of great advice here from every direction. Please allow me to add my 2 cents worth. I have a desk that is just over 800mm deep, and I could definitely use more room. Personally, I love the look of Merbau and the 1050mm depth would be great for me.
As for coatings, I've used both oil and water-based products. I prefer to use water-based products myself (the Cabots polyurethane is great) as they give just as good a result as the oil-based ones these days, and they are way easier to clean up afterwards. But in the end, it all comes down to personal preferences. All the best.