Thinking big, building small.


A couple of weeks ago we conducted the first session of the Monticello Lap Desk; a design based upon the original made by Benjamin Randolph for Thomas Jefferson. I decided to build one with the class, for a good reason. First, the desk is a pretty neat bit of woodworking; much more involved than one might think, but an impressive piece to have hanging around the shop. Second, it really was essential that I precede the class’ progress, staying several steps ahead of the crowd. That lead gave me time to get comfortable with the project this time around and recall exactly how I performed some of the operations- or to figure out a better way to get something done. There are few experiences more uncomfortable than standing in front of a class, scratching your head, trying to figure out some detail; while they stand there waiting. . . and waiting. . . How small is small? Alan and I started with the best mahogany money could buy. Ouch!  After bucking the planks into shorter, more manageable lengths, we stickered the material and left it for a few days before re-sawing it into thinner planks- and stickering the wood again. We wanted to end up with perfectly flat 3/8” panels for the case, so allowed for up to a 1/4” to be removed. Some of the material was re-sawn and then planed to 3/16” thickness (for the drawer sides). Have you ever cut dovetails in 3/16” thick mahogany?

Material for the desk had to be precisely milled to exact dimensions, then stickered and left to "settle down".

Careful, careful. This desk is tiny, so tiny that any itty-bitty bungle would be noticed.  If a part is cut a hair too short, it’s done over. If a panel isn’t perfectly flat, it’s discarded. The case is only 2 1/2” high and 9 3/8” wide, leaving only 1 3/4” x 8 5/8” for the drawer. That’s not a lot of space into which a smoothly functioning drawer must be built and fitted.

The delicate banding must terminate in a perfect miter- at each corner.

The small case was glued up with a drawer front "place holder", ensuring a square drawer opening.

At this first meeting, the class concentrated on building the case, fitting the end panel; cutting the mortises for both the lock bolt and the drawer stops; making both writing panels, and routing the recess on the back of the lower panel to accommodate the easel. I’m still surprised we got all that done. Everyone did a fine job and got off to a great start.

John carefully adjusting his block plane before cleaning up his mahogany case.

Lesley, Mas-Star woodworker

Next meeting:  Building the drawer. Mario