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Thomas Jefferson Lap Desk - Happy Fourth of July!

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Blog entry by Lenny posted 07-04-2018 10:27 PM 1983 reads 3 times favorited 17 comments Add to Favorites Watch

As I write this, the date is July 4, 2018. It is 242 years to the day we declared our independence from Great Britain. I hoped to complete my build of a replica Thomas Jefferson lap desk today but it is evident that I will not. From what I have read, Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on the original lap desk, an item of his own design. I am posting this information as a blog and will post the finished project tomorrow or Friday. My hope is that those interested in perhaps building one of these replicas will be armed with information I did not have at the start of my build.
The story goes: in 1776, Jefferson, a member of the Continental Congress, was frequently traveling between his home in Virginia to Philadelphia for meetings. He wished to make better use of his time and so, designed this desk to use for reading and/or writing during his trips. He passed along to Benjamin Randolph (or Randall, it’s not clear to me.), a Philadelphia cabinetmaker, his plans for the desk and Randolph built it. Jefferson went on to use the desk for 50 years. In 1825 he gifted it to his granddaughter’s husband Joseph Coolidge. In 1880 the Coolidge family gave the desk to the federal government.
Diminutive in size, the desk is quite ingenious. It measures out at 14-3/8” by 9” with a drawer opening of 1-3/4” tall. There are two panels hinged to the top of the desk which, depending on orientation, may be used to read or write. If reading, there is a panel support that flips down to hold the book at one of several angles. If writing, a fabric, baize, is exposed to facilitate the writing. The tiny drawer holds a small inkwell, quills and a supply of paper all contained safely via a lock.
While I am proud of the (nearly) finished product, I have to say I did not enjoy this build. In short, I think the pitfalls and issues experienced by my friend and woodworking buddy Paul, who built one (or two, or three) before me, negatively impacted my perspective as I began the project. I did not find the build to be nearly as difficult as I anticipated. Still, it is a tedious project with lots of small and thin stock. In fact, the thickest piece on the desk is the drawer front, one half inch! The carcass is 3/8”, as are the two panels. The drawer sides are 3/16”, drawer back 3/8” and the partitions, drawer bottom and support stand are a mere 1/8” thick.
I first learned of this desk from Paul, who saw it in an older issue of Fine Woodworking (FW) magazine (October/2000). I happened to have the issue and when Paul would ask me a question or for a suggestion, I would refer to the article in the magazine. It got to a point where I took enough interest in the project to decide to build one myself.
Lon Schleining was the author of the article in FW. With no intent to impugn his work I have to say I do not like his version of the desk. To mitigate cupping and warping that took place on the original he opted to build his from plywood with mahogany veneer applied. To me, a replica of such an historic piece cries out to be made as close to original as possible. Schleining makes “plans” of the build available for purchase. While the “plans” are helpful, they are basically drawings of the various desk parts that are not to scale. A cut list would also have been helpful.
Relative to the FW article, Schleining made a key error (cost me two glued up panels milled to 3/8 inch). He instructs that you mill a 1/8-inch-wide rabbet at the top and bottom of the carcass sides. In fact, and his drawings bear this out, the rabbet should be ¼ inch wide.
The original desk is made almost entirely from mahogany. A thin banding of satinwood surrounds the drawer and there is an inlay of satinwood at the back that mimics the banding on the drawer. The original also had an upside down teardrop shaped escutcheon around the keyhole. My desk is made from genuine mahogany and satinwood. Satinwood is not easily found and it is very expensive. After extensive searching and even a purchase of yellowheart sold to me as satinwood, I found two sources that sell it. Rare Woods USA in Mexico, Maine sells East Indian (aka Ceylon) satinwood and Exotic Lumber, Inc. in Frederick, Maryland had West Indian (Jamaican) satinwood. Hardware for the desk is also hard to come by. There are six small hinges, a draw pull with escutcheons, a lockset and two keys. Londonderry Brasses was selling a kit of all the hardware and 1/3 yard of baize. Londonderry was purchased by Horton Brasses who might still make the kit available. It costs roughly $200 for the kit!
I hope this information is useful to the reader. I am including a few photos. First, the original desk which by the way sits in the Smithsonian National Museum of American history, and then a few in-progress shots of my build. Happy Fourth of July!

-- On the eighth day God was back in His woodworking shop! Lenny, East Providence, RI



17 comments so far

View a1Jim's profile

a1Jim

117160 posts in 3632 days


#1 posted 07-04-2018 10:41 PM

Interesting story and information Lenny and very cool build.

-- https://www.artisticwoodstudio.com/videos wood crafting & woodworking classes

View ralbuck's profile

ralbuck

4711 posts in 2322 days


#2 posted 07-04-2018 11:13 PM



Interesting story and information Lenny and very cool build.

- a1Jim


Very correct! Good luck on finishing yours!

-- Wood rescue is good for the environment and me! just rjR

View Woodenwizard's profile

Woodenwizard

1334 posts in 3098 days


#3 posted 07-04-2018 11:33 PM

Things look like it is turning out great. Thanks for the post. It was an interesting read. Look forward to seeing the finished project.

-- John, Colorado's (Wooden Wizard)

View Oldtool's profile

Oldtool

2661 posts in 2246 days


#4 posted 07-05-2018 01:01 AM

Lenny,
I just read your story of this desk while I can hear fireworks in my community on this evening of July 4, and it struck me as the most appropriate time to do so.
Thank you for the story behind the desk, and I look forward to viewing the final project.
Thanks for sharing,
Tom

-- "I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The point is to bring them the real facts." - Abraham Lincoln

View Lenny's profile

Lenny

1607 posts in 3582 days


#5 posted 07-05-2018 01:13 AM

Thank you for the comments. You couldn’t have picked a better time Tom.

-- On the eighth day God was back in His woodworking shop! Lenny, East Providence, RI

View a1Jim's profile

a1Jim

117160 posts in 3632 days


#6 posted 07-05-2018 01:32 AM

Thanks for the positive thought Ralph but It’s a tough project I don’t plan on tackling in the near future. Lennys a lot braver than I am.

-- https://www.artisticwoodstudio.com/videos wood crafting & woodworking classes

View Redoak49's profile

Redoak49

3339 posts in 2044 days


#7 posted 07-05-2018 01:55 AM

Very nice !

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile

TopamaxSurvivor

18316 posts in 3731 days


#8 posted 07-05-2018 08:00 AM

Nice work and good info, Lenny.

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View Lee A. Jesberger's profile

Lee A. Jesberger

6860 posts in 4035 days


#9 posted 07-05-2018 11:05 AM

Very interesting read. It’s always nice to know the history behind a piece and this one has a history that would hard to beat. Great timing on your part. As always, nice work, Lenny.

Lee

-- by Lee A. Jesberger http://www.prowoodworkingtips.com http://www.ezee-feed.com

View ElroyD's profile

ElroyD

97 posts in 643 days


#10 posted 07-05-2018 02:12 PM

Thanks for the information. I have one of these on my “to build someday” list.

-- Elroy

View JCamp's profile

JCamp

731 posts in 606 days


#11 posted 07-06-2018 11:47 AM

Cool history lesson and awesome project. I feel like there should b a picture of Nicolas Cage saying “we’re gonna steal it, we’re gonna steal Thomas Jefferson lap desk”

-- Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might

View Lenny's profile

Lenny

1607 posts in 3582 days


#12 posted 07-06-2018 12:01 PM

Thanks everyone. Haha JCamp, I understand how you might feel that way.

-- On the eighth day God was back in His woodworking shop! Lenny, East Providence, RI

View Lenny's profile

Lenny

1607 posts in 3582 days


#13 posted 07-06-2018 12:01 PM

Thanks everyone. Haha JCamp, I understand how you might feel that way.

-- On the eighth day God was back in His woodworking shop! Lenny, East Providence, RI

View CharlesNeil's profile

CharlesNeil

2422 posts in 3926 days


#14 posted 07-08-2018 02:51 PM

Beautiful work

View Lenny's profile

Lenny

1607 posts in 3582 days


#15 posted 07-08-2018 05:34 PM

Thank you Charles and once again, thank you for the information you provided me.

-- On the eighth day God was back in His woodworking shop! Lenny, East Providence, RI

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