Thomas Jefferson Portable Writing Desk

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Project by DohBoy posted 08-25-2011 03:14 AM 14823 views 20 times favorited 26 comments Add to Favorites Watch

In further support of my wife’s hobby of reenactment (mostly Revolutionary War Era) and my development of my skills as a woodworker, I committed to making this desk for my wife about three or four months ago. I promised to have it done by the end of July. When the plans arrived I was immediately worried. Holy crap this thing is complicated! Not in an intricate parts kinda way (but it has that to a degree as well with the prop) but more from a lot of process steps. Some of which were less than obvious to the hack that I am.

But I managed to pull off some decent handcut through and halfblind dovetails. I would judge them to be good. Not great, but good. Which is awesome as these were the first handcuts for me.

Here are some links to more pix of the project in progress on fb:

Bought an extremely helpful Japanese style pull dovetail saw, which cuts like a dream. The dovetails on the original are a bit smaller than those I made, but to my good fortune, my wife wanted the drawer depth about 1” more so I could reasonably upsize the pins (tails? I can never keep that straight) correspondingly. This meant I didn’t need to have to locate or grind a chisel down to 3/32 plus bevel for dovetailing. Still have pretty small pins/tails.

This is my practice desk – I will be doing another in some beautiful curly mahogany I got from an online source. I used some cherry for this one that my neighbor and I whacked from a property behind us. Had it air-drying in the basement for about 5 years. Yes, I know about air-dried wood and movement :) The cherry is beautiful, and I think I did a decent job with the bookmatching. Bookmatching the bottom of a drawer that is going to be covered all the time seems like gilding the lily though.

So what went “wrong” on the practice desk? Well, to begin, the instructions didn’t ask you to account for the thickness of the baize (feltish looking writing surface) in setting the hinge depth, but they did take the time to tell you to set the depth to half the knuckle rather than just the leaf thickness. So I had to shim up the hinge. In fact, all of the hinges are shimmed to some degree :(. Ummm…. There were some other things…. Nothing that wasn’t hidden real well. And the opening in the carcass is about 1/16 too big for the drawer. I had to shave about 1/16 offa the back of the drawer to make it sit flush with the front of the carcass. Some stuff I had to redo…

Anyhoo, very proud of this project and the way it came together. It really gave my skillset a boost too!

EDIT (9/12/11)

The other issue that I encountered with the plans (besides that of the hinge mortise depth) was that in the drawing the bookrest is shown flush with the back edge of the top panel of the writing surface. This is problematic since in the top panel has to be relieved in order to accommodate the lower hinge knuckle when the two panels are opened parallel. This also means that the bookrest needs to be positioned inboard of the profile of the back edge of the closed top leaf. This detail can also be seen in images of the original Thomas Jefferson Desk (as well as in my first picture).

-- I am an anal-retentive procrastinator. Is it a wonder my projects never get done?

26 comments so far

View Beginningwoodworker's profile


13345 posts in 3701 days

#1 posted 08-25-2011 03:22 AM

Beautiful writing desk.

View lumberdog's profile


245 posts in 3295 days

#2 posted 08-25-2011 03:32 AM

I have built a few lap desk, some from plans and others that i designed myself. I have seem this desk before, where did you get the plans? By the way you did a nice job.

-- Lumberdog.. Morley, Michigan

View jcontract's profile


84 posts in 3115 days

#3 posted 08-25-2011 04:06 AM

Very nicely done. What finish did you use?

View DohBoy's profile


31 posts in 3152 days

#4 posted 08-25-2011 04:18 AM

@Lumberdog: the plans may be had here:
They are good but missing some critical bits – like that thickness of the baize thingy. Bummed about shimming the hinge mortises. But I think I woulda thought of that if I had taken a little more time before cutting the mortises.

@jcontract: the finish is thinned varnish applied with 400 grit wet/dry paper. Makes a slurry and a very smooth finish. Followed by a rubbed in coupla coats of unthinned. Rubbed it out with paste wax.

-- I am an anal-retentive procrastinator. Is it a wonder my projects never get done?

View schroeder's profile


702 posts in 4153 days

#5 posted 08-25-2011 04:46 AM

Well done! – Very nice craftsmanship on a classic design!


-- The Gnarly Wood Shoppe

View jeepturner's profile


939 posts in 2820 days

#6 posted 08-25-2011 04:53 AM

Nice project. You did a good job.
This is one of those things I would like to make someday. If my wife asked for one, it would have a much better shot at getting on my to do list. I will tell her July if she ever does ask, just wont mention the year.

-- Mel,

View tomd's profile


2155 posts in 3798 days

#7 posted 08-25-2011 05:15 AM

Nice desk, looks great, love it. Very well done.

-- Tom D

View lightweightladylefty's profile


3241 posts in 3740 days

#8 posted 08-25-2011 05:54 AM

Fantastic desk! Workmanship looks terrific. Thanks for sharing.


-- Jesus is the ONLY reason for ANY season.

View helluvawreck's profile


31407 posts in 2894 days

#9 posted 08-25-2011 02:07 PM

Dohboy, I know three young ladies who are very dear to me (a daughter, a niece, and a dear friend) and they are all writers. One is a screenwriter and playwrite, one is a short story writer, and one is writing her first novel. Each one would love to have one of these wonderful desks because everywhere they go they always have their writing things. May I ask where you got the plans for this.

-- helluvawreck aka Charles,

View DohBoy's profile


31 posts in 3152 days

#10 posted 08-25-2011 03:46 PM


Feel free to ping me with any questions you might have if you get the plans.

-- I am an anal-retentive procrastinator. Is it a wonder my projects never get done?

View tinnman65's profile


1357 posts in 3442 days

#11 posted 08-26-2011 12:14 AM

Very nice work on this writing desk. I like your last comment…. “It really gave my skillset a boost too!” I love that when that happens to me every once in a while. I think we all need a boost from time to time :-)

-- Paul--- Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. — Scott Adams

View ChuckV's profile


3124 posts in 3555 days

#12 posted 08-26-2011 02:48 AM

That is great. You did a fine job building this piece.

-- “Big man, pig man, ha ha, charade you are.” ― R. Waters

View BarbS's profile


2434 posts in 4113 days

#13 posted 08-26-2011 08:43 AM

That’s a very nice writing desk. You did a great job, and it’s quite impressive for a first project of its type. Thanks for sharing it.


View DamnYankee's profile


3301 posts in 2590 days

#14 posted 08-26-2011 11:10 AM

Very nice job.

-- Shameless - Winner of two Stumpy Nubs Awards

View s_grifter's profile


186 posts in 2495 days

#15 posted 08-26-2011 10:35 PM

that is really cool!

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