Thomas Jefferson: Statesman, gentleman farmer, inventor, & commuter.

   It was over 11 years ago that noted woodworker Lon Schleining’s article on the Thomas Jefferson writing desk first appeared in Fine Woodworking magazine. Wow! FWW pulled out the stops on that one: 8 full pages, full color lead illustration, detailed exploded color drawings, and almost 20 photos. This was a big deal. Like a lot of woodworkers, I’d never heard of the desk before. And like a lot of woodworkers, after poring over the article in FWW, the piece captured my imagination and won me over.

Woodworkers are both amused by the ingenious design and charmed by its diminutive size.

About a year later, on a trip to the Taunton offices in Newtown, Ct, I got the opportunity to examine Lon’s version. Wow again!  There it was sitting on a hall table – right by the exit door; all by its self, no one watching, no armed guards standing by. Tempting, very tempting . . . . This is a slick piece of woodwork. The lap desk is tiny; closed it measures about 3” x10” x15”, barely larger than a laptop computer. But this petite piece packs a load of craftsmanship. I’m sure Lon’s version (commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution) was designed to overcome the design and construction shortcomings of the original, which I believe was built upon the hasty and urgent request of Thomas Jefferson.

Choice mahogany is carefully milled to precise thicknesses; some as thin as 3/16", then carefully monitored for flatness.

The original was crafted in mahogany by Philadelphia cabinetmaker Benjamin Randolph. The case is a simple box. On one end is a fixed panel that resembles the drawer front at the other end. This compact box features a delicate drawer, made of 3/16” thick material, fitted with a small bail handle, a drawer lock, and very, very tiny dovetails. Fixed to the case by hinges is a pair of wood panels. And beneath these panels is a recessed “H” frame that can be opened and positioned to support the panels at a comfortable angle; either as a writing surface when fully open, or as a book rest when closed. Everyone who encounters this desk is both amused by the ingenious design and charmed by its diminutive size.

Rear case panel is fitted before the case is glued up.

On the original, there were significant cross-grain issues; the case was nailed together; the hardware was hastily installed. I’m sure neither Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Randolph (the cabinetmaker) ever imagined the desk would survive, let alone become a precious relic. Jefferson commissioned the desk so he could make good use of his time away from home and when traveling between Virginia and Philadelphia while attending sessions of the Continental Congress.

The writing panels are fitted with breadboard ends to ensure flatness.

Since the publication of Schleining’s article in FWW, woodworkers all over the country have rendered their versions of this historic artifact. Online, I’ve seen versions made and presented as graduation and anniversary gifts; some were copies offered for sale; others were made just for the heck of it. The quality ranges from crisp and beautiful to dull and clunky.  Some makers faithfully followed Schliening’s plan, others just winged it; a few thought they were “improving” the design and changed it to a point where it bears little resemblance to the original.

The desk case is glued and clamped with the rear panel in place.

The big question is: Why have so many people built this desk? Why is this small piece so irresistible? And why does it fascinate so many woodworkers? It doesn’t appear to have any practical purpose, so why go to all the trouble?  Well, I’m going to think about that. And I’ll ask those questions of those who stop by PFW to examine my version of the lap desk- or of anyone reading this blog post. Over the next few posts, I’ll share some notes and photos of the desk I built. It has been a fun and fruitful build. I enjoyed it and learned a few things. Would I do it again? You bet. Mario   PFW is offering a Master Class in the Spring of 2012 on the construction of the Jefferson Lap Desk. Check the website for additional information and read my blog post “A Visit to Betsy’s House”.