AW Extra 8/8/13 – Log Cabin Writing Desk

Log Cabin Writing Desk

Rustic tradition meets
modern style.

By Chris Cander
and Mark Love

Coziness is built right into this desk, because it was
inspired by a log cabin. Squint a bit and you’ll see logs and
chinking—the muck-and-straw mixture pioneers depended
on to keep out drafts. Squinting isn’t necessary to appreciate
the desk’s spacious writing surface and ample storage or its
Arts and Crafts motifs and modern style.

Like a log cabin, this desk is heavily built; its legs are
made from 8/4 walnut, its rails from 6/4 walnut and its figured
maple top is fully 1" thick. Figured maple splines fitted
between the rails create the chinking.

 

The legs

Mill the legs to final size as rectangular blanks (A1, Fig. A, and Cutting List, below). Two of the legs go on
the paneled front; three legs separate the drawers on the
back. The front legs have mortises on the inside edge and
the adjacent inside face. The back legs have mortises on the
inside face only. The 1/2" mortises are always spaced 11/16"
from the inside edge; the 3/8" mortises are always spaced 1/2" from the inside edge (Figs. B,
D and E). The 1/2" mortises on the
front legs are stepped, so they don’t
intersect.

Lay out the 1/2" mortises and
rout them using a plunge router
with a guide fence and a 1/2" upcut
spiral bit (Photo 1). Complete
each mortise by making a series of
incrementally deeper passes. Rout
the stepped mortises in stages. First,
rout full-length to the shallow depth.
Then adjust the plunge depth and
rout the deep portion. Similarly, lay
out mortises for the splines and rout
them with a 3/8" up-cut spiral bit.
Square the ends of these mortises
with a chisel.

Shape the legs (Fig. C). Cut the
tapers a tiny bit wide to allow removing
the saw marks by making a pass
on the jointer or with a hand plane.
Use a jar or a lid to draw the arcs on
the feet. Then saw the curves and
sand them smooth. Cut 3/8" deep x
3/8" square holes for the decorative
plugs. A mortiser does the job in one
step, but you can also drill the holes
and square them with a chisel.

 

The rails

Mill stock for the rails (A2–A4) and
cut them to final dimensions. Then
lay out the tenons (Fig. G). Note that
1) the rail tenons are always offset
toward the outside face, and 2) when
the joint is assembled, the rail’s inside
face is always flush with the leg.

Use a dado set and a sled or a
miter gauge with a stout support
fence to cut the rail tenons (Photo 2).
Position the rip fence to establish the
tenons’ length. Cut the inside cheeks
first, matching their shoulder height
to the 11/16" distance between the
edge of the leg and the 1/2" mortises.
Lower the blade to cut the outside
cheeks. Start by making a shallow
cut on one rail, so the tenon is too
thick to fit the mortise. Then make
additional passes, raising the blade
in small increments until the tenon
fits without binding or wobbling.
Only the corner of the tenon will fit
into the mortise at this point, so it’s a
good idea to verify the correct thickness
with a dial caliper. When you’ve
dialed in a perfect fit, finish cutting
all the tenons’ outside cheeks.

Reposition the blade and stand
each rail on edge to cut the end shoulders.
Next, use the bandsaw equipped
with a fence to cut the stepped tenons.
Then round the ends of the tenons to
fit the mortises (Photo 3).

 

The panels

Leave square the top edges of the
four top rails and the inside edges of
the rails on the side panel and inside
panel that form the drawer bank.
Round over the rest of the rail edges.

Cut centered grooves for the figured
maple spline on the appropriate
rail edges. Mill the spline stock to fit
the grooves and then cut the splines
(A5–A7) to length and width. Apply
one coat of finish to the splines.

Test-fit each panel assembly without
glue (Photo 4). Mark the top
edges of the four middle drawer
bank rails. Disassemble the panels
and carefully glue cleats (A8) on the
marked edges (Fig. F). These cleats
allow installing the two middle web
frames. Sand all the parts to 180 grit.

Rout mortises in the front assembly
for the inside rail tenons and splines (Photo 5 and Fig. D). Note
that the 1/2" mortises are 13/16"
deep. Clamp the assembly square
and make sure each rail is correctly
positioned. Use a T-square and measure
from the assembly’s leg to locate
the 1/2" mortises. Make sure these
mortises perfectly align with the
mortises you’ve already cut on the
leg that goes with the inside rails.
Position a straightedge to guide the
router, then plunge-rout the mortises.
Repeat the procedure to rout
the 3/8" mortises.

 

The web frames

The web frames support the drawers,
provide structure for the case and
continue the chinking detail (note
that the two middle web frame stiles
are made of curly maple). Make each
frame about 1/8" oversize in width,
so it can be trimmed to fit just before
installation. Use Domino tenons or
biscuits to join the stiles and rails
(B1–B2, C1–C2, D1–D2 and Photo
6). Glue and clamp, making sure
every frame is square and fl at. Mill
centered mortises for Domino tenons
(or biscuit slots) in both sides of
each frame. Install the Domino tenons
(Photo 7). Then sand the frames
to 180 grit and burnish their top surfaces
with paraffin (Photo 8).

 

The side panels

Glue the legs and rails together to
create the two side panels (Photo
9). Make sure the rails are spaced
exactly 3/4" apart. Using the same
spacing, glue the inside rails to the
middle back leg—this creates the
inside panel. When the glue is dry,
remove the clamps and trim the
front tenons to 3/4" long.

Glue on the spacer (A9). The
spacer builds out the top rail for
attaching the pencil-drawer face
frames. Its bottom edge should be
flush with the outside edge of the
leg; its top edge will protrude slightly,
because of the leg’s taper. Install the
inside panel splines without glue.

The top, bottom and middle web
frames fit between the side panel and
the inside panel to form the drawer
bank. Transfer the mortise locations
from these web frames to the two
panels (Fig F.). Then cut the mortises in the rails and cleats (Photo 9
10). Burnish the inside surfaces with
paraffin to help the drawers slide easily.
(Keep wax away from the open
joints and the leg fronts.) Repeat the
process to rout mortises for the two
pencil-drawer web frames.

 

The case

Assemble the front panel rails and
splines without glue. Square this
assembly and then glue and clamp
the inside panel to it (Photo 11). As
before, don’t glue the splines. Make
sure the inside panel is square to
the front panel. Note: This unusual
assembly will be somewhat unstable
as the following steps are completed.

Apply glue and slide the drawerbank
web frames into position
against the inside panel. Similarly,
apply glue and slide on the drawer
bank side panel (Photo 12). Make
sure everything’s aligned and square,
then clamp. Repeat the process to
install the pencil-drawer web frames
and the remaining side panel.

Create the decorative plugs
(A10) from a length of wenge milled
just over 3/8" square. Create facets
on the end using a disc sander with a
worn-out 220 grit disc. Clamp a fence
to the table, facing the disc about 10