Done: The Monticello Lap Desk

A couple of weeks ago the Monticello Lap Desk Master Class met for the last time; this was the 3rd of 3 meetings.  Each meeting dealt with a particular aspect of the desk’s construction, with homework to be performed between each meeting.  The desk, designed by Thomas Jefferson and built by Benjamin Randolph, appears to be a simple rectangular box containing a single small drawer.  On top of the box are a pair of hinged panels with retractable legs that can be raised to support a book for easier reading; or they can be opened, set at an angle, and used as a writing surface. Its small size and simple design were deceiving; this was a tricky build. In several blog entries over the course of the class, I chronicled the class’ progress, taking readers from the simple milling and sizing of the various parts to the painstaking installation of the hardware.  This project required some ability – and agility – in several woodworking areas and had a little something to test everyone; there was some wood milling, machine-cut joinery, hand-cut dovetails, tiny miters, hardware installation, and drawer fitting. I think everyone signed on expecting to be pushed (and to push themselves) to new heights of craftsmanship and extend their personal boundaries.  Well, their expectations were exceeded.  Not that anyone shied away from the challenge.  But I think as projects go, this was a real curve ball; not quite what we thought was coming over home plate. And that was the real challenge at the heart of this project:  thinking that building this desk was going to be “a piece of cake; “a walk in the park”; “no sweat”.  This wasn’t an easy project. If anything, this was a woodworking booby trap!  And the sooner a student admitted as much, the better.  For instance: before drawer dovetails could be laid out and cut, the drawer lock had to be selected- to determine the thickness of the drawer front.  With the drawer front thickness figured out, the placement of the drawer stops could be settled.  With the lock chosen, the lock bolt mortise (into the underside of the top) could be cut; all this before they could be glued up. There would be no opportunity to figure things out along the way. This project had to be approached with great care and sober deliberation- before cutting even a single piece of wood, every phase of the project had to be executed in a very particular order. And it had to look good. Being so small, so precious, this desk would be scrutinized by everyone stopping by for Thanksgiving dinner.  Every loopy uncle and pain-in-the-neck brother-in-law who took high school woodshop was going to put in their 2 cents. This desk had to turn out better than good; it had to leave that brother-in-law speechless and gasping for air. All the desks, if not completed, are nearly so. There are the unavoidable odd-and-ends to take care of; the final tweaking and tedious fitting of tiny parts to be done; but everyone is almost there. In fact, one student’s desk will be submitted to FWW’s Readers Gallery.  I’ll keep everyone posted on that one. Well, now that I’m on the other side of the project, I’m happy I built the prototype, taught the class, and even built a second desk along with the class; this was definitely an achievement and I would consider it one of the neatest, cleanest pieces of woodworking I’ve ever done.  I hope my students will eventually feel the same way; right now they’re still trying to recover from the experience.  Now, let’s see what more trouble I can stir up. Mario

Cutting the lock mortise required great care and sharp chisels.


Slender strap hinges were used to join the writing panels.

Students could choose either red or green baize for the writing surface.


A snug fit and smooth operation were essential goals in fitting the drawer.

The completed writing desk with writing panels raised to support reading materials.


the opened panels provide a smooth and flat surface for writing.

Which would Jefferson have chosen?